Jennifer Nettles is the voice of one of country’s biggest acts, but it wasn’t always that way. Before Sugarland, in the late ’90s, the Atlanta singer was fronting two little-known bands, Soul Miner’s Daughter and the Jennifer Nettles Band, performing at dive bars and not caring if her short hair made her look like a lesbian.
It’s back to that stripped-down sound on Nettles’ first solo release, “That Girl,” a side project produced by Rick Rubin. Touring in support of the album, Nettles performs at 8 p.m. March 11 at Sound Board at MotorCity Casino Hotel.
In a recent chat, the singer talked “keeping it in the gay family” musically, her thoughts on LGBT issues in the country community and the sweet words for her son should he ever come out to her.
When we chatted a few years ago, the joke was that you have the musical taste of a gay man.
I do! (Laughs)
But “That Girl” is raw and, in the sense that it has that girl-with-guitar vibe, it’s very Ani DiFranco- and Indigo Girls-ish.
I’m still keeping it in the gay family!
So this album is your lesbian phase?
(Laughs) We should be so lucky.
I’ve been following you since Soul Miner’s Daughter.
Oh, well then, honey, you know this isn’t my lesbian phase. I started that way long ago!
You did! I recall the line, “It’s crotch propaganda / bat for both teams / and it’s me not choosing sides standing in between” from the song “On the Shoulders of Giants.” Were those lyrics as personal as they sound? Did you relate to the words?
I did completely in the sense that I have my dear, dear friend – a longtime friend and now my personal assistant, and she’s gay – who said to me, “Jennifer, you’re the only person I’ve ever known that had to come out as a straight person,” which I thought was hilarious. (Laughs) I had such a strong lesbian following, and in the gay community as a whole, I’ve always had so much support from them. I think a lot of people assumed, too. Whenever they heard a woman with an alto voice playing an acoustic instrument stylistically reminiscent of those wonderful icons you counted, Ani DiFranco and Indigo Girls – and especially with the audience I had in my 20s – I think a lot of people just assumed that (I was lesbian). So those lyrics – “crotch propaganda / bat for both teams / and it’s me not choosing sides standing in between” – I definitely related to because it’s like, who cares? Why choose sides? And why do you have to?
The short, punky hair you had then only reinforced those assumptions, I’m sure.
Oh yeah. But you know what, the cool thing is, I’ve really found that everybody just wants to be authentic. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do, and so what if I have a short haircut and someone assumes something one way or another. It doesn’t bother me. I don’t care. A lot of times we’re just trying to relate to each other and trying to figure out where we fit in. So if I have a short haircut and that makes me gay or straight or whatever to someone else, I don’t care.
So you recognized a gay following even before Sugarland?
Oh yeah. It was pretty obvious, to me at least, and I was so grateful for that support. I don’t know if it was because I went to a women’s college – again, I think there was a whole slew of different influences pieced together that allowed for my support within the gay community – but I like to think that it’s just because it’s good music, and everybody likes good music.
And there’s every type at a Sugarland show.
Which I like.
Sugarland has been known to push traditional country boundaries; the last album, “The Incredible Machine,” went arena rock. For this solo project, you’re doing something that sounds nothing like what people are used to hearing you do. Do you look at these ventures as career risks? And why is it important to take them?
What is important for me to do is to make sure I stay authentic to myself as an artist, and that I don’t stagnate and that I think fresh – not only for myself but for my fans. It’s super easy, especially in this business when one gets to a level of success, to become a caricature of yourself. They say, “Oh my god, that’s perfect. Stay just like that but bigger,” and things get exaggerated and you become a caricature. So I wanted to shake it up for myself and I wanted to show my fans something different. I don’t really look at it as a career risk, but if that happens to be the result of being authentic to myself as an artist, so be it. To me, it’s an even greater risk to stagnate.
You’ve described Sugarland as “the weird kids in the corner.” Do you think the gay community can relate to you more because you identify as being on the fringe?
The resounding message here is authenticity. Within the gay community, the courage it takes to be one’s authentic self – even if you’re viewed as different – is inspiring. Consequently there is definitely a connection in that degree of authenticity – and doing it because you gotta be who you are – that connects my music with the gay community.
You’ve expressed interest in playing Elphaba in “Wicked,” and she’s an outsider as well. How do you relate to these feelings of being an outsider?
I’ll be honest, I don’t know if I’m comfortable with the discomfort and prefer to be there or if that’s just how I relate, but I end up in that role so much. I’ve always sort of been that way – an outside floater. I have lots of friends among diverse groups and diverse demographics and yet, at the same time, I can relate to what it feels like to be the outsider.
Has the gay community ever inspired a song you wrote?
I would have to think about that specifically, but I would say what I do as a writer is to speak to overarching human themes, and that tends to resonate regardless. If it’s something that is empowering, it can be empowering within a smaller specific group or it can be empowering overall.
A song like “Stand Up,” for example: I had a woman at a radio show meet-and-greet last week who came up and said, “Your song ‘Stand Up’ inspired me to come out completely after college,” and I was super touched and moved by that because that’s what you want to do as an artist and that’s what you want to do as a writer – you want to inspire people to connect with themselves and to be their best selves. So while there’s never a consciousness of, “OK, let me write a song that has a certain message for one specific kind of person,” there is a message for people in general – and it resonates with everybody.
Country music doesn’t have a history of embracing the gay community, so how does it feel to see the genre make progress on that frontier?
It’s exciting to see within the country genre, yet at the same time, for me in terms of social motivation and evolution and moving forward, I always feel – be it within a music genre or a religious movement or whatever – like, “OK, come on, let’s move faster. Let’s get there faster. Let’s get it done.” This should have already been behind us. So I am excited about it, but I want it to continue and be more.
Have you ever received flak for your support of the gay community?
No. I think people know better. In the sense that I definitely try to live as authentically and honestly as I can, I think it’s known that I am supportive of human rights, gay rights and civil rights across the board. It’s pretty well known where I stand.
What did you think of all the same-sex marriages during Macklemore’s performance at the Grammys?
I saw Queen Latifah the next day – and obviously she was the officiant at the mass wedding – and she and I were chatting about it. I was like, “I’m just so blown away.” I mean, number one, if Queen Latifah was the officiant at my wedding, amazing, OK?! And two: She said, and very rightfully so, that a few years from now this won’t even be a conversation. And wouldn’t that be nice to be able to look back at history and, like we have any time there’s a violation of civil rights and human rights, go, “God, I can’t even believe we were there, ever.”
It was exciting, it was moving, it was emotional – and to see people in the audience who were moved was emotional as well. And it was unexpected. I think that was part of it – just the surprise of what an image it was and what a punctuation it was on a very supportive statement that Macklemore and Ryan Lewis made with their “Same Love” song. I thought it was beautiful.
What would you tell your son if he came out to you as gay one day?
I would say, “Be happy.” Look, he can be anything he wants in any fashion, be it by his job or who he loves or whatever. He won’t be an asshole, and I hope he doesn’t go to the dark side in any kind of addiction, but otherwise (I’d say), “Love and live and just be happy – and I hope you find your true prince.”
Please tell me you really have poured whiskey down the back of a girl’s dress like you do on the song “Jealousy.”
God, I wish I had. The fun part of that song – and what I enjoy a whole lot as a writer – is exploring some of the more shadowy characters and stories, things we may not be as comfortable with and behaviors that may not make us feel as good about ourselves. I keep myself in check, but that’s not to say I don’t feel the emotions that would inspire that. So that song “Jealousy” – have I ever poured whiskey down someone’s dress? No. Have I ever been at someone’s house and called the bitch out? No. Would I like to at times? You damn right!