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Jennifer Nettles talks Taylor Swift, Brandy Clark, 'Playing With Fire,' 'Coat of Many Colors' and more



Here’s your early Christmas present from Jennifer Nettles: A whole bunch of Jennifer Nettles.

“There’ll be a lot of me on your television throughout the holiday season,” Nettles laughed by phone en route to a tour rehearsal in Nashville. “So keep an eye out.”

On Dec. 3, the Grammy-winning Sugarland singer will return for her sixth stint hosting CMA Country Christmas, a star-studded holiday special on ABC. One week later, she’ll star as Dolly Parton’s mother, Avie Lee, in NBC’s Coat of Many Colors, based on Parton’s autobiographical song of the same name.

You’ll have to wait until spring for Nettles’ second solo album, Playing With Fire, which follows 2014’s breezy, folk-poppy That Girl; and her first on Big Machine Records, the home of Taylor Swift and Tim McGraw. And you'll have to wait longer still for any new music from Sugarland, as both Nettles and bandmate Kristian Bush seem content going their separate ways for a while.

“We’re still doing our solo projects,” Nettles said. “He just put a record out and has been touring wildly for that, and seems to be enjoying it very much. We’re both enjoying figuring ourselves out from a solo perspecive.”

In the meantime, Nettles returns to Clearwater on Saturday for her second concert at Ruth Eckerd Hall in 20 months — both times, with Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Brandy Clark in tow. (Tickets are $43.75 and up; click here for details.) This week, she talked about Playing With Fire, her secret love of hip hop and more.

You have new music coming out next year. How much will we hear at this show? How much will your show change from the last time you were at Ruth Eckerd Hall?

The good thing is, sonically, the music itself sort of dictates each show. This record is sonically much fuller, I would say, so it’s gonna allow for a lot more fun from a production standpoint. That Girl was a wonderfully organic and intimate record. And this new album, Playing With Fire, is gonna be a much fuller sound. I think it’s much more indicative of my voice and where I want to be and where I find myself now as a solo artist. It takes a little while to establish that.

Do you have any details you can share about your new album? Collaborators? Songwriting partners?

I did a god bit of writing with Brandy Clark, who was my tourmate out on That Girl. I did some writing with her and Shane McAnally, and they ware both fantastic writers. If you look at the list of their accolades as songwriters, they’re basically gangstas. It was produced by Dan Huff, who I had the pleasure of working with years ago when I recorded Bon Jovi’s Who Says You Can’t Go Home. He has an incredible ability to take an artist and elevate her to not only the best part of what she is, but also make it super-palatable from a mainstream perspective. I loved working with him.

The last time you came to Clearwater, you did His Hands with Brandy Clark, which was a powerful performance. How does performing His Hands with her change the dynamic of that song?

I originally wrote it and wanted it to be a duet on That Girl. I just couldn’t find the right person and the right opportunity by the time it was being recorded to be able to make that happen, so I just made it a solo song. Luckily it works as both. But the original intention was for it to be a duet. So when I knew that I was going to be going out with Brandy, and her being a female — because it was meant to be for two females, this song — I thought, what a wonderful opportunity for us to get to collaborate together and sing on this song; for me to finally have my dream as a duet for this song.

When I interviewed her earlier this year, I asked her about His Hands, and she said she was so intimidated to get up there and do it. She’s a wonderful songwriter, but was still coming into her own as a performer, and to step out on stage with you, who has this voice from the heavens, she said, “I was kind of nervous, I didn’t know if I could actually pull that off.”

Aw, she’s so sweet! She’s a fantastic singer. Obviously, stylistically, we are very different, but she can hold her own. She’s being modest.

How is production going on Coat of Many Colors? Has it wrapped filming?

Oh, yeah, it’s wrapped, it’s done. It was so cathartic for me. I feel so super-spoiled for it to have been my first experience from a full-length film standpoint. From the perspective of a storyteller, it was amazing, because as a singer-songwriter, you have the opportunity to tell a story in modern pop music for three and a half minutes. You get to be that character for that long to try to connect with an audience. I love, from the standpoint of an actor, to really dig into a character, to get to play with more nuance and subtlety, to get to know her so much more than three and a half minutes, to know so much of her story. I just loved the whole experience.

How is life in the Big Machine family? Is it all Taylor Swift all the time?

No, luckily. As with any good group, I am so honored to be a part of a label that has such fantastic talent and has had such success and acclaim. Yet what they also do very well is focus on each individual artist, so I have much more felt their attention than I have felt (merely) a knowing presence. Although I would love it if Taylor Swift were there! Don’t get me wrong. I would love to be right there with her. But no, luckily, I’m able to feel supported by that whole team.

As someone who’s straddled the worlds of pop and country, how do you view Taylor Swift’s career unfolding over the next five to 10 years?

Clearly, that young woman is navigating it all very well. I think she has navigated her transition from being a girl, really, when she started out, into turning into a young woman, and that is not an easy transition to navigate. I think she has navigated it with grace and continues to remain true to herself, continues to be able to provide music that her fan base relates to, while at the same time growing and getting new fans who not only evolve with her, but who are of her age or older. She’s doing just fine, honey. She doesn’t need any advice from me.

Do you have any favorite pop songs to cover these days? The last time  you were here, you covered Imagine Dragons’ Demons.

Without giving away all of the surprises in the show, I definitely have pop songs that I love listening to on the radio. Interestingly enough, when I came into reheasrsal yesterday — I also love rap music very much, and I love Jay Z and I love Kanye — and I was saying, who is current that fills that same sort of space for me, that lyrically has that same type of content, that’s also sonically of that nature? I’m interested. If any of you young people out here reading this article want to pass on via Twitter or otherwise who might be good in the rap world right now, I’m looking for new inspiration there.

Have you ever been asked to sing the hook on a rap song?

No, I have not. Though I would love to. That would be awesome.

That’s suddenly all I want to hear right now, is you singing with, like, Kendrick Lamar.

Make it happen! Put it out in the universe! You know people! Write somebody!

-- Jay Cridlin

[Last modified: Monday, October 19, 2015 9:24pm]


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