She lent her talents to the super group Works Progress Administration with Glen Phillips and Benmont Tench, among others. She found new inspiration in her longest standing collaboration with brother Sean in the Watkins Family Hour and even reunited with Sean and Chris Thile to scale greater heights with the groundbreaking band that thrust her into the spotlight in the first place.
But more than anything, Watkins has been endeavoring to identify and refine her solo voice. Her eponymous 2009 solo debut established her as a creative entity beyond the confines of Nickel Creek and earned her opening slots for Robert Earl Keen, Tift Merritt and many others. Watkins' sophomore album, 2012's "Sun Midnight Sun," was her tentative first steps toward a true solo persona and set the stage for session and touring opportunities for John Mayer, Jackson Browne, The Decemberists and Needtobreathe.
"I think of my first album as setting the tone of finding my home base musically," says Watkins. "I referenced my sources on that album. It feels like a community album. It's not complicated in terms of arrangements. It's safe. It's fine. It's not terribly interesting, but it was a necessary step. The second album was a little bit of an experiment and a really fun process working with Blake Mills, but it was largely overdubbed."
After a four year gap that allowed for the aforementioned studio and road work, Watkins seriously thought about the approach for her third album. Her deal with Nonesuch had ended, and she'd parted ways with her management at nearly the same time. In an atmosphere of uncertainty, Watkins bucked the odds and drew inspiration from the tumult to create her third solo album, the magnificent and decidedly different "Young in All the Wrong Ways," her debut for New West.
"It was time to make an album. I could feel it," says Watkins. "I had just started writing, and I needed to record these songs soon. So label be damned, this is what had to happen. It felt good to be doing it without a big structure, instead just going to my producer (Gabe Witcher)'s house and trimming some of the fat off these songs and having someone to bounce ideas off of and talk about instrumentation and what kind of albums we love without a huge framework of time, but feeling a sense of urgency to get this thing out."
One of the first decisions Watkins made to delineate "Young in All the Wrong Ways" from its predecessors was to eliminate a prominent element that had rightfully become her signature from the beginning of Nickel Creek.
"One choice was to not have a ton of fiddle on the album," says Watkins. "Fiddle is a really strong personality, and it tends to effect the way a song is taken in. We decided to instead have the violin represented in orchestration and string parts, with the exception of a couple of songs."
But perhaps the most important creative aspect is that, for the first time, Watkins wrote or co-wrote every song. As a result, Watkins feels invested in a way that she hasn't yet experienced.
"What we ended up with is an album that's more lyrically focused, and being that it's the first album that's all original or co-written from me, I think there's a lot more of a singular view to the end-all package than on other records I've put out. I intended on having a cover song as well, but when we listened to all the songs together, it stood out as being a different voice lyrically than mine."
When Watkins began her writing process, the title track was the first song that shimmered into existence. The bluesy folk stomper set the bar for the rest of the album as a departure from Watkins' previous output.
"I think it's fitting that it's the first song because of that," she says. "I hope it sets the stage in terms of letting people have a feeling of what's behind the album, a peek into it."
A good portion of what went into "Young…" is all of the unique recording and touring situations that have jammed Watkins' schedule in recent years. In many ways, the album represents the cumulative effect of the broadening of her sonic horizons, and she wants fans to understand that "Young…" is a yardstick of her evolution and not a capricious diversion.
"My previous record came out four years ago, so we probably made it five years ago, and so much has happened since then," says Watkins. "What I've been doing live and the different projects like the Watkins Family Hour that we did last summer in particular, was pretty slamming, and a lot of different collaborations I've been a part of. I've gotten to sing differently, I've gotten to explore what I want to put into and get out of songs. That's coming out on this album in a way that hasn't on record before. I clarify that because I think sometimes listeners who haven't experienced the growth and changes in a musician's life, they hear the new album and try to connect the dots, but, unfortunately, I think it comes off like a costume, like you're putting on these clothes and arbitrarily decided to make this thing rather than what I think is generally the case, which is just updating listeners on the journey you've been on up to the point you got into the studio."
Watkins' lyrical themes on go back to the tumultuous point when she was operating without a label or management. Rather than allowing herself to be crippled by the unknown, Watkins harnessed and redirected that energy in a productive manner.
"What I noticed listening to this album in full is that there's quite a bit of transition happening," she says. "I made a conscious choice in my life during the writing of these songs to embrace any kind of turmoil or chaos as a positive thing. Potentially, I'm going new places in my life, and that allows for questions to be raised that would eventually lead to more thought and then more growth."
"Young…" feels like the first step down an exciting new path for her. "I've really been enjoying singing in a new way in the last few years," says Watkins. "There can be an abandon when I'm singing now that I can have sometimes when I'm soloing on fiddle. I don't feel like I have to worry about every little thing that comes out of my mouth - that I can relax, and I'm freed up in a way. It makes each show special, particularly because these songs are from me, there's a little more ownership than I've had in the past."
Watkins didn't road test any of her new songs before taking them into the studio. Her most recent gigs have represented the live debuts of the songs, and whether in full band or solo mode, she's having a blast with the new material, and the impact it's having on her older songs.
"It's always satisfying to unveil something to people in different ways. So, I'm very much still in that process and enjoying it," she says. "I've noticed that some songs from my catalog that I didn't end up playing because they didn't really fit the repertoire are fitting now. I'm changing the arrangements to older songs, and I'm probably going to start putting in some stuff like 'When It Pleases You' that I didn't really play live before. It definitely is changing the whole picture, interestingly."