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Kristian Bush of Sugarland

When we spoke with Jennifer Nettles in 2010, she said of writing with Sugarland:

We're not out to make a statement, but we are out to send a message, and that is our view of life. I think it's quite subversive.

Her partner in subversive but irresistible songwriting is Kristian Bush, the Dave Stewart to her Annie Lennox minus the messy romantic relationship.

This isn't Bush's first popular duo either - he previously played in Billy Pilgrim (named after the protagonist in the 1969 Kurt Vonnegut novel, Slaughterhouse Five) with Andrew Hyra. They released two major label albums, Billy Pilgrim and Bloom, as well as a slew of independent releases. Bush's partner, Hyra, is Meg Ryan's brother, and the act received financial help from none other than Indigo Girl Amy Ray back when they were just getting off the ground in 1992.

Nettles' pre-Sugarland life involved time in an act called Soul Miner's Daughter, and also the Jennifer Nettles Band, which played the 1999 Lilith Fair.

Sugarland got its start in 2003 as a trio that also included Kristen Hall, in addition to Nettles and Bush. Hall left the group in December of 2005, which trimmed them down to a duo. Sugarland was nominated for Best New Artist at the 2006 Grammy Awards, and continues to be one of the most successful acts in country music, with every studio album going platinum.

As songwriters, Nettles has more of a gospel influence on her style, represented by "Shine the Light." For songs like that one, she draws upon her time growing up a Southern Baptist. Nettles also enjoys pop music and is not afraid to throw, say, a Blondie song into a Sugarland live show, whereas Bush might be a little closer to rock, folk and country music. He grew up at the base of the Smoky Mountains, which is Dolly Parton country, and quickly became smitten by some of the more edgy alternative folk and rock music going on in Georgia, namely artists like R.E.M. and Indigo Girls. It was Bush, after all, who introduced Nettles to the music of Steve Earle before they wrote the song named after him - a song he tells us Earle is very unlikely to hear.

When we spoke with Kristian, he had just released his first solo single, "Love or Money," which he wrote with Matt Thiessen from the pop-punk band Relient K and Jeff Cohen, a music business executive who also dabbles in songwriting.

Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): I want to jump right in and talk about your new single, your debut solo single, which sounds a little funny to say coming from such a veteran like yourself. You wrote "Love or Money" with Matt Thiessen from Relient K, and I'm curious, how did you connect with him?

Kristian Bush: Actually, there was another cowriter on the song, too. We connected through that man, his name is Jeff Cohen. And I don't know if you know Jeff Cohen, but he was an executive at BMI in 1993 when I signed to Atlantic Records. It turns out he was a closet songwriter, and he didn't want to tell anybody, because he was afraid that since he was representing them all, he just couldn't do that. So many years later we reconnected, and he ended up writing a hit single for a band that I had just finished producing. We connected again like 10 years after that and we've stayed good friends ever since.

He called me and he said, "Hey, man, do you want to write with Matt?" I said, "I don't know who Matt is." [Laughs] He said, "Well, this is his name," and I type it into the computer and see what Wikipedia tells me. And I was like, "Okay, that sounds fun."

I knew about Relient K, I just didn't know much about their music or their songs. But I did know some of the Katy Perry stuff that he'd worked on and I knew some of the Owl City stuff. I said, "All right. Let's go."

We met sight unseen. I'm from Atlanta and he's from Nashville, so I said, "How long have you lived in Nashville?" He goes, "Oh, I just came here two or three months ago." And I said, "Well, why did you come? Did you come for love or money?" And I realized, "Holy, crap, we've got to write that song." We all kind of laughed and he looked at me like I was some sort of weird savant. Then we wrote that song very quickly. It didn't take us more than 45 minutes.

Songfacts: No kidding. Wow.

Kristian: It was one of those cool things. I think about all these weird belief systems that surround songwriting, and one of them is when you write with another person, that your mix of energy is what creates that song. You could never write that song with anybody else. Because of the nature of what it is.

Songfacts: Would you write with him again?

Kristian: Oh yeah. We wrote two songs that day. And as is my habit, we write a song inside of another song. But I would do it in a heartbeat.

Songfacts: Is this the beginnings of a solo album or is this just because it's what you do?

Kristian: Well, the answer's yes to both, probably. This is just what I do. I'm clocking a bunch of songs a year right now. I'm on a little bit of a jag or a bender at the moment. I guess the only way to really rate this is maybe by volume. Last year was 80 songs, 85 songs. And I'm 40 something in already and we're only to April. Something's going on and I'm feeling free to just continue. I don't know what it is. Either I'm on a better lyrical move or I have less self consciousness. I don't really know what's happening, but whatever it is, I'm just kind of going with it, and the people around me are like, "Great! Cool!" The poor guys that help me in my studio are like, "Jeez, man, we need a file system."

Songfacts: That's a good problem to have, isn't it?

Kristian: Totally. And the fun thing is that you'd think with that many songs, there'd be a whole bunch that would be terrible. You sort through the terrible and just let the really good ones bubble up. But they're not terrible. I think the quality's gone up. It feels like a muscle that you've been training for a while. Maybe the break off of the road has been doing that.

Songfacts: Well, one of our writers talked to Jennifer Nettles about Sugarland songs, but there were some that we missed or she didn't get to. I was hoping you wouldn't mind talking about a few of those songs, as well.

Kristian: Sure.

Songfacts: The one song that I love is "Stay." And I'm curious, is that based on a true story?

Kristian: Well, I'm not really going to be qualified to talk to you about that as a writer, because Jennifer wrote that one by herself. I can tell you the story of when I discovered it.

She had written it, and had for some reason she'd sort of squirreled it away, like she didn't think it was very good. She gave me a copy of it one day and I listened to it. We were getting ready to make our second record, and what I had learned at that point with country albums is that there really isn't a lot of space for more than maybe one ballad on a commercial hit record. I don't think you're going to get everyone's attention if you split it up between multiple ballads.

We were listening to the song and I was like, "Man, this is great." And it was completely a five minute song. And I was like, "Oh, we can do this." So we went into the studio, and it was on my docket. I kind of insisted on it. And it excited her, because neither of us had put a song on our record that either one of us wrote by ourselves. It was kind of fun. She's a great writer, and people didn't really know that, they just associated her with singing, because they didn't really know her previous career. It was fun to help her redefine that for herself.

We recorded that maybe three different ways. We did like a Black Crowes version of that song, we did an orchestra version of that song, we did like a "River Deep, Mountain High" version, because it's such a huge chorus - it's got this soaring vocal.

I'm very much a producer as well as a songwriter, so I kept trying to make it work, and it just wasn't as good as what happened when the two of us just sat down and played it. Pretty soon we were like, Okay, forget it. Let's just the two of us play it. I said, "Well, if we do this, it might never go on the radio, because radio will probably never take an acoustic song that's five minutes long."

But we decided that you serve the song, you don't serve the radio. And sure enough, as fate has it, they ended up playing it on the radio and it was a big old hit song.

Songfacts: How about that.

Kristian: I love it.

Songfacts: Speaking of the radio, I heard the song, "It Happens," the other day while I was driving. And I thought, "I wonder if you guys were concerned that maybe radio might have a problem with that song, just because you have a little bit of fun with the language on it. [The title is a play on the phrase "shit happens."]

Kristian: [Laughing] Yeah. Well, it's a long line of songs that I can trace back to Roger Miller, you know. Country music allows that. I think you just have to do it with some intelligence, and with some attitude. The song can't take itself too seriously, and that's totally one of those.

Songfacts: Was there any resistance to it when it came out?

Kristian: Actually, no. There were people trying to make that the first single and they just waited long enough to make it the second or the third.

Songfacts: I'm going to ask about one more hit song, and then I want to go into some deeper cuts, if I could. Talk about "Already Gone." Is there a story behind that one?

Kristian: Absolutely. "Already Gone" started in a locker room in... I wish I could remember the city. I felt like it was in the Midwest. I was really obsessed at that time with trying to see if we could redefine ourselves, or start a new definition of ourselves as musicians. When we started this band, Jennifer put her guitar down. And I said, "Well, why don't you find a way to pick it up?" I was really obsessed with the Faces and old Rod Stewart records, so I wanted mandolins and 12-strings - I wanted to write a song that way.

We started talking about how if you have a song in 6/8 that if you choose to do one, then you've got to punch your card, much like it's Starbucks. You can't do more than one of them, so make it good. We decided, well, this will be the song we write in 6.

It's very much a story. And it's a story that was close to Jennifer at the time, but was also close to just about everybody we knew, that sometimes when relationships are over, they're over way after the fact - the people have actually left. They've emotionally left before they physically left. And how true that is.

There's also a convention in country songwriting that when you tell a story, you let a chorus redefine your story every time you get around to it. Or you hope to. You give it a whole new angle, or at least a little bit of a different angle. So we started writing it to tell a story, and about 2/3rds of the way through, we stopped the song, and we shelved it. When we pulled it back out, we had a cowriter, Bobby Pinson, who's a great lyricist and a great songwriter and a great artist, and we had been fans of his as an artist because he very much sings in my voice many times. He was out during that couple of weeks, so we pulled that song back out and he helped us finish it. It was this great line in the third verse about all the things that you packed up. It's this moment where, "All I've got left are the things that fit in this box." It's just a beautiful moment, and Bobby's great at that.

Songfacts: Wow. I was listening to some of your albums, and I discovered a song I had never heard by you, an earlier song called "Steve Earle." And I love Steve Earle. And I have to ask you, does Steve know about this song and has he given you any feedback about it?

Kristian: [Laughing] Before we put that out, we decided to send it to Steve, because we were both fans. We don't know him.

Where Earle and Bush crossed paths was Treasure Isle Recorders in Nashville. The studio is run by Fred Vail, who once managed The Beach Boys. Some of the studio pros they shared were Richard Bennett (guitar), Garry Tallent (bass), and Greg Morrow (drums).
In 1995, he had gotten out of jail and he came into Nashville to make a record, and I was the guy making a record the day before. I met him in the hallway, and all the players stayed in the room. He made an album called I Feel Alright, and I was making a Billy Pilgrim album called Bloom. All the players are literally the same on both records, and so is the producer [Richard Dodd]. He was just the next guy slated in.

It always felt like the Steve Earle awesome version of a record and then the Billy Pilgrim version of that time in the world. So that's all I really knew of Steven. That's how I met him. I'd heard Guitar Town before, and I'd heard Copperhead Road, but I hadn't really associated it with anything other than, "Oh, that's kind of cool." And when he re-launched, I was interested in him because he was using the same players and the same producer. And I was like, "Oh, man, when that record comes out, I've got to remember to write that guy's name down so I can listen to his record." Because how weird is it that you're using the same band the same producer, different songs. But when do you ever get that litmus test?

So I didn't think much of it and then I bought his record when it came out and I fell in love with it. I've been a fan ever since and stayed in touch with all of his releases and listened to them. I've never met him, but I was always a fan.

At some point when Jennifer and I were sitting on the bus, I said something about Steve Earle, she's like, "Who's Steve Earle?" And I was like, "Okay, hang on. We're going to go on a little journey here." You know how you do with your friends when you're trying to turn them onto a new band?

Songfacts: Absolutely.

Kristian: So I started doing that. I told her some of the anecdotes - I didn't know if were true or not, but I told her the parts of the stories I knew. And I knew that he had had multiple wives, and I knew that he had married Wife No. 1 again as Wife No. 4. There was some sort of strange little thing in there, and I loved the romantic-ness of the fact that, in my mind, you could kind of track his wives by his love songs. I loved this idea that you could listen to his albums and they're like, "Oh, man, I wonder who that one was about."

So I was telling her this, and sometimes when I tell stories, Jennifer will just be like, "Oh, tell me more, tell me more." We were laughing, and I said, "Well, then he moved to Ireland, and then he did this, and then he did that." So she was like, "This is totally a song." I was like, "Really? Okay," and I picked up a guitar and started going. I would say a line and she'd say the next line, then I'd say a line and she'd say the next line. We wrote it in about 25, 30 minutes.

We sent it to him. His manager responded to us and said, "Steve said he doesn't read any press that anyone writes about him, [long deliberate pause], and sure as shit would never listen to a song that anyone wrote about him." [Laughing]

Songfacts: So he probably hasn't heard it?

Kristian: But it's safe to say that I think he laughed. So we really don't know what he thinks. I have no idea. But it was the most fun thing I think I'd ever engaged in, because it was fun to create this whole world where this girl just wants to be another one of his wives.

Songfacts: And there's a longstanding tradition now of songs with singer's names. There's the Taylor Swift song, "Tim McGraw."

Kristian: Yeah, that's right. It's what those things mean to you.

Songfacts: I wanted to ask about the song "Joey." I love the Concrete Blonde song, and I read that your song was somehow inspired by that. Is that true?

Kristian: Well, yes and no. One of the things I loved about that Concrete Blonde song, besides her voice [Johnette Napolitano], which is haunting, is that I loved the idea of a song with someone's name in it. They're hard to get a hold of, because it's hard to make a story that's believable that puts their name in such a light that tells a story. We were writing with Whispering Bill Anderson that day, which was a really big deal for us, because he's from Decatur, Georgia, where we started our band and where we live. He was here in the '40s and '50s, so we're like the other country band to come out of this square mile. I had been wanting us to have this moment where we wrote with him - it was an experience we needed to have, and I really wanted to have it here in Atlanta. But we didn't. We wrote in Nashville and we wrote in a hotel room, because none of us had anywhere to go.

We piled into my hotel room. I said, "Well, guys, I'm really obsessed with the idea of this being a name." So as usual, when Jennifer and I write names into our songs, we have to make them up, because there's nobody in our lives that warrants those kinds of things. Joey is the name of one of my best friends here in Atlanta, so I try to put him in as many songs as possible, because I miss him so much, and I never see him, because we travel. So I put him in "Everyday America." I thought it was funny that we were putting him in this one.

Bill was teaching us to write the song backwards. He goes, "Man, I made all my money off writing songs backwards." And I was, "Oh, please tell me what that means." He goes, "Well, we start at the end. The first line should be the end of the story." And I was like, "Okay. How do we do that?" And so we started writing the song, and the end of the story is that he dies, right? And he said, "Well, let's start with the end of the story." And so we started that. And then as we got to the chorus, we were looking for a name. I was like, "Well, how about Joey?" [Laughing] Of course, Bill Anderson had no idea who Concrete Blonde is. Doesn't have any frame of reference for it. I knew that that was going on, Jennifer's looking at me like, "Is this cool?" And I'm like, "It's cool if it's a good song." And at the end, I'm always one to footnote everything. It's important to me. So I talked about it in a lot of interviews.

At the end of it, Bill turned to us and said, "Wow, there hasn't been one of these in a while." I said, "One of what?" He goes, "A teenage tragedy song." I was like, "What do you mean?" He's like "Well, they used to be really big in the '50s. Like 'Leader of the Pack.'" And he gave us historical perspective for the song we were just writing. Of course I glommed onto that like it was candy. I was like, Okay, yes. I will uphold that and I will make the music sound like that. So when you hear the song, it's supposed to be what those old songs were with the longing and the mourning of the girl that had lost her love in a car wreck.

Songfacts: I had no idea that Bill Anderson worked on that. I had a chance to talk to him years ago and just a thrill, he is just a master. And the nicest guy in the whole wide world.

Kristian: Oh, my gosh, he's the sweetest man ever.

Songfacts: Are you working on something right now?

Kristian: I took a break to talk to you. I'm writing with Tim Smith today historically from Jellyfish and Sheryl Crow and all those folks.

May 22, 2013. Get more at kristianbush.com.
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