Q&A: Jennifer Nettles
Jennifer Nettles didn’t live a life of leisure after she and Kristian Bush played their final show as Sugarland in Las Vegas before taking a five-year sabbatical from their chart-topping country duo. Nettles recorded several albums, appeared on Broadway and enjoyed being a mom. As she tells Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen, balancing motherhood and stardom hasn’t stopped her from nurturing her growing ambitions. Sugarland performs at Mandalay Bay on June 16.
Where are you speaking from?
I am in New York.
Are you in the midst of a publicity whirl?
Well, yes and no. I live here. I have a home here but it is definitely … as we are getting into touring time and are a month away from that, we are on a short runway now.
Are you feeling butterflies? How are you anticipating the tour coming up?
You know what? I’m actually looking forward to the tour, quite frankly, in the sense that once that rhythm starts happening things will calm down. I know that sounds counterintuitive, but the buildup and the publicity, the promo that we do before a record and before a tour starts, it’s a little bit crazy in its rhythm. The touring rhythm feels a little more balanced once it gets started.
Right, so it’s been a while but you’re about to get into that touring and playing live with Sugarland zone that you know really well, and it’s comfortable.
For sure, and also, even though yes and no (as far as) I haven’t done it in a while. Kristian and I each did a number of things over the past five years. I put out three albums and toured. He put out a couple of albums and toured, and he also produced albums for other artists and was doing a ton of writing. I was doing theater and some TV and film in addition to my own albums, so there was a lot going on in between the times. It wasn’t that we haven’t been on stage this whole time, but it is that we haven’t played this music in a while, so that is refreshing.
I couldn’t find out how extensively you toured solo.
Yeah, I did two full tours. I did a tour for That Girl and for Playing with Fire, and then I did a brief tour over the holiday season for the Christmas record that I did.
Was it strange being on tour without Kristian, at first?
No, because also we’ve been doing this long before Sugarland came around. We each had careers as musicians for 10 years before Sugarland happened. We’ve done this apart and we’ve done it together, and we’ve done it apart again and we’re doing it together again. One of the things we have found and I think learned in all this is there are things that we can do together in Sugarland that we can’t do on our own and there are things we can’t do together in Sugarland, and that’s a beautiful place to get to in the arc of a career.
Kristian could not have been on stage for you in Chicago. That would not have worked out for you very well.
That would not have worked out, unless he did want to play one of the other roles. That could’ve been fun.
So this morning I was the 1,768,207th person to listen to “Babe” on Spotify.
Al-right! Were you? Very fun. Good to know.
I understand you don’t like to stay very cognizant of the charts, but are you going to be checking them out next week to see how it’s doing?
Well, you understand correctly. We got some good advice early on, which was to not watch the charts but to get out there and do what you do and do it well. Yeah, check in every now and then but don’t get too crazy about it. Although I will say where this song is concerned it has been a ton of fun just watching and hearing about the success that it’s already having and watching, most of all, the excitement from the fans and how they are sharing about it, and what they are sharing about it and how much they are sharing about it.
What kind of feedback are they giving you? There’s chatter that the song is bringing Taylor Swift back to her country roots.
Which is so funny. You know, the wonderful thing about Taylor is that she has such good will and is so loved within the country community that in many ways she has never left. So I don’t know that you can come back if you’ve never left, and I feel also that her writing transcends genre. So she can write a song and it can be a pop song depending on how it’s produced. It can be a country song depending on how it’s produced and who sings it. I find it exciting that the fans are hearing this and they are loving it in ways that they remember having loved her when she was only doing country, but at the same time I feel that she is so beloved in this community that … she never really left.
She wrote that with Pat Monahan, and Kristian’s brother Brandon, who has toured with Sugarland, is a former member of Monahan’s band Train. Did the two degrees of separation factor into doing that song or was it strictly a gift from Taylor?
No, it was strictly a gift from Taylor because at the time she gifted it to us and presented it to us we didn’t know that Pat was a co-writer on it. We just took the song at face value and loved it for what it was, and for the fact that she is also a Sugarland fan. We started out around the same time, except she was 15 and um, I was not 15 (laughs), but … she had been a fan and was super-excited that we were getting back together and said, “Hey, here’s this song that I think you guys would be great on, and what do you think?” We had never put a song by another writer on our albums before. We love writing. We love that part of the process, so let’s listen to it. First of all, we don’t want to mess it up. Let’s listen to it and see if we can do a good job on it, and then let’s record it and make sure she likes what we would do on it. So we did all those things and we loved it, and sent it her way. She loved it, and loved it so much she wanted to be part of it so she’s also singing on it.
You talked up “Babe” in Vegas Sunday night for the American Country Music Awards. How was your ACM experience this year? Did it give you a chance to measure how much anticipation there was for the reunion record and tour?
We had a great time at the ACMs, and it was our first time back in terms of walking the red carpet together for the first time in five years, so it was nice to be able to be back and, yes, to read everyone’s reaction. Everybody was super-excited and everybody seems really interested in the new material, so that makes us happy.
You shared the podium with Reba McEntire. I could imagine her singing “Stay” easily. Was she a primary influence on you?
Oh, absolutely. Look, she is one of my heroes and one of my mentors, and I’m happy to say one of my friends. And even from the song “Stay,” it was actually inspired by my having listened to her song, “Whoever’s in New England,” that song being about a guy who goes on his business trips and she’s there left at home. And when I listened to it I thought, “Well, this is a classic country song, a classic tale of betrayal, but there are three people in this story and none of them can be happy, or else they wouldn’t be there. And so I thought, “Let me tell the other side of the story.” So her song actually inspired “Stay” but I would love to hear her sing “Stay.” Are you kidding? That would be amazing.
You and Kristian played your final Sugarland show together in Las Vegas at Mandalay Beach before your hiatus.
Yes we did. Yes we did.
Life is a blur for performers on tour, but did that last concert stick with you? What do you recall about it?
Oh, it did stick with me big time. Number one: because I was pregnant. I remember the whole show. I remember how it felt, because obviously we knew that we were about to take a break. Everybody knew that I was going to have a baby but we hadn’t announced yet that we were going to take an actual career break too, to do other things outside of Sugarland. So it was a bittersweet moment. There were tears that night, for sure.
How is touring as a mom different for you?
(laughs) Everything is different now. Touring is different, life is different. Everything is different. I’m happy to be able to bring Magnus with me. I couldn’t do it if I weren’t able to. So he’ll be out and about this summer with me on the road. It’s fun, because there are superheroes and dinosaurs everywhere, all over the bus. It’s a fun energy to have around.
Were you surprised that the (new Sugarland) songs came so fast, or was that business as usual?
We’ve done this for so long together that we were very pleased to see that we still had that quick rhythm with each other, that we’re able to hear each other and just go. Even for us, we were both pleasantly shocked with how quickly we wrote the album, in like nine days, and we recorded it in four. I think it’s a testimony not only to Kristian’s pre-production skills that he has and what he brought in from a track standpoint as a writer, but also we had a lot to say. We were ready to say it, and so things came efficiently and quickly.
Is your Broadway experience as Roxie Hart in Chicago influencing your approach to performing? Will fans see you pull some fancy new moves on the Still the Same Tour?
(laughs) Well, I’ve always been pretty dance-y and active, but I like to think, sure, that maybe there will be some new influence that you will see there on stage.
What did you learn from your solo work in general, and Rick Rubin in particular, that you were able to bring to the studio for Sugarland?
What a treasure, what a gift to be able to work with him, for sure. He is fantastic and one of the most highly acclaimed, and rightfully so, producers working right now. What I learned from that is the parts of myself that I bring to Sugarland that are specifically me. And, just as I said, I learned that there are things we can do in Sugarland that we can’t do alone, and there are things we can do alone that we can’t do in Sugarland. I learned more about that. I learned more as a storyteller and a writer, both in terms of the records I’d made and the people with whom I work, and even the time on the stage. As a songwriter, and as a singer-songwriter, you basically have three minutes to tell a story, to create a character, to introduce a character and have an arc of a story, and tie a bow around it with some resolution. When you are on stage playing a role, or when you doing TV and film acting, you get a much longer time and a much more detailed relationship with a character. You get to explore them for a much longer amount of time than those three minutes. So I learned a lot in that way. I think it was very helpful as a performer, as an interpreter and as a storyteller.
Do you have plans beyond September for either Sugarland or solo work? A return to the stage? American Idol? Film?
Oh my. You know, I would love to do more of everything, so it’s just a matter of time and timing for this record. We have been so pleased with the reaction from the fans, and if they continue to show us they want more, well, we will give them more. At the same time I know we have enjoyed some of the work that we’ve been doing. I know that definitely I have in terms of acting and stage. So I continue to nurture those relationships and hope to be able to do it all. I want it all.