Watkins comforts her daughter and the world in dreamy new project
You know those celebrities that try maybe a little bit too hard to prove that they are “regular people?” Sara Watkins doesn’t have to try to show her humanity or her humility—it comes out in her music and in her words. Though, for this, she does not sacrifice the confidence or the musical intelligence that comes with an admired singer. Best known for her lead role in the Americana, Grammy-nominated group Nickel Creek, she has since branched out on her own.
In March of this year, Watkins decided to turn her musical attention to her daughter. In doing this, she created Under the Pepper Tree, a tribute album to her three-year-old daughter, filled with classic songs that Watkins herself appreciated as a child (it also may secretly double as a soothing playlist to put a crying toddler to sleep) intermixed with her original songs.
Watkins begins the album with a note of wonderment. Covering Gene Wilder’s “Pure Imagination” from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, soothing vocals are backed by beautiful strings. Adding a woman’s touch to it allows for her to hit higher notes, which adds to the sense of amazement. Though more simplified than the original one, its magic is not lost.
Classic movies continue to get their spotlight—sometimes in the form of Disney soundtracks. The second song on the album, “The Second Star to the Right,” paints a picture of Peter Pan wearing boots and a pearl snap shirt. It begins with a fiddle and goes on to feature an upright bass and a steel guitar in some sort of ethereal country clash. Her roots music is not lost even in the light of animated soundtracks. “When You Wish Upon a Star” also introduces Disney to Americana. A coffeeshop-style rendition of this song, it is ever-soothing and comforting—perfect for a three-year-old.
“Blue Shadows on the Trail” has had a rich history in the musical realm. It is most popularly known from Randy Newman’s rendition for the Three Amigos movie starring Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short. Yet, Watkins got a hold of the song and invited the rest of her earlier band Nickel Creek onto the song. Harmonic, sweet, simple and beautiful, this rendition doesn’t differ all that much from the original, but it gives off a lighter and more serious tone.
This album is highly telling of who Sara Watkins is as a person. As a girl, she was clearly a fan of musicals—considering she modeled this project off of her own likes as a child—and there are three songs from musicals covered. The first one from The Sound of Music is “Edelweiss.” One of the most charming songs to ever grace the silver screen, or human ears for that matter, Watkins does it justice. Beginning with overlaid angelic backup singers, it then cuts to feature only Watkins and her daughter, who you can clearly hear singing with her. Emotion pours out of this one. The next musical number covered on this project is “Moon River” from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Again, softness and calmness resonate from her voice and the simple, light instrumentation behind her.
The last of her covers of songs from musically-inclined movies features a Mary Poppins shoutout. With “Stay Awake,” in its infinite ironic glory, Watkins calmly and restfully urges her daughter to “stay awake” and to “lay down upon your bed.” Just a piano and her voice originally, she is soon joined by a violin and heavenly backup singers. This one is a perfect song to put near the end of an album.
“Under the Pepper Tree,” an original song by Watkins, stands alone as the title track. It functions as an interlude in the middle of the album, only featuring a minute and nine seconds of a fiddle solo.
“Blanket for a Sail” is a nice change of pace in the album and features the only use of electric guitars and cymbals that people hear on the album. Still relaxing, the relaxation that is felt is more of a Jimmy Buffet/Kenny Chesney-type relaxation. Arguably the best song on the album, with the exception of “Edelweiss” for different reasons, this track is a happy one that does not give the promise of sleep.
To end the album, Watkins made the very intentional decision of concluding it with a song by possibly the greatest band to ever walk the Earth—The Beatles. She covers “Good Night” in her similar calming style she has adhered to this entire album. Full, beautiful piano notes fill the silences in between Watkins’s call for sleep. This track concludes the album, perfectly encompassing everything she has been saying with a whispered, “good night everyone, everywhere.”
When an album comes under review, the circumstances always have to be taken into account. Good artists are incredibly intentional when it comes to their audience, their song selection and the impact it may have. Sara Watkins could not have shown this intentionality much better. She wanted to make an album for her daughter. That’s the bottom line. But she also knew that she had the talent to create something that people everywhere would enjoy. That’s why the last line—“good night everyone, everywhere”—will ring in the listener’s head as Under the Pepper Tree closes out.