Long before singer/songwriter Jennifer Nettles took the music world by storm as half of the Grammy-winning country duo Sugarland, she was a member of a 4-H club in Georgia. Now, in her role as the organization’s national spokesperson, she’s sharing her experiences and encouraging today’s younger generation to consider joining up. Examiner caught up with Nettles for an exclusive interview on April 22, during which she shared her reasons for supporting 4-H, explained the story behind her upcoming duet with Jennifer Lopez, and reflected on how being a mom to son Magnus has changed her career.
Sherry Wight: I grew up in 4-H myself and I love you, so I was happy to hear that you’re the organization’s national spokesperson. Why did you decide to take on this particular role?
Jennifer Nettles: I also grew up in 4-H, and I’ve said it before and will say it again: it’s not hyperbole, I would not be doing what I am doing today at the level that I am doing it without 4-H. The new motto for 4-H is “4-H grows leaders” and when we talk about leadership, it can seem [like] such an ambiguous concept but the reality is that in order to be able to be a good leader, one has to have passion, because no one wants to follow anyone without passion. And what 4-H does best, I think, is it allows kids to explore and figure out what that passion is.
SW: Totally! Now when I was a member, I had a ton of projects. I did gardening, photography, sewing, baking; just about everything but the agricultural ones, which is funny since 4-H initially had such strong agricultural roots…. I still even have my record books, the green record books.
JN: Record books! Yes! This is so good! Even when we talk about what record books are, for example, they are an opportunity for the kids to show… what they’ve done in their projects throughout the year and this becomes part of what’s factored into how they win awards. And it teaches them that you’ve got to meet deadlines, you have to be organized, you have to be able to be at least a halfway decent writer to put a narrative together of what it is that you’ve done. The skills that you can get are really endless, I think.
SW: What were some of your projects?
JN: Mostly performing arts. I did win a cookie [baking] competition in Coffee County, and I did some public speaking. I was also involved in the state and district boards within the state of Georgia, which is a wonderful opportunity for leadership and a wonderful opportunity to grow community. I was a camp counselor after I graduated high school. So across the board I really did a diverse amount of activity through 4-H, but performing arts was my main project. Big surprise there!
SW: What kind of cookie did you win with?
JN: Well, we call it a pecan penny. Pee-can is what some people pronounce as pee-con, but that it not what we called it. It is basically a shortbread, but a pecan-based shortbread, not an almond. I should put my cookie recipe up there [on the 4-H website]. I’m gonna have to dig that out. It’s coming!
SW: Yes you should! Now I want to switch gears and talk about your career. I heard that you recently recorded a duet with JLo. I think that’s awesome but incredibly random! How did that come about?
JN: You know what, not so random, actually. I lived and studied in Mexico for a while and I speak Spanish — when I was in college I studied anthropology and Spanish, and I have a deep, deep love for the Latino community and have wanted for a long time to record a song that at least incorporated Spanish a bit and that could be hopefully translated into Spanish.
So I was having a conversation with my label president, Scott Borchetta, and he, at the time, was working on “American Idol,” which Jennifer Lopez obviously was a judge on, and I said “hey, can you get me a moment with her because I have an idea for a song that I want to pitch,” and he did, and the rest is history. I went and chatted with her, and it ended in a song that has a fantastic message, and I don’t want to give it all away because it is going to be a surprise, [but] it’s coming out on my album “Playing with Fire” that comes out May 13.
SW: Oh gosh, I can’t wait. It sounds amazing.
JN: Thank you.
SW: And I stand corrected: not random. I see the connections there. Who else would you like to sing with the future? Someone who is actually an off-the-wall choice.
JN: You know what, Sherry, the collaborations that I’ve done over my career have been some of the most exciting and enriching performances that I have had, and I have had the honor and the privilege of doing so many diverse collaborations, everything from James Taylor to Lady Gaga to Adele to Beyonce to Rihanna, so I have obviously enjoyed that. But there are still [others] that would really get me excited, really as a music fan to be able to work with people who I would say would be idols of mine [like] Springsteen…, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Dolly Parton. Those are just to name a diverse few and I would love to [work with any of them].
SW: My husband and I loved Sugarland. There was just something about you and Kristian Bush; we played some of your albums on repeat. What do you miss about being part of that duo?
JN: You know what, obviously I love that music and I would say the music is what I miss the most. I still pepper some of those songs in, though, and I’m still able to perform some of those songs within my live show. But I loved that music and enjoyed what that project is and what that project was at the same time. But really my job is pretty similar in the sense that I write music and record it and get to go out and perform it. I think what is different is when one is in a collaborative effort you’re always going to show respect and deference for the other person in the room; consequently in going solo, I think I get to show a bit more intimate side of myself to my fans and to go a little bit more deeply into who I am as an artist.
SW: That makes sense. How has becoming a mother influenced [your career]?
JN: [Laughs] Well, basically, anyone who has become a parent realizes that it’s a life-changer…. I think it’s changed me as an artist. I think it’s made me more compassionate because it made me super, super vulnerable immediately; there’s a vulnerability I think that is very specific to becoming a parent that is pretty enriching in life. For me I think it also caused me to become much more emboldened.
In terms of the logistics of my work, Magnus travels around with me, he’s a little gypsy baby on the road. But it definitely takes longer to get through airport security with him. What I bring along with me in terms of toys and sippy cups and snacks and all of those things, that has definitely changed what the tour bus looks like for sure.
SW: I don’t have a tour bus and I don’t travel that often, but I have birthed four babies… so I know what you mean.
JN: You bet! Trajectory changed immediately.
SW: Yes indeed! What advice to you have for anyone trying to navigate the intricate web that is the entertainment industry?
JN: I think I can say this of the entertainment industry but I can [also] say it across the board and I’ll bring it back to 4-H: 4-H helped me to have the confidence to be authentic. I think authenticity is integral to being an artist, because you have to be able to express yourself honestly and openly and confidently and truthfully most of all… or it’s not going to come across as truth and your listeners… aren’t going to believe it. So I think authenticity is key. Be one’s own self, and be as true to it as you can be. Sometimes that’s easy, and sometimes that is brutally hard, but I think that’s the key.
SW. Perfect. Okay, last one. One word answer. What’s your favorite breakfast food?
JN: Ooh, favorite breakfast food! Does it have to be one word?
SW: It can be multiple words.
JN: Okay good, cause I’m like “man, one word! That’s not gonna encompass it!” I love sweet and savory at the same time, so if I were having a really decadent breakfast, I would have eggs, bacon, pancakes, the whole bit. Then I’d get the sweet with the pancakes, I’ve got the savory with the eggs and bacon. That would be my go-to.