Americana singer-songwriters Griffin, Watkins, and Mitchell perform as trio and promote voter participation
Patty Griffin, Sara Watkins, and Anaïs Mitchell are coming to the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State for a celebration of American songwriting and performance. The March 16 concert at Eisenhower Auditorium, part of the Use Your Voice 2016 Tour, features the artists sharing songs and accompanying each other throughout the evening.
Visiting almost forty cities through early April, the tour doubles as a voter engagement drive in conjunction with the League of Women Voters. It’s a nonpartisan effort to inform music fans about voter registration, local candidates, polling places, and more.
“The arrangement that we have with the League of Women Voters is largely just trying to bring awareness and focusing on women to use the tools that are at hand to make a difference. One of those gigantic tools is the ballot, obviously,” Watkins says. “There’s a huge percentage of women who don’t vote … . I think there are a lot of reasons behind that and much speculation, but the first thing that needs to happen is women need to start voting for the issues that matter to them.”
Griffin, who was “looking for a way to participate in the world as I’ve grown older—you know, complain a little less, do a little more,” hatched the concept of Use Your Voice.
“I am hoping with this tour to bang the drum about our democracy, about our communities, and even about our neighbors down the street,” Griffin writes on her website. “What can we do to make things better for our kids and our kid’s kids and so on and so forth?”
Griffin blessed with astonishing voice
Last year Griffin released Servant of Love, which was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Folk Album. Downtown Church, a 2010 release, earned her a Grammy for Best Traditional Gospel Album.
Watkins, who worked with Griffin as part of the Transatlantic Sessions Tour in the United Kingdom a year ago, and Mitchell began rehearsing with Griffin in her home city of Austin, Texas, in December.
“Anaïs and I were sitting right next to and in front of Patty as she was just opening her mouth sounding the way she sounds. It’s pretty stunning,” Watkins says.
“Patty has encouraged us to let each night go the way that it will, and if we don’t want to play the song that’s on the set list to change it up and do something else. And she’s like, ‘Even if you want to play a song that we’ve never heard before, feel free to do it,’” Watkins says.
“I think that kind of expectation from us will keep each night unique and with a spirit of authenticity to that particular town, that particular evening, and wanting to stay present,” she adds. “We rehearsed a lot of songs from each other and just took turns showing each other choruses, and parts, and chords. There will be a lot of us supporting each other’s songs.”
The American Music Association’s 2007 Artist of the Year, Griffin’s a gifted songwriter who has created music for artists as diverse as the Dixie Chicks and Bette Midler. She’s also written most of the material for her own recordings.
“She’s a very resilient songwriter,” Watkins observes. “I think we’ve seen a lot of different aspects of her humanity through her songwriting over the years—a ferocity and a vulnerability. I think you just see the general quality of life in her come through her lyrics. On [Servant of Love], particularly, I feel this resilience from her.”
Multi-instrumentalist and singer
Watkins, who first gained praise for her fiddling as a member of the Grammy-winning contemporary bluegrass band Nickel Creek, has established a solo career with a pair of acclaimed studio albums plus collaborations with John Mayer, The Decemberists, and others. She’s a frequent guest on public radio’s A Prairie Home Companion.
The southern California native started playing in Nickel Creek when she was 8. In 2014, after a hiatus of seven years, the band reunited to record a twenty-fifth anniversary album and to tour.
“It was a really great experience, I think largely because of what we were all doing in the interim. In that seven years, Chris (Thile) has dug into the Punch Brothers. Sean had made albums with his bands, Fiction Family and W.P.A., and done solo projects and producing, as well. And I went out on tour and supported my two albums, as well as getting to be a part of a lot of other projects.”
Their professional efforts while apart made the three stronger musicians and more rounded individuals, she says.
“We all had a lot of new material to throw at each other, and it was really exciting. We’d maintained close relationships through the years, and it was really, really fun to work together and sing together again.”
Mitchell likened to legends
Mitchell’s musical style has earned comparisons to Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Gillian Welch. Winner of the Kerrville Festival’s New Folk Award and nominee for the Folk Alliance’s Best Contemporary Artist Award, Mitchell is known as a distinctive young voice in folk music. Critics lauded her most recent album, 2014’s Xoa, as “genre-defining” and her “second consecutive masterpiece.”
Watkins says this tour is the first time she’s worked with Mitchell, who divides her time between rural Vermont and New York City.
“I’ve been a fan of Anaïs (A-nay-us) for a long time, as well. I missed the (2010) Hadestown album somehow. … I had to go back to it after really digging into Young Man in America, an album she put out several years ago,” Watkins recalls. “Songwriting is interesting because you as a listener get to grab onto a bit of the songwriter’s humanity and … peek into their perspective, how they’ve digested the things that life has thrown at them.”
Mitchell’s girlish voice contrasts with her sage words.
“I think it helps give the lyrics even more weight than you might receive at first because of the context you’re listening through … this youthful-sounding voice,” Watkins says. “And you realize that … although she’s quite young still, she’s lived life.”
Watkins Family Hour records first album
Immersed since childhood in the close-knit community of bluegrass musicians, Watkins is comfortable with ever-changing collaborations. Perhaps that’s why she and her brother are so attached to Watkins Family Hour, a monthly show they put on with an array of performers at Largo nightclub in Los Angeles.
“It’s been really important to me and to Sean over these years because it doesn’t have a lot of limitations. We invite a bunch of friends to come down and play songs, and it’s been a great outlet, a great way to meet other musicians,” she says. “It’s been a really wonderful outlet for new material that we’re trying out and just a place for us to be fans of other people’s songs.”
Last summer the siblings released Watkins Family Hour, an album recorded live with five other musicians, including singer Fiona Apple, in a friend’s studio.
“Learning covers is a big part of the family hour, and that’s why our album was all cover songs,” she says.
Each band member sang lead vocals on at least one song on the eleven-track album. Watkins lent her voice to “Steal Your Heart Away,” a Fleetwood Mac song written by Lindsey Buckingham.
Another Americana trio
Watkins also toured in 2015 as part of I’m With Her, a group that includes American singer-songwriters Sarah Jarosz and Aoife (EE-fa) O’Donovan.
“It’s a really special little band. We are all really excited about it. We spent a lot of time together … . We toured in the U.K., just the three of us driving around in a station wagon. We played a handful of festivals this summer. We got to Japan. All these fun things kept popping up,” Watkins says.
“This was sort of an off year for the three of us in between record cycles—all making albums or finishing. So it was the perfect time to do this … fun project,” she says. “And in the process we quickly realized that we really, really like this band. We really enjoy being together on and off stage. We all really respect each other and have become very, very good friends.”
The trio guest hosted A Prairie Home Companion in October and released two songs, including a poignant cover of John Hiatt’s “Crossing Muddy Water.”
“We work together so well that we’ve been writing, and we’d like to do a lot of it in the future,” Watkins says. “But before that we are all very excited to invest ourselves in the near future into our respective solo projects.”
Finding the good stuff
Watkins third album as a leader is scheduled for release in May.
“The process for all three of my albums has been quite different,” she recalls. “(For) the (self-titled) first album I was collecting myself after growing up in a band. In Nickel Creek, I feel like that was going to school. … And then finally it came time to figure out what to do with all that schooling and how I was going to apply it to my real adult life. So the first album was me basically finding my home base, and touring that, and really fighting for that.”
Her second album, Sun Midnight Sun, went in a different direction.
“Instead of me just hanging out with my friends in the studio—really talented friends—as with the first album,” she says, “… we just overdubbed a lot of stuff and kind of built the songs vertically that way.”
For the forthcoming release, Watkins wrote or co-wrote all of the songs for the first time.
“In truth, there was a good amount of pre-production thought going into the songs in the writing process … . When we got the band together in the room, we got to really react off each other and get some very live energy on a bunch of these songs that I think suits the lyrics well,” she says.
“It’s always a different process, and there are different challenges to each approach. But the challenges are where the good stuff comes from,” she says. “I like to rise to a challenge. You can’t just recreate something that you’ve already done and expect to be really excited by that.”
John Mark Rafacz is the editorial manager at the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State.