Ask country music star Kristian Bush if he plans on rapping (all the rage in Nashville these days) on his new solo album and he’ll laugh — but not for the reason you expect.
“Jennifer and I actually got in a lot of trouble for rapping on our own song,” Bush recalls of “Stuck Like Glue,” the 2010 hit he co-wrote with Jennifer Nettles, his partner in the mega-successful country duo Sugarland. Radio stations didn’t know what to make of the quirky tune, and some edited Nettles’s rap interlude out of the song.
“It was very controversial,” Bush added. “I’m really proud that country music has come such a long way in just four years to not only allow, but encourage — to the point where you’re asking me if any of the people in the business are pushing me toward it.”
Bush, 44, has also come a long way since then. Sugarland went on hiatus about three years ago, and in the interim, he had an unexpected outpouring of creativity that surprised even himself. He’s written hundreds of songs, resulting in his upcoming debut solo album; his first single is scheduled to hit country radio this summer. (Nettles also released her own album, “That Girl,” earlier this year.)
It’s a unique chapter for Bush, who started in Atlanta-based rock band Billy Pilgrim in the mid-1990s. In 2002, Bush began his Sugarland collaboration with Nettles, which spawned a decade of hits (“Baby Girl,” “Something More,” “Stay,” “Settlin’”), millions of albums sold, and multiple Grammy Awards. Bush co-wrote nearly every song, but generally stayed to the side to let Nettles have the spotlight as the lead vocalist.
Now, it’s all on him — but how do you find your identity as a solo artist when you’ve been attached to a successful duo for so long? Bush, who performs at Rams Head On Stage in Annapolis on June 1, got on the phone with us this week to answer that and more, including his songwriting secrets and what he thinks of country music’s serious lack of female singers on the radio. (This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.)
I read you have 300 songs that could go on this solo album. How’s it going narrowing that list down?
Well, I got it down to 15. As long as my management and the people at the record company stop listening to what I’m doing, we’ll be fine. But what’s happening is the way it kind of works with, like, binge-watching television now. People are exposed to one or two or three or four songs, and then they call and say, “Man, this is great, I never knew your voice…so where are the rest of your songs?” So I’ll send them a link to go dig around in my catalog, and then I’ll get phone calls like, “Man, I was up til 4 a.m. listening, why don’t you put this one on the record?” And I’m like, “I’ve been trying for months to get it down, I don’t want you to add more things to the list!”
Why did you decide to start “Music Mondays”? [Releasing a new song to his Web site every Monday]
Originally it was an answer to the question: What happens when I write this much? Because I haven’t experienced this before. So the idea was, well, there’s enough music here for me to put a song out every Monday for like seven years. And I’m always interested in liner notes; I used to go dig around on the inside of album covers and cassettes and look anywhere for a story that gave me context to what I’m listening to. So I just kind of created the “Music Mondays” to be the thing that I wished my favorite band would do for me. It’s totally selfish.
What exactly haven’t you experienced before?
[Writing] this amount of songs – usually it’s about 10 or 12 a year, and it’s pretty consistent. Then you take the best however many, 10, and make an album out of it. And you only usually have to leave at the most 10 or 11 on the ground, and they’re pretty obvious. But I haven’t had this problem before, which is kind of neat, where there are hundreds of songs in the last two years. It’s a totally different experience.
How is it different from doing co-writes for Sugarland songs?
[Jennifer and I] would bring in pieces of a song; you would hold yourself back from finishing them so you could do them together. One of the things I thought was interesting about that was it helped me, because as a man writing for a woman to sing — y’all are just very different. (laughs) I needed to learn from a woman how a woman feels, and how you communicate the same thing but communicate it a little differently. I wanted to get that right.
Is it difficult to switch gender perspectives now that you’re writing for yourself, or are there common threads from each view?
That’s a good question because, yes — and where we meet is where I write…and I am excited about finally being able to write a love song from a man’s perspective. That’s cool.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about songwriting?
I think people think it takes a really, really long time. And it’s very different, I’ve started songs – like “Genevieve” on one of the Sugarland albums, I thought of it in 1994 and I finished it in 2007. But it’s just because it sat there as an almost-finished piece forever, long before the band was ever invented. Sometimes you walk away from it and come back years later.
But the process of writing itself is very quick. I was a creative writing major in college and one of my poetry teachers told me, “You know Kristian, when you’re writing poetry, it’s usually 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent craft.” And I said, “Really? Isn’t it supposed to be so emotional?” And he said, “Yeah, but that stuff happens in the first 45 minutes. After that, you pore over it for years.” Songwriting kind of works a little bit like that. I’ve noticed that for me and for some of my co-writers, that the writing happens within a two or three minute period, the inspiration of it; you hit record and then you just start making stuff up. Then you may have to go back and you gotta see how much of that is terrible. And then try again and so it gets better and better.
[Songwriting] is also less serious than I think everyone thinks it is. I don’t think I’ve met a songwriter yet that isn’t absolutely hilarious.
What’s a song that you wrote for this upcoming album that turned into something you never really expected?
The song that I’m going to name my album after, a song called “Southern Gravity.” I loved the song but then when I did a demo of it I thought, “That’s great, but it’ll never work.” So I went back, and I must have recorded that song 12 or 14 times. That’s financially not right. It’s just a terrible decision. But because I’m both the producer and the artist on this album, I have to make my own decisions on whether this is good or not. Usually that’s what you depend on somebody else for. It’s been fascinating for me to watch that song. It’s like I mess with it like some person carving a statue, and just over and over and over again and finally I’m like, “There is not a possible way I could make that better.”
Did you feel the need to have a new sound to separate you from the Sugarland era? Maybe it’s because I already know you from Sugarland, but I could also hear similarities.
That’s an interesting question, because the thing that’s different about this is that I’m singing…but honestly? This is the same music. And even some of the same players I’ve been recording with since 1994. The Billy Pilgrim albums sound a whole lot like Sugarland albums except they’re with Andrew [Hyra] and I singing; and the Sugarland albums sound very similar, but it’s Jennifer singing. So my album sounds a lot like all those others except it’s just me singing. I can draw a real thread between them all: It has the joy that I love about Sugarland music and the stories I put into that, and it has all the grooves that I love that I put into Sugarland music. So I think there’s a lot of similarities.
You and Jennifer had so much success with Sugarland, and now you’re both off on these solo projects. Is there a lot of pressure to follow up, or less so because everyone already knows what you can do? What has that experience been like?
I’m having a blast. Because I’m watching people who are looking at me like, “I know you.” Then they’re a little anxious, like, “But I don’t really know you.” Like, they recognize me – but I get some of the funniest comments. It seems as if there are very little expectations and that I’m constantly exceeding them. It feels like the joy that I have when I discover a new band, I’m watching it happen on people’s faces. And that’s so cool. It’s not something you can tell somebody and it’s probably really hard to write about because you just have to experience it and go “Oh, okay, I get it.”
The barrier to entry is really interesting, I don’t have a really good frame of reference when there’s been somebody in pop culture where you just never actually heard them. So it’s fun to be in the conversation, and be in the room. Or be on stage and watch people go “Huh” with their arms crossed, then suddenly they’re not crossed, then suddenly they might be moving on their seat, and then up on their feet and I’m like, “Yeah! Welcome.”
Are you already tired of people asking you if Sugarland is broken up?
No, no. (laughs) I’m not sick of it. I think it’s a great question because I just think of it from the side of the fans and, I don’t know, when Bono and The Edge were all making solo records. And I was like, “What am I going to do? Is my favorite band broken up?” and it’s like, “No, they’re not broken up.” But life is going on, and also this crazy creativity’s been going on which means I do need to express it or it will break my heart. It’s not like we all of a sudden stopped creating, we just created double. So of course we’re going to make more.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about country music’s “woman problem,” and that female singers have a lot of trouble getting played on the radio, especially as solo artists. I feel like you would have an interesting perspective on that.
It’s always been a huge concern of mine, but I’m also the man that’s cheering for women all the time. So I’m not sure you’re going to get a whole lot of interesting news that you wouldn’t expect out of my mouth on this one. I’m passionate about the voice of women in life in general, to the point where I’m in a band where Jennifer [is the lead vocalist]. She has an incredible voice and I love that we are able to connect with women – whether they’re girls or moms or grandmas – about their own lives. I think that’s a very important part of country music.
I do get concerned when I look at the charts and exactly what you said, it seems misrepresented. You know? We don’t have these voices all the time…Now, I’m just making this up, but it seems like women singers and writers succeed incredibly when they succeed. But the “on the way up” appears to be harder. Does that make sense? We don’t have as many that are in the beginning stages – you either rise or you don’t.