September 12, 2013

Jennifer Nettles Goes from Sugarland to Solo Star on New Album

Inspired by motherhood, Rick Rubin, '70s radio and more, the award-winning songwriter steps out on her own on That Girl

Jennifer Nettles

Jennifer Nettles
Photo by Valarie Allyn Bienas

On a recent weekend afternoon, Jennifer Nettles speaks to me by phone as she sits on her front porch swing watching her baby boy Magnus. "This is one of his favorite places, so hopefully he will be pacified while we enjoy our talking time," she says, laughing. The Grammy-winning frontwoman for the duo Sugarland is in a favorite place of her own too - on the verge of releasing her first solo album, That Girl, produced by the legendary Rick Rubin.

Nearly 10 years ago, Sugarland released their debut album, the multi-platinum selling Twice the Speed of Life, which put Nettles and her fellow Georgia musical companions on the national stage. After evolving into a dynamic duo featuring Nettles and Kristian Bush, Sugarland nabbed a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist in 2005, and then released their second album, Enjoy the Ride, in 2006. The record generated two #1 singles on the country music charts,"Want To" and "Settlin'." The follow-up album, Love on the Inside, generated three more #1 hits: "All I Want to Do," "Already Gone" and "It Happens." Then, in 2009 they won the Grammy Awards for Best Country Song and Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group. If their superstar status wasn't already official, it was then.

After releasing The Incredible Machine in 2010, Sugarland had become one of the hardest working, most successful and honored musical groups in modern music. While racking up an incredible 69 nominations for major music awards, they won 18 of them, including most notably five Academy of Country Music Awards, an American Music Award, six CMA Awards, four CMT Awards and two Grammy Awards.

As Nettles describes it, the idea of starting a family and pursuing a solo project had long been incubating. In the past year, both life events have come to fruition, and Nettles, eager to seize the day, is embracing both equally with passion and determination. Shortly before hitting the road for a radio promo tour and releasing her new album's first single, "That Girl," co-written by Nettles and longtime friend Butch Walker, she talked about the joys of recreating herself, working with Rick Rubin on her new album and what she hopes to achieve in this new chapter of her remarkable career.

This is an exciting time for you. You're a new mother but you're also giving birth to a new creative project.

Yup, a lot of creation has been going on, that's for sure (laughs).

How would you describe this phase of your life and your career?

Both family and the solo project are experiences that I've been wanting to have for quite a while. The fact that they ended up happening at the same time has actually turned out to be (while very busy) super rewarding, and probably intended by the universe on a higher, smarter level than maybe I consciously knew. It's been enriching, it's been challenging, but overall wildly rewarding. I really love that they're actually "recreation." For me, that is super super fun.

Did being pregnant and becoming a mother specifically inform any of the songs on the record?

Life is super well-rounded and everybody in the world isn't having a baby right now, so I didn't want to make a whole album of lullabies by any means. Plus I think we're all much more multi-dimensional, so while it's a strong inspiration, there are only a couple of songs on the album that were informed by that experience.

You said recently that this album will speak more to your roots. What are those roots?

When I say that I mean musically. There's a lot of country, gospel and ‘70s influence that you'll hear on this record. I was born in the ‘70s so all of that music was always on in my house. There's a lot of "singer-songwriter" on this record and that was a part of my roots from when I started playing out professionally as a musician and how I came onto the music scene in general, so you'll hear that too. There are many different echoes that you will hear on this record.

You worked with the great producer Rick Rubin on this album. How did that come together and how has was the experience?

(Laughs) You know what, as with most wonderful things in life, I think the best things come about the most simply, and it came about through a wish and a phone call. It was really that simple. Rick is someone that everyone in the music industry knows. I have been a fan of his for many, many years. I love the diversity that he has shown in his work. I thought if this could happen I would be thrilled, because I felt like this music could be something that would interest him. It was a phone call; my manager reached out and he reached back, and from that we started a dialogue. I sent him some songs that I've been working on - everything really sparse and pared down, just one instrument and my vocal. A lot of them were piano, some of them were guitar. He really was into the songs. We started chatting about them and from there we said, "Yeah, let's do this."

That's wonderful. Did he pull anything out of you creatively or push you in a way that you didn't expect to go?

Oh, absolutely. Each album, each producer and each recording experience is all going to be different. This one for me was different on a number of levels. I really wanted to explore trust on this record and if there's a producer that you're going to trust, he is going to be the one, in my opinion, to feel confident about with your songs and how they're going to turn out. There were a couple of times in the studio that Rick would say, "Okay, lets try it this way," and I would think, "Okay, this is not really how I saw this going but I'm going to try it and we'll see." Many times though I would end up thinking that I'm so glad I trusted him and went for this and checked my ego at the door as a songwriter. When you hand your songs over it's a pretty vulnerable experience and you feel compelled to protect the original vision of what you thought it would be and how you thought they would end up. However, with this experience in releasing that attachment and that control, the songs ended up being way better than I ever could have imagined.

What is the "sound" of this album?

As a songwriter, I love to both write and sing from a lot of different elements of my roots, as I mentioned. ‘70s radio, gospel, country... and so sometimes when you're keeping things interesting for yourself, you might end up having a collection of songs that doesn't feel cohesive. Rick made the album have a cohesive sound, even though the songs themselves are really diverse. I'm really glad that I trusted the process, trusted him and allowed myself to be vulnerable in that way to say, "yes, here are these songs and let's do what you want to do with them." Many times we were already on the same page but sometimes magic happened that I wasn't necessarily expecting, like when a song took a direction that I didn't envision, but he or the musicians did in the recording. The approach on this album is definitely a strength in his craft. He allows and is able to guide excellent musicians at their live performance.

He wanted these songs and this album to have a live feel, and I say over and over how much music is actually performance art. Yes, we have the technology to capture it and listen to it over and over a million times, however it is meant to be experienced live, so for me to try and capture a collection of songs that most closely resemble that live feel was pretty special. He is really good at allowing the musicians themselves to just get in there, play and be inspired instead of be perfect. That is important to me right now in music and that is something I think that all music could benefit from. Sometimes in this day and age of being able to quantize everything and Pro Tools everything and Auto-Tune everything, we take a bit of the human element out of it and by doing so it erases some of the soul.

You are such a natural singer and performer. Has songwriting always come as easy to you as your vocal gifts?

I always say I'm a singer-songwriter, in that order. I write songs because I love to sing. I write songs that I want to sing, either because they're fun in the physicality of singing them within my voice, or they feel emotional as a storyteller to sing. It has always come easy to me. Do I feel that I am as good at it? I don't know. There's a difference between creating and interpreting. Interpreting is what a singer does and I feel really confident in that. Creating is what a songwriter does and yet, in creation, there's always a third party. There's you, there's the song and then there's another element – you can call it God, you can call it spirit, muse or inspiration, whatever you want to. But there's always someone else in the room and consequently, even in your best songwriting moments, it's almost like you don't feel that you can take full credit for something, regardless of the fact that you know there is something, in my opinion, greater than just the conduit that allows a song to happen. So can I say I feel fully confident as a songwriter? I feel more confident as an interpreter than I do as a songwriter, yet I do feel confident as a songwriter. I feel like I know when it's really good. The difference is every song can't be that song (laughs) with a capital "T." It can be a lowercase "t" and they can be great, structured and emotional but those magical moments – they come maybe once an album, if you're lucky.

From an outsider's perspective, your career has seemed to be a series of one success after another. Can you describe your younger self, what music meant to you then and what you would hope to achieve? And how do you maintain a connection with that younger self?

On a conscious level I have always said the goal was to do whatever it took to continue to do what I love - to be a musician. So that could have taken the form of when I was first starting out working other jobs. However, mostly what I see it meaning now in its higher purpose is coming full circle here to this theme of recreation. That is, allowing myself as an artist to be an artist, to take those risks and allow myself to cocoon for a while. Then I'm able to emerge as something new and that does consequently foster an opportunity to continue to play music. I think for me, the younger self saying "do whatever it takes" meant also working odd jobs that didn't have a higher meaning. I couldn't do this if I couldn't recreate, because you can become a caricature of yourself. Especially as you have success you become a caricature.

Everyone wants to remember you or hear you as they remember first hearing you. It's like any other relationship, right? It's like a romance relationship, a family relationship or a friendship. It's like "Oh, I love you and you're don't change." That's not realistic; that's not how human beings are. We grow, we change, we evolve, we morph, we backtrack, we circle around and we become better. Recreation is super important so that you don't become a cartoon of yourself.

How were the songs written for the album?

I did a lot of writing – it was actually really fun in how I approached most things, in that it felt very natural and organic. There were friends with whom I wrote. I just called them up and I said, "Hey, why don't you come down and let's write?" There was an old friend, a songwriter from Atlanta, who makes an appearance and then there are some songwriters within the Nashville community that I had either written with before or hadn't written with before that I said, "Hey, let's get together and write and see what happens," or that other people had mentioned to me saying, "You know you should write with this person, you should write with that person." I just approached it very openly and sort of allowed it to happen organically, as opposed to getting into the methodical element of the "system" or the "business" of the community.

ASCAP will celebrate its 100th birthday next year. When you think of ASCAP, what do you feel?

I love the consistency and the longevity of ASCAP as it supports writers. In a time when technology continues to change the medium of music and how it is spread, shared, heard and enjoyed, the writing of the song is still the same. Period. That happens the same way and that is with human beings and inspiration. That's what ASCAP is about and that's why I think it's going to be around for a very, very long time.