Jennifer Nettles, one half of Grammy-winning country group Sugarland, spoke with American Songwriter about the group’s new album, The Incredible Machine, the influence of gospel on her writing, and her recent plunge into ‘80s music.
What did you do differently on this album compared to Love on the Inside?
We wanted to open up on this record and see what would happen if we didn’t feel certain pressures or constraints. We wanted to give ourselves even more freedom to write whatever we wanted, and to see what would happen with those songs that might not feel appropriate for the record, because they didn’t fit with the aesthetic or didn’t fit with the whole project.
What is the songwriting process like between you and Kristian?
There are times where we sit in the room together from the beginning and say, “Okay, let’s come up with something completely from scratch” and “Let me dig through my book of lyrics and see if there’s an idea here or there for a song.” Or, “Hey, I’ve been having this go-around in my head as a chord progression, maybe we can start here?” Or he just picks up the guitar and starts going.
Other times, the songs are worked out between each of us ahead of time and we come in and say, “Hey I’ve got this idea, this chord progression, this is the first verse and possibly the chorus.” Sometimes we bring pieces in parts, sometimes we bring ideas that are more formulated to each other, and sometimes we just sit down and have nothing and something happens. It’s different every time.
What were you listening to when you wrote the album?
We were listening to MGMT, and Phoenix, and we were both going through an ‘80s revival, listening to The Cure, Blondie, and The Pretenders.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
I think there are so many different kinds of songwriters, because there are so many different kinds of songs and there are different reasons for writing songs. Some songs are written for relief and for fun, and they’re meant to change a moment for you in your day. Others are meant to really speak to you in a way that is an emotional narrative that really touches you on a deeper level.
I’m most drawn to those singer-songwriters who touch on that very beautiful emotional point. I think Patty Griffin is a wonderful example of that type of writer. I also love what Peter Gabriel does.
The song that closes the album, “Shine The Light,” has a strong gospel influence. Are you a big gospel fan?
That was really my first big influence. I grew up in a Southern Baptist tradition and what I gleaned from that, artistically, was being able to see people sing something that they believed in. How that is translated through my own songwriting and performing is that if it doesn’t read authentic to me, then I’m not going to do it, because it doesn’t speak to me and therefore won’t speak to the audience either.
I love gospel music and I think it’s such a beautiful tradition and part of the tapestry of American music history. That song was written in my house, on a little upright piano I have had since I was a little girl. I just sat down and wrote that song there, and it was inspired by a conversation I had with Kristian. He was going through a really hard time and we were talking about how there are times when there are woods that we have to go into alone, and there are certain places that only we can go. No matter how much the people around us love us, the only thing they can do is stand at the edge and shine a light and hope that you will see it when you come into the clearing. That is what that song is about. It is a wish for a loved one, or for a friend to say, “Hey, I know you have to go through this, but I am here waiting.”