‘That Girl” may be Jennifer Nettles’s first solo album since hitting it big, but the Sugarland frontwoman didn’t go it alone.
Instead, as she stepped out of the hitmaking, arena-packing, Grammy- and CMA-winning cocoon she shares with Sugarland partner Kristian Bush, Nettles stepped into a world of collaboration with friends old and new.
Veteran producer Rick Rubin (Johnny Cash, Slayer, Dixie Chicks) signed on to handle the studio and Nettles hammered out tunes with Sara Bareilles, Phillip Sweet of Little Big Town, singer-songwriter-producer and fellow Georgian Butch Walker, Richard Marx, and legendary songwriter Mike Reid, among others, each of whom brings a specific flavor to “That Girl.”
“That’s one of the things that I love about co-writing,” says Nettles, on the phone from her tour bus as it motors down a Florida highway between gigs. “It allows for a diversity of sensibilities. I enjoy that, not only as a writer but as a fan.”
She’s excited to be sharing the fruits of those collaborations on her current tour, which stops at the House of Blues for a sold-out date on Saturday.
For the past few years with Sugarland, Nettles has been playing much larger venues and is looking forward to getting close to the crowd again, especially since the music on “That Girl” harks back to a ’70s singer-songwriter, “AM Gold” sound that benefits from closer confines.
“In our earliest conversations, as Rick and I were feeling each other out to see if we were a good match for this project, that was part of the dialogue,” says Nettles. “I knew that I wanted to have the essence of ’70s radio, because I knew some of these songs I had written had that vibe.”
Indeed, tunes like “Jealousy” have a breezy, Laurel Canyon-songwriter tone. “Me Without You,” a bittersweet song of an uncaged bird, evokes the rainy-day melancholy of Carole King. And the soulful “This One’s for You,” written with Bareilles, boasts a sultry Sunday-morning-coming-down sensuality. There are also a few up-tempo numbers including the jaunty “Know You Wanna Know,” a lighthearted take on the toxicity of celebrity worship written with Marx, whom Nettles refers to as “a secret weapon.”
The lone cover on the album is a Southern-fried gospel rendition of Bob Seger’s anthem “Like a Rock.”
“That for me is such a standout track,” says Nettles. “It was so fun, we changed it up and put it in three-quarter time and gave it a little Otis Redding treatment with the Dap-Kings [horns] on it.”
(When we spoke, Nettles didn’t know if Seger had heard her version, saying, “I’m a little bit intimidated. I hope he likes it.” So we reached out to the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer to get his opinion and he sent his thumbs up from Detroit. “I really like it. I love the three-quarter time idea and I love the Stax/Volt horns. I’m knocked out by it.”)
She knows that some Sugarland fans may not take to the different styles on “That Girl,” and that’s OK. “I’m not going to spoon-feed. I’m not going to placate,” she says. “If you’re going to put out a solo album that sounds just like your ensemble work and just put a different name on it, what’s the point? Just keep doing your other stuff. You’ve already got that marketing machine set up.”
Onstage, Nettles says she doesn’t feel different performing as a solo artist since throughout her career she’s always been a frontwoman. “What does feel different stylistically is the music, and consequently the choices that I’m able to make as a performer on a stage performing that style of music, so intimate and raw in these kinds of smaller venues. That part is different and thrillingly so. It’s like if I was a painter it’s like suddenly I have a whole new palette I get to choose from, which is exciting. That’s not to say that I don’t love filling up a sporting arena with energy. I do, I love that. But I also love being in an intimate space that I can just reach my hand out into your heart and grab it as opposed to smacking you around.”
One person who can attest to Nettles’s onstage energy is opener Brandy Clark, herself an accomplished Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter who has had a hand in penning hits like Miranda Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart,” the Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two,” and Kacey Musgraves’s “Follow Your Arrow.”
‘If you’re going to put out a solo album that sounds just like your ensemble work and just put a different name on it, what’s the point? Just keep doing your other stuff.’
“I stand on the side of the stage and take notes all night about what I can learn from her, she’s such a great entertainer,” says Clark, who released a dynamite album of her own in 2013 called “12 Stories.” “Jennifer comes out every night and makes it feel like it’s the first time she’s done it. It always feels like she’s genuinely excited to be there.”
Sugarland fans can be assured that Nettles is including several of the band’s tunes, as well as a few covers, in the “That Girl”-leaning set list.
“I’ve enjoyed selecting the Sugarland songs as a celebration of that heritage and also shaping the flow of show,” says Nettles. “There’s a lot of chewy, savoriness on ‘That Girl’ so I’m enjoying peppering the Sugarland songs in there for moments of fun and frivolity.”Sarah Rodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeRodman