"It's a beautiful thing to be missed, and it's a horrible thing to be taken for granted," says Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles, cozying up to a bar in downtown Nashville and explaining why she and Kristian Bush took a hiatus from their acclaimed country duo in 2012.
It's one of the first times she and Bush have sat down for an interview since announcing their return during November's CMA Awards. And if they're honest, they don't regret putting the band on hold.
At the time, a new movement in country was just getting underway, Nettles explains, and Sugarland would likely have had to adapt or risk being left behind. That didn't fit with their art-before-commerce ethos, so having already pushed hard for 10 years and still reeling from the deadly 2011 collapse of their stage during a storm at the Indiana State Fair and the class-action lawsuit that followed, she and Bush simply tapped out.
"I think creatively we were always leaders in the format," she says, "but where I saw us going and where the format was at the time, what I didn't want to happen was for us to take a dive – creatively or in the industry. It felt like a good time to pause and get new juice in ourselves. … But we always left that door open so we could walk back in."
After six years of solo projects and raising families, the juices are finally flowing once again. An anthemic comeback single titled "Still the Same" has been released to pave the way for their return, while a full headlining tour and Sugarland's sixth studio album are waiting in the wings.
According to the band, the timing couldn't be more perfect – for them personally and in the genre as a whole, which seems to have come around to their way of thinking in the last six years.
"The metaphor I would use is that country radio now is a much wider lane," Nettles says. "I think before, we were playing in a wider lane, and because of that sometimes we would get outside of the margins in a way that pushed people. … I mean, we tried to rap on 'Stuck Like Glue' and everybody was like 'What? Rap?' And now it's like 'Sam Hunt! Rap!'"
Ironic as that might be, it works out fine for Nettles and Bush, who say their creative chemistry is just as strong as ever. Their new album is still in its embryonic phase, but "Still the Same" hints at a continuation of their experimental streak by marrying synthesized beats to soaring vocal acrobatics and an atmospheric, U2 feel.
Those influences may seem less challenging to today's status quo, but the single still embodies what Bush describes as a long-standing desire to "lead the genre, not leave the genre" … and it also shows a return to the emotionally driven, deep-thinking songwriting they've favored all along.
"Stay," for example, hit Number Two at country radio in 2007 despite being a molasses-slow cheater's ballad told compassionately from the other woman's point of view. The way it treated women – not one-dimensionally as temptresses or virtuous virgins but as complex, actual people – would still be remarkable today, and proved Nettles was a powerful voice for gender equality long ago.
Since then she's continued to be involved with initiatives like CMT's Next Women of Country, and with women around the nation coming forward to share their experiences of sexual misconduct, Nettles says her and Bush's female-fronted duo will definitely be weighing in.
"It's been everywhere in our writing," she admits. "I think we're all learning the language of pain right now. For so long we've been kept quiet, and now we are hearing it very loudly. It is our pain as women – first and foremost – and right now many of us in revisiting those wounds are screaming pretty loudly. And we're allowed to do that right now because the volume is directly proportionate to the pain. As a woman I think it's important, and as an artist I take that part seriously."
Fans will likely hear the results of that writing when Sugarland embarks on the Still the Same Tour, which kicks off May 4th in Durant, Oklahoma, and features a supporting cast of Brandy Clark, Lindsay Ell, Clare Bowen and Frankie Ballard. It will mark the duo's first tour in more than five years, and Nettles looks forward to connecting with a new generation of fans.
"There are some people who it's gonna be a complete discovery for, depending on their age," she says. "I chuckle when I read somebody on Twitter say, 'Y'all were my first concert and I was seven years old.'... I'm like, 'Oh my god! How long have we been gone?'"
The duo made their official return to the stage as part of New York City's massive Times Square New Year's Eve celebration – which Nettles described as "like riding a bike in the freezing cold." But tour rehearsals are underway now and Bush says concertgoers will get the full Sugarland experience, with a mix of old hits, new songs and a special sample of what kept them busy during the hiatus. For Nettles, that was the solo albums That Girl and Playing With Fire; for Bush, it was 2015's Southern Gravity.
"We're doing this one thing with songs from our solo records," he explains. "And listening to our band play both is like 'This is awesome!' … It's great, it's that double joy that we're finding where the familiar meets the foreign."
That description – "where the familiar meets the foreign" – seems like a good way to think about where Sugarland is headed this time around. Like the comeback single suggests, their love for music is still the same. But Bush and Nettles both want to treat this part of their careers differently, focusing less on artistic survival and more on statement.
"I think the opportunity to speak some of the things we're going to speak on this record is important," Bush says.
"It's like the ship of Theseus," Nettles adds, digging deep to reference a mythical Greek hero as Bush shakes his head with a smile. "He brings a ship into port and over the years they rebuild it piece by piece. By the end there is not one single piece on it that's the same – so is it the same ship or not? That's the philosophical question, and the answer is 'Yes and no.' We are still the same Sugarland that you love, but we are bringing you so many fun new pieces."