Fiction Family, the culmination of two of our generation’s most prolific and respected songwriters, Jon Foreman of Switchfoot and Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek, debuted in January as a masterful collection of tales about murder, adventure, lost love, and war highlighting each contributor’s strengths and personalities while managing to defy perceived expectations. The best news? It’s only the beginning.
There’s a beautiful carelessness to what is now Fiction Family (originally named “The Real SeanJon” with a goal of being sued by Puffy) – a creative endeavor birthed out of rest, friendship, and unabashed innovation. With no immediate deadlines, rules, or formats to follow, Foreman and Watkins decided to embark on a musical journey of the purist, most unadulterated kind.
“We just started writing stuff we wanted to write about,” says Watkins from the porch of his San Diego home. “It was never going to be a record either. There were a lot of conversations that never happened. All that happened was having fun playing music and writing songs.”
“One of the endearing things about this record is that because we were doing it in our bedrooms, we were literally just screwing around,” adds Foreman. “I mixed the whole thing at my folks’ house in a couple of days just to get it done and shop it around to people. Those mixes ended up being the record. The demo became the final thing. I like to think that added a little bit to the charm. “
The result is a perfect union: two notable songwriters strapping each other’s strengths to their own songwriting utility belt, each coming out of the process even more equipped then they were before.
“One of the things I love about bluegrass music and where it’s coming from is the simplicity,” says Jon like an eager new student of the genre. “[Bluegrass] makes every note count. I think that’s one of the things I’ve been trying to learn more and more…trying to say one thing well. I’m captivated by the way melodies intertwine, and many times I end up trying to say too many things melodically. Sean is really good at pressing the mute button. It was a really freeing thing to have him there playing the producer role saying things like ‘yeah, that’s kind of endearing but it’s not needed.’”
Watkins feels equally appreciative: “A lot of times I’d bring [Jon] a verse and chorus of something and he’d say ‘that’s really cool but can we make this part bigger?’ or ‘Can there be a change in the middle that really departs from where you were?’ Those are things I think about now when I write songs. That’s the good part about working with someone. You get to collect pieces of who they are musically. You get to pick and choose what you want to add to your collection of songwriting tools.”
There’s an idea that the farther one departs from the traditional pop format, the less tangible their work becomes to the average listener. Not so with Fiction Family. Wildly inventive and spontaneous, the two recording artists who once enjoyed the luxury of major record labels now stand in victorious defiance against a crumbling conventional music industry. “This year has marked our first year of our independence from Sony,” explains Foreman speaking of Switchfoot’s long time relationship with the label. “It was the chance to let loose some projects that have been bottled up for a long time.”
An outpouring of that pent-up creativity, Fiction Family reflects a strong sense of musical maturity from both its contributors. It’s the stories and raw emotion embedded into that music, however, that give the project a sense of profound timelessness. “At the end of any given record you’re left with the question of whether you believe it or not,” says Foreman. “Part of what you’re investing in that question is whether or not that singer/songwriter is putting a piece of him on the line. Voices like Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan do that. Whether they’re singing their own song or someone else’s, you can hear a piece of them when they’re singing it. It’s a matter of vulnerability. That’s something I try to put into all my songs … which is kind of nerve-racking sometimes.”
Part of that vulnerability means wrestling with the deep spiritual complexities of human nature, familiar territory for both the Switchfoot and Nickel Creek members. On “Closer Than You Think,” a track from their album debut, Watkins muses over the widely held notion of heaven as a distant and out of reach destination, suggesting it may be “right under your feet.”
Watkins explains, “I felt like there are a whole lot of people putting all their eggs into a basket of after-lives while completely overlooking what we’ve been given today. I’ve seen so many people sell this life short of possibilities saying ‘man, someday it’s going to be great, but it’s just going to suck until then’ and that’s not the attitude we’re supposed to have. That isn’t to say the concept of heaven isn’t an amazing thing and shouldn’t be kept as a paramount in our mind, but we’ve also been put on this earth to do something, to live in the here and now.”
Along with focusing on “the here and now” Fiction Family is looking forward to the future. So what’s next for the duo? What once began as two friends jamming over coffee on their days off is now considered by both an adventure too fun to stop.
“We had a blast on this tour with Aaron Redfield playing the drums and Tyler Chester playing the bass,” says Jon. “It felt like a really natural fit. I’d love to make a record as a four piece.”
Watkins agrees, “We’ve been working on some new songs on this last tour and have a list we think would be good for the next record. During the course of this tour we really started feeling like a band so when we record we’ll record it more like that.”
With Nickel Creek on indefinite hiatus and Switchfoot adjusting to life apart from a major label, the continuation of Fiction Family sounds like an excellent way for these two songwriters to experiment, explore, and continue to learn from each other. In the meantime we’ll be anxiously awaiting the results.