JENNIFER NETTLES: What Inspires Her

"I was talking to Gail, my manager, about coming over here," says Sugarland's sparkling frontwoman Jennifer Nettles of the decision to tour Europe, "and she's like, ‘You know, lots of people are afraid to try... to go over there and play to smaller crowds, for people who don't really know who you are...'"

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“I was talking to Gail, my manager, about coming over here,” says Sugarland’s sparkling frontwoman Jennifer Nettles of the decision to tour Europe, “and she’s like, ‘You know, lots of people are afraid to try… to go over there and play to smaller crowds, for people who don’t really know who you are…'”



















“I was talking to Gail, my manager, about coming over here,” says Sugarland’s sparkling frontwoman Jennifer Nettles of the decision to tour Europe, “and she’s like, ‘You know, lots of people are afraid to try… to go over there and play to smaller crowds, for people who don’t really know who you are…'”

Her voice trails off, lost in the incomprehension of safety versus adventure. To the Georgia girl, it’s the thrill of the unknown that is far more appealing than any formula or secure footing. For she and partner Kristian Bush, Sugarland began as a songwriting experiment and quickly evolved into one great big exploration.

“I knew I loved writing and singing,” says the Grammy-winning songwriter of the decision to try country music after releasing solo albums that were far more torch than twang. “Kristian comes from Tennessee and the Appalachian/folk/bluegrass place, while I’m a South Georgia girl raised on gospel/swamp/blues-and we met in the middle, in Atlanta, which was such a wild place where they weren’t set up to do country music.”

It’s a little after 2 p.m. in Edinburgh, Scotland. Soundcheck is underway, but Nettles has snuck off to talk about influences, hope, and the notion music is so much more than its tags. “We’re in a format for marketing reasons,” Nettles says candidly, but not crassly. “It’s a double-edged sword because it’s a path of extreme learning, getting your foot in the door-and then you get to figure out how to expand and grow in ways that show who we are in the places from where we came.”

With plinging mandolin sounds, the guttural vocals that shake with emotion, electric solos that burn and twist more than twang, the acoustic guitars so bright they’re practically sunshine, Sugarland’s roots foundation and patina of Southern California jangle add up to a country that’s fresh and modern, but also far more organic than much of the Celine Dion-esqueries passing for country.

And that upbeat musical embrace is matched by an irrepressible lyrical bent. With the free-spirited “Something More,” the jettisoning “Settlin'” and the ramshackle tipping point of “Want To,” not to mention the jubilant surrender of “Make Me Believe” and the wide-eyed hope of “Baby Girl,” Sugarland’s first two albums found a way to make the positive uplifting without being frothy.

“The emotionally, intellectual elite… they love the darkness,” Nettles admits. “And I do too, ‘cause it’s always easier to go to a dark place and work out all those dark emotions. That’s what you do: sit and go inside to try and untangle it.

“But, to me, it’s much more revolutionary and rebellious to be happy! It’s more challenging to get to that triumphant, joyous place-and not in a frou frou, dumb way, but something that’s more intelligent! In life, I’m very much a boot-strapper. I don’t have time for whiners who wanna sit around and feel sorry for themselves. In my 20s, I had my Messiah complex, my ‘how I got here and how hard it is.’ I was trying on being mad, power, pain-all that stuff. But as you travel-not just Europe, but Central America where you see war and true, true poverty, you realize how blessed we are. In those places, people still find ways to have joy through all of that. That inspires me… getting to that.”

Nettles has a gift for finding the sunbeam in the vacuum. On the band’s latest album, Love on the Inside, Nettles and Bush veer between euphoria on “We Run” to erotic playfulness on “All I Wanna Do,” and even the mother-of-pearl endings of “Already Gone” demonstrate silver linings and melodies that lift you up.

“Somebody’s gotta give people a connection point to this part of life,” Nettles laughs. “Not only is it not frivolous, it’s necessary… because the darkness is gonna be there; it’s gonna come. In the middle of the night, there’ll be that phone call that’ll drop you to your knees.”

Nettles understands how to harness “harrowing.” For all her bright ‘n’ shiny, last year Sugarland topped the country charts with the staggeringly raw and minimal “Stay,” a song of sobering clarity from the point of “the other woman.” In spite of the track’s austerity, an oddity in the high-gloss world of modern country, it struck a nerve.

“I’m grateful Luke [Lewis, her label’s chairman] had the balls to say, ‘Let’s just try it…’ because there was trepidation about both the content and the instrumentation. But there are only a few times in a career when you truly can tap into something that hits on that many planes. Initially, there were people saying it glorified ‘the mistress,’ but really it’s so much more. Thank God, it’s not my story, but I know the emotion behind it. It’s funny: it’s one thing to hurt, it’s another to disappoint or hurt other people-and it’s not easy to tell somebody something shitty.

“That’s the thing about ‘Stay.’ It’s shitty for her. It’s shitty for him. But in the truth, good is gonna come. We are flawed–and we know we’re flawed. We have issues, but it is how we work through them, what we learn, and how we grow.”

Half a world away, Jennifer Nettles doesn’t sound philosophical, but willing to take life on its terms. After ten years of punching it out in bars–“performing my songs for people who didn’t give a shit, which is a great background ‘cause it really teaches what connects”–she is relishing every moment, every experience, every surprise.

Having sold out London’s legendary Shepherd’s Bush Empire and been asked to be part of “Abbey Road,” a British TV series taped at the famed studio in part to honor the 30th anniversary of the Beatles’ album of the same name, this is beyond what Nettles had hoped when she started trekking to Nashville with Bush.

“My goal has always been–from the very beginning–do whatever I can do, with integrity, to make music and writing the way I make my living…and to take it as far as it can go artistically and professionally. There’s a tremendous amount of joy in it, even the wondering what it can be, what that experience would feel like.

“We got to play some stadium shows with Kenny Chesney–and we know what that feels like. But, you know, I’d like to know what it would feel like if it was us selling that stadium out, what that experience would be… all those people there for us.”

She practically twinkles as she says this. Jennifer Nettles reaching high and dreaming big. Unlikely CMA Entertainer of the Year nominee in some ways, and yet, as a vagabond roots musician, calling Nashville–with its songwriters and pickers–home seems like just the kind of fit that suits her.


5 Comments

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  1. omg!! the last lines were beautiful, it brought me tears, i love love LOVE jennifer nettles and sugarland! it was awesome to see them in france

  2. i have been waiting for sugarland to come to ireland. their latest cd is the best i have bought and ive even bought it for friends who are now hooked as well. jennifer has a powerful voice and you can connect with every word she sings. more europe please / one of the best if not the nest this decade

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