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End of the road? 

Nickel Creek ready to say 'Farewell for now'

Is it OK to retire when you're at the top of your game? After all, sports stars do it, so why can't musicians? If you look at it that way, you may hope Nickel Creek's latest decision is a "semi-retirement" a la Michael Jordan. Their ongoing tour is the "Farewell For Now Tour" and they've announced a "break of indefinite length."

"I think there would [be moments of regret], except that it's so undeniably the right time for this to happen for everybody," violinist Sara Watkins says by phone before a tour date in Cleveland. "We each have our own reasons for wanting to do this and we've been doing this for so long -- it's not like we made this decision hastily. I think we all are very confident in the timing of this. We're just going to enjoy it 'til it's over."

Fans can't truly be surprised by the decision for a break when you hear some of the reasons behind it. The band has been together for nearly two decades -- Sara was 8 when the band got started -- and while all the focus has been on the band, it hasn't afforded the opportunity for much of anything else.

"For us, Nickel Creek has always dominated our schedules and anything else that we did would just fill in the blanks and we would cram everything in as much as possible," Watkins says. "You end up going crazy because you're always busy. I think that we're all really excited about, unanimously, all of us, just setting it down for a while and saying, 'Here's our chance to actually invest ourselves, every bit of our creativity,' to just up-to-10 go for things rather than thinking, 'We'll go for it, but in a year we'll tour again so we don't have to really do this.' What's the use of investing anything if you know you'll have to stop again in a year? It's a big release and a privilege to keep doing this for a certain amount and then just switch gears."

They're going out in style, too. They've let their fans know about the impending hiatus and are bringing out their friends to celebrate their shows. Appearances by Tift Merritt and Glen Phillips have dotted previous shows and the upcoming August dates will feature Fiona Apple as a special guest.

"We wanted to choose people that we always wanted to tour with or have been a huge influence," Watkins says. "We want to enjoy this particular moment with them."

The band got to know Apple through their work at the L.A. club Largo. There, for the last five years, Watkins and her brother (fellow Creek member Sean), have held the "Watkins Family Hour." Chris Thile is the third member of the Americana trio. Apple has sat in with the duo and they thought it would be a good opportunity to take those experiences out on the road. Nickel Creek will be the backing band for Apple's set, though Watkins said she'd like for Apple to perform a few songs on her own -- "I'm not sure if she's going to play by herself or not. We're going to try and talk her into it."

As for life after the tour, Watkins is ready to focus on her first solo album. She hasn't started recording, but hopes it will be ready sometime next year.

"I'm really glad that I haven't made an official (solo) record until now," she says. "It's all just been practice runs and learning. Doing the Family Hour has been really beneficial in helping us learn new songs regularly. I've learned a lot about how I like singing and how I sound when I'm singing what I want to sing; finding out what I love about songs and finding the songs that really affect me and the ones that I really want to perform and become associated with."

She says writing for the album is an exciting time because for the first time, she feels like she has something to say. She may also have some good company, noting that she's been doing some of the writing with John Paul Jones. She expects the album to have original songs, as well as some traditional songs and some instrumentals.

She also knows future tours won't be on as hectic of a schedule as Nickel Creek has been on, noting that it's been "book a tour, make another record, book another tour, make another record." She says the band was becoming worried that they were "pushing our luck in terms of stress and exhaustion versus energy and creativity." Traveling is also what Watkins says has been the hardest part.

The band has had numerous successes over the years, including a 2003 Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk album, but Watkins says one of the highlights for her is "getting a compliment from somebody for the first time." While she knows things are winding down, it doesn't make for sad or somber moments. Instead, she's cherishing the time on stage with her bandmates and soaking in the applause.

"For me, (being the final tour) definitely adds a little bit of an extra bit of enjoyment," she says. "Every night, after the last song, you're sitting there and watching the audience response; you're sharing your work with people. Every night that goes by, there's one fewer to come. There's a little bit of a countdown there. I think it is something special because of that."

Nickel Creek with special guest Fiona Apple will be performing at Ovens Auditorium on Aug. 5. Tickets are $30 and $40.

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