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We asked solo artist Jennifer Nettles about the important things in life: her brand-new music, female empowerment, and Nashville’s best taco joint.
NL: In 2014, you released That Girl, your first solo album. Why did you venture away from Sugarland after so much success as part of a duo?
JN: The decision to go solo was an artistic one. I think you can get into a dangerous place as an artist when your brand starts to dictate your art. And Sugarland had, thankfully, had such success that the sound that we had had been branded. And my voice had been branded as a certain sound. And I found that exciting and also limiting, ultimately, in the sense that I would have people come up to me all the time and say—after doing a collaboration or an awards show collaboration or the myriad of other wonderful different outside-of-Sugarland opportunities that I had had in music—“Wow, we didn't know you could sing like that.” When you get branded as a sound, then that is all radio will play. It is effective in terms of commerce, and it is crippling in terms of art.
So I decided to take a risk. It was at a very interesting time of my life of complete rebirth: I had a child at the same time as I was recording and writing for That Girl. … It was to not only start that process of the solo career but also to just sing and feel like myself in the sense that becoming a mother is a big identity shaper and shifter—and bludgeoning sometimes.
NL: And with all of this going on, you also managed to star in Chicago on Broadway.
JN: I grew up doing theater, and that for me has been on my bucket list for such a long time, to try to get back in that world. And the success that I’ve had in my music career to offer me the re-entry into that world at such a level just blew me away. That experience for me was transformative, to get to work with that caliber of talent, to get to enjoy being onstage, to get the structure of that kind of schedule, to get to sleep in my own bed and work at the same time. I left not only artistically validated and filled but also with lifelong friends and so many wonderful experiences that I would love to do it again. … As soon I got done, I called my agent and said, “All right, when are we doing another one?”
NL: More recently, the CMT Next Women in Country Tour, which you headlined, just wrapped. Can you talk about how that experience celebrates the industry’s female voices?
JN: We’re foolish to say sexism doesn’t exist in this industry because it’s everywhere. We are not immune. … Do I feel it as an artist, personally? No, because I can go toe-to-toe, head-to-head, put me in the ring. Once you get out there, it’s all gladiators in terms of how it can be valued, but it’s all equal. … I’ve never felt intimidated by that, but I do experience it in the system. And the opportunity, then, to get to champion other women is exciting.
NL: Do you see yourself as a mentor to the younger female artists on that tour, specifically Tara Thompson and Lindsay Ell?
JN: It’s refreshing to see them at their ages and at their point in their career. [I’ve reminded them] that it takes that long to even start to get into the mainstream. The outlets and opportunities [today] are a bit different, but I’ve said to both of them, “Don’t worry about your age, you’re super young, and it's the right time. You’ve had time to get seasoned. If you were a doctor, you would not be able to start your career until now. If you were a lawyer? Same thing.”
NL: What has changed in your life between That Girl and your new album, Playing with Fire?
JN: Since that time, I have a lot more to say as an artist and as myself. Life prompted that—having a kid and going through those changes in my life. And as art imitates life, then this album does just that. You’ll hear a lot of sass and a lot of vulnerability as well. The two ends of my spectrum have been lengthened and expanded.
NL: What are some tracks on Playing with Fire that you’re especially excited to share?
JN: There are moments where it is clear I am a working mother. “Drunk in Heels” was inspired by a conversation with Brandy Clark about Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. There’s an old quote about how Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels. The first verse just descended upon me—I put [my son] down, ran off my bus and onto Brandy’s, and said, “Get your guitar.”
The title track is very sassy, too. It’s really about getting out of your comfort zone and pushing yourself into new places that maybe aren’t as comfortable or perfect as the world would like but, boy, is perfect boring.
NL: These days, you split your time between Nashville and New York City. When you have some downtime here, where do you like to go?
JN: I love flea markets and junkin’—it’s like a treasure hunt, for sure. … I also love the food scene and how it’s grown over the years. Some of my favorite restaurants are Thai Phooket, Rolf and Daughters, City House, Adele’s, and Mas Tacos—it’s the best gig in town for Mexican.