LOS ANGELES — Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush have all the traits of a veteran duo. They finish each other’s sentences, laugh at each other’s jokes and know each other’s darkest secrets.
It’s a good thing for Sugarland fans that Nettles and Bush know each other just as well musically. On Enjoy the Ride — their first album since the departure of fellow founding member Kristen Hall — they’re out to prove their songwriting skills. Nettles and Bush co-wrote every track on the 11-cut CD, including the album’s kickoff single, “Want To,” which sits at No. 4 on Billboard‘s country singles chart. The cleverly-written tune drips with sexual anticipation like dew off a honeysuckle vine.
Other cuts on the record tackle the perils and pleasures of small-town life, including “Settlin’,” “County Line” and “Everyday America.” The lyrics also address Hall’s departure somewhat abstractly in “These Are the Days,” a love song that the duo admit could double as their new professional battle cry.
Taking time before their recent show with Brooks & Dunn at the Gibson Amphitheater in Los Angeles, Nettles and Bush were almost giddy to talk about their new album and to explain how they’re trying to hold on as their wild ride continues.
CMT: How happy are you to finally get the new music out?
Nettles: Thrilled, ecstatic! With the first record, you didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know what to expect … he didn’t know what to expect. It’s your first record. You had two years to both write and record these songs and perform them, as well, but yet you don’t know how it’s going to be received once the record is put out there. … The [first] record, we know how it has done. I feel confident from the extent [that] not only did we just have one hit single, “Baby Girl,” but we had really four singles. So I don’t feel any sort of pressure as far as, “Ooh, this was a one-hit wonder sort of thing.” I feel like we have a fan base, a core fan group, and consequently, I’m excited to give this record to them and hopefully gain more fans.
When you have that kind of success, does that put extra pressure on you when people think, “The first album was so good. Can they follow it up?”
Nettles: We expect a lot out of ourselves. We work really hard, and we share a deep work ethic. So it’s more about proving it to ourselves than it is to proving it to anybody else.
Bush: But the intimidation factor wasn’t really as great. This is really more like a second first record than a second album. Does that make sense?
Nettles: I can’t give this whole sophomore curse any energy because once we wrote the first song, I was like, “We’re going to be fine. We can do this.”
There are several songs on the album that talk about small-town life. In all this whirlwind of success, how hard was it for you to get in touch with that small town world you sing about on “Settlin'” and “Everyday America”?
Nettles: First of all, we made a conscious pact that we were not going to write the consummate second album which usually has to do with somehow touring on the road.
Bush: Those albums have written, and they have been done so well that we didn’t need to do it.
Nettles: We made a conscience decision not to go in that direction and write in other parts of what we know and where we came from and what we still see. The human experience is pretty universal. If you write from that human experience — as opposed to your microcosmic day-to-day experience and your job — then you have a wealth of emotion to pull from.
“These Are the Days” could be a love story between a couple, but it sounds like it could also be your theme song with lines like, “You’ve got to stand tall when they’re standing in line just to watch us fall.” Was that a reaction to going from a trio to a duo and going out on your own after the departure of Kristen Hall?
Nettles: I think it was more a tribute to the relationship that we do have now and the relationship that we are growing into both professionally and as friends on stage and off stage. I love that line in it. Absolutely. We did feel at that moment a lot of eyes were on us questioning, “Well, what’s going to happen here with this?”
In that moment, it would have been easy for both of you to say, “That was great. Things are changing, so let’s go do our separate things.” What is it about this partnership that made you want to continue even without Kristen?
Nettles: We love what we do. We have a deep respect for each other. I recognized, and Kristian does as well, the different strengths that we bring to the table. We sort of have yours, mine and ours, and our strengths are complementary of each other. And where our strengths overlap is only, I think, a springboard really to catapult us even further. So, to me, you have that moment like in “Want To” where you decide should you continue on this path together or should you part and be happy for each other? I feel like I am where I’m supposed to be.
Speaking of “Want To,” both the song and the music video are pretty sexy. How was it shooting the shower scene in the video?
Nettles: You know what? As far as the actual moment of filming it, there were times it was intimidating.
Bush: There were times when I got embarrassed! I was sitting there looking at the little screen, and Jennifer was like, “Is everything OK?” I’m like, “Yeah it’s fine,” from the other room looking at the screen. And all of sudden, like, I get red. I just got embarrassed.
Nettles: But I think it’s artistically done and tastefully done. There were different treatments that were given that followed a little bit more of a literal story line, and then we got this one from Shaun Silva. I wanted to up our game as far as visually as what it looked like and show a different side of myself, too. You know, you go from “Baby Girl,” which is great, but it has its own vibe about it. This is the second record and, you know, I’m [portraying] a 25-year-old woman.
Bush: “Baby Girl” grew up! (laughs) “Baby Girl” grew up, and we wrote “Want To.” The band has to grow up, and fans want that.
And who can’t relate to that feeling of not wanting to be the first one to jump into a relationship?
Bush: Oh, the tension of sitting there and looking at somebody … going, “Should we kiss?”
Nettles: Oh, that moment is almost better than the actual release of kissing, I have to tell you! This is really personal. I can’t believe I said that out loud.
You have been on the road with Kenny Chesney and Brooks & Dunn on really big tours that are playing to a lot of folks. How has the live show changed for you since your first album was so successful?
Nettles: We’ve gone from being the first opener.
Bush: While you get your beer.
Nettles: The “while-you-get-your-beer” band to now.
Bush: We’re the “while-you-drink-your-beer’ band!
Nettles: Now we have a whole 50 minutes.
Bush: Yeah, we almost get an hour now. So people can find out what you can do and how we perform, and you can take them on a ride.
Nettles: It’s cool because all these different artists have different kinds of country music fans. So we’ve been able to get in front of all of them, and hopefully, all want to be Sugarland fans. We welcome them into the family.
In the beginning, you had certain goals, and one of those was balancing your family lives with a professional life. How’s that working?
Nettles: We haven’t done too well on that one.
Bush: It’s been tipped a little bit. We know there’s balance. We see it when we swing by.
Nettles: I was talking to a doctor just this past week, and he was saying he had chosen to go into radiology. Originally, he was on the surgery track. He said because being a surgeon is a life decision … and to do it well, you have to work like crazy … over 100 hours a week. You can’t really have a family life. And I was thinking, “‘Hmmm, we’re surgeons!'” (laughs)
You spend so much time together out on the road, you must get to know each other very well. Kristian, what’s one thing about Jennifer that most people don’t know?
Bush: Well, OK, she’s a picker. She picks scabs and zits.
Nettles: I’m a picker. I’m a biter.
Bush: She’s a biter. She will bite you. Watch!
Nettles: Wait! Let me show you this. This right here on your body. (She pulls skin on Bush’s elbow.) This has no feeling. You could bite this as hard as you want to and nothing happens. And check it out. (Nettles bites his elbow.) I mean, that’s hard. Look, teeth marks!
Bush: She grooms.
Nettles: I like smells. I like body odor. I really dig it! I can’t stand it. … I’m a dirty hippie!
Anytime I’ve interviewed you, Jennifer, I never know what you’re going to say. In Las Vegas last year on the red carpet at the ACM Awards, I asked how you were doing, and you said, “My pits are sweating.” What’s the most outrageous thing you’ve ever said in public?
Nettles: In public? That’s a hard one.
Bush: It’s always like a cat tumbling down the stairs. It’s like blllluuuuurrrrr, and suddenly she lands on her feet. Whatever it is she says, it’s always extremely charming at the end, and somehow I like her more, you know?