Finally, after the release of his fifth solo album, Los Angeles singer-songwriter Sean Watkins is undertaking his first extensive tour under his own name.
“When the record before this, ‘All I Do Is Lie,’ was released by the record company [in 2014], I was on tour with Nickel Creek and I didn’t have time to tour it,” said Watkins, who performs Sunday at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis. “This is the first time I put out a record and am going on the road right afterwards.”
The singer/guitarist is one-third of Nickel Creek, the Grammy-winning progressive bluegrass trio, with his sister Sara Watkins and Chris Thile, the host-in-waiting for “A Prairie Home Companion.” He’s also a member of the duo Fiction Family with Switchfoot’s Jon Foreman, the eight-piece Works Progress Administration with Toad the Wet Sprocket’s Glen Phillips and the Watkins Family Hour with his sister and a revolving cast.
For a long time, Watkins wasn’t comfortable as a frontman. He enjoyed being a part of bands. But then he became proud of his songwriting on “All I Do Is Lie” and “even prouder” of the tunes on his new album, “What Fear Is.”
The title track of the new album is a quietly political piece that resonates even louder in this election year.
“My problem in that song is not necessarily with either party politically, it’s just with the way the news is delivered,” said Watkins, 39, by phone from Nashville, where he was playing guitar on a porch. “I don’t like that the media is baiting. When you’re afraid, your logic is bypassed. And it brings them advertising dollars. I feel one political side does it more than the other.”
For the new album, Watkins worked partly with an acoustic group he knew from the bluegrass circuit, the Bee Eaters, and a heavyweight rhythm section of bassist Mike Elizondo, who has worked with Dr. Dre and Avenged Sevenfold, and drummer Matt Chamberlain, who has worked with Tori Amos and Pearl Jam.
“A lot of people don’t realize how epic that rhythm section is,” said Watkins, who met the players at Club Largo, a music hot spot in Los Angeles. “They’re heroes of mine and they happen to be really sweet guys.”
In his set at the Dakota, Watkins, who will be accompanied by keyboardist/harmony singer Dominique Arciero, plans to play material from his solo albums as well as the bands in which he plays.
“The songs are more story-oriented than complicated guitar stuff,” he explained. “I’ve been interjecting that guitar side of things into the more simple songs. I try to do the best version of me. I’m essentially an acoustic bluegrass-ish guitar player. I’m having fun being myself.”
Watkins has a love for the Twin Cities, where he has performed many times with Nickel Creek. “We’d plan our days off for Minneapolis and St. Paul,” he said. “It just feels good. I like the people. It has a cool music scene. We used to go to Brit’s [Pub], with the lawn bowling on the roof.”
Nickel Creek, active from 1989 to 2007, did a reunion album and tour in 2014. What’s the status of the group?
“We’re totally a band,” Watkins said. “A couple years ago we put out ‘A Dotted Line’ and the tour was more fun than it’s ever been. I think we’ll continue to do stuff; there’s no telling when. Everyone is so busy, especially Chris, with taking on ‘Prairie Home’ this fall.”
Watkins said the situations are similar with his other groups. Everyone’s busy with their other projects. So he’s going to stick to his solo career for a while.