(With Kristen Hall)
Friday August 22, 2003

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How many times have you read, “You better go see this band now while you still have the chance to see them in a club?” It’s an easy and obvious writer cliché that’s applied anytime there’s even a modest buzz about an act and 99% of the time it’s wrong. Well, guess what? You’d better go see Sugarland now while you still have a chance to see them in a club. I’m willing to bet money on it. Within a couple of months, the Atlanta based “super group” will be out of here and on to bigger pastures. Don’t believe me? I’ll be happy to prove you wrong. The band has only been together a year and been playing shows about half that time, yet the country-pop band is already making waves in Nashville after only one showcase there. CMT’s Chet Flippo has declared, “I cannot tell you the last time that I saw a new group or new artist with such stage confidence and such a sure grasp of their capabilities, their range and their music And that’s something you don’t often see in recent crops of aspiring young wannabe Kenny Chesneys and Shania Twains that Nashville has been trying to foist on the public.” Whoa! Them’s mighty big words for someone from the cable music network that pays its bills with Chesneys and Twains. Sugarland is made up of ex-Indigo Girls drummer Simone Simonton, Billy Pilgrim vets Kristian Bush and Bret Hartley on mandolin and guitar, Clay Cook on bass, singer-songwriter Kristen Hall on guitar and local darling Jennifer Nettles on lead vocals. I recently had a chance to chat with Kristen Hall about their quick rise and some big plans!


Chris McKay: So what’s up with Sugarland? I heard you had some big things happening over in Nashville?


Kristen Hall: Yeah, we had a great show there and great things came from it. The next morning we went in and signed an agreement to work with the William Morris Agency and effectively every major label was there to represent. The show was like a musician’s dream. They all came backstage after the show and said, “So when are we making a record?” Our manager is just kind of weeding through everything trying to get the right deal together. We’ll probably be a major label artist by the end of the month.


CM: I was actually at one of your shows here in Athens at the 40 Watt last February.


KH: That was one of our first shows. We were real nervous coming to Athens that we were being thrown to the lions. Pop-country is probably not the most popular genre in that town.


CM: And then I was at the Classic Center show the next day that you did for all the area students for the Grammy In The Schools Program.


KH: That was a rough one. That was actually a really good turning point for the band. Anything that could’ve gone wrong went wrong and we had fun anyway. That’s when we knew we had something special ‘cause we were like, “Man, if we can have fun in that situation this is something great.”


CM: I remember there was some sound problems at first and those high school students did not want to hear country music and yet you turned them around and had them on their feet by the end of the set.


KH: That’s when I realized the star quality that Jennifer (Nettles – lead vocalist) has. To be able to work through that and get those kids to pay attention and love her in spite of what was going on onstage made me realize the level of star quality that she has. She had no monitors. There were no monitors and then suddenly they popped on and scared the hell out of all of us because we had just got settled into the sound of no monitors and it literally made us jump when they came on. It was really funny.


CM: Then, of course, combine that with the level of songwriting within the band and how can you go wrong?


KH: Yeah.


CM: That’s the thing that strikes me about Sugarland is that is seems like every detail is, if not planned out, looked at and taken care of in advance. You had the songs first, then you found the voice, then completed the band and went out to see who bites. Nothing was haphazard or left to chance. It seems like you knew exactly what you wanted and went about finding each piece of the puzzle one at a time instead of having 500 pieces scattered around you before you began trying to fit them into place.


KH: We did. A lot of thought went into it. It’s calculated, but “calculated” is a scary word to use with a person who doesn’t understand. It was calculated, but not formulated. You know what I mean? Kristian (Bush) and I missed being in a band and being onstage but we didn’t want to be the person in the center. We knew we wanted to be more in the background and it turns out we wind up on the front line anyway, but we’re not the center of attention which is great. It actually ended up being the right thing. We knew we wanted to be in a band with people we like and that we wanted to deal with it like a business from the get-go. We wanted to deal with it as if we were going to win and go all the way and always approach it from that perspective. From the very beginning my friends were laughing at me. When they would ask what I was doing, I’d say, “Ah, man I’m putting together this country band and we want to be the biggest country act of all time.” That’s been our ambition from the first minute we sat down to work on it. Say what you want to about it, but I believe in manifest destiny. We feel like that’s what we’re doing. We’re trying to put something together great. My biggest objective is that I want to be a musician for a living. I’m approaching a point where I had to invent something for myself that would allow that to happen and that’s this band. I’m not saying I’m willing to put on a chicken suit and run around, but I’ve had my friends who are big time heavy-hitters in the music industry say, “Oh, you’re selling your soul to the devil?” All I can say is, “No, I’m trying to get my songs on the fucking radio. Is that such a crime? Just because it didn’t work out for you don’t take it out on me.” It’s kind of hard to convince me sometimes that that isn’t bitterness talking. I’ve said this in interviews before, but this band has un-jaded me. I love it so much and I think so highly of it and I believe in it so much that I’m excited all over again like I was when I was twenty. That being said, though, I’m not twenty so I can’t be blind about it either. So it’s an interesting mixture of experience and naivete.


CM: You know, to me it can’t get much more subversive these days than for someone to get good music on the radio. It’s such a rarity and I agree that those who can’t see that are bitter and holding onto something that’s in all reality holding onto them. There’s nothing wrong with doing quality work and wanting to do it right. On top of that, I’m not at all a fan of modern country, but when I heard the Sugarland CD, the quality of the songwriting and the musicianship drew me in instantly. It was clear in that instant that this band was something special and has what it takes to go all the way. And it was all done so quickly and with such efficiency that it has to be admired. So exactly how long has Sugarland been around now?


KH: The first time we ever stepped foot onstage was August 8, 2002. We played four songs because that’s all we had was four songs. Just saying that out loud gave me chill bumps all over my arms and legs because it’s insane, but you know what’s really interesting from my perspective as a person who fought, fought, fought, fought and fought and inched their way through the music industry and did well enough. I had publishing deals, record deals and worldwide tours, whatever, but it was always so hard and this band steps up and supports what I’ve always said to people. They would ask me, “How do you make it in this business?” I’m like, “You’re asking me? I don’t have the slightest idea. This all fell in my lap and it’s been a huge struggle for me ever since so I couldn’t tell you the first thing on how to go about getting it.” But I always believed that if you have the right thing, the waters will part for you. This is what has happened with this band. I feel like Moses is standing in front of us, “Part the Red Sea!” It’s been like that for us. Kristian, Jennifer and I know how hard being in a band is all the time. On one hand you can’t believe it’s happening and I don’t think it really sinks in for any of us what’s happening to us. It doesn’t seem real because it’s too easy. On some level, I wonder if we’re doing something great if it doesn’t feel hard. It’s an odd feeling, but the overall feeling is “Wow! This is so awesome!” I’ve seen this happen to friends before where they just walked in and everything parted for them. I’m happy for us because we love what we do and we have a great time doing it and I think the audience knows it. I think they share that and we give out and they give back and it’s like a big energy exchange at a show. That’s our biggest ambition. I mean, I traveled around as “Kristen Hall” singing these dingy songs about having my heart broken or being pissed off at my parents or whatever it was and finally it got to where it was like, “Oh my God, I can’t do this anymore.” I don’t know how people like Tori Amos can get up every day. God bless her out there singing about the worst moments of her life day after day. With us, it was a complete conscious decision to write songs that make us happy. When I was solo, I felt very inhibited emotionally to…how do I describe it? You have to be very confident to sing happy songs. You really do. When you’re insecure you can go out there and go, “I hate life.” That’s pretty easy. It’s a lot harder to go up and be happy. It’s so different now. I’m present onstage. I actually will remember a show. The way it used to be was that I could play Carnegie Hall and then be like, “I did? I don’t remember it.” There was so much focus on me that I had to remove myself emotionally from the situation to even cope with it. The first time that actually changed for me was at On The Bricks last year. Sugarland was still looking for a singer and I had been working with an artist named Alice Peacock who had a record coming out. She got a last minute gig at On The Bricks and asked if Sugarland would back her up. We thought, “Sure, we’ll do it.” We got together and learned eight or nine songs and we stood out on that stage and for the first time in my entire career I opened my eyes. Some time during the first song I looked out in the audience and no one was looking at me. They were all looking to the left. I thought the stage was on fire or something. I’d never been in a situation where everyone wasn’t looking at me. I realized that they were looking at Alice. “Isn’t that cool?” All of a sudden, I was having a good time. The pressure’s off. It’s fun. Who knew? That’s what it’s like being in this band. It’s not all about me.


CM: How did you wind up hooking up with Jennifer? She was doing pretty well on her own after all?


KH: Oh yeah, she had a hell of a thing going. It’s funny. When we were searching we kept saying that we needed someone with a lot of charisma. I recall conversations that I had with other people when I first came back to Atlanta after being in L.A. for a few years. I came back being a real songwriter. I learned how to co-write with other people and I wanted to do that here. I had asked everybody, “Who in this town is worth trying to write songs with that could really take this somewhere.” Pretty much everyone in town said “write with Jennifer Nettles.” Which we tried to do, but it just didn’t work out. At that time I think she had a really distinct style that I wanted to try to add something additional and I don’t think she was open to that at that time. So we just didn’t pursue it. But when it came back to thinking about who does everyone believe has star quality in town, it was her. I threw the idea of getting Jennifer to sing to the band and they literally laughed at me, “Yeah, right, like she’s going to do that.” I said, “Well, you never know.” At that time Eddie’s Attic had been sold to her husband. I went in late one night at about three in the morning and Todd was there and I had never met him before. We sat down and started drinking some martinis and hung out for a couple of hours. He asked what was going on with me and I told him that we were looking for a singer. He said, “Well, what about my wife?” I said, “You know, that thought occurred to me, but I’m guessing she’s pretty busy.” He said, “Hey, if you asked her today, she’d probably do it. I think she’s a little sick of where she’s at and feeling a little stuck.” Then he said, “Trust me on this. Ask her tomorrow.” So I asked her the next day and she said “Yes.”


CM: Yeah, and the thing I noticed about Jennifer with Sugarland vs. on her own was how much more focused and consistent she is with the band. When I would see her on her own, I always thought she was way too schizophrenic even though she was extremely talented. When I saw her with you, it all kind of clicked and made sense and I saw something that could clearly go beyond being the biggest draw in a small town to something that could translate to a massive, mainstream audience.


KH: Yeah. She sounds better than ever and Sugarland allows her personality onstage to come out like crazy. I think it’s going to be really fun to watch her develop over the next couple of years. She keeps me having a good time watching her come alive. I saw her come alive at the Grammy In The Schools show that day in Athens in that auditorium. I saw something in her that I hadn’t even seen before which was her ability to work a crowd in the worst possible circumstances.


CM: Yeah, those kids were definitely against you.


KH: Yep, and I was not born to be an entertainer. I’m so much more a songwriter than an entertainer. She’s an entertainer. She gets it. I’m a songwriter. I’m up onstage playing my song and fifty people are looking at me and one person’s in the back reading the paper and that’s the person I’m focused on. Whereas Jennifer has the type personality where it’s like the fifty people are watching her and if the guy in the back’s reading the paper ignoring her, she’s going to pound at him until he gives her the attention that she deserves. I mean, she’s great at it. I wouldn’t even try. I’d be like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe it. That person hates me.” It’s a pretty good marriage between me and Kristian and Jennifer.  Jennifer’s got the voice, I’ve got the songs and Kristian’s a brilliant musician and a good songwriter. I think the songs we’re writing together are great and they’re getting better. When we went in to record the record, that was every song we had. We were like, “Okay, we have ten. Let’s go and record it.” It really went that way. We just need to make time to do more. Kristian’s got a baby and had a full-time job, a mortgage, a business and all kind of things. Now everybody’s untangling themselves and trying to make more time for this now that we see that this is our business.


CM: Yeah, and I can imagine that it’s been pretty strange with everyone around you saying, “This is going to work. This is going to be huge.” That’s got to make you hesitant in its own way and make you step back to try and see it for what it really is.


KH: You know, though, we’re just pleased to death that everybody sees it like we do (laughs). Obviously, you’d never get up onstage doing something that you don’t believe in. Whether you’re in some crap fraternity band or whatever, you think you’re bound for glory whether you’re willing to admit it or not. You think that or you wouldn’t do it and it’s really exciting to for once have people agree with you…especially the press, you know (laughs)? There have to have been some negative reviews, but we haven’t seen them. We just shake our heads in disbelief.


CM: Is there going to be any new Kristen Hall solo material?


KH: Yeah, I have half an album recorded that we’re going to start mixing now and I’m actually going to put a record out early next year on Daemon Records. One of the things that was so beautiful to me about when I moved to L.A. to do songwriting is that I realized how caught up I was in what worked for me in Atlanta and how I felt trapped in it. Everybody wanted me to write another “Out In The Country” and I have so much more than that in me. I went out to L.A. and I wrote R & B and heavy metal and goth and it was so good for me. All of that stuff is in me. I’m a songwriter and I’m always going to make records because I’m always going to be pitching my songs to people and I love it. On my record, I don’t know that it will necessarily be a cohesive project. The only commonality will be my voice on every song. It may be a little schizophrenic but the reason that I would put out a record on Daemon is because Amy understands that I’ve got this other thing and she doesn’t expect me to tour. Although I told her I would be happy to go out with Indigo Girls for three weeks to promote the record. That would be appropriate. Obviously, I’m not going to tour my ass off on it because I have other things to do.


CM: Have you done any solo shows since Sugarland’s been together? Does it feel different?

KH: Uh-huh. The first time, I really hated it, but as time has gone by I really appreciate the opportunity to play some other songs. It’s a lot like dating. It’s like you have this new person that you’re so totally in love with and it’s hard to hang out with your old friends for a while, but when it all calms down you’re really excited for your girls’ night out with your peeps (laughs). I mean, you may blow your friends off at the beginning of a relationship but if you don’t learn to reintegrate them, you’re pretty much doomed. So it’s a lot like that really. I love Sugarland and I love playing these country songs right now, but if that’s all I have to be, I won’t be happy because that’s not all I am. Right now, I love writing with other people. I’ve got to be honest with you. It’s harder and harder to write my own stuff right now, but I just wrote some songs with Cindy Richardson for her new record that’s totally rock. She’s kind of like Sheryl Crowe could’ve gone if she didn’t have a Tommy Hilfiger endorsement (laughs) or if Sheryl Crowe hung out more with Keith Richards than Tommy Hilfiger. You’ll probably see less and less songs that are written 100% by me. It’ll be more like, here’s a collection of my recent collaborations. If that changes, then that changes. For right now, I just love co-writing. I’m not in a relationship and I don’t have anything hugely dramatic going on in my life right now. I’ve grown up. I’m not partying until four in the morning and wondering how I’m going to pay the rent or strung out on dope. I probably never will be again. So I kind of have to hang out with some people who are like that (laughs). I have to hang out with people who inspire me and put that electricity and energy and drama into what I’m doing because my life is so normal right now. I’m actually relieved to know that I can write songs and be normal. I used to live a very dramatic life thinking I needed to have that in my life to be a songwriter. That was a real double-edged sword as you can imagine. Yeah, everything’s so good right now that I have to pinch myself. Every day I say, “Okay, am I dreaming? Am I really this happy? Is everything really this great? Am I this content? Am I this calm in the middle of a hurricane?” I realize that we’re in the eye of a storm right now.


CM: Yes, and if your hopes for the band come true it’s just going to get much worse!


KH: Yeah (laughs)! It’s like there’s no going back. I was telling my manager last week, “Do you realize that I’ve put myself in a position where the only escape is death (laughs)?” But I don’t feel like “be careful what you wish for.” I feel like, “Isn’t this great? My dreams came true.” So I’m going to dream big, because the dreams just keep coming.


 Chris McKay /