Going solo, Sugarland singer leaves space for emotion to shine

Though they have their more plaintive pop moments, Sugarland often sounds like an arena rock band in the guise of a country duo, such is the bombast they conjure.

But on her new solo record, “That Girl,” singer Jennifer Nettles turns down the volume and cranks up the longing on the spare-sounding, unadorned album.

With Nettles performing at the House of Blues at Mandalay Bay tonight, we caught up with her for a quick Q&A on “That Girl” and more.

R-J: One of the defining attributes of “That Girl” is just how organic sounding the record is. It doesn’t feel over-produced or over-analytical. It’s a very unselfconscious record. Was that the goal, to strip things down a little bit?

Jennifer Nettles: “Yeah, I really wanted to make it sparse and to make it have feeling as opposed to make it super cerebral. I definitely wanted it to have space and nuance and to leave that space for emotion to shine through. I wanted to make it about the songs and vocals and really keep it stripped down and raw in that way. I enjoy music that way, and I certainly enjoy performing and singing in that way, so that was definitely a conscious dialog and conversation between Rick (Rubin, producer) and myself when we first chatting about whether or not we felt we were a good match for this record.”

You mention Rick, what kind of input did he have on the album? He seems like one of those guys who doesn’t give you a ton of technical advice, but is more about capturing a feeling or mood.

“He’s great at encouraging and facilitating the most emotional performance. We tracked this album live, the musicians and myself at one time, which is interesting now that that’s become an anomaly, which is so bizarre to me. I enjoy the live music feel.”

What precipitated the record? Because there’s room in Sugarland to explore different influences and sounds, which you did on the last record, “Incredible Machine.” It doesn’t feel like you’re bounded by too much in that context. With the solo record, did you feel like you specifically wanted to get in touch with a different side of yourself as a musician?

“Well, with radio especially, it’s very easy to get bounded, because you start to be known for a ‘sound.’ So while there may be someone who may be familiar with the whole of the albums, there are also those people who all they know of Sugarland is what they have heard on the radio. And then you throw in success on top of art, and then suddenly, you’re a caricature, because with the desire within the industry for that success to be repeated, the mantra becomes, ‘Oh, do that again.’ That’s when things become exaggerated, and I didn’t want that. So, sure, you can have a song on a Sugarland album that is spare, but at the same time, there’s a lot more slick (songs) and a lot more pop on a Sugarland album than what you’ll hear on ‘That Girl.’ That was intentional.”

In some ways it feels like you’re revisiting your roots on this record in the sense that you had a repertoire prior to Sugarland. Did you feel like you were getting in touch with something that hearkened back more to the beginning of your career when you were first discovering that voice?

“Absolutely. And that for me was so fun. I feel like from the way that this album was produced all the way to the freedoms that I allowed myself in the vocal performances, that for me was so liberating in getting pull from those influences.”

You say “liberating,” I think that’s a word that a lot of people are going to associate with this album. The album registers as an exhale, of sorts. You’ve experienced a lot the past five-six years, career-wise, has there been much of a learning curve for you in terms of getting adjusting to having a higher public profile?

“It’s still something that I continue to get used to. I’m a private person in the sense that I want to protect those people who I love who either haven’t chosen to be in the spotlight or who don’t want to be. That comes along with my job, but it’s not necessarily something that my child volunteered for or my husband is interested in. So, I want to protect that. And that is something I continue to learn how to navigate.”

Was this always what you wanted in life? Was becoming a musician always a given for you?

“I’ve been singing since I was a little girl. It was always something that I loved doing and wanted to do. I didn’t know if it was a realistic career or not. I have a pretty level-headed mother who told me, ‘You can be whatever you want to be, but you will be a college-educated one.’ So I held up my end of the bargain, and when I was done, said, ‘OK, I want to try my hand at becoming a professional musician.’ Luckily, I was able to work several jobs in the meantime and pretty quickly was able to start paying the bills through being a musician, being in a little indie band in a van with four smelly guys. And away we went.”

Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476. Follow on Twitter @JasonBracelin.

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