Early on Halo of Blue, the new album by local singer/songwriter Kellin Watson, a duo of songs — "Swagger" and "Control" — makes short work of showcasing Watson's own swagger and control. At turns funky and bluesy, syncopated and lithe, neither track is what you'd expect from a relative of bluegrass legend Doc Watson. But Watson can connect the dots between '70s-inspired organ hits of her record and the acoustic twang of her genesis.
"Even though it's kind of got this soul thing going on, I feel like I tapped more into my Appalachian roots more than ever with this record," she says. The album's title track, with its sweeping waltz and peddle steel, proves her point, as does the gospel-tinged "Angels Keep Watching Over Me." Watson says that Appalachia is most evident in the song writing approach.
"Ever since I was a kid, the culture and the music was so in my face," says Watson, who grew up in Western N.C. "I tried to go in the opposite direction and be like, 'I'm not going to acknowledge any of that.'" But as she matured as an artist she realized that not only was the Appalachian sound important, it already had influenced her. From then on, it was a dance of "trying to find all those aspects of the music that had moved so many people and moved me, subconsciously. I was trying to make my way back to those roots with this record."
Though Watson acknowledges that roots are a musician's "foundation and help keep you grounded," she's more than her roots. As the album notes from her 2003 debut, Paper Bird said, "Kellin Watson isn't just a girl with a guitar." She's a woman with an impeccable sense of phrasing and rhythm, and a dusky voice that glides through octaves with acrobatic ease. Watson really hit her stride on 2007's No Static, turning out dance-pop tracks like "Chains of Love" that paired piquant delivery with intelligent writing. Halo builds from that laudable platform.
The new record also builds on Watson's semi-recent turn toward collaborations, pulling in guest artists like Oliver Wood (The Wood Brothers, King Johnson) and Sarah and Christian Dugas (The Duhks). There's a story there: Watson was a longtime fan of the Wood Brothers (a duo with Oliver's brother Chris Wood of Medeski Martin and Wood). In "a weird twilight zone thing," her parents (both musicians; father Fox Watson has toured with Bruce Cockburn and Jerry Jeff Walker) met Oliver at a Zach Brown show that they'd been invited to by the Dugases immediately after album producer Michael Bellar had approached Oliver about playing on Watson’s record.
As for New York-based Bellar, who frequents Asheville with his alt-jazz group The As-Is Ensemble, he's a Hickory, N.C., native and a North Carolina School of the Arts alum. "We know all of the same people, but we didn't know each other," says Watson. She opened a show in Charlotte for singer/songwriter Amos Lee; Bellar was playing keys for Lee and he introduced himself to Watson. The two played some shows together, including a Bele Chere appearance in 2010 — that performance was in support of a pre-Halo EP.
Not all of Watson's collaborations relate to her albums. Recently, she attended Bonnaroo to sing with Aaron "Woody" Wood. The timing was tricky: The festival came just a few weeks before Watson's own CD release show. "My instinct was, 'There's no way I can leave for a weekend,'" she says. "But somehow it's been working out."
For the first part of her musical career, Watson says she put all of her energy into her own work because she was unsure of what it took to make it in the industry. "But it got kind of boring, and you can only do so much when you're an independent artist," she says. "It's really up to fate." In the past three years she's taken on more side projects. Recent Asheville transplant Ben Lovett has called on her to do vocals for commercial work and "whatever approaches me lately, I've been game for anything."
When Watson and Bellar teamed up, they recorded Halo over a year and a half. They started with five tracks at Signature Sounds in Connecticut (Chris Smither and Patty Larkin have recorded there) and then, when those went well, recorded seven more tracks at a studio in New Jersey frequented by Richie Havens and Dayna Kutz. Two tracks ("Sittin' on Top of The World" and "Rise") plus overdubs, were done at Echo Mountain. The album was mixed and mastered by Gene Paul, son of guitar pioneer Les Paul, who's worked with the likes of Roberta Flack and Marvin Gaye. "When you record in a bunch of places you can lose a vibe,” says Watson. “We kept it consistent.”
The album took so long partly because recording is expensive. Music is "not the most profitable career, as we all know, and I was still paying off my last album," says Watson. She received some support through a Kickstarter campaign.
Finally, the album can meet its audience. Local group The Business will serve as Watson’s backing band, at her at Pisgah Brewing CD release party, and Chicago-by-way-of-WNC singer/songwriter Zach Blew returns to lend vocals. There will be other surprise performers (plan to arrive early) as well as Fourth of July-appropriate charities: Letter writing to U.S. troops and instrument collections for soldiers overseas as well as injured soldiers at home.
who: Kellin Watson
what: Album release party for Halo of Blue
where: Pisgah Brewing Company
when: Saturday, July 2 (doors at 7 p.m., show at 8 p.m., $10 advance/$12 day of show. pisgahbrewing.com)