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The country singer/songwriter, now 35, talks about the transformative time during which she wrote her third solo album

Young in All the Wrong Ways is Sara Watkins third solo album, but in many ways, it feels like her first.

The singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist for Nickel Creek has written a set of songs connected by a theme of reawakening, personally and professionally. There is restlessness throughout. On Move Me, the albums biggest pop moment, she puts a stranglehold on complacency as guitars crash around her. So much is repetition/We mimic old decisions/And walk the same patch jut because/We know where it will lead, she sings.

Speaking from her car in the early first days of her summer tour, Watkins says the album came to her in a rush in early 2014. Off the road for a few months, she woke up most mornings in her Echo Park home and walked outside with a guitar and started writing. Now age 35, she noticed changes taking place among her friends and even herself. It was a transformative time, she says. I had some things to say.

Watkins grew up in Santa Monica and started performing before she was 10. Nickel Creek, the neo-bluegrass group that included her brother Sean Watkins on guitar and Chris Thile on mandolin, released its first album in 2000. The group arrived amid a roots music revival under way in the US and immediately found an audience among country music traditionalists and alternative country revivalists even though they experimented with elements of classical, jazz and pop.

That success led to collaborations outside the group, on sessions by Hank Williams Jr, Richard Thompson, Mandy Moore and several others. In 2002, she and sibling Sean also launched The Watkins Family Hour at Largo in Hollywood. The monthly residency follows a variety show format and has included guest spots by people like Benmont Tench, Greg Leisz, Ethan Johns, Jon Brion and Tim OBrien. Then in 2007 many of the same musicians from that residency formed Works Progress Administration, a supergroup that released a self-titled debut album two years later.

Having partnerships in so many pockets in a way reflects her bluegrass beginnings. Its a pretty collaborative field. You grow up standing up in these circles and sharing tunes, she says. Bouncing between work that is intrinsically personal and then playing back-up fiddle for a friend is a perfect balance. My favorite musicians are the ones who can rule a roomful of strangers and then they can play three notes on the piano behind someone else and contribute just as much, she says. Besides, as a fan, my favorite way to see a show is standing next to someone on stage if I get to play. Thats a huge perk.

For Young in All the Wrong Ways (New West), Watkins enlisted some of those past collaborators, like Tench, Brion and Jim James of My Morning Jacket, to join her in the studio. They give sharp focus to songs that point fingers and make demands. The title song, a stomping kiss-off to a former lover, is also a reining declaration of independence: Ive gone the miles and god knows Ive got the fight, she sings. There is a true country shuffle, The Truth Wont Set Us Free, that is a resignation to love gone bad while Without a Word, a ruminating soul ballad, follows a solitary perspective of waiting for a lover to return.

The songs are direct, their hurts and yearning unvarnished. Watkins says she is purposely vague about the details with the hopes of making the underlying truths relatable to as many listeners as possible. The songs, to her, reflect the middle ground when life can go in different directions but its not apparent which way is right.

I resisted being pulled one side or another and instead tried to navigate the rougher terrain and move slower to know that it was my course and not someone elses, she says.

The ultimate transformation here is that Watkins fiddle, her signature instrument, is hardly present. She says that was decided early into the process. That was a no-brainer, she says. Fiddle is such a strong personality and I didnt want that to dominate the music. I wanted the lyrics to dictate more of that.

Shell pick up the album on her current tour, which takes her to the UK in November, as well as future collaborations with Nickel Creek. Until then, Watkins says that she is comfortable with identifying solely with the sound of these songs. It represents where I am now, she says. And its where I want to be for a little while.

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