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Interview: Jennifer Nettles opens up about her love of Musical Theatre that inspired new album ‘Always Like New’

The Sugarland star talks to us about the making of her stunning new record.

Jennifer Nettles
Credit: Shervin Lainez

Jennifer Nettles is known for her work in the Country music genre as a solo artist and one half of the hugely successful Sugarland.

For her last solo album, Nettles is realising a long-held dream by paying homage to her love of musical theatre. Teaming up with arranger Alex Lacamoire, Nettles has crafted ‘Always Like New‘, a 10-track collection that really showcases what she can do as a vocalist and celebrates musical theatre during a time when the industry has been devastated by the global pandemic.

I spoke to Jennifer recently about the making of ‘Always Like New’, to discuss her love of musical theatre and find out about the musical she’s in the process of writing…

Let’s talk about this stunning new album, ‘Always Like New’. I always knew that you were a fantastic vocalist as I’ve seen you live with Sugarland and solo, but I’ve never heard you sing like this…

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Right? It’s exciting. For me, it’s like vocally… what a carnival, what an absolute treat. In modern popular music, and everything that falls underneath that umbrella from country to pop, the structure is much more limited. It’s usually verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus in terms of composition, and definitely in terms of vocal melodies. It’s gotten even more so as the world and the industry has become more digitised. Vocal melodies have gotten really, really linear in many ways. In musical theatre that’s not the case; these compositions they sail, they soar, they wrap around, they ramble, they come back and they go off in strange directions. Especially in terms of vocal melodies, it is so expansive and fun. Never would I in Country music have a need, for example, to sing the E above middle C. Never, there’s just no use for it and there’s no need for it but in musical theatre it’s like, ‘yes, let’s go! Let’s stretch the whole range’. It is a fair assessment to say never have you heard me sing like this because typically, in terms of modern popular music, these aren’t the kinds of melodies that are celebrated.

Is that something that’s freeing for you or challenging?

Oh my god, it is freeing! It is absolutely liberating. I speak often of what I call the gilted silo of success. This shiny, shiny silo of success and it is beautiful, and it is sparkling, and yet it is also a silo that is limiting in many ways. People often have a tendency in all ways of life to do the absolute most that they can to stay as small as they can, which seems so counter intuitive, right? Then they want everybody else to as well because it confronts us sometimes. It confronts certain people, whenever we see other people expanding, and we feel like this whole idea of stay in your lane, right? For what of the myriad of things that can mean. I feel like, for me as an artist, I have always been on this expansion. I happened to come on to, and thankfully and blessed so, the mainstream culture consciousness with Sugarland, but I had been a working musician and paying my bills as an independent musician for 10 years before Sugarland was even a writing project. Before that I grew up singing and playing and composing music. I grew up in theatre, doing musical theatre and theatre all throughout school, all throughout high school, and all throughout college or university, as you would say. This is all, for me, a part of a trajectory that is one long piece, it just so happens that I came on the public consciousness and was able to celebrate in that silo of success in one way. As an artist, for me, it’s a very long conversation within myself as opposed to one little snippet.

It’s interesting what you say about vocal harmonies being so narrow. There’s a tendency to stay away from exposing any weakness, with studio wizadry doing the heavy lifting for singers now…

Everything is so digitized and so cleaned up, and so auto tuned. So much so that auto tune now has become this weird sound that we actually use as an effect. We’re becoming robots. What is happening? We’re cyborgs. It’s really fascinating.

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Jennifer Nettles - Always Like New
Credit: Shervin Lainez

As a vocalist there’s nowhere for you to hide on these songs. The song I keep coming back to is “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’!”, which you’ve transformed into this big gospel moment that takes you straight to church. What was the inspiration for that arrangement?

First of all, the inspiration for the project was my love of musical theater but some of these songs – “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’!”, ‘Sit Down, You’re Rocking The Boat’ and ‘Wouldn’t It Be Loverly’ to use three of the first examples  – had always been in my head, just as a musician and as a writer in terms of, ‘this is how I would sing this. If I were singing this now, this is how I would sing it. I would have some soul on it, I would have some gospel on it, I would have some jazz on it’ depending on which of those three songs we’re speaking of. My executive producer, Adam Zotovich connected me with Alex Lacamoire. Alex is the arranger and orchestrator and MD of ‘Hamilton’, ‘Dear Evan Hamilton’, the movie ‘The Greatest Showman’ and the movie ‘In The Heights’, those are just to name a few among a large celebrated group.

Adam connected Alex and I because I had put the idea out to him, and he said, ‘you really need to talk to Alex, he is the best in the biz’. Alex and I connected and he loved the idea. I sent him over some voice notes of things like, ‘OK, here’s how I would hear things differently’. He is truly, truly masterful. Between the two of us, we would sit in his studio, and we would pass voice notes also back and forth when we couldn’t get together, and he expanded these arrangements and they really became magical and something else than they were originally. At the same time the criteria for us of what would make this record would be that the song has to be able to be arranged in such a way that it pays respectful homage to the original recording, while at the same time able to be rearranged in a way that would allow for its rediscovery. If it couldn’t do both, then we moved on and continued to look for the next. I really feel like with all of these, we were able to achieve that. The whole American Songbook and the whole theatre canon is so vast.

Listening to this album there are so many other musical theatre songs I’d love to hear you sing like ‘Never Enough’ from ‘The Greatest Showman’. Could there be a Volume Two down the line?

(That song) is already so iconic or something from ‘Six’. Wouldn’t that be fun? Maybe ‘Heart of Stone’? There is so much music still left and still available that Volume Two would be such a treat.

You’ve performed on Broadway and you’ve performed at the Hollywood Bowl. Would you consider coming to London to perform on the West End?

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Oh, I would love it. Are you kidding? You want to talk about wonderful theatre and wonderful actors? The culture and the community there that is fostered for actors… they really are so fully formed. A lot of times it’s a very different culture for actors in the States. Yes, you can study of course, there are conservatories and then there’s this other piece that is not only instincts and artistry, but also there’s aesthetic dare I say, and that’s important everywhere, but I’m saying there are some people who have a look and they go and they do these certain movies and they stay in their one lane. I find the diversity of talent within an individual actor coming from the UK to be fantastic. I would love to come over and I would love to do that. That would be amazing.

Let’s put this out into the world and manifest it. Which role do we need to hook you up with?

Well, you know what? I’ll tell you this. I’m also writing a musical right now. Now, wouldn’t it be fantastic coup to open that here in the States, whenever that happens, and then make my way across the pond, as we say, and also beat the board’s there. That would be fun.

Jennifer Nettles
Credit: Shervin Lainez

Tell me more about your musical. What’s it all about?

It is about a woman named Giulia Tofana, she was a 17th century slow poisoner. She was a real woman. I find I’m very attracted to what I call stories of the hidden half of history. I think as we all know, history has been told by the conquerors and we all know who the conquerors have been. Typically they are white colonialist men and while there have been fantastic and amazing stories among that, it’s a very limited history in terms of what has happened in the entire world. That being said, there have been, especially where women are concerned, a whole half of history that for the most part our stories haven’t been celebrated in certain ways. What would the world be like if they had been? This woman was a liberator of other women. She would help women out of their marriages, she was attributed to the first Italian divorce…. she basically killed women’s husbands (laughs). I learned of her story and thought, ‘oh, she needs to sing’ and so sing she will. I did a ton of writing for that actually over the pandemic because number one, I had a different kind of time on my hands, and number two, it was a world into which I could escape and get out of this world that I’m still not truly able to process yet. It’s been a beautiful escape in another world for me. So yeah, let’s manifest my going over and bringing that there, that would be amazing.

It sounds really fascinating. I’m definitely excited to hear more about it when you’re at that stage and to see it somewhere in the world…

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All that is to say, in terms of this album, that musical theatre is in my blood. My first album that I ever owned as a child, my mom, or Santa, gave to me, it was the soundtrack to ‘Little Orphan Annie’, and this was as a little girl. Musical theatre, Southern gospel, pop music and Country music, those things were really what formed such a beautiful tapestry and foundation for me, musically.

This album marries the two things I love – musical theatre and a strong vocalist. Hearing you put your stamp on these songs is so fantastic…

Thank you! We are hopeful, and crossing our fingers over here, that Broadway is supposed to be reopening, if not softly, in September. That’s a big deal too, to be able have this album come out now. This album, I recorded it over 2019 and literally sung the last note of recording this album on March 12th 2020. The last note of the last song I finished in the studio and our phone started lighting up saying, ‘oh, Broadway is closing today officially’, which for us here is a big deal because it only closed one day at 9/11. Otherwise, it never closed in any of the World Wars because we weren’t a theatre of war, if you will, no pun intended (laughs). It’s just never closed. For it to have closed is super symbolic of what was going on in the world so for it to be reopening, also feels as symbolically celebratory. For this album to get to wave the flag and be the drum major out front saying, ‘yay, all these celebrations are about to happen, hopefully on these stages again’, is a big deal.

The last thing I want to manifest during this conversation is that the perfect way for you to perform this album live is here in the UK at the Royal Albert Hall in London backed by an orchestra. That sounds like a winner to me…

You know what? I think it sounds like a winner too. I hadn’t even thought about that. Here I have limited myself, thinking about that. Speaking of the pandemic, we haven’t known where the live music industry is going to go and so we’re just starting to talk about can I tour this and what would that look like? So yes, Royal Albert Hall. Let’s do this.

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You could work in some Sugarland and solo material too, and rework those with an orchestra…

I like it. You heard it here first. Let’s do it. Let’s make it happen. I would love it so much.

Jennifer Nettles’ ‘Always Like New’ is released on Friday 25th June 2021. You can pre-save it now at https://found.ee/jennifernettles_alwayslikenew

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