She is a chanteuse with a smoky come-on, a Georgia peach-cheeked country girl, a Lilith Fair-type woman's woman, and a reggae rapper. She's got the lightest personality since Dorothy in Oz, but take a second look and you'll see her cranking out anguish through every pen stroke. She's got more sides than the Pentagon, and is equally in touch with every one.
Sugarland's newest CD, The Incredible Machine will drop on October 19, bringing us the most sensational song Ms. Nettles has yet belted out on a studio album ("Tonight"); truly worthy of the big stadiums. With her masterful soaring soprano, enthusiasm, charm and songwriting prowess, Country Music has never had a more deserving queen.
Jennifer Nettles: Making that video was so fun. And the song definitely holds the crown of levity, I think, on the record.
Songfacts: Did you have the most influence on writing it? Or was it a totally collaborative thing?
Nettles: It was definitely sharing. It was one of the couple of songs that Kristian (Bush) and I co-wrote with other writers on this record. We wrote it with Kevin Griffin and Shy Carter. And Kevin actually approached us with the song, and we listened to it and thought, "Yeah," because he was thinking, "This kind of sounds like the stuff that you guys do." And we definitely wanted some levity on the record, and when we listened to it we thought, "Yeah, yeah, I think this is a great direction." And so we wrote the second verse, we wrote the bridge. And it ended up being such a moment of fun even during the shows – we play it in our live show, of course, now that it's on the radio. And it's really fun, you know? I love the reggae breakdown in it, and musically it's just a kick to sing it.
Songfacts: Where did that reggae breakdown come in – whose contribution was that?
Nettles: That was mine and Kristian's contribution. We wrote that bridge, and we wanted to do a sort of a spoken word thing. I'm not a rapper, but I'm a singer, and so the reggae/dance hall style is much more melodic. It lends itself as a "spoken word" to something that's more sing-songy. And so I was just attracted to it, and naturally leaned into that. And it ended up being a whole lot of fun.
Songfacts: Well, you are all over the board musically, which I discovered just recently. You wrote a song for your Jennifer Nettles Band sometime back when, and I'd like to know about it. It's called "What You Signed Up For."
Nettles: (Very hesitantly) …Yes? (laughing)
Songfacts: What was going on in life with that?
Nettles: Oh, I had written that at the time for my then-boyfriend. I was in my 20s at the time when I wrote that. And I loved that time of my life in writing, because I really used my writing as a purging, almost. The stage was a space for me, and the pen was a place for me to work out some of my own inner personal stuff. And obviously it still is, because I write from what I know, but what I knew then was much different than how I process it now.
But at the time, that was a song that I wrote for my then-boyfriend, because I felt like I was presenting myself in a way of "what you see is what you get" – so don't be surprised when you get a really sassy basket. (laughing) Because this is just what you signed up for! And thinking about the words now – it's so funny that you bring this up, because, God, I haven't thought about that song in so long. But you know, "what if I stopped, what if I quit, what if I just threw up my hands and walked out on this shit." It was definitely a message to him, for sure.
Songfacts: Was it at the end of the relationship, then?
Nettles: Oh, no.
Songfacts: "Just be prepared"? (laughing)
Nettles: (laughs) Yeah, we'll call it a warning flare.
Songfacts: How long did the whole relationship last?
Songfacts: This was a long-time deal, so he stuck around anyway?
Nettles: That's right. (laughs)
Songfacts: Well done. Another one from that era that I love-love: "The Story of Your Bones."
Nettles: Oh, I love that song.
Songfacts: It's gorgeous.
Nettles: That's a beautiful song. That song was written to my boyfriend at the time, and we had been apart for a very long time, just from distancing with the jobs and geography and where we lived. And it was also working out some of my family issues. There's a part in there where I talk about my face, and what I got from whom in my genetic history, and then consequently what I didn't get from whom, or who I didn't know in a certain way. So I was also working out my family stuff in that song. But my favorite part in that song – and let me go back in my mind with the lyrics – but where it says, "Like berries, you color my hands, like wine you stain my lips." I love that line. That's my favorite line in that song.
Songfacts: That is very eloquent.
Nettles: Let me think about the rest of it. Let me go through it in my head, actually. I love that whole section of that line, "I have to know the story of your bones, and I long to know the map of your skin." Awww… I love that. That was inspired. That was young love, man! I love it.
Songfacts: It is just gorgeous. I'm curious about the part, you say that "I got my nose from another man, someone who didn't bother" – were you raised by a stepfather?
Songfacts: Ah. Okay. Before I pass onto the next phase here, do you ever perform any of those Jennifer Nettles Band songs at your current concerts?
Nettles: No, I don't. Wouldn't that be fun?
Songfacts: Is there a reason for that?
Nettles: You know, it just feels like… I don't know, it's definitely a different time in my life, and I feel so different and distant from that. And I really use my writing to be the snapshot of where I am, not only emotionally but also artistically. Consequently, what I'm drawn to are the things that are more current and more present, because those are the things that I'm either working out in myself, or those are the places that I am artistically currently that inspire me the most.
That's not to say that when I go back and think about these songs that I'm not inspired. And especially with "The Story of Your Bones," that's something that I think could still resonate in me and translate to audiences in a certain way. But as I evolve as an artist and a writer, I get more interested in what I'm doing currently.
Songfacts: That makes perfect sense. You're growing up.
Nettles: Yes. Growing up.
Songfacts: Speaking of growing up, "Baby Girl." Your first huge hit. Is that in any way autobiographical?
Nettles: Oh, you bet. It was not only autobiographical, but it was also a self-fulfilling prophecy in the sense that it was the first single, and it manifested itself in a way of showing that success. And granted, every artist – every person, really – can relate to having a dream and wanting to go after it, and wanting to make your folks proud, and having that be part of the joy of it. I know that for me, definitely a big part of the joy of my success is being able to share that enjoyment and that excitement with my family. And they're so proud. I love the story of that song and how it unfolded and how art definitely imitated life in that sense.
Songfacts: Did you really write home and ask them to send you money? (laughs)
Nettles: You know, I'm the oldest child in my family, and we were always quite A-type personalities, and über-responsible. And I really tried to make my own way. Now, my mom at times would be generous and help me. She helped me out with my car insurance and those sorts of things. But for the most part, I really tried to make my own way.
Songfacts: You write a lot of songs that sound very inspirational: "Something More," "Baby Girl," "I Ain't Settlin'," is this your general attitude?
Nettles: It is. And we as writers – Kristian being my co-creative partner on a lot of these songs – 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. Rather than telling a story in such a way that sounds rebellious or pithy, I think it's more important to be a bit more subversive, and sit in the corner and slyly point a finger to what it is you want people to look at, like telling a story, I'm giving a narrative background, or showing images that evoke emotion and inspire people to do something, to empower them in their lives.
Songfacts: And that seems like what Incredible Machine is geared toward.
Nettles: Pun intended with the "geared." (laughs)
Songfacts Oh! (laughing) Very good. That whole CD is just so uplifting, and I read on your site where you guys wanted to put together a CD, like an anthem sort of thing where you could play huge arenas and just blast it.
Nettles: For sure.
Songfacts: And I think you've accomplished that. Can you talk to me about "Incredible Machine" the song?
Nettles: Yes. I love the way the song came about musically. It hovered around for a couple of days in that I had that little piano part. I was playing around with that at home, and Kristian and I came into the writing studio and we wrote part of the lyrics, the "feels like I'm flying, wings made of light," separately. We thought it was going to be a different song. We hadn't put anything together yet. We thought that was actually going to be the chorus of another song.
And then we were also listening to some drums, some rhythm grooves at the time, and he started playing a guitar part. I said, "Wait a minute. Let me go sit down at the piano here." And it all came together, the cogs and the wheels just all started moving and aligning, and suddenly we were like, "Oh, wait a minute. No, we're going to make this be reverse," and the whole song just really unfolded in this really beautiful discovery. It was a discovery for us, as well. It's always really special when a song reveals itself in that way, where it goes to a refreshing discovery. Some of them you punch and kick and all of that, and some of them really reveal themselves, and "Incredible Machine" definitely felt that way. And I love the metaphor, because it speaks to the human heart and the incredible machine that it is, and its exquisite capacity to love and to feel and to understand.
Songfacts: Now, there's a word in there that you sing, I can't make it out. It sounds like "comet." Is that what it is?
Nettles: It's "calling."
Songfacts: Voila! That makes more sense. (laughs) Is there another song on the new album that you especially like and want to give a sneak preview of?
Nettles: Sure. There are actually two of them. I love the song "Tonight" on the record. That is definitely the power ballad of the record. That song was inspired. We wanted to write a song – do you remember the movie Say Anything?
Songfacts: Oh, yeah.
Nettles: And you remember Lloyd Dobbler and he's holding up the boombox outside of Ione Skye's bedroom and it's playing "In Your Eyes"? And we thought, we want a song that Lloyd Dobbler would play in front of her window now. What would that song be? Or if John Hughes were alive to make a movie now, what song would be on that soundtrack?
And so we ended up working on "Tonight" and writing "Tonight." It was just so fun, even as a singer to perform that song, because it's in a different part of my range, it allows people to hear a different part of my voice, and it definitely for me was fun to pull on some of my influences, like Chrissie Hynde or even Robert Smith from the Cure, with that sort of '80s sound. I loved it, and I love that song for it. I think it's really great.
And then the last song that I'll speak to would be "Shine The Light," which is just a beautiful gospel influenced song that I actually wrote for Kristian. He was going through a tough time in his life, and it was based on a conversation that he and I were having about that. And I had said to him, "There are times in our lives and places in our lives that only we can go ourselves. We have to go into those woods ourselves. And hopefully when we get there, as we get closer, we'll see all the people that we love standing at the edge holding a flashlight to show us the way out." And so that was the inspiration for that song, and I hope it's something that touches people, and that they play it for those who they love who need it.
Songfacts: Wow, that's beautiful. That just gave me chills.
Nettles: Aw, thank you. Thank you very much.
Songfacts: I do want to revisit the attic that we went to earlier and see if you can dig out "At Stake."
Nettles: Oh, God. I have to remember all of this. This is so funny. It's like archaeology. (In her best TV narrator voice): "Okay... as we pull back the layers here…" Do you have the lyrics in front of you? Because I know it was a very angry song, but I don't remember exactly if I wrote it to the industry.
Songfacts: You say, "Did you think I'd be so hypocritical to have this gift and to not use it to be political?"
Nettles: Oh, yeah. I'm sorry, because it's been so long since I've thought about these songs. But I remember the song and being pretty angry and pretty out there – which is "out there" in terms of exposing that anger. And I do think that it was towards the industry and I think it was towards critics, if I remember correctly. But I do know that it was a very angry song, and indicative of my 20s where I used that space, and the stage was a safe place for me to express disgruntlement or anger or whatever it may be. That was when I grew up, there was a time in my home where it wasn't a safe space, especially for anger. And so when I was able to find a safe place on the stage and through the pen and express that, it was pretty liberating for me. And so I did it. A lot. (laughing)
Our breakfast with Jennifer took place on September 24, 2010.
Find out all about Sugarland at SugarlandMusic.com
and hear snippets of her earlier songs at JenniferNettles.com
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