For pop-Americana singer-songwriter Cf Watkins, 2020 has been a catalyst for big changes. She left New York, where she’d lived for nine years, to ride out the pandemic in her North Carolina hometown with her parents. Six months into the ordeal, her relationship began to unravel – but Watkins quickly met someone else: her dog, Clara. “The day after he left North Carolina, Clara just kind of showed up,” she says with a smile. “I was sitting on the porch, you know, post-breakup crying. [My parents] live in the middle of nowhere and she just appeared out of the woods and sat next to me and, long story short, never left.” Clara was the perfect sign – it was time to move forward. She headed to Nashville, where she’s currently holed up with her pup and a guitar, contemplating her next moves.
In the midst of it all, Cf Watkins released her latest album, Babygirl, in October. She worked with producer and multi-instrumentalist Max Hart (The War On Drugs, Katy Perry, Melissa Etheridge) on the record for three years, over many trips back and forth from New York to LA, where Hart lives. They met through friends in Brooklyn; Max wanted to record some country covers and was looking for a singer. Watkins jokes that she wasn’t the brash, brassy Southern voice he’d originally envisioned, but during recording, her more subtle approach grew on him.
“That kind of connection with someone, it is almost as mystical as a romantic connection,” she says. “It’s just as rare to have a creative partnership where it just feels like you get each other. You get how to challenge each other and you get how to bring out the best in each other. We are so different in the way we think and create but it just works.”
Babygirl is all about personal connections, particularly those outside of romantic relationships, which are rarely examined in song. But there’s one outlier – “Come Around.” The song digs into feelings of inadequacy, something Watkins hesitated to bring to this album. “I felt really conflicted about putting it on the record, only because it didn’t feel like it fit with my vision for what I wanted the record to be; which was empowered,” she confesses. “That song was coming from not feeling in my power.”
The video, shot in a warehouse in North Carolina, echoes the sentiment of powerlessness. Watkins drops, seemingly from a dark sky, into nothingness. She roams quietly through empty white voids, which echo her words back at her. Griffin Hart Davis produced the music video, pulling Watkins into his world of ethereal spaces, where lighting grabs focus, allowing the audience to meditate almost solely on the focal point: Watkins herself.
“How do you feel about trampolines?” Griffin asked her before the shoot; the video was planned as a production “extra,” created in between snapping Babygirl press photos. Watkins says the challenge was to “make something beautiful with a short amount of time and a short amount of funds,” and they didn’t waste time on set. “Come Around” reveals a feeling of tenderness, a soreness to the touch; the delicate, complicated nature that anchors Cf Watkins’ music.
“I write songs when I am longing for something, for better or for worse,” she says of her work. While those themes remain pretty subtle on Babygirl, “Come Around” is more overt in its examination of love gone awry. “Come around, come around/I been to all my friends and I think things could be different if you come around, come around,” Watkins croons. “Tell me baby, what can I do?”
Her music is seemingly autobiographical, but she doesn’t agree with the label. “What is autobiographical?” Watkins muses. “It is coming through me, it’s my perspective of it. It is how it made me feel. When are you playing a character and when are you not playing a character? Sometimes I feel like in my day-to-day life I’m playing more of a character than when I’m performing. I definitely play certain roles in my friend group, at my day job. It’s almost harder to divorce yourself from the characters we play in our daily life so that you can actually be more honest in the music.”
Watkins grew up running around back woods in North Carolina, humming music to herself as she whizzed past pine trees. The landscape, wild and rural, shaped her personality, and allowed her to explore identities beyond any one defined character. “A name is given to you and you put on your personality. You create a personality throughout your life to find your place in the world and in a conversation and in a friend group and in school. I’ve never really loved my name: Caitlin. I’ve never fully connected with it. I don’t feel like it reflects how I feel about myself,” Watkins says candidly. “I think, for me, Cf Watkins got be who I am when I’m, as cheesy as it sounds, my more pure self, who I am when I’m alone.”
Watkins says there’s a hidden benefit to using her initials, too. “I did appreciate the androgyny of it. I appreciated that if someone heard, ‘Have you listened to Cf Watkins?’ they wouldn’t immediately know what my gender was,” she explains. “[It] takes away that unconscious bias – which may be a reflection of my own insecurities – but I think it was also helpful to separate who I am in my day-to-day life from who I am as an artist and as a performer. It does allow me to let go of some of my insecurities and to think of it as who I am to be, rather than just who I am every day. I don’t know why names make a difference, but it does feel different.”
Watkins has been performing since her mid-teens, finally releasing her debut album, I Am New, in 2016. Though New York’s city streets inspired her, she was surprised at how much her writing bent back toward home, particularly songs on Babygirl like “Changeable,” “Dogwood,” and “Westville.” “A lot of the album came from a place of homesickness,” Watkins said. “I love New York so much – I’m so grateful for it, and it’s magical – but I do feel like a visitor in it in a lot of ways. And I think that is what makes it so beautiful. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been there – it doesn’t belong to you. It’s something that’s constantly changing and there is a comfort in that as well, but I think that moving to New York made me feel more connected to North Carolina in a way. You don’t realize that connection stays with you.”
Watkins’ songs almost never start with words. “It’s too cerebral for me then – I get too in my head and it becomes a puzzle,” she says. “Most of my songs start with a feeling.” She plays guitar until she finds something that naturally matches that feeling; she hums, recording variations of sound on the voice memos app on her phone. “Come Around” is the oldest song on the record, something Watkins feels is a reminder of progress. “It is this piece of my past. Maybe it’s helpful to see the growth – going from a person who wrote ‘Come Around’ to writing ‘Baby Girl’, the last song on the record,” she says.
She and Hart are already discussing a new record, but it’s hard to pinpoint when they’ll be able to get to work on one. For now, Watkins is trying to write without an end goal in mind; she’s returned to writing for herself, like she did when she was a young girl humming to herself in the backwoods of Carolina. Back then, the songs were just a part of intuitive therapy, a way of working through emotions. They didn’t have a finish line. She feels much the same about her current home, set in a strange city where she knows no one.
“I am here because everything else sort of just fell apart and [Nashville] is where I landed,” Watkins says. “I don’t know how long I’ll be here. I think the beautiful thing about the pandemic is, you have to be in the present moment. I feel a little anxious that [I’m] completely unable to plan for my future or to know what I want… if I want to live in Nashville or if I want to go back to New York or if I want to go to LA… I don’t know. But for now I feel grateful to have a backyard.”