Jennifer Nettles Charts Her Own Course of Personal Exploration With Fiery New Album
That’s a scary thought when you take into consideration everything the 41-year-old has already accomplished in her career. It’s even scarier when you look at what she’s done in the last two years.
The female half of the Grammy-winning duo Sugarland topped the BillboardCountry Albums chart in 2014 with her solo debut record, That Girl. Since then, she’s tackled the role of Roxie Hart in the Broadway production of Chicago andstarred as the matriarch of Dolly Parton’s family in the made-for-television movieCoat of Many Colors. She also reprised her role as host of CMA Country Christmas for the sixth year in 2015; she headlined the CMT Next Women of Country Tour from January to April 2016; she was recently named spokesperson for General Mills’ Outnumber Hunger campaign; and she been a mom to her 3-year-old son, Magnus.
It’s exhausting just to think about all of it, let alone do it.
On top of all that, she found some “free time” to write and record a new album,Playing With Fire, which drops today (May 13). The 12-song offering, of which Jennifer wrote or co-wrote 10 tunes, is a twangy, soaring, theatrical mix of everything you’d expect from the dynamo after 2014’s That Girl.
“When I compare the two albums, when I think of That Girl, even sonically for example, I have to put it in the context of myself and my life of art imitating life,” says Jennifer during a sit-down with NCD at a house on Nashville’s Music Row. “When I wrote and recorded My Girl, I had a 5-month-old son. That, in and of itself, is such a transformative process. There’s a big veil the first couple of years, especially for new mothers, of sleep depravation and identity crisis, at least for me, so I think that album was beautiful and perfect for what I needed it to be in terms of I wanted to feel myself and write and sing songs that felt good to write and sing and record. Sonically, it was much more sparse and organic and raw sounding.
Playing With Fire Track Listing
“Playing With Fire”
“Drunk in Heels”
“Three Days in Bed”
“Way Back Home”
“My House” (feat. Jennifer Lopez)
“Fast forward to Playing With Fire, I’ve now had a couple of years to reemerge from that veil of early motherhood, start rediscovering myself in this new context of what it is to balance being a new mom and working, and so I have a lot more to say, I think.”
There are thematic highs and lows throughout the album, but’s there’s also a palpable balance, evidenced in songs like the heartfelt “Stupid Girl,” the fun-loving “Drunk in Heels,” the heartbreaking “Unlove You,” the sassy “Playing With Fire” and the energetic “My House,” which features Jennifer Lopez on vocals and was co-written by the Jennifers. That’s a lot of discovery on one album.
“Well, I’m still discovering, I think, and part of it is a process, and that’s what this record, Playing With Fire, shows,” says Jennifer. “It’s an exploration of my process, right now. There are songs on it like ‘Stupid Girl’ and ‘Way Back Home’ that are very confessional about the journeys that I’m on within myself in terms of my heart and my sprit. There are songs like ‘Drunk in Heels’ that celebrate the day to day of what it is to balance and juggle everything, both working outside the home and in the home. So there are a lot of different themes, but I think the overarching one is of exploration and transformation.”
In addition to the J.Lo collaboration, the album’s other outlier is the fact that songbird Brandy Clark co-wrote seven tracks. Brandy toured with Jennifer previously, and she was featured on this year’s CMT Next Women of Country Tour with Jennifer, Lindsay Ell and Tara Thompson.
“Brandy Clark is all over this record in terms of co-writes,” says Jennifer as she cracks a big smile. “As I like things to go within my art, organically, that came about. She was with me when I toured for the record for That Girl. So we got to know each other there, both as friends and as writers. You know, she’s a fantastic writer, and what I came to know and love is the way that our sensibilities meshed together and match in terms of each of our musical influences that we both share and have in common, and those that we don’t, at the same time. I think it creates a very unique sound whenever we come together, and plus, too, just as a writer, she’s so fantastic at getting to kernels of truth and really turning a phrase that will break your heart. I loved writing with her and she’s all over the record.”
“I’m on tour right now until the middle of June, and then I have some stuff I’ve been sniffing around and invited on in terms of the TV and acting world,” says Jennifer. “I hope to do that late summer and into the fall. I really hope that this record does so well that I look at myself and say, ‘Jennifer, you’d really be stupid if you don’t go tour for another couple months at the end of the year.’ But yes, I’m still feeding those acting fires, they’re still burning and are proving to return their warmth. And also in the Broadway world, I’m hoping maybe in 2017 to get back and beat the boys again, as they say.”
With Her “Reckless” New Album, Martina McBride Finds
a “Classic Sound With a Modern Feel”
Martina McBride isn’t one to go into a panic when faced with a wardrobe decision, like some hapless character in a bad sitcom. She stays relatively calm and analytical when perusing a rack of blouses and pants, enough to placate at least one of the real housewives of a certain locale. Several pairs of shoes occupy a large space nearby, beckoning to be matched and coordinated.
She’s not having to choose for a night on the town or an important industry function. Instead, Martina is running through these wonderful clothing options on the main floor of the elegant Sinema restaurant (the spot once housed a movie theater, hence the name), located in the now-trendy Eighth Ave. corridor of Nashville. She’s posing in a variety of outfits for Nash Country Daily with the patience of a pro and a supermodel’s confidence. Many artists tend to find the process, which comes with multiple set-ups and in-between down time, as a test of their mettle, but Martina seems to relish it all.
Following a busy morning of shooting, Martina relaxes in an upstairs area of Sinema to reflect on her new album,Reckless, touring, family and other timely topics. Reckless is Martina’s first album for Nash Icon Records and was released on April 29.
“Well, that was fun,” Martina says with a bright smile, summing up the photo shoot. “But they are always a little tiring.” But not exhausting enough to keep Martina from sharing some nuggets about Reckless. Martina notes that she feels the same way about this album as her other previous works, in that she almost didn’t want to turn it loose.
“It seems like I’m never finished with a record,” Martina concedes with a gentle laugh. “I was listening to [Reckless] last night and I’m wondering, ‘Is it too late to make any changes?’ It’s just a perspective thing. When it’s your record, you’re always picking it apart. There is so much minutiae that goes into a record. People have no idea.” But a smile soon spreads as she assesses her latest work. “I’m sure I’ll love it after a while, and after I have a chance to live with it,” Martina says. “I always do.”
View Reckless on WETv
Several albums in Martina’s catalog have evolved around certain thematic messages. Evolution in 1997 reflected a liberation of sorts, a willingness to expand her horizons. Her self-titled seventh album, released in 2003, served as a celebration of womanhood, with such selections as “This One’s for the Girls” and “In My Daughter’s Eyes.” If Reckless had a theme, and Martina insists that it was never planned that way, it would come down to the word “Love.” And that’s love in all its many consequences, the highs and lows and varying degrees of emotion. “I didn’t really think of this as having a theme,” Martina says after a brief pause. “But if you had to think of it in a certain way, love would certainly be the theme.” The title track, for instance, reminds her of meeting her husband John and the two of them packing all their belongings and moving to Nashville.
“Another one I love is ‘The Real Thing,’” Martina notes. “That talks about love in a different way.” The lyrics bemoan modern touches like artificial sweeteners, spray tans and cyber clouds, contrasting those with real relationships and the power of true love. “It’s such a modern idea when it talks about ‘reality shows’ and ‘digital streams,’ but it’s set against this really rootsy, very country sound,’ Martina says. “I think it’s a cool juxtaposition.” Americana mainstay Buddy Miller joins Martina on “The Real Thing,” providing backing vocals.
Contrast that message with one of the album’s high points, “Low All Afternoon,” written by Hailey Whitters, one of “The Real Thing” co-writers. The song centers around lost love, as a woman realizes that her man is committed to someone else, leaving her with the realization that “there’s no consolation prize.” But the woman is encouraged to not “hang low all afternoon” and to pick up the discarded fragments of her life.
“That was one that was sent to me and I just loved it from the first time I heard it,” Martina recalls. “I loved the story and the way it was written, comparing the woman to a weeping willow, was truly unique and very picturesque. It sort of plays out like a movie.”
Martina’s evolvement as a well-rounded artist shone through with her 2007 album,Waking up Laughing, the first record in which she wrote some of the tracks. She also wrote for follow-up albums Shine and Eleven, the later released in 2011 and containing 11 songs. Martina told Country Weekly Magazine upon the release ofEleven that she had grown more confident in her ability as a songwriter.
That string has been halted somewhat with Reckless. Martina has no writing credits on the album, a notion that doesn’t seem to exact any hint of concern. For this time out, Martina admits that she enjoyed the role of “interpreter” without any writing responsibilities. She shared co-production duties with award-winning studio stalwarts Dann Huff and Nathan Chapman.
“We listened to hundreds of songs,” Martina says, indicating with a wry smile that the selection process is hardly a tedious one. “I always do that because it’s so important. It was fun for me to just kind of wait and see what kinds of songs we could find. It was like a treasure hunt,” she adds, smiling a bit more. “That’s how I used to do it before I started writing more. I love being an interpreter. I don’t have to write them in order to feel them or believe them.”
Martina closes the album with a simple piano/vocal exercise, “You and You Alone,” an emotionally tender tune that allows her voice to stand out. “I always try to find something that is really special to close out a record,” Martina explains. “It may be the most artistic thing, or maybe the least commercial thing, if you want to put it that way. When I heard that song, I knew it was the album closer. It had this 1940s torch song feel and we just wanted to keep it that way.”
With the new album will come a tour, and Martina promises a fresh one for the fall season. Currently, you can catch her on the road throughout the summer months, with fairs and festival dates thrown in.
“I’m still looking at ideas for the fall,” Martina says. “It will be an all-new production.” And savvy artist that she is, she’s given some obvious thought to the upcoming tour. It’s not an entity she treats as a matter of course. She’s even solicited her fans for their ideas and suggestions. Extra savvy.
“I feel like it would be cool to do a retrospective thing, where it would be like new songs but also songs we haven’t played in a while,” she says. “Maybe we could do some album cuts that are fan favorites. It’s funny, I went to Twitter and asked fans what songs they’d like to hear, and I got tons of album cuts and stuff that we used to play a long time ago and even some cover tunes. It was interesting to me because I would have expected people to just name off hit after hit.”
Martina’s fan base, though, is likely a different breed. You would surmise that most have been in her corner since she made her big-voiced debut in 1992 with “The Time Has Come.” As such, they’re a bit more flexible and willing to give her some leeway in the concert setting.
Martina would agree. “[Their ideas] tell me that they are listening to more than just the hits,” she says, flashing a bright smile. “And that’s really great because it allows us to be creative in the set list. I love singing the hits but I also love having a little bit of the thought that maybe these are the real fans and are invested in more than just the hit singles. I think mixing it up makes for a more interesting show, as long as you don’t go too over the top with it and play only album cuts. It’s less of a ‘jukebox’ show and more of a show that they would really want to see.”
Touring is still an essential component of her career, even after more than 20 years in the business. She finds ample time to devote to her family at home in Nashville, which will be down to three around August. That’s when daughter Emma, the middle of Martina and John’s three daughters, leaves for college after graduating high school in May. Oldest daughter Delaney works for a production company in Nashville. That leaves ten-year-old Ava as the nest gets slightly smaller. As Martina tells it, Ava is the typical youngest child, absorbing what she’s learned and observed from her older siblings.
“She is one of those kids that is like a little sponge,” says the proud Mom. “She is so curious about everything, like space and all kinds of stuff. That is such an interesting age,” she muses after a pause, “because you’re just trying to figure out who you are. It’s going to be a fun ride with her.”
She’s excited as well about Reckless, her first studio album of all-new material since 2011. While not an old school-sounding record, Reckless nonetheless takes her back to some earlier works like Wild Angel, released in 2005, and Waking Up Laughing.
“It sounds classic in a way, but also sounds contemporary,” Martina notes. “I remember when we recorded songs like ‘Wild Angels’ and ‘Safe in the Arms of Love’ and how contemporary they were for the times. They didn’t sound like anything else. Now, they sound classic. I think that’s what Reckless is to me,” Martina adds, leaning back in her chair to reflect. “It’s a classic sound with a modern feel. I just feel really good about it.”
Rhonnie Scheuerman’s Inspiration Station For All In Need This Morning
Bring joy to your servant, Lord, for I put my trust in you. Psalm 86:4
Elbert Hubbard, a US author (1856-1915) once quipped “Don’t take life too seriously. You’ll never get out of it alive.”
No one has to tell us that life is serious, but we do need to be reminded that life is also filled with joy. It is critical that we foster a sense of humor in a world that is full of sarcasm, negativity and just plain old grumpiness. Humor is not necessarily going to make your life longer but it sure will make the ride fun. Laughter is a universal form of communication. It can cross language barriers and carry people over many a bridge of sighs.
Somewhere between a baby’s first giggle and adulthood, we forget how to relax, smile, and embrace laughter. We’ve all been told at one time or another to “act your age.” Aging, however, does not mean we should become cynical, suspicious and nay saying. The Lord never intended for us to lose our sense of joy, wonder, and the excitement that comes from being fully alive in Him. Somewhere along the line, life tells us to trade in a smile for a frown, put a restraint on laughter and before we know it we are at risk of becoming ineffectual in our Christian witness. If we are telling others about the joy of the Lord they need to witness that joy firsthand through our example. Nehemiah 8:10 reminds us, “the joy of the LORD is your strength.” Are you feeling weak? How is your joy meter?
In Jeremiah 31:13 our Lord points us back the source of our joy; The Lord God Himself. “I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.” Joy comes from that deep inner knowing that we are infinitely loved in Christ and because of this, we can express the lighter side of life and spread the beauty of laughter to those around us. Maybe the class clown with his Groucho Marx nose glasses was not so off the mark after all. Can you recall a time when you were trying not to laugh in a situation where it would be highly inappropriate to do so? Just thinking about that probably brought a smile to your face. Do you have the immeasurable joy of the Lord in your heart? Be sure your face knows it. Don’t be afraid to put on that clown nose. We can age successfully without becoming ancient. Life is a wonder to behold. Light-heartedness gives us eyes of wisdom, strength of character and is a testimony to the world of a Christian living in the joy of the Lord.
Thank You for placing Your joy within each one of us.
Let our smile shared be a universal message of the grace, love, and joy that a new life in Christ brings.