Jennifer Nettles is still discovering herself.
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 Billboard Country 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 and starred as the matriarch of Dolly Parton’s family in the made-for-television movie Coat 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.
“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.”
It was also announced on May 11 that Jennifer would reprise her role as Avie Lee Parton in Dolly Parton’s Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love, the sequel to the 2015 made-for-television movie Coat of Many Colors.
“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.”
primary photo by Marc Baptiste/ Artmix Creative