Much of Sara Watkins' songwriting process involves not writing songs. Her routine is filled with creative exercises that don't produce lyrics but still make her a better songwriter. Some of these exercises are, in her words, "silly and pointless," like when she creates Christmas cards or arts and crafts projects. Sometimes she sketches. Other times, her song lyrics start as long journal entries, and it's not until the last line of the entry that she hits on a lyric or the focus of the song.
All these activities make her a better songwriter because they strengthen the creative side of her brain. This idea holds true for most of the songwriters I've interviewed for this site: the most prolific, by far, are those who engage in other creative outlets or who read voraciously. By contrast, the worldview of a one-dimensional artist is pretty limited. I was intrigued by one exercise Watkins gives herself that has nothing to do with songwriting: she takes a few items lying around the house (maybe a piece of paper, a bobby pin, and a rubber band) and creates something with it. The fewer items she uses, the better the product.
To Watkins, one of the founding members of Nickel Creek, the songwriting process is an end in itself, not a means to an end. It's a way for her to learn about herself. She told me, "As I get older, I realize that writing is less about the short term outcome of the particular verse and chorus that I'm working on, and more about processing life through this medium and learning about the world." And this is what makes her such a good songwriter: it's her identity, and it colors how she sees the world.
Watkins' second solo album is Sun Midnight Sun on Nonesuch Records. I spoke to Watkins over the phone recently. Read my interview with her after the video.