Still the Same (But 'Bigger'): In Conversation with Kristian Bush of Sugarland

Vortex Music Magazine

Ahead of the release of their comeback record and a brand new tour, Kristian Bush of the acclaimed country duo Sugarland spoke with Vortex about the band’s hiatus, the new album, working with Taylor Swift and more.

Kristian Bush has been busy. With nearly eight years since the start of the Sugarland hiatus, Bush has taken on many new projects, raised a family, made his own music, and written and produced for other artists. His bandmate, Jennifer Nettles, has been just as busy. However, the time has come for the two to reunite.

Sugarland is back with a new album, titled Bigger, ready to hit shelves this Friday, June 8. Since the announcement of the album, the band has released five singles from the record, including “Babe,” written by and featuring Taylor Swift, with assistance from Pat Monahan of Train. The track reached the #2 spot on iTunes' US Songs chart.

Sugarland aren’t playing around.

While hard at work prepping the band’s brand new tour, dubbed the Still the Same Tour (which stops at the Moda Center arena on Saturday, June 9, right after the album’s release), Bush took time to call in and chat about what’s to be expected from the band’s long-awaited return.

Your last album was released in 2010. Can you just give me a rundown of what’s been going on with you and Jennifer for the past, what, eight years?

[Laughs] Well… a lot. Jennifer's a mom now. My kids are now almost taller than me. Let’s see… in between, Jennifer put out some solo records, I put out a solo record. I wrote a musical that debuted here in Atlanta. Jennifer was in a musical. She was in Chicago. What else has happened? Oh, I have a theme song on television for a crazy show called Say Yes to the Dress. Weirdly that’s me singing. There’s been a great deal. I don’t think either of us were lazy [laughs].

Were you and Jennifer still in contact or working together at all through the hiatus?

Well, we didn’t work together because technically if we worked together, then it’s Sugarland. So I couldn’t really help her on anything and she couldn’t really help me on anything because otherwise the band would be back. So we kept a really good distance. But you know, whenever something would happen in our personal lives, with family or friends or something, we’d reach out. You know, when my dad died or she fell off a stage. Things like that. But we weren’t hanging out every day, no. She lives in a different town now. She lives in New York and I live in Atlanta. But it was actually a very healthy thing to take a break and be able to reapproach making music that has a whole different set of skills on it.

When did the work on the new album begin?

It was actually quite recent. We didn’t sit down with each other until September [of last year]. And even then, we only wrote a song or two. And then we didn’t do it again until January. But in January, we wrote the entire rest of the record. And then we recorded it in February in like four days.

Wow, that’s a fast turnaround. So this new record, it’s your first with Big Machine as the label. How did you connect with the label and did they play a role in getting new Sugarland music moving?

You know, Jennifer had moved off of… Sugarland is a Universal band. We’re on Universal Records. They have a distribution relationship with Big Machine. So Jennifer moved over there as a solo act after one record on Universal. And when we were talking about doing this, we thought, “Well you always go where people are passionate.” And Scott [Borchetta], the man who’s in charge of Big Machine, is very passionate about the band. So he kind of welcomed us in. Sugarland is a very interesting creative space because we’ve always written and recorded our own records without anybody knowing anything about them. Like nobody even hears our music until we turn it in. So it both has a lot of freedom in it and it has a lot of pressure on it and it requires a lot of trust. And Big Machine has risen to the occasion.

So the only song on the album that’s not written by you and Jennifer is “Babe,” which was a Taylor Swift cut from her Red album that she didn’t use. I know you’ve talked a lot about it, but I wanted to ask, was that song a later add in or did it come in early in the process of making the album?

You know, pretty early in the process of us sort of approaching the idea of making an album. That’s when it was first pitched to us. And I didn’t quite know how to handle it because [laughs], we’ve never had anyone pitch a song to us. So I didn’t know what that was like but I just thought, “Well this is awesome. We’ll just sit it here until we have an album for it.” And we did. We waited until almost the very last session until we recorded it and I was very nervous because, you know, it’s someone else’s song. I wanted to take really great care with it. And I was excited that Taylor got so excited about it. And I know Pat Monahan. My brother was in Train for eight years. So I kind of love all of this and I love that Taylor’s a fan from way back. We all started about the same time, she was just much younger than us. It’s just really cool to see it happen and kind of fit together like the cogs of a clock.

Did you find that song fit into the theme of the album? Did it fit well with what you’d already written?

Yeah, and that was my biggest concern. Whenever you look for a song by an outside writer, the thing that you look for the most is “does it tell the story?” And in this case, what’s great is that Sugarland has always been, at least for me, this very long conversation about empowering women. And whenever you paint a scenario that has characters in it, and especially a female character, I’m always asking myself the question of "What does this song give women permission to do?” Sometimes it gives you permission to feel sexy, sometimes it gives you permission to just dance and be silly, sometimes it gives you permission to cry. But, you know, I have a 13-year-old daughter. It must work on that level. Otherwise I don’t really want to put it on the record. And [“Babe” is] a very unique moment that I like. I like it on the album, I like what it’s saying, I like where it appears on the album when you listen top to bottom. It says, “Hey, look. You had a good thing here and you messed it up.” And that’s an empowering place. Regardless of what happened or why it happened, I like the attitude.

It sounds like there must be some sort of narrative or theme that runs through the record. What’s the story that’s being told with 'Bigger'?

I think that you just take the word “bigger” and you start thinking about it. It’s hard these days but you’re gonna have to be a bigger person. You’re gonna have to chase a bigger dream. The music and the attention and the fame of putting out a record is not as important as the messages that are being out on the album. It’s bigger than us. Sugarland was never supposed to be about us anyways. That’s why we never put our faces on the covers. It’s about you.

The first single that was out for this album was “Still the Same.” And that’s also the name of the tour. With such a long hiatus, taking time to re-evaluate the approach, would you say that Sugarland is still the same, or has the project grown a lot in that time and what might’ve evolved?

With a big smile on my face, I would say we’re… bigger [laughs]. Sorry, I couldn’t help it. You set me up. I would say that we all have become even better at what we do. All of us. In the band, in the crew. I think there’s a certain amount of wisdom that comes with more experience, no matter when you get it or how you get it. Whether it’s, in Jennifer’s case, becoming a parent. Or in my case, becoming a producer and a writer outside of my band. There’s just all sorts of weird things that make you better at what you do because you have a different perspective. And I think that “Still the Same,” just even as a phrase, really helps me communicate to fans, “Look, come hear your favorite songs because we haven’t played them in a while either. And we want to.” And at the same time, one of the things that Sugarland fans always did is they always gave us space to breathe. They gave us space to move. They gave us space to create, and create one step further down the road. You could always expect that the next record was never gonna be the exact blueprint of the one before it. And in this case, Bigger is everything that I would want in a Sugarland record. And I’m a fan. I’m in the band, but I’m a fan of what we do. I’m really proud of both things. The tour’s shaping up. I’m looking at the set list, trying to get it all right. There’s even songs from our solo records. It’s really cool.

I know you guys are really known for your live shows. What’s to be expected on this new tour?

The production is what you would expect, which is… we love to put some magic in the room. Neither of us are afraid of theater and, jeez, we’ve both been in it [laughs]. And then there’s always just the magic of an arena rock and roll show for adults. This is the last place that people are still evolving the art form of walking in a room and going, “Oh my gosh,” and being very moved. You know, I want you to forget about your day for a couple hours and just for a minute, get lost in this world that we create.

Finally, I wanna ask you… there’ve been four singles released off the album so far. Besides those four, what songs are you most excited for people to hear off the album?

[Laughs] That’s a really good question. I’m really excited for people to hear a song called “On a Roll.” And I’m really excited for people to hear… I mean, all of them. Probably “Tuesday’s Broken.” Mainly because, “On a Roll,” if you hear that song and you don’t start dancing, then not even Harry Belafonte can fix you [laughs]. I just put every roller-skating-awesome joy that I’ve found in the last three years into that song. And then the other one, “Tuesday is Broken,” is just such a magical song that we wrote together.

Listen to the previously released single "Babe," featuring Taylor Swift, before the rest of the album drops this Friday. Then catch Sugarland at the Moda Center on Saturday, June 9.

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