‘Fake Badge, Real Gun’ Nods to Political Side of New Watkins Family Hour Album: Exclusive

Watkins Family Hour
Jacob Boll

Watkins Family Hour

Sara and Sean Watkins weren't necessarily looking to put out a new Watkins Family Hour album this year. So their upcoming sophomore set Brother Sister, whose "Fake Badge, Real Gun" is premiering exclusively on Billboard today (March 5), is a surprise, but a welcome one.

"Sean and I were both nearing the end of some of the projects that we were doing and looking for the next thing, individually," Sara Watkins tells Billboard. She was wrapping up a Grammy Award-winning run with I'm With Her, her trio with Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O'Donovan, while her brother was readying a solo album. "We got to talking and it very quickly became clear that we wanted to dig into the Family Hour again -- and differently this time."

The Watkins Family Hour's self-titled debut came out in 2015 and was "this lark that happened" as an outgrowth of the siblings' residency at Largo in Los Angeles, now in its 18th year. "We accidentally made this record when we thought we were just trying to document something for ourselves. We didn't really 'work' on it," Watkins says. For Brother Sister, due out April 10, they hunkered down with a more deliberate purpose.

"We sat down and we wrote a record together, just the two of us, which we haven't done, ever," Watkins says. "We've collaborated within other groups of people [Nickel Creek, Works Progress Administration] but never just the two of us. And it was really good; Sean and I really enjoyed digging into the potential of the arrangements performed as a duo and making the songs feel complete within a two-person performance. We really enjoyed digging into the minutiae, strategizing. It scratched an itch for both of us in terms of creativity."

Produced by Mike Viola, Brother Sister features seven originals -- written mostly at Sara Watkins' house -- and covers of songs by Warren Zevon ("Accidentally Like a Martyr"), Courtney Hartman and Taylor Ashton ("Neighborhood Name") and Charley Jordan's "Keep It Clean," which features backing vocals by David Garza, Gaby Moreno and John C. Reilly. "You never know how it's going to go," Watkins says, "but I think we were both optimistic, having worked together for so long, since Nickel Creek. It felt really good to exercise the music-making muscles and our musical potential in a very focused way. It was really exciting."

Sean Watkins had "a really good chunk" of "Fake Badge, Real Gun" together when he presented it to his sister, explaining it was inspired by a comment he heard on a local newscast while he was out on tour. "That struck Sean, the idea of there being a lot of different fake badges that people in society have, with very, very real power attached to them and a very real influence," Watkins says. It's not the only song on Brother Sister with topical overtones, and Watkins acknowledges that current events certainly surfaced in their songwriting for the album.

"There is a feeling of urgency. You sense it among so many artists now," Watkins acknowledges. "Maybe some of the topics we might have written about five years ago...seem a little trite or just less important than they did then. Many of us are grappling with what to do with it. It's almost impossible for it to not come out, and these songs feel very good to write. They feel worth of the times, and that's not really anything I personally have aspired to up until now, though Sean has. It feels good to do something that feels important."

The Watkins have already played a few dates this year, including Folk Alliance in New Orleans, with some upcoming shows in Tennessee -- an April 8 release show in Nashville -- and other dates during April and May. Nickel Creek, which also includes Chris Thile, will be playing a few shows during the summer as well, while Sara Watkins says I'm With Her is in dry-dock for the time being. "We haven't put on a show for a while because each of us is fully invested in our own new projects," she says. "So we're cheering each other on from the sidelines right now."

Listen to "Fake Badge, Real Gun" below.