At his first in-person performance in more than a year, mandolinist Chris Thile spent a lot of time with his instrument on his lap, listening.
Half-encircled by a sizable but well-spaced-out crowd at a New York City amphitheater last month, Thile welcomed an assortment of artists to the stage. Some were familiar collaborators; others he'd just met that day.
He introduced them all with the kindly salesman flair of a consummate radio host — which he was, until the pandemic put the kibosh on his syndicated variety show, "Live From Here," the successor to "Prairie Home Companion," which Thile had taken over from Garrison Keillor in 2016.
At 40, Thile has been the leading mandolin virtuoso of his generation since before its members could legally drink. After becoming a prodigy on the Southern California music scene in the early 1990s, he has stayed endlessly busy.
But during the pandemic, Thile took a rare cue to dial back. Sitting outside a coffee shop near his home in New York City, he said that throughout the past year — one of activism, upheaval and isolation — he had found himself longing for the chance to listen just as much as to perform.
Thile's new album, "Laysongs," released June 4, ends with a Hazel Dickens ballad, "Won't You Come and Sing for Me," for a reason.
"I like that she's saying 'for' instead of 'with,' " he said. "She's implying that she wants to listen to those people" — whoever they may be.
As the host of "Live From Here," he welcomed a smattering of guests each week, mostly musicians and other performers, and relished his role as a kind of participant/observer.
"It was my job to be turned back into a listener and then show people, 'Hey, I heard this thing that I think you might like,' " he said. "I had to constantly be on the hunt for new sounds."
The show was canceled last year amid pandemic-related financial constraints at American Public Media, but Thile hopes to carry that work with him going forward: "I would love to think that — fool us once — we're not going to take being able to listen to one another for granted ever again."
Thile was raised in an evangelical Christian household and grew up playing in the bluegrass-and-beyond band Nickel Creek. The group's self-titled third album, released when Thile was just a teenager, went platinum and put the trio near the commercial center of a rising alt-folk movement.
A few years later, he started Punch Brothers, with the goal of infusing bluegrass' country craftsmanship with classical and jazz techniques. In 2012, he won a MacArthur "Genius Grant" mostly on the power of his musical strides.
In more recent years, when not focused on the radio show or playing with one of the two bands, Thile collaborated regularly with banjoist Béla Fleck, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and other laureates of contemporary American concert music. His big outlet for that these days is the Sony Masterworks-signed all-star group Goat Rodeo, which also includes Ma.
He hadn't seen — let alone played with — any of them for months when he and an engineer, Jody Elff, headed into an empty church last summer to record "Laysongs." It's Thile's first fully solo album, just his voice — still boyish after all these years — and his mandolin. Co-produced with his wife, actress Claire Coffee, it's his most directly personal work yet and also his most potent reckoning with spirituality and Christianity.
Specifically, Thile said, he was troubled by the question of what it means to build community in a world where our politics have grown so plainly defined by exclusion and parochialism.
"I would say it's centered around communion, and a yearning for it, and a mistrust of it," he said, pausing his chipper cadence to search for the right words. "When we come together with people that we love, or with our fellow like-minded human beings, we also then immediately start demonizing non-like-minded human beings," he said. The album is an attempt "to push back against that element of exclusion that comes with building community," whether in church or in politics, and against how "we then isolate ourselves with those people that we love."
Thile said that with both his instrumental playing and his lyrics, he wants to communicate but not push a worldview.
"I want the gestures to be clear," he said. "I want to give people clear, defined building blocks. And now you get to put them together."
Nickel Creek began in 1989 as the Nickel Creek Band, when Thile was 8 and his friends, fiddler Sara Watkins and her brother, guitarist Sean, were about the same age. (Thile's father, Scott, played bass and was an official member in its early years.) All three children were wunderkinds, but Thile stood out for his chutzpah and ostentatious talent. He was already winning bluegrass competitions, playing the instrument with remarkable precision and speed.
The group's first album, "Little Cowpoke," released in 1993 when Thile was 12, barrels through old country-western repertoire and bluegrass picking; a few tracks have been bootlegged onto YouTube, but it's now a collector's item.
Like Thile, the Watkins siblings had grown up in a fundamentalist household, and in their telling, the security of their faith was part of their bond. But as they traveled the world, they encountered a wider range of humanity, and their thinking adjusted. Thile said he felt the effects in his music immediately.
"The further away from fundamentalist Christianity I got, the further away from athleticizing the act of music-making I got," he said. "For a long time there was a real desire to be 'the best,' whatever that means. And falling away from the idea that there was a hard-and-fast 'right way' just blew the doors off my concept of music-making."
In the mid-2000s, after more than a decade of often-constant touring, Nickel Creek went on hiatus. All three of the band's members fanned out to work on independent projects and engage new collaborators, but Thile's pace stood out, Sara Watkins said in an interview. She marveled at his "stamina for musical development, his stamina for the pursuit of what he's going after."
Thile buried himself in Punch Brothers, a group that he'd pulled together with the goal of executing a complex, four-movement suite, "The Blind Leaving the Blind," that he wrote in a daze as he processed the dissolution of his first marriage. It wound up setting a new standard in progressive bluegrass.
Both Punch Brothers and Nickel Creek remain active, and in recent months Thile took separate retreats with each to work on projects that should soon lead to new LPs.
"Every time we go away from a Nickel Creek tour, we live lives, dig into our other projects that challenge us in different ways, and then when we come back, these are things we can add," Watkins said. "These songs can kind of be born out of that reconnection."