For more than a decade, singer Jennifer Nettles has been the voice of multi-platinum pop-country duo Sugarland, winning Grammys and performing in some of the country's largest venues with Kristian Bush, her musical partner.
These days, however, Nettles is out on her own, playing intimate theaters and cozy halls behind "That Girl," her first solo album, which was produced by Rick Rubin. She co-wrote all 10 original tracks (there's also a cover of Bob Seger's "Like a Rock"), relocating from Nashville to Malibu, Calif. for a stretch to record at Rubin's legendary Shangri-La Studios, a mid-'70s mecca for Bob Dylan and the Band, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Ron Wood and countless other West Coast transplants.
In early conversations with Rubin, Nettles mentioned '70s radio as a target sound; Rubin responded by bringing in musicians — including ex-Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan — to complement Nettles' band. The tracks were all recorded live in the studio — Nettles' preferred working method, even with Sugarland. "I find it so fascinating in the industry that [live recording is] something we celebrate as an anomaly," she said. "I can't imagine walking into a studio with a set of songs that I had written, never having met a musician who'd play on it, never having heard how it was recorded, and just going in and singing on it. That's an exercise that I'm not interested in."
Performances were kept sparse and largely ornament-free, with arrangements that lean heavily on the airy, piano-rock textures of mid-'70s FM radio. Nettles' emotive vocals are mixed way out in front of Hammond B3 swells and crisp, focused drums. Songs like "Falling," "Me Without You" and the title track breathe free, without the heavy reverb that chokes a lot of pop-country fare. "That Girl" would be good music for top-down cruising on Highway 1.
Nettles and Rubin also left in a few noticeable seams and imperfections. "It's supposed to sound human," Nettles said. "It's great that we have computers, that we can quantize things and use pitch control…You can take someone who's not even a singer — God knows this is true in the industry today — and make them a singer." Technology helps with efficiency, she thinks, but also "undermines what music is supposed to be… There are supposed to be flaws and breaths being taken and chairs creaking."
"That Girl" was released in January and received a warm response from critics and fans. Naturally, the album is the centerpiece of Nettles' live show, though she manages to work in a few appropriate cover songs: Ambrosia's "Biggest Part of Me," Barry Manilow's "Weekend in New England" and the more-contemporary "Demons" by it-group Imagine Dragons. "Sonically, I wanted to show a thread that goes through part of ["That Girl"]," she said. "I love watching the 'aha' that washes over peoples' faces when we play these songs, and also how they make the connection to the album." Sugarland songs were chosen for how they contribute to the overall flow. "I felt that I could properly rearrange or breathe new life into [them]... I think it's silly to have an album that sounds just like your ensemble work and to just put your name on it. That, to me, is defeating the purpose."
Nettles' tour reaches the Dome at Oakdale on Friday, March 7. While less experienced performers might be rattled by stepping out from behind the safety of a hugely successful band, Nettles said she never experienced any jitters.
"For me, my job has been the same regardless of the ensemble, and that is to be a front woman," Nettles said. "I feel happiest and most confident in that space."