Since the release of their first single Baby Girl in 2004, Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush – better known as Sugarland – have been one of the most popular and best-loved groups in modern country music.
With four platinum-selling albums under their belts and a string of top 10 hits – including five Billboard Hot Country Songs number ones – the duo went on hiatus in 2012. After releasing solo projects, in 2017 they announced they were reforming. They made their live comeback at this year’s C2C Festival and have just released Bigger, their first album together in eight years.
I caught up with Kristian recently to discuss the new record, working with Taylor Swift on their latest single Babe, performing at C2C and producing Lindsay Ell’s debut album.
You guys are currently out on the Still The Same Tour in the US – how’s that going?
The shows are fantastic. Y’know, when you’ve not toured in as long as we’ve been away, about five years, a little bit of curiosity – is anybody really gonna show up? [laughs] And I’m very grateful and humbled that the shows have all been completely full of people and everyone is excited, and they’re excited to hear all their favourite songs and excited to hear the new music as well. So I couldn’t ask for more.
Are any of the new songs getting particularly strong reactions?
Y’know, I kind of have expected when an audience hears a new song, first of all they will always tell you the truth. If they don’t like it you can tell immediately – they’re off to buy a beer or a T-shirt or go to the restroom. And people are not only staying and focused but are singing the songs back to us, which is great. It feels like these new songs belong in the Sugarland conversation. And people are excited – they’re dancing, they’re singing along, they’re listening, which I think is a really big deal. I know how hard it is to introduce something new to an audience that’s coming to hear maybe something old.
You’ve just released your new album Bigger – can you tell us more about it?
Sure. The album’s called Bigger, and Jennifer and I obviously haven’t put a record out in seven years so it’s been a minute. We wrote this album in the last five months, so it is topically very current. We’re exploring a little bit of what it’s like to be a parent right now in the US and try to explain the world around us to our kids. I wanted to make music to make me feel better, and there’s a great deal of what music does very well which is turn pain into hope, y’know? And music has this weird ability to be an elixir, and yet it can heal if it’s used well. I think we really gave a good effort at trying to create some songs here that either make you dance and forget about your day, or they address the problem in front of us and try to open our heart to a conversation about it, whether it be the current MeToo movement way we’re addressing women’s struggle right now and misogyny. It’s really strange what’s going on around us, and I think it’s worth a conversation.
Was that social consciousness aspect something you wanted to do when you were making the record, or did that happen organically?
Y’know, it creeped in a little. Bigger was the third song we wrote, and it felt so good to be writing a song that felt good and also had a message to do it that felt good. I don’t think any of it is intended to be political, and it doesn’t feel like any of it is, y’know? We live on the side of we’re pro-kid. [laughs] Anything that’s political on this record seems to be only in context to, “How do I explain this to my children?”
Were there any songs that were particularly easy or particularly difficult to write?
Almost all these songs were somewhat effort. I think we had to spend a little extra time on songs or topics that were harder. A song like Bird In A Cage is pretty complicated, because it’s that old saying that ‘I would have written a shorter letter if I’d had the time’, y’know? We spent a lot of time on that song to shrink it down and make it simpler. But the craftsmanship on this became very natural for us. I was super-surprised. We wrote the album in, if you added it up, about nine days.
Did the hiatus affect the writing process at all, or was it more like picking up from where you left off?
[laughs] I think it was both. The time apart allowed us to explore some skill sets, y’know? And to hone our craft individually. And when we came together to work on this music it was incredibly vast, because we both had a lot to say. And our history and trust allowed us to continuously travel into these songs at a rapid speed, y’know? We found there are things you can do together that you can’t do apart, and things you can do apart that you really just can’t do together.
Your current single is Babe which features Taylor Swift. It’s the first song you’ve recorded that you and Jennifer didn’t write – what was that like?
I’d say that this is one of the strangest parts of the album because we’ve never really recorded anyone else’s song. So it was very nerve-wracking [laughs]. They had sent us the song quite early in the process and we kind of parked it at the side and said, ‘y’know, let’s wait til we get into this record and see if it fits’. And on the last day of recording we had decided that it really did, so we gave it a shot. But we didn’t tell anybody about it, because if it turned out that maybe Taylor didn’t like it or we did a terrible job with it or something I just didn’t want anyone to know that we had messed it up. So we went in and produced it and recorded it and sang it, and then we sent it to Taylor. She was like, ‘oh my God I love this! I wanna be involved!’ So it was very organic, y’know? We all started at the same time anyway. We’ve known each other for a long time. She was a big fan of Sugarland. I think it’s just cool that we ended up working together. And the song fits perfectly into a conversation I’d love to have with my daughter, y’know?
You’ve just released the video for Still The Same which includes footage of your C2C performances. How did you come up with the video concept?
Well, interestingly enough that was the very first song we wrote together when we decided to try this out and see if it worked. And we literally hadn’t sat in a room together for five years. And we walked in the room and we were like, ‘what in the world are we gonna write?’ And the more we started to talk about it, the more we were like, ‘why don’t we just tell the truth about where we are right this second? What’s it like to see an old friend, and what’s it like to realise that oh my gosh, the thing that we have is still the same, even with this time apart?’ And as we wrote the song you could literally read the lyric down and it is our experience.
And then when they approached us about a video for it, we had no time [laughs]. We were like, ‘what if what we could do for this video is show all of this history along with all of this present’, y’know? What if we could do that? Because we are a walking testimony for the song. We’re not only talking about ourselves but we’re providing some language for people to talk to each other. Y’know, where have you been? What have you been doing? Isn’t it amazing that we believe in this idea to leave it better than we found it, right? It became a natural extension of it.
Why did you choose C2C for the live comeback shows?
Well, first of all it’s a good superstition for me because my first solo show was C2C. So I have a lot of trust in the UK audience. I also thought that it was a lot of fun to maybe have a visit first there, because we really do believe that the music belongs everywhere. And we never really got the chance to come through as an arena act in the UK, and C2C has hosted Jennifer, it’s hosted me. I just think it would be super-cool if I was a fan.
You produced Lindsay Ell’s debut album The Project whilst on hiatus from Sugarland. She’s just put out The Continuum Project which she’s described as the ‘homework’ you gave her – how did you come up with that idea?
It’s a tool that I’d used on myself in the past. I went through a loss – I lost my mother when I was 30 – and two weeks after she passed away, the studio that had all my gear in it burned. It was kind of like a double punch of terrible. And I had a very, very hard time getting back up on my feet after that, between the grief and the loss – not just of a parent, but of all your instruments and all that sort of stuff. I couldn’t find a way to write songs any more after that. And the way that I found back to music was to go record some of my favourite 80s songs, and all I had was a microphone and a guitar. I borrowed an electric guitar from somebody and I had two acoustic guitars in the house, and that was it. And what I found is that I found my voice again by going and recording these sets of my favourite songs. And it’s helped me remember who I was and how to get back there.
So when I started hearing Lindsay in our first conversation talk about how lost she felt in the Nashville system and how disconnected she was from music, I was like ‘Oh! I got a crazy idea [laughs]. When was the last time you really enjoyed playing?’ She said, ‘Oh, I was 24, blah blah blah.’ ‘What was your favourite record?’ She was like, ‘Oh I know that, it was Continuum’. ‘Alright, here’s a crazy idea. Here are some rules. I want you to record this alone, by yourself. You got two weeks to do it, and you can’t have anybody else in the room, and you gotta play everything.’ She was like, ‘are you serious?!’ I was like, ‘yeah, I’m totally serious. Once you do it, send me the track, no-one ever has to hear it’ – which is funny now – ‘but just send it to me, let me fix the songs. I’ll change ‘em how I want to, then I’ll send them back to you and we’ll see what happens’.
And it was a beautiful piece of work that she turned in, and Tom my engineer and I sat around and we fixed it and did certain things to it, messed with the voice and different pieces to the puzzles so she could hear herself in a new way. And it became a really great tool for us to teach the record company and the publishers and the support staff and the management company who she actually is. They all started apologising. They were like, ‘oh man, we’re so sorry for dismissing this, we got it wrong for so many years’. I was like, ‘oh! How fantastic, now everybody’s on board, they’re all walking in the same direction. Now they know what kind of songs she’s great at singing, they know what kind of feel she’s looking for, they know what kind of writers to go write with’. It became a really cool compass to start using and start going down the idea of recording her first full-length album.
Would you want to do more work as a producer in future?
Oh yeah. Y’know, I do it anyway [laughs]. I’ve been doing it on Sugarland records for years and my own stuff for years. I didn’t know if my sensibility was gonna be the kind of sensibility that would work well with any artist, especially in country music. The records that I make or I help make are records that are intended to last for a while and for you to be able to re-listen to them. I have a lot of requirements that I put on them and I expect a lot from them, because like a Sugarland record I don’t want you to skip a song. So the idea of making an album is super-important to me, and there’s not a lot of artists that are willing to go down that rabbit hole with me [laughs]. So I love doing it, I hope I get to do it a lot more, and apparently what’s cool is not only are the opportunities kind of presenting themselves for me but a lot of those people are having real success in commercial radio, which is really exciting for me.
What does the rest of the year look like for you and Sugarland?
Yeah, I think the next step is the Sugarland shows are building and getting bigger and bigger. I feel it growing, and I know that I have some plans. I have to start making things again pretty soon; I can feel it in my bones. Like I wrote a song last weekend while we were out on tour, and Jennifer and I were joking about things we wanted to record backstage just two days ago. So I feel it’s starting to kick in soon. I’m writing songs with Frankie Ballard right now, which is fun. I don’t think we’ll start looking at another Lindsay album until early next year, because I think she’s got some songs on this album that people haven’t discovered yet. I wrote a musical a while back and musical land is very slow but I’ve sunk some energy back into that this summer, so we’ll see how that goes.
Are there any plans to come back to the UK soon?
We don’t know but I would expect that we would. It doesn’t seem like we wouldn’t.
Sugarland’s new album Bigger is available now through Big Machine Records.