This week, Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles released her debut solo album, That Girl. The 39-year old country singer hunkered down with Rick Rubin at his Malibu, California Shangri-La Studios and recorded 11 tracks that blend pop-country and tinges of soulful R&B with her soaring vocals. She tackles everything from cheaters and broken hearts to Bob Seger’s “Like a Rock.” “I want to be authentic to who I am,” she says about her solo work. “I like to think that there are other emotions and experiences that will allow for diversity. All I can sing about is what I know.” Rolling Stone spoke with Nettles about going out on her own, writing songs about losing your virginity, turning 40 and more.
You’ve been so successful with Sugarland. Is striking out on your own nerve-wracking?
I wouldn’t call it nerve-wracking, but it definitely has a different temperature at times. This album for me was so personal and intimate. When one is collaborating, there’s only so much of one’s intimate self that can be portrayed. There’s always the influence and the inspiration of the other. That being the case, when you put yourself out there, there’s a vulnerability. Do I at times feel vulnerable about it? Absolutely.
The first song on the record, “Falling,” seems like it’s about losing one’s virginity.
It is . . . it is a deflowering.
That’s a bold way to start a record.
[Laughs] Let’s just lose our virginity from the top. It’s always hard when you pick the first of anything – first song on the album, first single. I wanted to select a song that felt sonically and emotionally that’s indicative of what’s throughout the record. I like to be drawn in intimately and then punched in the face. Sonically, it felt that was the right song. It starts out super intimate, and then the band comes in and the rhythm track is ridiculous. Contextually, I didn’t consider that until now. I kinda like it. Why not? There may have been something subconciously involved with that.
Some of the songs incorporate modern references like Twitter and iPads. Was it weird to sing about those things?
No, it isn’t. If I were trying to make it into an emotional ballad and I threw in Twitter, that would be awkward. The fact that it’s in a song that’s essentially making social commentary and trying to use humor to process something that can get really dark – it didn’t feel awkward or inauthentic to me. Social media and the double-edged sword that it can be is a topic for someone in my job. I love the connectedness, and at times I resent the access. The immediacy.
Do you think the public has an accurate sense of who you really are?
There’s energy that has to be expended in being aware of what is put out there. And being aware is how you’re representing yourself in 100 and 40 fucking letters. In some ways, it’s a fun game. As a songwriter, on modern-pop radio I have three and a half minutes to say something. But the awareness it takes to wanting to represent yourself and the power of the immediacy – I think there is a responsibility to . . . I don’t know, that I’m living up to my highest self, even on the Internet.
What are some of the more out-of-the box influences you have these days?
I love Brandy Clark’s new album, 12 Stories. She’s a helluva country songwriter. I love Jason Isbell, what he’s doing. I love the 1975. I’m just digging everything about that whole EP. The whole thing is just sonically so good, and I love their little British-sounding accents. I’m blown away. Bastille is fantastic. I would say some of those two good bookends.
You cover Bob Seger’s “Like a Rock.” You must have one amazing Seger memory from growing up.
You know, all of his songs, man, you know every song. There’s such a sense of nostalgia that he’s good at capturing. I don’t know if I have a specific Bob Seger memory. I just know that all over the radio, all the time, he has woven himself into this tapestry of what I’d consider is my musical history.
You’re turning 40 this September. Do you have a mid-life crisis planned yet?
[Laughs] It would make great writing material, I’m sure. The whole concept is weird. Sometimes I just forget how old I am. In my mind, I’m perpetually 32.