Jennifer Nettles, the charismatic Sugarland singer with a brand new solo album titled That Girl, is just as chatty as you’d expect. Just a few seconds after settling into a comfy couch inside the CMT offices in Nashville, her eyes are wide open and she’s ready to roll.
That’s because there’s a lot of ground to cover. In the first half of an interview with CMT.com, she explains her anxiety about her recording sessions in Malibu, Calif., with producer Rick Rubin, as well as the inspirations behind new songs like “Falling,” “Me Without You” and “Thank You.”
In the second half of the conversation, which will be published Saturday, she explains her approach to singing loud (or not), her solo tour and the possibility of a Sugarland reunion.
CMT: What do you remember about the first day you started making the new record?
Nettles: I was a nervous wreck because it was the first time I had been in the studio as a mom, and I had a 5-month-old at the time. My husband and I had uprooted our little familial unit from Nashville and gone to California. That, in and of itself, was scary. You think about, “How’s Magnus going to react? Is anybody going to get any sleep? Am I going to be able to do this?” …
We had a nursery set up in the studio, so whenever Magnus got hungry, my mom or my husband would come get me and say, “Hey, I think he’s ready.” I would take off the headphones and put on the baby and feed him and spend a little bit of time with him. Then I’d go back and get in the cave again. It all worked out.
“Falling” is a beautiful way to kick off the record, with its ebb and flow.
Thank you. It’s always so hard to pick out the first song! … I have the context of the album, and I want the first song to be a representation of the songwriting and stylistically — the vocals and emotion that people can expect. So it’s always like, “OK, which song is going to be the one for people to [understand], ‘All right, here’s the album.’” You want to pull people in. Do you feel like it does that?
Yeah, but you’ve mastered of art of anticipation in your music, especially in Sugarland. You have those moments of suspense, add a few more layers and then …
Boom! There you go. Yeah, I love that.
“Falling” does that, too. Is that story something that’s based on your own life?
No, I wrote that song in a way I’ve never written before. I have a friend, Sally Taylor, who’s doing an art project called ConSenses. That project is like an artistic game of Gossip or Telephone, where a photograph gets sent to a songwriter, and a songwriter writes a song inspired by the photograph.
Then only the song gets sent on to a painter, and the painter paints to the song only — and paints a painting based on that inspiration. So we’re going to see what it is at the end. What is the emotional impact of that one photograph?
She asked me if I wanted to participate, and I said, “Sure, I’ve never done anything like that before.” For this whole project, that’s sort of been my motto: “Sure, why not try it?”
You weren’t the first link in that chain. So when they line it up …
I’ll be second. Yeah, and I’ve since seen the painting, and it’s pretty freaky. It’s a painting of a woman, and it looks like my mother did at 20. It really kind of freaks me out! I’m thinking, “Whoa! How did this come through? How did that happen?” It’s really cool.
The song “Me Without You” surprised me. I thought it would be a breakup song where you feel sad about it, but actually, it’s a reminder that breaking up can be a good thing.
Yes! It might be “hard to do” — quote-unquote — but it could end up being the best thing for us. I think a lot of times we find that when we change and get out of a relationship that’s unhealthy, we realize that we stayed too long in the first place. “Why didn’t I do this sooner?” Fear, a lot of times, keeps us in situations from which we should’ve already left.
But once we do leave, and we release that fear, then the empowering emotions come. “Wait a minute, I like this! I like being able to make my choices.” I love that line in the second verse: “What do I want to do?” Wow, I’ve never asked myself that before! “What do I want to do?” Amazing! So I love that song for that, and a lot of people connect with that song when I’ve been out on a radio tour and performed it live for fans.
I’ve heard you sing “Thank You,” and I thought it was a wonderful song because it isn’t ironic or sarcastic. It’s straight-ahead gratitude.
Simple gratitude. Even from a lyric standpoint, it’s very simple. And I wanted that. I was going through a writing phase at the time where I was interested in exploring the core nuggets of human emotion. We’ve got love, we’ve got anger, we’ve got jealousy, we’ve got gratitude.
Phillip Sweet from Little Big Town … had this guitar riff that he had been playing with, and he said, “What do you think of this?” And I said, “I want this to be the gratitude song! Let’s write that.” It was one that came really, really quickly. To me, it sounds like something that would be played at a wedding or a graduation or any of those moments where you feel extreme gratitude within a rite of passage or entering into a new chapter.
Who were you most eager to play the song for when you were done with it?
For me, first and foremost, I think about my husband. I think about my family and my mom. Those core, inner-circle support systems are so important and definitely what I feel the most grateful for, absolutely.See exclusive interviews with Jennifer Nettles on her CMT artist page.