Fiction Family is a beautiful byproduct of a music industry in crisis. The adventurous new project is comprised of Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek and Jon Foreman of Switchfoot and their self-titled debut album will be released January 20 on MapleMusic Recordings/ATO Records.
Though their bands have followed somewhat divergent paths—Grammy-award winning Nickel Creek crossing over from the bluegrass scene to mainstream roots music, and the Grammy-nominated Switchfoot ruling over modern-rock radio—these fellow San Diegans have known each other casually since high school, when both began exploring the California music scene by playing what Foreman calls an endless series of shows with their respective groups. Mutual friends spent years telling both men they should try writing songs together, an idea they continually brushed off until they began running into each other at a local coffee shop near both their homes in San Diego’s North County.
Convenience (and caffeine) being the mother of inspiration, the two decided to see what might result from their unlikely collaboration. The pace of work was deliberately slow, wedged in between Nickel Creek’s and Switchfoot’s considerable touring and recording commitments. “It’d be like a week here and a week there when we were both in town at the same time,” says Watkins. “Or we’d do something separately and leave it for the other one to work on.”
“It’s almost the ideal artistic setup,” Foreman adds, “because you don’t really care about timing or any commercial aspect. We figured it’d probably never come out and we’d probably never finish it. But, hey, we both love coffee, and we’ve got these songs, so we’re just gonna work on them when we feel like it.”
You can hear the effects of that relaxed attitude—a refreshing disregard toward the music’s potential performance in the marketplace—throughout the album, Fiction Family’s eclectic (if nonetheless irresistible) 12-track debut: “When She’s Near” has a bouncy '60s-era flair; “Out of Order” rides a tricky percussive groove; “Betrayal” sports a marching-band coda straight from outer space; and “Elements Combined” glows with gorgeous chamber-pop harmonies.
Once they began writing and recording together, it became important to both Watkins and Foreman—who, it should be noted, originally wanted to call their act the Real SeanJon—that the result of their work together constitute something more unique than the precise midpoint between Switchfoot and Nickel Creek. They needn’t have worried about missing the mark.
“The songs themselves would sort of dictate where things would go,” says Watkins. “No one was saying it needs to be this way or that way. It was just about what was fun and what was good for the song. It’s definitely the purest way of making music that I’ve come across.”
Simply put, this kind of record could not have existed ten, five, even three years ago. It’s the reassuring sound of two professional musicians tapping into the creativity that flows when limits and expectations—the old engines of a record business we’re in the midst of reinventing—are removed from the artistic process. Talk about a silver lining.
-By Mikael Wood