Country superstar speaks out on homophobia, girl crushes and being a gay man
As the lovable lady half of supergroup Sugarland, Jennifer Nettles is country’s answer to the contemporary diva – she can belt like the best of ’em. And though she has one hell of a voice, as does bandmate Kristian Bush, she doesn’t just use it to sing the arena rock-inspired songs from their fourth and latest album, The Incredible Machine. She uses it to speak to the duo’s gay fans – even though so few country artists do.
In this rare sit-down with the singer, a powerhouse since “Stay” stormed the charts and nabbed a Grammy in 2009, Nettles talks coming out in country music, how she still loves her lesbians even if one of them – a former Sugarland band member – sued her, and why Adam Lambert turns her on.
With all of its arena rock and pop influences, The Incredible Machine is a departure from your country roots. Does Sugarland still consider itself a country act?
You know, I’m so grateful that country music found us first. I love all kinds of music, and clearly not only can you tell from The Incredible Machine but even from songs on past albums or our cover choices. I just love to sing all kinds of music. That being said, I consider myself country if you like country, and if you don’t like country but you like what we do – awesome! I love that, too. I think it’s really what speaks to the human spirit.
As an artist, it always feels a little bit squishy to try to answer that question – because you never want to be pinned in one way or another, while at the same time I feel very proud to be called country. Obviously I’m so grateful that they play us on country radio and that country fans love it, and I’m grateful that pop fans love it as well. So what do I call it? I call it good.
Considering your cover choices, from Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable” to “Love Shack” and even “Stayin’ Alive,” I’m starting to think that maybe Jennifer Nettles has the musical taste of a gay man.
(Laughs) Yes, absolutely! What’s not to love about that? And you would definitely think that if you saw our current show, because we’ve been closing with “Like a Prayer” by Madonna.
See, it’s so true. I called it here first.
I will totally credit you with it. If people ask me, “What are your musical tastes?” from now on I will say that of a gay man. (Laughs)
Around the time the album was released, there was a higher reporting of suicides among gay youth – and the song “Stand Up” from The Incredible Machine felt particularly relevant. What was on your mind when you wrote it?
There wasn’t one specific event that inspired it. It’s really a song about finding one’s own voice wherever you feel unseen or wherever it is you feel you need to be empowered. Just as you’re saying it resonated with you regarding the bullying and gay teen suicides, if the song can be a place of healing and a place of inspiration – man, I mean, that’s why we do what we do as artists. So there wasn’t one specific event that inspired that song as much as it is, I guess I should say both fortunately and unfortunately, a message that people need to hear and have needed to hear throughout the ages.
Do you get much feedback from gay people who are inspired by your music?
People sometimes will reach out with their personal stories. I did Nate Berkus’ television show a number of months ago when we were about to release The Incredible Machine, and in the audience was a woman who was a huge fan. She spoke to how our music really helped to empower her when she was coming out.
So I do get stories like that at times. Sometimes people share them out and openly and say “this was my specific experience as a gay person”; sometimes people just say, “Hey, you helped me through a hard time,” and they don’t go into specifics. But we’ve had coming out stories, and I feel honored to be able to help someone through that part of their life, for sure. All one really wants is to be seen as who we are, and to be able to be a part of that and be associated with someone who is coming into themselves – regardless of it being coming out, or figuring out what you want to do in your life – that’s a beautiful time and a beautiful thing.
There’s always a risk too, though, when someone comes out. I read that after country artist Chely Wright came out, she lost a considerable chunk of her fan base because she’s living openly as a lesbian now. Do you think a country artist coming out really has a big affect on their fan base?
I don’t know. People would tend to, I’m sure, stereotype quote-unquote country fans as being either more conservative or less tolerant or more close-minded. I don’t know when I look out at my audience. I am sure there are people who may be intolerant that are in the audience, but when I look out there, I see such a wide demographic that it’s hard for me to speak specifically. And I definitely can’t speak for all country artists – nor could I speak to all country fans as to whether there would be an affect. One would think stereotypically that there would be. I would like to think not. But at the end of the day, the reality is in many ways, as a culture in this country, we still have far to go as far as people understanding, being educated and being comfortable with different lifestyles, whatever that may be.
Many country stars have actually addressed gay issues in the press, including Martina McBride, Rascal Flatts and Dolly Parton. And yet we still don’t have a major country artist who’s out. Why do you think that is?
I don’t know why that is. Let’s discuss here for a moment, because clearly there are gay country fans. I can’t even speak as to why. Why do you think? Maybe we might come up with something here.
My guess is that they’re putting their career on the line; it’s scary for a country artist to come out in such a conservative arena, as you said.
But isn’t it scary for any artist to come out? Even in mainstream pop it is. I mean, thank god – and I’ve said this before – for Adam Lambert. Thank god for eyeliner. I have needed a sexy man to wear eyeliner since The Cure. Since Robert Smith no one has really been able to do it for me in that way.
We need a country artist who’d wear eyeliner.
Right! But then, well, when you look at that we don’t even allow – come on. We will allow eyeliner on the girls, that’s for sure, but as far as image maybe it’s not conducive to – I don’t know why. But someone needs to.
Let’s talk about the legal battles that you had with ex-member Kristen Hall, who sued you last year for profits she said she was owed. Did it leave a bad taste in your mouth for lesbians?
(Laughs) Ba-dum-ch! Well, obviously, I’m not allowed to speak about the legal battles, but I love lesbians. Come on, let’s be honest. It doesn’t matter. Whatever. How hypocritical of me would that be to say I had a bad experience with this one individual or a good experience with this other individual and it totally makes me think that everyone is like that? Oh, please. It doesn’t. But I love the way you asked the question.
Who’s your girl crush?
There are so many wonderful women out there. As far as actresses go, I love Meryl Streep.
You really are a gay man.
Maybe this will continue the whole idea that I’m actually a gay man: I have this thing for British women. I love Judi Dench. I love Helen Mirren. I love these women, and I definitely do have big girl crushes on them. I’m trying to think as far as musicians go. I mean, what’s not to love about Beyoncé?
I read that you want to be on Glee.
I would love to be on Glee, thus furthering the myth that I’m a gay man. (Laughs)
I was thinking they could work you in as Kurt’s mom in flashbacks. What do you think of being the dead mother of a gay son?
I would love it! Anyway they could work me in – I would be the janitor sweeping the hallway of the school and cleaning out lockers, I don’t care.
Based on your music videos, you’re actually a really great actress. You’re so convincing in the “Stay” video, but then “Stuck Like Glue” just reinforces how great of an actress you really are.
(Laughs) Or how great of a stalker I am.
Do you have any interest in acting?
I do! And I actually love it. Theater is definitely something that, through the course of my childhood and even in college, I enjoyed participating in. I would love to do theater, or as far as movies or television goes, if the right thing came along I would definitely entertain it. Right now everything has been so focused on my music career, and obviously music is my first love, so I’ve been focused there. But if the right thing came along, absolutely! I mean obviously I love doing it; I have a lot of fun in the videos. I would definitely be open to that.
So just when I thought you couldn’t get any more adorable, you dance around in your pajamas in Sara Bareilles’ “Uncharted” video. How did that come about?
Sara just reached out and said, “Hey, I’m doing this video and asking all my friends to be a part of it. Would you consider doing it?” I was like, “Sure, just tell me when you need it.” She wrote: “I need it tomorrow!” And I was like, OK, I’m just going to do something casual. So when I got up that morning, I said, “Hey, I’m going to do that in my pajamas – that’s casual enough.” And that’s what I did. It was fun!
In the spirit of The Incredible Machine, what are some of your favorite incredible machines?
Ooh, I hate to say it, and I’m a bit of a “Luddite,” but I would say that if I did not have my Blackberry it would be a challenging time. It keeps me connected. Unfortunately – maybe people will gasp – I don’t get into a lot of toys and games, like the apps. I wish I loved them, because I feel like there’s a club out there that I’m not a part of. (Laughs)
I also think, as I’m sitting in my dressing room right now looking around, for me as a singer, a humidifier is a pretty friggin’ incredible machine. And I just got a new place and I actually have a dishwasher, and that’s an incredible machine. I didn’t have one for years. I took it out to put a wine refrigerator in – because I have my priorities!