A lot has changed since Sara Watkins’ start in music with Nickel Creek, even since her other solo release, 2016’s Young In All The Wrong Ways. Namely, the singer became a mother. This new role in life was a prominent inspiration for Under the Pepper Tree, an album mostly consisting of covers curated with children and families in mind. The result is an album of pure comfort food, capable of thawing out even the coldest, most cynical hearts.
Under the Pepper Tree is filled with a relatable, yet personal collection of songs that touched Watkins as a child. In the spirit of familial gathering, Watkins reunites with her old bandmates for two of the gentle covers. Nickel Creek joins her on “Blue Shadows On The Trail,” which premiered via Paste in February. The song, pulled from the band’s childhood favorite movie The Three Amigos, is treated to some dreamy harmonies and bright string additions, most notably the plucking mandolin of Chris Thile. I’m With Her’s vocal contributions on Watkins’ version of “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” are likewise stunning and ethereal, as the song’s hypnotic guitar loop lulls the listener into a feeling of safe nostalgia.
The only two original songs featured on the album are the title track and “Night Singing.” “Under the Pepper Tree” is a short and sweet instrumental, whose harmonica and violin floats unobtrusively through as an interlude between “Moon River” and Disney classic “When You Wish Upon a Star.” “Night Singing” stands out as a reminder of Watkins’ heart-wrenching songwriting talents, a gorgeous lullaby that packs all of the comfort and security the album sets forth to create into one delicate showing. Watkins’ love for her daughter is palpable in lyrics straight out of a storybook: “Look, I painted the sky for you / Look, I painted the moon.”
In perhaps the most moving song on the album, Watkins’ three-year-old daughter makes a guest appearance, singing along to “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music. The sweet duet drives home the vision Under the Pepper Tree paints throughout its runtime: a mother and daughter enjoying quiet time together, bonding over the songs they both love.
While the songs’ tendencies to drift together could sometimes be indicative of a record’s faults, not including enough variation in the body of work, the conscious choice to make even the most familiar songs blend with each other suits Under the Pepper Tree well. It is, first and foremost, an album of lullabies, thoughtfully ordered to begin with the inviting “Pure Imagination,” and end with soothing, sleepy songs “Stay Awake” and The Beatles’ “Good Night.” While kid-friendliness is a great merit of Under the Pepper Tree, its ineffable beauty makes the album a fast favorite for a person of any age to unwind after a long day.
Carli Scolforo is a New England journalist and intern for Paste Magazine. She loves late-night TV and reading celebrity memoirs, and never truly left her emo phase. You can follow her on Twitter @carli_sco.