Bigger Is Better
Sugarland Delivers First New Album in Eight Years with a Supersized Summer Tour

By Lee Valentine Smith

Born in the creative incubator of Decatur's fertile folk-rock scene, Sugarland quickly grew from a popular local draw to an influential major-label act during an incredibly productive two-year period. By 2004, they were headlining shows and beginning an impressive catalog of successful albums and popular radio singles.

After an eight-year break in pursuit of solo projects, the band is back on the scene with an effusive new album called Bigger. The disc, a co-venture with Universal and Nashville's trendsetting Big Machine, finds founders Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush surveying the uncertain landscape of today's volatile climate from a refreshingly humane point of view.

The band is currently celebrating the new release - which includes contributions from longtime fan Taylor Swift - with an ambitious tour. As they cross the country, the hit-makers arrive this month at Duluth's Infinite Energy Arena. During a recent break from the massive trek, INsite spoke with effusive singer-songwriter-producer-multi-instrumentalist Kristian Bush by phone from his home in Atlanta.

It's been eight years since The Incredible Machine was released. Since then you and Jennifer have been busy with your own projects. Was it hard to get back to a group mindset for Bigger?

It has been a while, but you know what? Once we got started, we wrote it in nine days and recorded it in four!

Did you have some backlogged material ready for it?

It's funny, I thought we could pull from some stuff I've been working on for the last five or six years and maybe use those as building blocks. But we didn't use any of it. We just started writing from scratch and it was so cool.

You've been writing for the band for a long time now. How has the process changed over the years?

I think it's the skills that we've each developed along the way. It changes the pace at which you can create. So I find that the more I write, the better the songs are and that makes sense to some degree. But part of it - for me at least - is kinda tucking away the editor in my own mind and having a little more confidence in walking out on the ledge. The more I do that, the more confidence I have.

Plus, you have a partner that you know very well at this point.

Jennifer and I have a creative flow that has a lot of trust in it. We've developed it over many years now. I've never experienced this much skill and trust, ever. So we were able to accomplish great things and cover a pretty large range of topics very delicately and over a very short amount of time. It was a tad-bit crazymaking at first because I couldn't believe it was going as well as it was. But it was also inspiring because it was going as well as it was!

By now, you must have a familial shorthand with both writing and performance.

Yeah but I have to think about who we are now rather than what we might have have written before. It's more about, 'What do we want to write now?' That means the album is very current. Most of the songs on country radio may be around three years old. You know, from the writing to the recording. It could be even more, becase that's just on average. But for this album, we wrote two songs in September or October and then we wrote the other ones in January and February of this year. So you're listening to what is as 'right now' as we can make it.

This is about as close as you can get to posting songs online, but you've got the Big Machine behind you, quite literally.

(Laughs) right and I'm truly grateful for the trust of the label, our fans, our co-producer and everyone who've supported us in making these choices and making them quickly.

When you're writing in and of the moment, does the current atmosphere of the world play a part, or do you aim for more timeless scenarios? Obviously with country music, you have to be careful to balance it all.

Right, but I'd say this album is speaking to exactly what we see out the window. I don't think we even knew it until we got five or six songs into it, but it started to form a point of view of looking out at the world - while you're now a parent. It became a conversation we were having over and over again, 'How can we explain to our kids what's happening?' Because I think somewhere in that point of view lies a non-political way to look at it. You are looking at a child and you can see them trying to process it all. As a parent, you're watching them. You want to explain things, but how? It's difficult because some of the situations and behavior that we may be trying to explain to a child right now, might be something that's not very human. So you have to somehow explain the darkness of humanity.

How do you do it?

Well for me, it's like, 'Look, it might be hard right now, but there is hope. It might be confusing right now but trust me, I'm confused, too.' I never try to have conversations with my kids where I think I know the answer. We just have a lot of questions. That's what we are saying on the album, too. I think everybody's already in their corner, so I don't think anything we say is gonna convince anyone to move one way or the other. But what music does well is it offers a conversation that can come from the middle.

As the past has shown, artists may feel the need to walk a very fine line with any sort of cultural commentary in country music.

I understand that. I've seen what goes down when we just talk about social issues. Even things that are purely about just being nice to each other, you know? It's a pretty loaded climate right now. But I don't think we've ever been someone who's gonna come over and shove you against a wall. We're just not gonna do that. We're very passionate people, but I think the thing we've always at least tried to do is write from a place of love. I know that's an easy thing to say, but it's a really hard thing to do. How do you tackle these questions and how do you see it through that lens?

That's an incredible challenge for any artist.

Well one way to react to things is to not say anything. But I think we've tried a different tack because we are willing to talk about it. But you can't get anything done by screaming. That's the quickest way to get people to shut down on you. I think music has a beautiful way of getting inside you, even when other things can't. For us, we just had to be aware and yet we couldn't shy away from what we were feeling. So you really start to ask, 'Why are we doing this?' I know I need my daughter to hear the song "Bigger" because she's got to know that she is valuable as a female. And I want her to know that no matter how weird it gets, just listen to the song, it'll work like a compass.

That's the incredible power of music.

It has ways of healing that other things just can't heal. We've always tried to do our best with putting messages into music. Whether it's to make you feel better and dance or whether it's to commensurate, empathize and weep. Some of the songs on this album are dealing with trying to turn some of this pain that's going on around us into hope. It's a weird alchemy to ask of a song, but it's what music can do.

That's what music or any kind of art should do. But you've always had a particularly positive approach.

Well it changes the way you feel about waking up and leaving home. I've always maintained that Sugarland was never about us. That's why we didn't have our pictures on the cover, you know? And as we were kicking around ideas for a title for this album, it always came back to "Bigger" because this is really bigger than us. We're just here to deliver the thing. I'm so excited we get to go back out and tour. I'm excited that people get to hear new music from us and I'm excited to hear what that new music is myself. It's super cool to me. But it's not about me or Jennifer, it's about how many people can we reach with this music.

Sugarland plays at 7 p.m., August 3 at the Infinite Energy Center. Frankie Ballard and Lindsay Ell open. For more information, please visit infiniteenergycenter.com.

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