Songwriter Interviews

Kristian Bush

by Greg Prato

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He danced on Yo Gabba Gabba! with Sugarland, but his bucket list moment was writing the theme song for a different show - one he didn't expect.

The last time Songfacts spoke to Sugarland's Kristian Bush, the year was 2013, and he had just issued his first-ever solo single, "Love or Money." Since then, a lot has happened to the singer/guitarist/songwriter: he has released three solo albums, wrote the theme song to Say Yes to the Dress, and collaborated with a number of other artists, including Lindsay Ell, Matt Nathanson, and Tyler Farr.

In 2018, shortly before this interview took place, Sugarland reunited after a multi-year hiatus and delivered their sixth studio album, Bigger. Here, Bush talks about some key moments in his solo career and as part of Sugarland, including an early track from when they were a trio. He also explains why a Peter Gabriel song found its way into their setlists.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): How do you approach songwriting for a solo project compared to Sugarland?

Kristian Bush: Many times, my solo stuff sounds like Sugarland with me singing! And that has its own corners to it, because only Jennifer [Nettles, Sugarland's singer] and I know the DNA of the songs that we make. But what's beautiful is there have been a couple of solo records on each side of our world, and another Sugarland record where you can see it all come back together, so you can kind of piece and part it.

The difference is based on how you hear my voice. I have a character voice, and I use it in a different way, so those songs feel more character-driven. As a man, I have a little bit of a busted-up, Paul Westerberg-y voice. I can get away with some things.

Geez, you know, I don't think there is a lot of difference! I just think it's me singing. That's the interesting reality. It might be a little more "rock and roll" in the Kristian Bush world. One out of every six songs in Sugarland could have been a Foo Fighters song, but one out of three in my world probably could have been.

Songfacts: Does working with other artists affect or influence your songwriting for your solo projects or Sugarland?

Bush: Absolutely. I like to think that the time in which I work with someone is influenced by the things I am currently into. When I started this Lindsay Ell record, everything was groove-based, so the next four or five artists that I worked with, they were like, "What kind of song will you write today?" And I'm like, "I don't know... but it has this groove!"

So, I kind of get on a jag. It's like people who like a certain restaurant or a certain food, and you decide, "This month, I can't get enough pickles or pizza or whatever," and you can't help but let that influence you.

I got into Stranger Things with my daughter, and suddenly I'm putting '80s synths on everything. I think that's OK. That's life. I love how artists influence each other. I think it's one of the great joys: Byron and Shelley pushing on each other a million-bazillion years ago. I get around Ellis Paul, and I start writing folk songs.

Songfacts: Who are some of your favorite songwriters?

Bush: Besides legendary folks, which would be Tom Waits, Paul Simon, David Byrne, I'm a huge Paul Westerberg fan, I love that music. I'm a big Bruce Springsteen fan, as a songwriter. I love the way he develops characters.

But at the same time, I'm also kind of a super fan of Yaz - simple melodies that never give up on me. Or Stevie Wonder.

Some of my co-writers I'm a huge fan of. I love Bob DiPiero - he's an amazing songwriter. I love Paul Overstreet. They are people who are taking this craft to a new level, and I love that. It excites me.

Songfacts: Let's discuss a few tracks, beginning with your solo song "Forever Now (Say Yes)."

Bush: I was a guest on the TV show Say Yes To The Dress. I had a song at the time called "Light Me Up," which was showing up in people's first dances because it was very romantic. My publicist at the time got me a pitch for the show, for me to show up, and I had to find someone in my life that was getting married. I know absolutely nothing about wedding dresses, so I was kind of a foil for the entire episode, because I just sat there going, "I don't understand... what is a mermaid tail?" I didn't know. But I was moved by the experience in the room.

The producer was there that day. It was a Sunday, and I had to work the rest of that weekend, and she said to me, "I'm looking for a change in the music for the show," and I was like, "Well... what do you think I do for a living?" [Laughs] She was like, "Would you?" And I said, "Why don't I just go home and write something, and maybe it will be cool if you can use it in this episode. I'm my own publisher, so I will just give it to you. Let's just do it because it's interesting."

I went home, and I started thinking about what an epic experience this is for women. I saw these people with their families and friends. Maybe they've been thinking about this moment for a long time, going in search of this one dress, preparing for this one moment that has so much pressure on it, and maybe, release. I live right on the edge of a park in downtown Atlanta, but from the upstairs of my home, all I can see are telephone wires, trees, and sky. It's weird for a city. I sat and thought about, "What would that be like? What would I want someone to tell me?"

I wrote it knowing that if it was going to be in the show, it would be cut up and probably only eight bars would survive, so I just kept re-writing the eight bars different ways, with the thought, If this makes the producer happy, some of it will survive and she can pick which one is the most appropriate. I sent it to her, and I didn't hear back for like, two weeks. I was like, Well, I guess that didn't work. I got a call the third week, and she said, "Hey, I really love this. What do you think about this being the theme song to the whole show?" I was like, "Are you kidding?!" She said, "Can you do that? You'd have to send us the proper version and instrumental version." And I was like, "Of course."

I kept smiling, because this was not my first time trying to get a theme song. I tried at least three or four other times. It was on my bucket list as a challenge I wanted to see if I could meet - I just didn't see it coming with Say Yes To The Dress. But I'm very proud of it. And now, interestingly, just like songs are, I get more communication about that song because people want it in their weddings. It's part of the vernacular of communication and emotion. By watching that TV show, they're like, "Man, I'm walking down the aisle to that." I'm like, "Wow."

Be very careful with what you write, everybody. You never know.

Songfacts: Speaking of communication, how did Sugarland come to cover Peter Gabriel's "Come Talk To Me"?

Bush: The reason I love it is because of two things. One, Jennifer and I are having an experience as parents, and an experience as adults and friends, where we're watching people spend more time communicating than I've ever seen people spend. Like, constantly going back to their phones. If they're not texting or typing, they're reading, they're absorbing. And it seems like there is so much communication, but no one is talking. And one of the things that we like to do as a band is remind you of the power of songs, because they have affected us.

That song affected me. I remember watching it in concert, where he literally came out of a phone booth with a telephone in his right hand, and it had a giant string on it, and he just pulled it across the whole stage and sang into the telephone. I also recently had an experience with a dear friend and colleague who quit working for me and decided that going into just no communication was the best way to move forward. And during this process, I realized that communication is everything. We put it into our set just in the last two weeks so that we could at least have this dialogue with the audience, of, "Ask yourself, how much communication do you do where you're not actually 'talking communicating' to anybody?"

Songfacts: What about Sugarland's "Down in Mississippi"?

Bush: It was the very beginning of Sugarland. We were trying to figure out what a country song was. My history of country music was pretty deep, but my ability to be current and understand the '90s and early 2000s country music was not very deep at all. I had been in a different genre. And my gateway drug was Emmylou Harris' Wrecking Ball. I said, "That's like a Daniel Lanois record... holy smokes! If that's country music, I can do this."

And then I heard a Steve Earle record, and I was also blown away. And then a couple of Dixie Chicks records. I was like, "Wow. This is not what people think it is. This is incredibly well-crafted, emotional. Songs that will stand the test of time."

And as I was trying to get at those, we were coming up with, "What a clever thing to say - 'down in Mississippi and up to no good.'" We wrote it about - literally - a girls' weekend, because they had just started to have float barges on the Mississippi and put casinos on them. It was a thing that people did, but they didn't really tell each other that they did it. It was maybe in your mind what the southern version of going to Las Vegas is. I thought that was fun, and it was also a crazy country-tempo song.

Songfacts: "Just Might (Make Me Believe)" was another early hit for Sugarland.

Bush: We had a third person in the band at the time, who was Kristen Hall, and she played me that song. I was like, "Wow. That's a hit song." So, we sat it there and said, "If we really make a band out of this, we should really consider playing this song." I loved it so much when I heard it. And it's very natural - Kristen as a writer has a very natural delivery of translating emotions because she has a voice similar to mine, which is intrinsically sad. So, when I sing a happy song, it's the sad-bearded version of that happy song. And Kristen has this kind of Elvis Costello-y, natural sound to her voice.

"Just Might (Make Me Believe)," when Jennifer started to sing it, she was able to take that emotion and move it forward like, three steps. She emotionalized the end of every note that she was singing. And I loved the combination of adding essentially a mandolin played like a guitar, which I had not really heard except with Rod Stewart records or R.E.M. records - guitar players playing mandolin. That was my attempt at using that color in a way where I had to wear a T-shirt that said, "I AM NOT AN OFFICIAL MANDOLIN PLAYER."

But "Just Might (Make Me Believe)" has that flavor in it where you can hear it go into a guitar, and it really makes a difference.

Songfacts: And what about your solo track "Make Another Memory"?

Bush: I wrote that with Rodney Clawson and Jeff Cohen. It's another in my long string of songs that are also Bruce Springsteen's "Atlantic City." I don't know why, but those chords have been pressed on me like a baby bird - I just keep running them in circles. It was my first time writing with Rodney, and Jeff had been a longtime friend.

It happened very quickly, as songs did between 2012 and now. I used to toil over songs, maybe one or two a month, then they started coming up one every other day. I got better and quicker at it, and Rodney was at the very beginning of when I hit that Slip 'N Slide. He is a very fast writer. He was teaching me confidence and how to push that. He was running melody, which I normally run, and I started running lyrics on that song. I love it very much. I used to open my solo shows with it for two years. It makes me feel like I'm in the Replacements for a couple of minutes.

Songfacts: I remember my first exposure to Sugarland was the band's appearance on the TV show Yo Gabba Gabba! What are your memories?

Bush: I had young kids at the time, and Jennifer didn't have any children. The record company was trying to use whatever angle they could to help spread the word of our band, so I said, "I want to be on Sesame Street" - that's on my bucket list. And as we got into those conversations, they said, "What do you think about doing this show, Yo Gabba Gabba!"? It hadn't even come out yet. It was just in development. We were on Season 1.

I said, "OK, what does it entail?" And they're like, "You have to do a dance." And we were like, "OK! We're game for just about anything."

Sugarland has this weird ability to be a country band that even if you have us outside a genre, we don't stick to you, y'know? Or, if you come work with us, country music doesn't stick to you - it just slides right off. Like, pop stars feel OK working with Gaga, Rihanna, or whoever. They'll come and do a performance with us, and no one will expect them to be rolling in cowboy hats and boots.

Christian Jacobs from the Aquabats [another band that appeared on the show] - which is hilarious, because his name is Christian - was like, "I didn't think you guys would do this, but now that you did, you're on with Biz Markie and the Shins." I was like, "Yes!"

As we got in there, they were trying to explain, "Here is what is going to happen. This is in miniature, then it's not in miniature, they're in these costumes... just trust me!" What I love about it is they were guessing that this would work. It was the same kind of energy and joy that you use when you make a band, and they knew this. They were doing this in some warehouse outside of LA, and we came in and did our little dance, and had a blast. Those people were so fun.

I will tell you this - under the Grammy stage, we were waiting to go out, and when you perform or present, you're standing there. Jack Black pulls my suit coat and says, "Man, Yo Gabba Gabba! You do the electric eel!" I'm like, "Holy shit. This stuff touches everyone." So, thank you, for bringing that up!

September 5, 2018
Further reading:

Our 2013 interview with Kristian
Our 2010 interview with Jennifer Nettles

Here's one with Steve Earle
And with Richard Marx

Photos: (1) Joseph Llanes (3) facebook.com/KristianBushOfficial/

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