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Sugarland: The Art of Taking Risks

Posted by chound on 01/14/2009

By Lorie Hollabaugh© 2009 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.Since debuting five years ago with their hit "Baby Girl," Kristian Bush and Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland have racked up more than 5 million album sales, won their second consecutive CMA Vocal Duo of the Year Award and collaborated with pop icons Beyoncé, Bon Jovi and Melissa Etheridge. And while much of their success can be attributed to hard work and elbow grease, it also boils down to two words: no fear."I would say it's pretty organic for us," explained Bush, breaking down the way he and Nettles make decisions. "If it sounds like a good idea, it's probably a good idea. And there's power in dreaming out loud with someone else. But you always have to ask yourself, 'What's the fear? Are you operating out of fear or not?' You make a better choice if you don't."That explains why Sugarland has no problem drawing from influences as diverse as the Indigo Girls, R.E.M. and The Replacements as the duo cultivates its unique approach to modern Country. It may have something to do as well with the strategy behind the release of their latest album, Love on the Inside, first with a deluxe edition packed with bonus tracks, expanded liner notes, a video and a behind-the-scenes documentary, followed by a value-priced version - a reversal of the usual formula."We weren't sure how it was going to turn out," admitted Luke Lewis, Chairman, Universal Music Group Nashville. "We had extra music and material and thought the fans might like it. Everybody has been in the habit of putting out deluxe editions later in the life of albums, and as a fan myself, that seemed a bit irritating to have to go buy a record again to get the extra bonus material included on it. And lots of people don't have an extra two or three dollars in their pocket, so it made basic good sense to do it that way."For Bush, it was all about rewarding the fans. "Outlets often want some sort of exclusive content now to drive consumers to their store," said Bush. "And the package is really based on the idea that last year we rededicated ourselves to being fans. We tried to get back in touch with what a great experience it is. I took my brother and Jennifer to go see The Police with me. They were one of the first concerts I ever saw, and I'm watching them with Jennifer, who had never seen them, and Brandon, who had gone with me in 1985. And we were jumping up and down. Nobody in the place knew who we were; we were just another bunch of screaming fans. I remember how important it was when I was 13, reading liner notes, so I want to spend the extra amount of time on those. When you give people context of what they're about to listen to, it matters."And so Sugarland and Mercury Nashville, with the band's manager Gail Gellman, came up with a promotion they called the "Platinum Ticket Instant Win Game." Platinum tickets were included with five of the deluxe CDs; those who purchased them received an expenses-paid trip for two to Nashville, tickets to the CMA Awards, a meet-and-greet performance and merchandise.Platinum tickets or not, Love on the Inside has a lot to offer. Co-produced by Sugarland and Byron Gallimore, the music combines the group's intensity and excitement with a comfortable, almost homey feel, stemming from their decision to record on their home turf. "That was originally a luxury in terms of being able to sleep in our own beds," Nettles said. "Only in the process did we realize the artistic implication of having all these great musicians and our producer and his team out of their usual element of Nashville. It allowed us all to get out of our comfort zones and to focus solely on the project in front of us.""We wanted to bring everybody out of their normal environments and set them up in Atlanta," elaborated Bush. "It was important to make sure everyone involved got to live it. By bringing in the players, we got a different product, because everyone's attention was there."There were other reasons to record close to home, especially since they had to fit their studio time for 2006's Enjoy the Ride between dates on the tour and other obligations. "It was brutal," said Nettles. "My voice was not healthy because of it, which was so stressful. We said then that we would never do it like that again.""A lot of learning came from our previous record," said Bush. "Every time we stretched ourselves, the response was real positive. So we thought, 'What is this teaching us?' And our mantra became: 'Everything on this record has to feel. Where's the emotion?' If it's not there, rewrite the lyric. If it's still not there, rewrite the music. Keep working until it's there.""Also, we wrote Enjoy the Ride in such a short amount of time that we really didn't get to explore as much as writers," added Nettles. "We knew that we would never do that again. Consequently, we started writing, for what would become our third album, shortly after releasing Enjoy the Ride. We wanted to have the space and time to stretch artistically and to enjoy all that we were learning on the road as players and in our lives as observers.""We weren't sure how it was going to go over because it's a simpler record than most people expected," continued Bush. "I think people expected some sort of overproduced, contrived, safely-written album. But I think you build artists by encouraging them to change - and then not penalizing them when they do."One goal that the band set for Love on the Inside was that the material would play well in large venues. "It's going to sneak up on you," promised Bush. "When you walk in and hear a song like 'We Run,' you might not think it would translate, but it does. And all of a sudden, when you get the heroic guitar solo at the end of 'What I'd Give,' you're in a Prince concert. It's 'Purple Rain!'""The live show is the music itself," insisted Nettles. "The live show is Sugarland. There is no distinction. Music is a living art form. It is performance art. It can happen only in the action of being performed and created. We weren't signed from someone listening to a demo. We were signed the second they saw us live. It is what we do and what we try to capture as close as we can in the studio. We want our fans to leave our shows changed, transformed, inspired. We want them to be moved by hearing and seeing these songs played in front of them. It is a full sensory experience. If we could feed them chocolate at the same time, we would!""I don't believe for a moment that any of the things we did to help market this album would have had the result we wound up having if the music hadn't been amazing," said Lewis. "Lots of times, historically, the best music winds up coming from people who meld genres, and that helps to make this fresh, unique, identifiable and a bit different from everything else - all those things you hope for. I don't think that was forced or contrived. And Country, thankfully, seems to cover a really wide spectrum of influences these days. Some people are disturbed by that because it doesn't sound like whatever we perceive traditional Country to be, but it certainly plays to the audience."Sugarland's willingness to take risks has paid off, given their second consecutive win as Vocal Duo and Nettles' win for Song of the Year at the CMA Awards, plus, the ascension of the album's first single "All I Want to Do" to the top of the charts and the 314,000 sales racked up by the deluxe edition in just its first week."I think there's some kind of weird, cosmic thing that happens when you believe so totally in something, and I think you almost have to go at risk," mused Bush. "You know, you get to the point where you have nothing to lose. And it's a really good reference point. We try to remember that whenever we're considering something for our career: 'Hey, should we record an album of all love songs?' Well, we've got nothing to lose."And there's a lot of fear and confusion in the music business," he added, expanding on the point. "But I actually have great hope that what's happening right now is opportunity. It's not the end - it's actually just the beginning."On the Web: