This is an extended version of an interview that appears in Friday’s Weekend Life section of The Oklahoman.
Jennifer Nettles explores sweet solo opportunity with “That Girl”
The Sugarland singer and tourmate Brandy Clark will play Saturday at the Grand Casino Hotel & Resort in Shawnee.
Jennifer Nettles is still “That Girl,” the one with the powerhouse voice that fueled Sugarland to sweet superstar success.
Although the contemporary country duo pushed the sonic envelope over the course of its six albums, the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter is exploring new sounds with “That Girl,” first solo effort since co-founding Sugarland back in 2002.
“For me, as an artist, I never want to stagnate and I’m constantly looking toward how to hone my craft and how to better myself and how to reach to a deeper place within myself and to try and become a better and more authentic artist,” Nettles said in a phone interview last week from New York City, where she was “trying to build up my rest tank” before resuming her “That Girl Tour.”
“It was a decision that took several years in the making, but was something, that being said, that I wanted to do for many years and knew that at some point within Sugarland that I was going to do a solo project. Just because, for as much as I love all of that music and the wonderful successes that we’ve had, it’s also very specific musically and I knew that I wanted to offer my fans and show them a different part of me musically, and to also explore and see how all of these years of experience and craft have added together to see what I would put out on my own.”
Nettles, 39, will get the reward of performing her new songs live Saturday at the Grand Casino Hotel & Resort in Shawnee. Up-and-coming singer-songwriter Brandy Clark is her opening act on the tour.
“I enjoy the live show. I have a lot of fun with it. You know, I will pepper in a few Sugarland songs and also some pleasantly surprising or quirky covers that I like to throw in there, too, so the usual mixture but definitely excited about the opportunity to play the new album live,” Nettles said.
“I enjoy the studio process very much, it’s its own very specific creative process. It’s different from writing, and it’s different than live performing. It’s its own beast and I enjoy it for that, but at the same time … it’s really a performing art and meant to be experienced live. And for me as a performer, I love that connection with the live audience. So that’s what really excites me and is the reward at the end.”
Released in April, “That Girl” boasts an eclectic sound peppered with Southern soul and Latin rhythms and even a Bob Seger cover sassed up with horns provided by The Dap-Kings. The Georgia native worked with iconic producer Rick Rubin, whose vast past credits include albums from the Beastie Boys, Tom Petty, Metallica, Johnny Cash and the Dixie Chicks.
“I’m not super calculated. I definitely allow the creative process to go where it’s going to go, and I also think if you’re going to make an album as a solo project that sounds like your ensemble work, then what’s the point? You know, artistically you should just stay where you are. And in wanting to do something different I was excited to be able to allow myself that freedom, to explore and sort of let each song go where it needed to go,” she said.
“Then, of course, where working with Rick Rubin is concerned, that’s a whole other element and level of craft with interpreting the songs. So, I had fun being able to explore on this album and to show different parts of my own musical heritage. I come from the Southeast and there’s a lot more Appalachia, there’s a lot more blues, rhythm & blues influence, there’s a lot more gospel, so it’s different than necessarily a country and Western part of the country tradition.”
That’s not to say Nettles doesn’t appreciate country music’s rich traditions. Despite the mambo flourishes, her new album’s title track basically tells the other side of Dolly Parton’s beloved story-song “Jolene.” Plus, the ever-collaborative belter and Checotah native Carrie Underwood recently joined forces to cover Parton’s “9 to 5” together on the Grand Ole Opry stage.
“When we realized we were going to be there at the Opry on the same night, I reached out and said, ‘Hey, you wanna do something together? It could be fun.’ So she said ‘sure,’” Nettles said. “I like those things to happen organically, and I’m super-open to collaboration. To me, it is a real joy to be able to sing and to write and to perform with other artists. I love that.”
She’s also been making beautiful music with her tourmate, Clark, who joins her during the shows on the passionate duet “His Hands.” Nettles said she penned the ballad in the hopes of putting it on her new album but couldn’t find the right duet partner until they teamed up on the road.
“I think that she is so smart and so brilliant and such a wonderful, wonderful writer. To me she is one of the best that is out there right now. I love that she is able to tap into something that feels authentic and yet speaks to truth. It doesn’t always have to be shiny and perfect and yet it is real and gracious. I love what she’s able to do,” Nettles said.
Clark isn’t the only one joining her on the road: Nettles, husband Justin Miller and their son Magnus, who is a year and a half, all travel together on tour.
“He’s a little gypsy baby,” she said, the sounds of her “all boy” son banging his sandbox shovels occasionally discernible in the background.
“He’s like anybody else in the sense that you’re rest is definitely affected. I usually say no matter how nice the bus is, it still moves when you sleep. That definitely has an effect, but he definitely rolls with the punches and he’s sweet and pleasant. You know, kids will get their sleep regardless. It’s we as the parents who sometimes struggle a little bit more, I think.”
For now, Nettles said her focus is on her new solo effort, and she and Sugarland partner Kristian Bush have “left it open-ended” on when they might revisit their hit-making duo.
“I love Sugarland and I love that music and that project,” she said. “I think this is a wonderful opportunity for both Kristian and myself — he’s out doing his own stuff right now, too — to be able to experience something new and different as artists and to hit the reset button and refresh and try different things. When the timing is right, and as it is, then hopefully there’ll be an opportunity for us to do something else as that feels right. But I think it’s important to, you know, grow.”
Jennifer Nettles’ “That Girl Tour”
With: Brandy Clark.
When: 7 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Grand Casino Hotel & Resort, Interstate 40 at Exit 178, Shawnee.
Information: 964-7777 or www.grandresortok.com.