Jennifer Nettles
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In Conversation: Jennifer Nettles

By Helen M Jerome

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Jennifer Nettles is sitting on her couch in her Pennsylvania country home, bubbling over with enthusiasm when she talks about her extremely busy past year. She’s just about to release a new album of Broadway covers, Always Like New, on which she embraces her lifelong passion for musical theatre, working alongside Alex Lacamoire, the arranger, composer and musical director on everything from Hamilton and In The Heights to Dear Evan Hansen.

Then there’s an exciting period musical of her own bubbling away, exploring the story of the infamous 17th Century Italian poisoner Giulia Tofana. Plus, she’s been collaborating with Mexican artist Noel Schajris on a Spanish-English album and is a judge on the (frankly crazy) TV talent contest, Go-Big Show, alongside Snoop Dogg. To paraphrase Hamilton, the woman is non-stop!

Nevertheless, Nettles has been based in this exact spot for the majority of the pandemic, with a studio space to roll up her sleeves and write in. It’s her little cave and haven, crammed with her piano and various other instruments. She might be best known as one half of superstar country duo Sugarland, but she’s clearly having a splendid time chatting about all these solo projects. “I’m talking about music and me,” she says, tongue-in-cheek, “what’s not to love?”

When did your love of musicals start?

My earliest memory of musical theatre is from the first album I ever owned that my mom (or Santa) gave me: the soundtrack to Annie. Like so many young women of my generation, I grew up loving it and screaming through ‘Tomorrow’. The song makes an appearance on Always Like New, but now I'm not screaming at all! It’s a super sombre, very mature, almost lonely ‘Tomorrow’; it’s a beautiful sentiment to explore musically.

When I was in the third grade I got on an Amtrak train in Jessop, a small town in south Georgia, with my aunt and uncle. We went hours and hours and hours and hours up to New York City to see A Chorus Line, which was my first actual Broadway musical. I was mesmerised and enchanted by the world it created - and I was scandalised by some of the material, which is a bit heady for a third grader! I loved it and have so many memories of doing musical theatre as a kid in school and college.

How did the idea of a Broadway covers record come to you?

I’ve always wanted to make a record like this. It’s interesting, once someone gets into the machine of success – or as I call it, “the gilded silo of success” – it’s sparkling, shiny and beautiful, but it’s a silo nonetheless. It requires a ton of energy and takes on a life of its own, and to get off that hamster wheel you have to make a conscious choice. Back in 2015, I made my Broadway debut in Chicago and loved that experience. I’m thankfully at that part of my career now where I’ve been able to make those choices.

How did you hook up with ‘Lackety Lac’ - aka Alex Lacamoire - to collaborate on this album?

I’d been sharing my ideas with my executive producer, Adam Zotovich, and said I’d love to be able to do this theatre record. I could hear all these songs reimagined, all these arrangements in my head. He said I had to meet Alex, who I knew of, but had never met. So, we connected and I shared voice notes and ideas from my phone on ways I'd arrange and sing the songs – specifically ‘Oh What A Beautiful Mornin’’, ‘Sit Down You’re Rockin’ The Boat’ and ‘Wouldn’t It Be Loverly’.

He looked at the idea, loved the concept and jumped right on board. We dove in amongst our other projects and would meet up either at his studio or send voice notes back and forth. I think we both really enjoyed the expansiveness of being able to celebrate this beloved canon of music in such a way that allowed us to express our own musicality, while at the same time paying homage to the original compositions.

Am I right in detecting some countrified arrangements on tracks like ‘Wait For It’ and ‘Anyone Can Whistle’?

Yes and no. On some of the tracks you’ll hear gospel and on ‘Wait For It’ you have a really swampy feel. I’m from the South and this swampy, witchy, Southern vibe is super accessible for me. We specifically wanted to have a song on the album that offered that sort of witchy drone, and also wanted covers from current Broadway shows that are happening now, so Alex introduced the idea of ‘Wait For It’ and doing it in this swampy, vibey way.

It’s interesting you bring up ‘Anyone Can Whistle’ because when I hear that guitar – dare I say this? I don’t know what sacred ground I’m walking on right now – but to me that guitar part sounds almost like the Beatles’ ‘Blackbird’.

It’s quite a coup to have Brandi Carlile involved in the project, duetting on ‘It All Fades Away’ from The Bridges Of Madison County!

What an absolute talent! What a gift and voice Brandi has, not only as a vocalist but also as an artist. I knew that I’d love to have a collaboration on here with someone outside of musical theatre, so as to allow the music to expand to people who may not already know it. There are those of us who know it and love it – some people are wildly and wonderfully precious about it – but I wanted to allow that expansion to continue outside the form.

I thought both of Brandi and of Jason Robert Brown, who wrote Bridges Of Madison County, Parade and The Last Five Years. I love this song and wanted him to be represented so we were celebrating not only specific productions, but also iconic composers, like Jason. Being a fan of Brandi, I could hear her voice on it and thought she’d be the perfect collaborator – and it turns out she was.

What made you choose to record the multi-voice song from Dear Evan Hansen, ‘You Will Be Found’?

I love that show. Also, just to connect the dots, my executive producer Adam Zotovich is the producer on Dear Evan Hansen, so there’s some connectivity. I’ve seen the show and sobbed through it numerous times. ‘You Will Be Found’ is so beautiful and emotional even in itself – you have to think about which songs can withstand being outside the context of the shows for which they were written. I think we can all relate to the lyrics, even if you don’t know Dear Evan Hansen. It’s a beautiful song musically and lyrically, and I was singing all the parts… so when I perform it live, I won’t know which person I should be singing at which point!

Will there be a Volume Two – and did you discard much?

There wasn’t a lot that ended up on the cutting room floor. We knew pretty clearly and early on with any song we were approaching, “Yes, this is working - this sounds like it fits our criteria to honour the original composition, but re-imagine it in a way that allows for new discovery”. We would try some and feel that they sounded too close to the original, not expansive enough, not fresh or different enough. We held ourselves to that high bar of selection.

That being said, the whole musical theatre canon that exists is vast. There’s a lot to choose from and I’d love to do a second volume. As this project gets out there – and depending on the response and all the other projects that are swirling – I would love to revisit it, because the whole experience has been so rewarding.

How did the story of 17th century Italian poisoner Giulia Tofana – who helped women poison their husbands undetected – grab you as the idea for a stage musical?

I found her while researching online! I’m really interested in what I call the “hidden half of history”; the stories of women. History itself is limited in being written by conquerors, colonialists, white males. But who is going to tell the stories of all these women we’ve missed? How would the world be different if we’d already heard these stories? We hear stories of men who do brave, outlandish or horrible things and are celebrated. But imagine if we were to be able to hear about women and what they were doing at that time. Women are brave and all of the other things men can be, so I’m always super interested in those stories.

I came across an article about the first women who were politically executed, and Giulia Tofana was among them. Women have been murdered forever, but this was during a time when church and state had a lot of power. Then I started digging more into her story and thought: this woman absolutely needs to sing. So sing she will!

So you’ve written 12 individual poisoning songs for this musical during this pandemic?

Yes; not just related to the poisonings, but the different characters too. She had a band of women who worked for her, and the church and state were involved, so it’s about all of these institutions. There’s a lot of musical exploration into how she came to be, those who support her and those who are her nemesis. I feel pretty excited, but I don’t know how off-Broadway or out-of-town I’ll do it. We’ll decide once it gets to a certain point.

On a different note, this Go-Big Show TV series that you’ve been a judge on – alongside Snoop Dogg! – sounds nuts?

Yes, it was absolutely wild! It’s basically like carnival sideshow meets monster trucks. It’s super fun, and what a gift to have been invited to be a part of that project, especially during the pandemic. It was a wild ride and such a gift to be able to get out of ourselves for a moment and offer people entertainment, excitement and fun.

Finally, what’s next for Sugarland?

Obviously Sugarland is such a huge part of my artistic heart and career, but timing-wise I don’t know right now. I’ve got this album and the poison project, plus a Spanish-English album collaboration with a Mexican artist named Noel Schajris. So that's where I’m putting my heart and focus right now. I have an extreme love for all of this, but my body can only be in one place at one time. I’m only one person!

Jennifer Nettles new album, Always Like New, is out June 25th via Concord. Listen to her interpretation of 'Oh What A Beautiful Mornin'' below.