One would be forgiven in thinking that Jennifer Nettles had simply decided to take a break.
For most of the past year, the Sugarland vocalist had laid low in terms of career moves — but, then again, a multitude of activity was humming in her personal life. She had recently gotten married, started a family (baby boy Magnus was born in December 2012), and, like many new moms, seemed to be merely enjoying a bit of domestic time out of the spotlight.
Turns out that Nettles was up to far more than diapers and naptimes. She'd been using her "break" to finalize her long-brewing plans for a solo record. The resultant set, January's eclectic "That GIrl," was produced by the famed Rick Rubin and features a variety of sonic influences ranging out of any country-comfort realm, all showcasing Nettles's powerhouse voice to full effect.
Nettles demonstrated the full earthshaking timbre of her vocals at a blowout special event held Jan. 16 in New York City, where fans were treated to a full live performance of her album in NYU's intimate Skirball Center For The Performing Arts.
"The decision to do a solo album and to start a solo project was really a long time coming. It’s been about four years since I started thinking in this direction and started planning," she noted backstage before the Ram Country Live event, looking cool and unruffled despite bright makeup lights and a camera team documenting her every move. "When there is an organization as big as Sugarland had grown to be, stuff takes time."
"And life also takes time in between, like getting married and having a baby and all those things," she added. "I think actually having a baby allowed for a pregnant pause — if you will — that really gave me the moment to take a breath, to really get concentrated on writing, because I toured with Sugarland up until my last trimester. And then I also had time off the road and was able to really dig into more writing than I had been doing in the past few years in a concentrated amount of time. So the time felt right ... it was something that I had been working toward for awhile."
Nettles noted that there is a bit of natural hesitation regarding embarking on a solo path after so many years in a highly successful duo, but she's careful to point out she is not intimidated by going at it alone.
"There’s a vulnerability that’s there, and that’s real to feel that way," she admitted. "But I don’t think there is a fear, per se, that is involved. ... I think for me timing-wise and because of the fact that I’ve just had a baby, I don’t have time to really worry about what might be the most challenging difference between going solo and being a duo. I think I’m super-focused on my family and baby takes up so much time — Magnus is such a priority — that I don’t have time to get too much in my head and get caught up in that."
"I want to be a great mom and then I want to be a great musician, a great songwriter, a great singer. And I think having a kid has given me a good perspective for that so that I don’t get too caught in the negative, because I don’t have time."
Nettles does acknowledge the advantages, if not the negatives: "I think, for me at least, there are freedoms that are implied by being solo in comparison to being in an ensemble," she mused. "When one is in an ensemble the nature of collaboration is that - of influencing each other, of inspiring each other. And that might shape or change what one creates. Consequentially, when it’s just me solo, I’ve enjoyed bouncing as a songwriter, co-writing with other writers to see which parts are me. Balancing against otherness, if you will."
To that end, Nettles relates that her musical partner in Sugarland, Kristian Bush, is totally supportive of her album — but that she never asked his opinion on anything while making it. "Just simply because I wanted us to honor the fact that we were doing things separately," she explained. "And I wanted to honor the fact that when we do get together, we will have fresh and new inspirations. And fresh and new stories to tell to hopefully re-invigorate our collective arts."
She noted that at that time — "That Girl" had only been out for two days — she hadn't even heard any feedback from Bush regarding the set. "I did see that he had gone out to get it and he’s been super supportive to tell everybody to go out and get it," she noted. "Which we like to do with each other’s material, so I appreciate that."
One thing that many more casual fans may not know or recall is that Nettles made a considerable amount of music on her own before joining Sugarland, a lot of which seems to get swept collectively aside in the shadow of her mammoth current presence. When asked if this bothers her, she shrugs and smiles. "It’s not surprising to me that people know me most for Sugarland. I’ve had 10 years for work as a musician before Sugarland happened – the overnight success, as most “overnight successes” are 10 years later, right?"
"The reality is that you only come onto the mainstream conscience of pop culture when you’re in the mainstream consciousness. So that is where their history with me starts. And some [fans] have chosen to dig deeper and see. And I also have fans who, thankfully have been with me the whole time, from all those years back, and even before Sugarland. But it is the nature of the beast that one remembers his or her experience from the time that they’d evolve, [and] more people came evolved with Sugarland."
One thing that Nettles carried over from her work with Sugarland is a groundbreaking ability to push the envelope. When reminded of how her band was criticized for the genre-bending single "Stuck Like Glue" (which featured a reggae break edited out by some country radio stations), Nettles laughed wryly. "Oh yeah, we’re pushers. We’re like the weird kids in the corner. You know what I’m saying? Someone has to push boundaries," she said. "There is the old adage that everyone knows what happens to pioneers — they’re the ones that get the arrows and knives. So, if there’s any pioneering that has been done, you go forward and you push the wave forward."
That's certainly what Nettles has managed to do with "That GIrl," which mixes rock, country, and pop influences in a uniquely personal manner. "I just have to be authentic to myself ... it’s just who I am," she noted simply.
When asked what her next musical move will be — after all, "that girl" has a myriad of choices, be it return to Sugarland, continue on the solo path, or do something entirely different — Nettles remained calm and collected as she was in the beginning of the interview.
"I don’t know what my next move is going to be. I hope that this project allows for another because I feel like for at least right now, I haven’t said everything I need to say form a solo perspective. But that remains to be seen," she said, then laughed. "Who knows? Who knows? Who knows if it will be a musical?! You never know."