Jennifer Nettles examines the core values where musical theatre and country music meet and from there, releases a truly ground breaking record.
Country music and musical theatre have a common theme – the lyrics always tell a story. I was overjoyed when I heard the news that one of my very favourite country singers, Jennifer Nettles was to release an album of Broadway showstoppers. The powerful sound of Jennifer Nettles unique voice has often captured the hearts of country fans all over the world. Her songwriting prowess has been a focal point too and rightly so. Nettles ability to tell a story through her detailed lyrics has earned her countless awards including two grammy’s as part of her work with Sugarland. More recently Nettles has enjoyed releasing solo albums and has embarked upon an acting career having portrayed Dolly Parton’s mum in ‘Coat of Many Colours’ and Roxie Hart in the Broadway cast of ‘Chicago’. ‘Always Like New’ allows Nettles to explore those similarities between two of her greatest loves, country music and theatre.
Nettles career began long before her time in Sugarland “Even though people knew me in popular or mainstream culture, as a country musician, I was an independent singer-songwriter for ten years before I started writing country music.” Nettles begins, “I started singing when I was six years old. My mother always had music on in our house. I had a young mother, she was twenty when she had me so she was always hip and cool. We listened to current pop radio, so all of those strong female voices at the time in the 70’s and 80s like Linda Ronstadt, Stevie Nicks, Rita Coolidge, Juice Newton. Those fantastic voices were all apart of my musical foundations along with southern gospel.” And like many American singers who grew up in the southern states, Nettles first stage was in church. “I started singing in church, in the children’s choir doing little solos and so I always loved music. From that point forward I was lucky enough that the children choir director at church told my mother that I had some sort of musical aptitude and that I should have piano lessons, PS she was also the only piano teacher in town so it worked out well for her!” Nettles laughs.
Not content just with her natural ability for music, Nettles spent much of her school and college days honing in on her talent. “I started taking piano lessons and loved that. I continued all throughout school, high school and college with various instruments such as flute, piano, guitar and obviously singing, my voice is my primary instrument.” Nettles says. She worked harder than most to follow her dreams for as long as she could; “When you’re a kid, sure you can have dreams but theres no book or direct path to become a successful musician. There’s a path if you want to be a doctor, there’s a path if you want to be a lawyer, theres no clear path for being an artist.” But Nettles, who had continued to study and enjoy theatre found she had to make a choice. “I got to a point in college where I had to choose did I want to pursue music or did I want to pursue theatre and I’d been playing out in clubs and been writing my own material and had a bit of traction going on in Atlanta so I focused on music and I’m so happy I did in so many ways but at the same time I always loved theatre and wanted to return to that.”
As Nettles transitioned from the singer-songwriter scene to the country scene, a common theme prevailed. The lyrics were at the heart of Nettles music and those lyrics told a story. I was keen to hear about her process of crafting a song. “It’s interesting it’s always the same and it’s always different in the sense that sometimes I may come across something that inspires me as a storyteller that I may want to incorporate. For the most part I usually sit down with an instrument, usually the piano and a lot of it will start with a melody that will then inspire a lyric and if I’m writing on my own it’s usually something thats happened in my life or that I’ve read or observed. It always happens differently in the sense that some of them happen quickly, some of them come and I have to craft them, I know where I want them to go but I have to come back and revisit if they don’t quite come in that first session of expression. It’s different and it’s pretty similar at the same time.” Nettles was the solo writer of Sugarland’s signature hit song ‘Stay’ which earned the band two Grammy’s, two ACM’s, a CMA and a CMT award!
To tell a story
This latest album, ‘Always Like New’ gave Nettles the chance to come back and explore theatre again. In recent years she has gravitated towards acting as she was applauded for her portrayal of Dolly Parton’s mum in the NBC special ‘Coat of Many Colours’. In 2015 she got her own taste of Broadway as she joined the cast of the musical Chicago, where she played ‘Roxie Hart’ to rave reviews! “What singer-songwriter, country and musical theatre all have in common – you hit the nail on the head – they’re all about storytelling. Contrary to what pop music is – it’s very fun and youthful – but it’s lyric content and storytelling is quite limited, they’re love songs or breakup songs, they’re quite juvenile and that’s partly because successful, current pop stars are of a certain age. Theres a direct line for me as an artist as I’ve continued to evolve, that really is the common thread for me – storytelling. Whether that’s in my writing or my interpretation on a concert stage, theatre stage or in front of the camera. All of that is to continue to expand as an artist where storytelling is concerned.”
‘Always Like New’ is a phenomenal record due to Nettles interpretation of these well-known showstoppers! She manages to inject her personality, her passion and her roots into these songs whilst staying true to the original compositions. She really makes each song her own. “The concept of the album was, out of such a deep love of the musical format, to say what are songs that we can rearrange in such a way to both pay homage to their original creation but also allow for a rediscovery and to hear the song differently and perhaps anew. Theatre lovers are very precious and protective of the music that is a part of that legacy and rightfully so we were very particular and very careful to make the right choices in that way. ” Nettles worked with Alex Lacamoire and Adam Zotovich to seek out, arrange and produce songs that fit the criteria. “the criteria for each of the songs was ‘does this both honour the original whilst being different enough from the original?’ It was important to make a different impact or make a new statement.” Nettles continues.
She certainly achieved that goal with stand out tracks Wait For It from the 11x Tony award winning musical Hamilton and Tomorrow from the classic musical Annie. “We knew that we wanted to have a balance on this album of not only the classics but to have some contemporary, modern theatre represented as well. What better production to choose from than Hamilton!” Nettles exclaims. “For Wait For It, I knew that I wanted to do a song that had some appellation, a sort of drone-y, southern quality to it. There’s an edge to that song. The vibe of it both in it’s production and composition, leaned towards being interpreted in that swampy, minor feel, with a slide guitar – really spooky and witchy is how I describe it.” Nettles says as she describes the changes herself and Lacamoire made to the song which really connects her country and theatre roots together. This was helped by the fusion of musicians that were involved on this project. “One of the beautiful parts about recording this album, not only from the beginning did we have the collaborative efforts between myself and Alex, we had the collaborative effort between the different musicians that play on this record. I brought in some of my own musicians that I have worked with for years out on the road, Scott Patton, Andy Keenan, Josh Day, they play with me in my solo shows, and they bring their own sensibilities. Alex brought in some of his musicians from New York and the theatre world with whom he’d worked with in the past. When they came together it was this beautiful cross section, this beautiful melting of styles.”
The sun will come out tomorrow
“Many of them like Oh What A Beautiful Morning or Loverly or Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat were vocal arrangements that I had had in my head for years over the years of loving musicals and those particular songs.” Nettles continues, “If you think about Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat the original is very like snappy and classic musical and then when you hear it reinterpreted on this album it’s very like jazzy with a gospel choir, it has a groove with a back-beat, It’s soulful.” The album concludes with a captivating rendition of the well known tune Tomorrow from the 1982 musical Annie. The emotions and the story Nettles conveys in her interpretation are quite different from that of the original and it sounds so very timely with what has gone on in the world in the last 15 months. “Tomorrow was the last one we recorded and ironically we recorded the last note of that song on March 12th 2020 which was the day broadway closed for the pandemic. Everyone was just getting a sense of, something serious is going on. It felt really cosmic, it was beyond coincidental. I had gone to Alex and said the first album that I ever owned was the soundtrack to little orphan Annie, which tells you a lot right there! So I wanted to do something from that show if we could. When I listened to the song and I listened to the lyrics, I thought this could really take a sombre tone and when I mentioned this to Alex he immediately had a reference in his mind from some music he’d been a fan of for some time which involved this spooky piano part and it took on such a spirit in a beautiful way.”
There has always been a theatricality to Nettles music though, the way she delivers certain songs both in a live setting and on a studio recording, is dramatic. From her days in Sugarland, songs such as Wishing from ‘Love On The Inside’ had the right amount of vulnerability in the soft, emotional verses and built up to more of a desperate, longing plea towards the end of the song; all conveyed by a flawless vocal performance from Nettles. In her solo releases, the humour is evident in Drunk In Heels from her vocal tone as well as the lyrics. However, the most obvious example comes from His Hands from the ‘That Girl’ album. “It is a very dramatic and theatrical performance because the song is powerful, the subject matter is powerful. It’s about an abusive relationship and therefore the stakes are very high. That’s dramatic. I love that you brought that song up because that’s an example of the juxtaposition between a country artist in this case and a pop musician. There’s a definite relationship between the composition of the song, the story and character and the way in which you deliver it – becoming the character in the song when you perform it.” A performance she did of this song with Brandy Clark only emphasises the intensity of the songs story. “Music is supposed to be a communal, social, live event that was to be experienced together, in person.”
The next Broadway breakthrough?
During the pandemic Nettles, inspired in part by the songs she has selected for this album, spent time working on a musical of her own. Nettles is a phenomenal songwriter and as this record tells us, a passionate musical theatre fan so it was always on the cards that the Georgia native may explore crafting her own musical. “That kind of songwriting is much more intricate and vast” she begins, “I came across this story a few years ago and wanted to write about this very extraordinary woman. I thought she should sing when I heard her story, this year in particular, heaven knows we had a lot of time on our hands that was thrust upon us and I enjoyed diving into another world – the world of this musical that allowed me to escape what was going on around us at the time. These things take a long time but the process has been started now for a few years so I have much of the music and lyrics written. We’re in the process of considering who will write the book, or as some people call it the script and I’m continuing to discover more of this story on my own from a musical perspective too!”
From having to make a choice in college of whether to pursue music or theatre, Nettles has come full circle and is forging her own path which incorporates both. The depth of knowledge Nettles has on music and the power of storytelling, along with her passion for both country and musical theatre is what will ultimately help this ground breaking album succeed. This record highlights just what a phenomenal vocalist Nettles is, perhaps one of the greatest of our time. She of course has that distinct tone due to her accent which I love, but looking past that, her control and technique cannot be faulted. Her emotive vocal performance and her and Lacamoire’s vision with the production and arrangement make ‘Always Like New’ a flawless and unique record – an absolute must-have within any music fans collection.
YOU CAN READ THE FULL ARTICLE IN THE LATEST ISSUE OF MAVERICK MAGAZINE AVAILABLE HERE!