When a band reunites after a long split, it’s a relief to fans but also can be met with hesitation. Is the spark still there? Does the music fit into what’s current and popular? Luckily, Kristian Bush and Jennifer Nettles reuniting their band Sugarland gives a resounding yes to both those questions. Sugarland, the country duo, first formed in 2002 with a subsequent string of hit albums and songs like “Stay” and the delightful, upbeat ear worm “Stuck Like Glue.” They took a break a decade later in 2012 so Bush and Nettles could focus on solo careers and their families. After solo success, the duo felt that the magic of their musical partnership was still there and reunited in 2017 to write and record their new album Bigger. The album hit number 2 on the Billboard US Top Country Albums and number 11 on the US Billboard Top 11. It’s also making quite a splash overseas.
Kristian chatted with BYT to talk about reuniting with Nettles, sending messages through music, being a de-facto ambassador for country music abroad, and what it’s like to record someone else’s song (especially when that someone is Taylor Swift).
BYT: What inspired this decision between you and Jennifer Nettles to reunite for Sugarland?
KB: I think the beginning of it was literally a “hey, do you have time to do this?” And then secondly, “are you interested?”
Sugarland has a really interesting place whenever we’ve done something because we’ve always been driven by the art side of it first. We were a band and then tried to get a record deal. We weren’t a band without songs because we started writing when we met. That was the whole idea. So [this time around] we decided to start with the writing and go “ok, what’s that” because once we can figure out if that works, all the other things kind of fall in place. The first song we wrote [for this new album], the song “Still the Same,” the record company got an iPhone [recorded] version of it pretty early one. They were like “oh my god, record that right now!” [Jennifer] and I looked at each other like “really?! OK!” Then immediately everybody was like “we need to put you guys on tour!” We thought, ok, now we need to write another [song].
I think in the beginning it was really all about reconnecting. We needed to see if that would work because if it didn’t work, there was no reason to keep doing this. It not only worked but it worked so well. It was kind of a remembering of what those muscles had learned years ago and kind of how naturally our sensibilities worked together. Then, soon after that, we started listening to the songs we were writing and we thought, wow, these songs are coming out with all these messages. It wasn’t something I would have imagined– that we’d start taking on a social conversation with the record. We then found out it was a responsibility.
BYT: What kind of topics do you feel like you address with the new album Bigger are a departure from previous albums?
KB: Maybe not such a departure. We’ve always said we were willing to wave a flag for anything that has to do with the heart. Politics as politics are really not our business, but politics of the heart we’ll do all day. I even made it as loud as possible, where we were literally painting flags on stage that said “love” they didn’t say anything political on them.
I think on this [album] it feels to me, in retrospect, now that it’s come out, that the conversation is about, honestly from where I sit–I’m a single dad of 48-years-old and Jennifer is a mom now of a five-year old–is how do you explain the world to your kids? It’s a really weird place to explain. I have a 13-year-old daughter and a 16-year-old son and I sit with them while they listen to music. They absorb that stuff like mockingbirds. They’ll sing any of it. I thought, if we do this [new album], we have a responsibility for what they’re singing. Sugarland is good at that. We’re good at various message and sing-songy things. Hopefully you don’t realize what you’re singing until you need the information.
BYT: Your tour is called “Still the Same,” does anything feel different this time around? Especially with Jennifer having a child in tow now? More family oriented?
KB: [laughs] We were never that deeply rock and roll on our tour buses. Whatever you have in your imagination, I’ll let it run!
I think there’s a lot of respect that goes on right now. When someone raises their family, you have to respect them. My kids are much older now. They could almost babysit hers. They’ve got their own lives.
I think what’s interesting to me, the thing that’s different rather than still the same is that we are very consciously bringing our skills. Whereas, I think the last time we were doing all this, everything was so unconscious. We were just floating through these things and any time anyone would ask us something for artistic we’d say “yeah, sure, why not” and we’d dream it up on the spot. And we do that, absolutely, still and it freaks out our friends. They wonder how we do that and we say “well, somebody’s got to make a decision and why don’t we dream up the coolest decision we can make.”
We’re super supportive of each other, but I think now what we’re doing is bringing the weight of a life that is well lived and currently being lived into this space where we’re having to mix. Like everybody else on this earth, you have a family, you have a child, you have a job, personal lives, troubles, successes. All that stuff is jumbled together and it’s also on this tour.
BYT: How do you get energized before each performance? Any rituals?
KB: Well, strangely, and this is a vestige left over from the very beginning of the band, we, weirdly, say a prayer. It’s kind of cool. It puts everybody in one spot for just a second. It’s a really great reminder that what you’re doing is a gift. Nobody gets to do this, so appreciate it. Secondly, you’re in service to everyone else in this building. 70 people, 100 people have worked on this show and they go up and they tag you in and now it’s your turn. And then you tag them back in. It’s all for these 10,000 or 15,000 people who need a break in their lives. That’s why we’re here. The show is not about us. Our records don’t have our faces on them. It’s about you.
BYT: How did you and Jennifer choose your collaborators on this new album?
KB: It’s a very short list. I think that’s a result of the fact that when [Jennifer and I] started to make this, we found we didn’t have anybody else around us. There’s a co-producer, Julian Raymond, who came in through Jennifer’s world. She had worked with him on something very recently, I think her Christmas record, and she’d really liked the way her voice sounded when he was going through his capture phases. I had just been through two years of producing records for country radio so the more the merrier in my book so we welcomed him in. Then the only co-writers, one was a song we pulled from our past that we thought we missed. It was a song we came up with after Incredible Machine called “Love Me Like I’m Leaving” that’s this really cool story. We just recorded it the wrong way, which sometimes happens. This time, we sort of took a more Stones approach and it worked. We did it in one pass. It’s this beautiful roots country pillow you can rest on three quarters through the album when you need a break.
We were also pitched a song by Taylor Swift and Pat Monahan [lead singer of Train] pretty early on in the process. We didn’t really know how to react to it because we’ve never been pitched a song in our lives.
BYT: That song has become your latest hit “Babe.” What’s the story around that song?
KB: Well, it was a weird experience because this is on a hybrid label that’s Universal and Big Machine records. Scott Borchetta is the guy that runs Big Machine. That’s the label that Jennifer’s solo stuff is on but Sugarland is on Universal so we combined them. Scott works with Taylor and I guess he’d let the cat out of the bag to her a little bit before anybody else that there was a chance we were going to try to make a Sugarland record and I guess she went and got the song and was like “here! I’ve got a song for them!” It was pretty funny. I’ve never worked with these people but I mean, Taylor, we all came up together at the same time. So weirdly, we know her and her parents from all of us starting out. She’s really hit the home run on her career.
None of that though has a real factor in this. [For me] it was like that’s great, but what’s it like to sing someone else’s song on your record? So [initially] I had to put the stop on it. I’m sure I was the bad guy. But I had to say “hey everybody, no, not until we write a record I’m not sure [the song] is going to fit.” The more we got into the album the more it was a conversation about how I wanted my daughter to see the world. We got to the end of the recording session very quickly. We recorded the album in four days. On the fourth day, we realized this is song is totally going to work because of the attitude of the narrator. It’s very “well buddy, I’m sorry because you missed a good thing.” I thought, I totally want [my daughter] to sing that. I want her to have that language. Then we recorded “Babe” and I produced it a little differently than the demo. Then I got nervous, like “oh, no did I ruin it?” Is [Taylor] gonna like it? I’m probably going to have to send it to her. I was such a nervous little Nellie. I mean I had hit records on the charts, but I was nervous! Just because I’d never recorded someone else’s song as an artist. So we sent it to her. She listened to it and thank goodness she liked it. Then she said that she’d really like to be involved. So now it’s what it is now [Taylor Swift is a featured singer on the song]. I think it’s really cool.
BYT: It is cool because it still sounds like a Sugarland song. That must be such a relief with this being your first venture into recording someone else’s song.
KB: It’s really cool because [Taylor] is a fan. She knows our before-Universal record. There are very few people that have that “so we could pay our rent” record. It’s super cool.
BYT: I know Taylor loves to bring surprises guests on her tour and she’s got her Reputation tour going the same time as your tour. Any potential she or you will make a special appearance on each other’s tours?
KB: [Laughs] It very well could be…
BYT: You were just touring in Europe and I’m curious how foreign audiences connect to country music? Even though the themes are universal, it’s such an American music genre.
KB: I’m in a unique spot because, for the past 5 maybe 6 years, I’ve been the voice of BBC2 broadcasting of CMA Fest. They run an eight week special in the winter that leads up to the CMA awards. I think the combination of me being a radio host over there and my solo career started over there and the TV show Nashville has somehow romanticized country music in a new way for a lot of European audiences. They’re able to have hand holds and foot holds [in the music] that maybe they hadn’t before. They start to understand that country music is about stories but it’s also an arena art. If you don’t see it in that space you’re just seeing honky tonk music in small bars. Recently, what’s happened in the past 3 or 4 years is that country music has taken these arena tours in Europe and it’s really growing. People are starting to hear it as music and not just country music. Or to claim it as country music and claim it as something they love. Audiences were really great to us because I kept telling them I was in a band and they never believed me! And Jennifer and I were over there separately as solo artists for the past 2 or 3 years, so it was really fun to watch people go “oh my god!” It was really fun, it felt like a supergroup!