There's a quote that Jennifer Nettles references in the title track of her second solo album, Playing With Fire: "Well-behaved women seldom make history." Over the years, it's been attributed to everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Eleanor Roosevelt (even though it really belongs to historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich), and can now be purchased in handy wall decal form, should your defiance only be limited to interior decorating. In Nettles' version, she tweaks it to be even more direct. "Good girls rarely make history," she lobs in the song co-written with Brandy Clark, transitioning her belt into a spitfire sing-talk.
"For me, that specific lyric and that song is all about transformation," Nettles tells Rolling Stone Country. "And taking the risks to become your best self, and sometimes shake it up. People aren't always going to like it. They don't have to."
Playing With Fire is Nettles' first LP for her new label, Big Machine Records, and also her first since her bandmate in Sugarland, Kristian Bush, released his own solo effort, Southern Gravity. And as its title might indicate, it's meant to be an album about the transformations in life that happen when you take risks – when you play with fire, really, and get up close and personal with the flames. For Nettles, that's the rewards that come with having a child as a working woman, or stepping out from the comfort of a Grammy-winning duo. It's also about being brave enough to honestly discuss the realities of these transitions – Nettles has been open about the challenges of motherhood and the roadblocks women often encounter in the country music sphere. She's not the celebrity to turn to if you want a pristine Instagram image (and song to match) of idyllic parenthood, well-balanced with a quiet, compliant lady who is happy to take "no" for an answer.
"Jennifer is not only one of the best entertainers and singers I've ever worked with," says Clark, who contributed to seven songs on Playing With Fire, "but also a tremendously talented songwriter who is fearless in the places she is willing to go in a song."
"Entertainer" is indeed an appropriate description for Nettles: since the last Sugarland LP, she's starred on Broadway, played the role of Dolly Parton's mother in the hugely successful television adaptation of Coat of Many Colors and appeared in the WGN series Underground. Playing With Fire is also her second solo effort, after 2014's That Girl.
Both Nettles and Bush have said that Sugarland is not done for good, but Playing With Fire doesn't exactly sound like a side project. Whereas That Girl rang like a softer snap in time, this is a stern proclamation of how Nettles defines herself as both a woman and an artist, from the power balladry of the single "Unlove You," to the sassy twang of "Drunk in Heels" that spells out the dirty reality of being both a mother and a breadwinner ("If bring home the bacon, I have to fry it up in a pan"), or the raw peek into her subconscious on "Stupid Girl," which exposes the self-doubt women aren't even supposed to admit that they have.
And then there's "Sugar," a barn-gospel swinger loaded with sassy sexual innuendo ("they're beggin' for a taste of my cherry pie," she fires) that can easily be read as a sly message to anyone curious how Nettles feels about having to sound one way or be a certain thing – and, intentional or not, it's hard to ignore the allusion to her duo. It's not called "Candy," after all; it's called "Sugar," sung by one-half of Sugarland. "Little pink package you put me in/Servin' it up like saccharine/Always had a bitter taste to me," she belts. A little dangerous, maybe, but Playing With Fire doesn't exactly make a case for living by anyone else's rules. Rolling Stone Country sat down with Nettles to talk about expectations, evolution and having to do it all in heels.
"Playing with Fire," which opens the LP, is rife with powerful lyrics, and "good girls rarely make history" is a particularly strong one. It sets a tone for the record. What inspires you about that phrase?
My two favorite questions in life are "what if?" and "why not?" I think it's important to allow ourselves to rewrite the script when our own evolution calls for it. But that also takes courage and bravery, and many times within society it isn't smiled upon for women to grow and evolve in a certain way. We are only just now — and if I say 50 years that's me being generous — 50 years into a place where both women and men can look at each other and ask ourselves the question of who we want to be within the spectrum of true authenticity. We have a much deeper legacy, especially as women, for self-sacrifice.
There's a line in "Drunk in Heels," where you sing, "I ain't saying that it's easier to be a man." But aren't you, really?
Maybe I am! Wink-wink. What I am saying is, within the construct of modern society, women are expected to juggle so many pieces and to make it all look easy, and to look sexy while we're doing it, and to pretend like we love it all, and that is hard. I believe there is an imbalance. I'm not qualifying it in terms of what's good or bad, even though at times it may feel bad to me and that's my perspective, but I do say, there is a difference in being a modern man and a modern woman and how we carry ourselves though the world.
Brandy Clark is an important collaborator on this record, and someone who is also pretty brave when discussing the realities of being a woman in this industry and the modern world as a whole. Were the two of you having casual conversations about your lives and concerns, and turning it into song organically?
For "Unlove You," we were chatting and [Clark] made the comment: "You can't un-ring a bell." And that stuck with me. You can't un-have an experience. You can deny the experience; you can process it and try to get through it, but you can't change the fact that it happened to you. Similarly with "Drunk in Heels," she said, "I have always wanted to write a song about where Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in heels." She lobbed that one out there and I marinated on it. And one day on the tour bus when we were out for the That Girl tour, I had been feeding my son, and this was when I was still breastfeeding him and I was exhausted and tired as a new mother, and exhausted tired from touring, and I was just like, "I'm tired! I'm doing all of this!" And the first verse just descended on me: "Tired, tired, dog ass tired/Tired down to the bone." We as women, as working mothers, are balancing working out of the home and in the home, both of which are enough even on their own. You put then together and, boy, isn't that interesting.
And as a woman in entertainment, you're expected to do everything a man does – but in a gown and heels.
Absolutely. That is a reality for women, especially in the celebrity world. I applaud women, and I did my best and took my time after having a kid, in a healthy way get back to a place where I felt good in my body. But it's not an easy thing to do in any circumstance. But to do with a spotlight and a camera is sometimes a bit more brutal, for sure.
On the duet with Jennifer Lopez, "My House," you explore what unites all families and women, despite what may seem like differences on the surface.
It's really a celebration of all the ways we are alike and what goes on in our houses – they may be spiced differently, they may look different, they may be dressed differently from each other, but at the end of the day the things that keep us up at night, the things that we want for our babies, the kinds of things we enjoy in terms of sitting around with our friends and laughing, we are more alike than we are different.
Do you ever think it's dangerous to talk so openly about what its like to be a female in this industry – or this world, for that matter – and write about it so intimately? Beyoncé does it. But it isn't always safe.
Beyoncé, she is airing it all out and I don't blame her. For me, part of what I do as an artist and as a writer is about helping me process my journey because I do feel a responsibility. I think art, more than anything else, helps humans to synthesize emotion and to synthesize parts of ourselves, so therefore as an artist I feel a responsibility to try and facilitate that synthesis. I feel a responsibility for that just as who I am — I'm not saying every artist needs to feel that way, there is a place for sheer entertainment — I am just speaking to my own experience. So yeah, there is a vulnerability to that, because you are putting your own heart and gut out there in a way for people to digest and experience.
That's especially cogent when talking about someone like the late, great Prince, who made facilitating that synthesis a huge part of his career. People loved him not for his celebrity, but for the boundaries he broke and what his music did emotionally.
What it did emotionally, the permissions it gave us. Not only was he a musical genius, but he changed the trajectory of pop history. And I wonder, is anyone going to ever be able to hold that title of musical genius in the way that he did? No one will ever fill his shoes; no one will ever fill Bowie's shoes. No one will fill Haggard's shoes. But will anyone hold that title in the same way that I believe Prince did? He was a multi-instrumentalist. Kids aren't encouraged, unless they somehow are realized to be prodigies, in the same way with certain instruments. They aren't interested in the same way and they have other options. I wonder. It makes me anxious, and it also makes me feel old that I ask that question. But it is truth that I ask it.
There is also a lot of truth on the song "Stupid Girl," which you wrote solo.
That's, for me, one of the confessionals on the album. There are some that are entertainment, there are some that are storytelling for the sake of creating characters, there are some that are confessional and "Stupid Girl" is one of them. Going back to that script of denying oneself, of sacrificing: How much are we willing to sacrifice, to hold "yourself back, put yourself last, say you're sorry don't make it worse?" Take a deep breath, give them what they want and, for God's sake, smile while you are doing it. That is a special and sacred song on the record.
There's that smart lyrical flip in there: You discover that the narrator's worst enemy — and any woman's, really — can often be herself.
The narrator in it is really, in the beginning, berating herself through someone else's lens of how she looks at herself: How dare you do all these things and live this undivided life, and share your dissatisfaction with something as much as your happiness, and try to celebrate the dark parts as well as the light parts of yourself?
How dare you try to be your best self and enjoy yourself? And then it does turn around, especially in that bridge — there are no answers without questions, how else are you gonna learn the lessons? To ask ourselves those questions, and to put ourselves in those situations that push ourselves, that's what it is about. That isn't stupid at all. Or it might be stupid, but it ain't wrong.