The Incredible Machine: Jennifer Nettles on Sugarland’s Extreme Makeover
Jennifer Nettles, lead singer, songwriter and charmingly take-charge performer of the sweet and sassy duo known as Sugarland, is upfront about her band’s latest record.
“This is not your grandma’s country,” she says about the group’s fourth studio album, The Incredible Machine, released today (October 19) on Mercury Nashville. “Country is cool and it’s hip and it’s young and it’s fresh.”
Then she hastens to add, “… Not that there’s anything wrong with your grandma’s country.”
Sugarland, essentially the power pairing of Georgia peach Nettles and her songwriting partner/multi-instrumentalist/comedic foil Kristian Bush, likes to continually stretch the boundaries of the generic genre known as classic country. And they do so with The Incredible Machine, an explosive exhibition filled with pump-your-fist anthems, power-to-the-people pop and glory-be inspiration.
With 11 sweeping songs co-written by Nettles and Bush (at right), who also co-produced it with Byron Gallimore, The Incredible Machine is a big record meant to be played before bigger audiences. And Nettles doesn’t hesitate to state that Sugarland plans to take the country by storm. Not the genre, mind you, but the Rhythm Nation that likes their messages sent in simple terms with thumping beats, stirring guitars and soaring vocals. Trying to reach a broader audience is their ultimate goal as emerging artists such as Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood and Lady Antebellum wrestle for a piece of the fountain-of-youth market. But keeping traditional country listeners, including grandma, is also important to Sugarland.
Nettles, enjoying a “good-for-my-heart-and-soul” cup of green tea on an early October morn, acknowledges that this album might not be for hard-liners who only like the classics such as Johnny Cash, George Jones and Tammy Wynette. Yet she believes the Grammy-winning Sugarland, just nominated for two American Country Awards for the December 6 inaugural telecast on Fox, can still reach many stanch traditionalists. “We need them. … You know, they hold the line in the middle. But we have, from the beginning, tended to play in the margins.”
So they delivered an album of emotional songs that emerged as “a cohesive unit,” addressing the “concept of the human heart” and “it’s exquisite capacity to love and to feel and to understand … and to hurt.”
The group performed the songs during a live-streamed concert Monday in New York and will appear at an invitation-only CD release event at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta on Wednesday. With a worldwide tour planned to kick off in March 2011 that features a steam pump on “a crazy, crazy, crazy set,” Sugarland will attempt to win over the hearts and minds of America … and beyond.
While admitting, “I definitely protect my personal life because it is that and it is sacred to me,” the 36-year-old Nettles does “tell most of what’s on my heart anyway either through my songs or end up opening my mouth onstage and saying it.” Regarding her intentions, she pretty much provides full disclosure here:
Ready, set, go!
Nettles laughs, recalling another interviewer’s recent question about whether Sugarland’s fans will be ready for this new approach. “What an arrogant ass I would be if I was like (in a mocking tone), ‘They’re really not ready, this is so far above them.’
“I think they’re absolutely ready. When I’m onstage every night and I see the response to that (Sugarland has performed about five new songs during recent concerts), I know that they’re ready. It’s not the fans. The fans get excited. … They want to be inspired and don’t want the same old thing. That’s not the battle.
“Many times, the trouble is the people have to deal with the gatekeepers of commerce in Radioland. But from an artistic perspective, are the fans ready? Absolutely.”
‘Meet them where they are’
In an era when the record industry sags and concert touring lags, Nettles expects Sugarland to only get bigger and better. She nobly takes it as a compliment, but mildly disagrees that The Incredible Machine sounds nothing like country, then totally dismisses the notion that this is a deliberate attempt to completely stray from the music that made Nashville famous. “I hear country influences in it, especially in certain songs. When I hear ‘Little Miss’ or when I hear ‘Stand Up,’ for example. Those feel country to me. When I hear ‘Shine the Light,’ it’s more of a gospel influence. That definitely pulls from my Southern heritage,” she says.
“I feel all of those elements, in its organic-ness, can consider country as an influence, specifically on those songs. And at the same time, if I’m honest, I do hear other influences that aren’t country that are throughout the record, too. Is it a conscious moving away from country? No. But is it a conscious offering of our music to all sorts of listeners, all radio formats, hopefully? Yes, absolutely. … If you listen to country radio today, you know who we are. And more than likely, you probably have one of our records, which is wonderful. However, if we want to reach more people, we have to meet them where they are and allow them to hear what it is that we do.”
Expand your horizons … and venues
Sugarland’s music, including 2008’s mega-hit album Love On the Inside, is so far-reaching that a local teenager is heard singing “It Happens” from a side stage at the Chile and Frijoles Festival in Pueblo, Colorado. So where do they go from there?
“I would absolutely love to be able to headline a stadium,” says Nettles, who had the chance with Sugarland to open past massive shows for Kenny Chesney. “I think that would be quite a goal to accomplish. Because at the end of the day, if you can reach all different kinds of people with your music, through all different types of venues and have it translate, I think that says something about what you’re doing and about the authenticity of it.”
Long before Sugarland, Nettles and Bush developed as seasoned performers, entertaining folks at “backyard barbecues, in small clubs where everyone’s drunk and trying to get the attention of the asshole in the back,” she recalls. “So consequently, we’re able to get out there and give a good show and recognize the energy of the audience.”
Their 2009 tour, with numerous arena dates opening for Keith Urban, including a show at Pepsi Center in Denver reviewed for No Depression, provided solid proof of just that. (At right, Nettles performs in Denver in July 2009.)
Find your inner diva
Nettles, who will appear with Katy Perry and Paramore, among others, on the VH1 Divas military tribute December 5, recently told The Associated Press she was “hoping to get to wear the Cher outfit” the pop icon showed off aboard a battleship in a 1989 music video.
Even if she was kidding, Nettles does have a serious fixation for the music and fashion from the “Me Decade,” and particularly a few of those Eighties ladies who became New Wave mavens. The album’s influences include the Pretenders and Blondie, and Bush’s opening guitar riffs of “Find The Beat Again” are reminiscent of The Clash’s “London Calling.”
The theatrical “Tonight,” building toward a rousing chorus, is a clear departure for Nettles vocally. Asked if she found her inner diva, perhaps a post-Lone Justice Maria McKee, makes Nettles chuckle. “I don’t think there was a specific concept of ‘OK, I want to channel this or I want to be this specific influence and I’m gonna try to sound this way.’ I think at the time I had been listening to … I had been going through a Cure revival. And there was also even from a (Pretenders’) Chrissie Hynde perspective, I think there’s a little bit of that vibrato in there. But it wasn’t intentional.
“What was intentional is, ‘Hey, let me get in here and play around with this part of my range, and play around with this part of emoting in this area of my range. And it is a lower, more gravelly part of my voice and consequently that lends itself to a rounder, grander — for lack of a better word — sound in the voice as opposed to when I’m up in my high, mid-range. …”
Get your act together
Nettles knows musical theater, having followed that path for a while in college before realizing “music is my first love and I’ve been doing it since I was a little girl.” But that doesn’t mean she hasn’t given up those acting aspirations, and displays her dancing, acting and comedic skills in the video from the album’s first single, “Stuck Like Glue.” Playing “this crazy, ridiculous, kooky character of a stalker,” Nettles says, “I felt like I was in Fame or something. … I go into the studio and I’ve got my leggings on and a shirt and, of course, heels, because that’s what I had to dance in, dear God!”
Asked if a Sugarland-themed Glee might be on her wish list, Nettles squeals with delight. “Oooh, I would love it. I would absolutely love it. I don’t watch a lot of television. I have watched parts of two different episodes of Glee and I absolutely loved it. I just love the music, I love all these kids singing in it. I thought it was great and I would love to be a part of it. Just because, what a wonderful concept, right? And again, this is coming from someone that doesn’t watch much television. But to have a show like that which celebrates music and allows young people to be turned on to all different kinds of music, I think it’s pretty fantastic.”
Starring a woman who can reach all age groups, here’s even a built-in name for the episode: Jen X-Y-Z.
Dare to change your hair
Nettles revealed a shorter and straighter ‘do in the new video, with those cascading curls taking a leave of absence, however brief that might be. The fact that anyone would care about her hair befuddles Nettles, though she can understand why fans and gossip mags want to know. “These are the pressing questions,” she says with a hardy dose of sarcasm. “Is that so funny. Oh, God. that’s simply part of the celebrity portion of it that always makes me pause and makes me like, ‘Really?’ No, I love it. I think that’s all so fun.
“And people sometimes ask me, ‘Well do your quote unquote people, do they get upset?’ and I’m like, ‘Nobody cares what I do.’ Why would anybody tell me what to do with my hair. And if somebody did, I would be like ‘Excuse me?’ I just do what I want to do and if I get bored, I change it.”
• Sugarland publicity photo by Dana Tynan.
• Concert photo of Jennifer Nettles by Michael Bialas.