Embarking on a semi-solo journey


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Sara Watkins is coming to Iowa City, and this time, she’s solo.

Well, kind of. She is bringing brother and fellow Nickel Creek member Sean Watkins. Even non-NickelCreek fans may be excited about tonight’s show. Her self-titled début solo album was produced by John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, and her sound is sincere and contemporary.

Sara Watkins will play tonight at the Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St., $23 a ticket.

She released her first album in April, and it plays host to a wide array of impressive guest appearances, from the likes of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench and Elvis Costello drummer Pete Thomas. Even Jones himself plays on several tracks.

The 28-year-old spent her teenage years and young adult life as a member of Grammy-award winning contemporary-bluegrass trio Nickel Creek.

“I’ve been looking forward to doing a solo record for a long time,” Watkins said. “It worked out really well that about the time I was ready to do a solo project, we were ready to put a period at the end of the Nickel Creek sentence.”

With Nickel Creek now disbanded, she is free to devote herself to, well, herself. She is managing her own nationwide tour, which, she said, is a big adjustment.

“I’ve been really happy to find out that I can actually do it,” she said. “I feel like my brain’s expanded or something.”

While she’s a veteran of the bluegrass scene, she said touring solo is an different experience.

“It’s basically like starting all over again,” Watkins said. “Because I’m making all the decisions, I’m learning what I like, what my taste is, and having the opportunity to be like, ‘No, this would be good, let’s do this.’ ”

Compared with Nickel Creek, Watkins said, the sound is “a little less fancy,” which isn’t such a bad thing.

“I think her music has a very sweet, genuine, soft and heartfelt quality,” Englert CEO Sean Fredericks said. “It separates her from being pigeonholed as ‘just’ a bluegrass artist.”

He is among the many who is excited about her Jones-produced CD.

“I think that her album is produced by John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin gives her instant credibility,” he said. “Even among people who aren’t familiar with her or Nickel Creek.”

Watkins said she prefers to tour only a week-and-a-half at a time, but she’s only just beginning.

“I love bands, and I hope to always be in a band of some kind,” she said. “I hope to always be involved in more than one project, and this is just sort of the next step.”

Audience members should expect both original songs and a couple of Nickel Creek favorites tonight, she said. Although she sounded excited about her independent career, she admits she’s taking it one step at a time.

“I’m still always holding an instrument, like a fiddle or a ukulele,” she said. “I’m not really comfortable yet just holding a mike and singing.”

Something says she’ll get there.

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