When musicians plan a national tour, the usual impetus is to promote a new recording and reconnect with fans. But when Grammy winner Patty Griffin invited Sara Watkins and Anais Mitchell to join her on a national tour it was with a different objective in mind – to promote discussion about voter engagement during a presidential election year.
“The Use Your Voice Tour 2016,” which has partnered with the League of Women Voters, stops at the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday, March 5, as part of a 38-city tour. The performance will be preceded at 5 p.m. by a panel discussion, “Amplifying the Voices on the Ground,” focusing on issues for communities that are traditionally marginalized.
Watkins, who first came to prominence as a founding member of the progressive bluegrass group Nickel Creek, says she and Mitchell were quick to accept Griffin’s invitation to join forces to promote voter education.
“It’s something Patty’s been very vocal and passionate about for some time,” Watkins said over the phone from South Carolina, as the tour worked its way up the East Coast. “As a group we don’t have a combined album to promote, which is the normal reason to tour. The League of Women Voters has been a common cause for the three of us. … We’re not preaching politics to people. We’re trying to bring awareness to the importance of being involved in your community.”
Molly Rockett ’15 (CLAS), a recent UConn honors graduate in political science and former intern for both U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney ’78 JD and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, will introduce the performers and discuss the League of Women Voters voter engagement effort.
“League of Women Voters of Connecticut introduced me to my involvement with nonpartisan voting,” says Rockett, who is completing a fellowship in Washington, D.C. at FairVote, a nonpartisan group focusing on structural electoral reform. “[League of Women’s Voters co-president] Gloria Bent has been a mentor to me. She’s encouraged me to stay involved. They reached out to me to talk about getting involved with Connecticut and this event. I’m going to talk about how we’re holding this event to empower people to vote and use their voice in the election. That’s what the League is about – to bring people into the process. That’s why these artists are coming together around this cause.”
We’re not preaching politics to people. We’re trying to bring awareness to the importance of being involved in your community. — Sara Watkins
Watkins says the tour continues to evolve, as the three singer-songwriters spend more time together on stage performing in an in-the-round style.
“It’s not like a typical in-the-round. We’re not just taking turns playing. We are on each other’s songs mostly, switching instruments,” says Watkins. “I play a lot of fiddle and some ukulele. Piano, keyboard, and drums are also on stage. It leaves a lot of room to fill in different textures. When there are a lot of people playing guitar, we figure it out and strategize who’s doing what and get a really cool sound. We worked up about 15 or 18 songs that we could have ready. Since then, almost every show there’s been a new addition to throw into the revolving door of songs.”
Watkins, who first joined with her brother Sean on guitar and Chris Thile on mandolin in Nickel Creek, has enjoyed collaborating with musicians who perform in various genres. During her solo career, she has performed with Robert Earl Keen, Jackson Browne, and Questlove of The Roots. Her debut album was produced by John Paul Jones, the bassist of Led Zeppelin.
“I love collaboration,” Watkins says. “It’s really satisfying to have the variety to play a different role in each ensemble. Whether you are leading, part of the ensemble, or purely supporting or contributing in different ways, you serve a different purpose in every collaborative project. All the things that you learn from it personally and socially make you a better musician and a more interesting person. I feel if you are in one band, you should absolutely be in two, because the skills you learn in the first will help you in the second and vice versa. I like to be part of a lot of projects and do a lot of things.”
When the current tour concludes next month in California, Watkins will take some time off before returning to the road to promote her third solo album, which will be released later this year.
The “Amplifying the Voices on the Ground” panel discussion will begin at 5 p.m. in the Jorgensen Gallery. Panelists include Mui Mui Hin-McCormick, executive director of the Connecticut Asian Pacific Affairs Commission; Glenn Cassis, executive director of the Connecticut African Americans Affairs Commission; and Carolyn Treiss, executive director of the Connecticut Permanent Commission on the Status of Women. The facilitator will be Evelyn Simien, UConn associate professor of political science and Africana studies.
The event is sponsored by the UConn Women’s Center, with the African American Cultural Center, Asian American Cultural Center, Puerto Rican Latin American Cultural Center, and Rainbow Center. UConn chapters of College Democrats and College Republicans will each have members of their student organizations at Jorgensen to talk about voter engagement.
“The Use Your Voice Tour 2016” takes place on Saturday at 8 p.m. at Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts, 2132 Hillside Road, Storrs. For more information go to the Jorgensen website.