Sugarland Take ‘Incredible’ Leaps With New Album
Country artists have been both lauded and criticized for finding a formula that works and sticking with it, album after album. Sugarland do the exact opposite. The genre-bending, risk-taking, superstar duo simply have too many musical influences to stick to one sound. Nowhere is that more apparent than on their latest album, 'The Incredible Machine.'
This fourth studio effort by the Atlanta-based musical powerhouse, comprised of lead singer Jennifer Nettles and guitarist Kristian Bush, is almost an ode to their teen years. Growing up, they both listened to artists like Blondie, R.E.M., The Cult, Peter Gabriel, The Clash ... all influences heard on various 'Machine' tracks. With all 11 songs co-written by Jennifer and Kristian, the album is a window into both their musical past and future, as their self-described "creative rebirth" draws on the music that made them want to be musicians themselves.
Kristian called The Boot right before Sugarland's last stop on the first leg of their Incredible Machine tour. We talked to the notoriously affable entertainer about early backlash on the album, future tour plans, and the priceless gift he received from Jennifer, which he's re-gifting for fans.
This is arguably a rock record. Were you worried about country radio when making it, or was your mentality more that the rewards are going to far outweigh the risks?
[laughs] We're not from Nashville, and we didn't have any roots within the system there. So we didn't fall into the habits that some [other artists] get into -- and they're good habits, they help you get a record deal. But Atlanta is really a neat place to start as a musician, because you have all these nearby places where you play these clubs -- Athens, Birmingham, Charleston, Greenville -- and they're clubs that are full of all kinds of music. They're clubs where R.E.M., Drivin N Cryin and the Indigo Girls play, and my old band would have regular gigs there, too.
All bands I absolutely loved as a teenager and are still staples on my iPod today! I'm guessing the same is true for you and Jennifer.
That's the whole idea! From an inspiration standpoint, that is this album. When we were writing for it, we'd sit there and play something and remember, "Oh yeah, I love that!" And then we'd press the select button and play something else and talk about, "I love that, too." We play off each other, and that's how we spin our silk. And I don't know if it's Nashville-centric or non-centric, but the skill that we've learned is to continually write, and to foster an audience that encourages writing all the time. Our audiences want something new! I think they would cross their arms and look at us funny if we wrote 'Already Gone' again.
Our hope for this album is for it to just touch as many people as we can reach. That's the mission. This album has a lot of magic in it. We wrote it, recorded it and released it all inside of a year -- the first song was written in January. So these songs are so alive and so fresh.
That's why criticism of the CD's first single, 'Stuck Like Glue,' really surprised me. Sugarland has always pushed the envelope ... but you push it into reggae, throw in some dance moves, and all of a sudden your critics get testy. Did that surprise you, too?
I don't know that it was really surprising. The song is about having fun; it's supposed to make you feel good. Sometimes you try to write a song that you want to change the world, and sometimes you write a song that you want to just change your day! This song is just supposed to change your day, but the fact that it has provoked conversation is OK! Art is supposed to be provocative. If it isn't, it belongs in an elevator.
'Stand Up' has a powerful message. Was it inspired by any particular event?
Not really. There are a lot of messages we put in our songs, and we try to make them honest but subtle. We don't want to beat you over the head with it, because real life isn't like that. Real life has meaning in the smallest thing. Like when I dropped off my daughter at her first day at kindergarten, I heard Kenny Chesney's 'Don't Blink' in the car on the way back. You're finding that really powerful moment, no matter how small, and making it important in your life. 'Stand Up' comes from a long history of activism of the heart. I've been really humbled watching people's reaction to it, because they can write their own script for what they believe in but have not used their voice to say. It's the first song of our encore, and I'll never forget when we played it in Iowa, we got to the first chorus, and everybody in that small town was maybe a little self-conscious about letting go ... because maybe they were all gonna see each other in church that Sunday! [laughs] But we played that song and the whole place stood up as if on command.
'Shine the Light' is a song that Jennifer wrote for you. What was your reaction when she first played it for you?
It's one of the most humbling things ... Jennifer came to me after I'd been having a rough couple of weeks. She said, "I wrote you a song." I said, "You did what?!" [laughs] And she said, "You're gonna want to sit down for this." And she played it for me, and I just wept. I sat there backstage in the dressing room and cried ... So now I have to figure out a word that rhymes with Jennifer! [laughs]
Unlike about 99% of country artists, you have never put your picture on the cover of a studio album. Is there an artistic reason for that?
It never made sense to us why you'd put your picture on the cover of an album. If not for the pure embarrassment of 15 years later, looking back at your hair or whatever you were wearing. But from the beginning, it was a conversation about band theory. What do you need to have a great band? Well, you need a cool T-shirt, good songs ... I mean, I don't think I ever saw Drivin N Cryin or Lynyrd Skynyrd on the cover of a record.
Tell me about your emotions going into tonight, the last night of the tour.
The whole idea was to tour the record before it comes out. So we have been playing half the record every night, and the crowd, for the most part, doesn't know any of these songs. It's like playing as a brand-new band. It's been really interesting watching people connect to these songs. But we'll take the same staging and go back out next year, in February or March. And then you'll get to see the songs that the stage was actually developed for. We were designing this tour at the same time we were writing the songs. There's this weird, mystical connection; parts of the album are sewn together in ways we're still discovering. Songs really come to life on this set -- the set becomes a part of the song. So the sadness of ending the tour tonight is more a feeling of like we're jumping off one rollercoaster and about to jump on another.
Your now 5-year-old daughter inspired the melody for 'All I Want to Do.' Were any songs inspired by your kids on this new record, and what's their favorite song?
The first point on the record when I think about them is in 'Stand Up.' One day when we were writing, I was down in my basement going through the melody of that first chorus, and [my daughter] Camille was dancing behind me. It was a beautiful moment. I always thought having a family and being a musician just wasn't possible. It brought me such joy to being free to create while she's just dancing around. In the demo, you can hear her saying, "Daddy, can I sing into that mic? [mocking daughter singing] Stand up, stand up, stand up!" Those tapes will never come out, but I'll never forget that moment.