Though she first achieved success as a country artist in the award-winning duo Sugarland, Jennifer Nettles’ talent is so much more expansive than one genre or medium. The Grammy Award winner demonstrates her range and versatility on her new album, Always Like New, a celebration of the American Songbook that includes tunes from beloved Broadway such classics as My Fair Lady, Oklahoma and Guys and Dolls alongside songs from current hit musicals Dear Evan Hansen and Hamilton.
“This album has been a long time coming,” Nettles tells Sounds Like Nashville. “Many of us in the performing arts grew up in musical theater and so many of us found our way into that community or that community found us. I grew up doing theater all through high school and college. Towards the end of college, I had a moment where I was like, ‘Okay do I want to pursue theater exclusively or do I want to pursue music exclusively?’”
The Georgia native opted to purse a music career and has been happy with that decision. “At the time I was in college in Atlanta and had been playing in clubs there,” she recalls. “Some of my original material had some traction in the Atlanta music scene and so I was like, ‘I’m going to pursue this. I’ve got some momentum going here.’ And I’m so glad that I did because the success that I’ve had as a musician has allowed me to come back into the musical theater world with my Broadway debut in 2015 [in Chicago as Roxy Hart]. So to get to re-enter that community that was so beloved to me at that level, I felt super, super blessed and have always wanted to do a record of the American songbook of musical theater songs.”
Always Like New fulfills that dream for Nettles. Released June 25th on Concord Records, the new collection is available on vinyl as well as CD and digitally. In recreating these beloved show tunes, Nettles worked with Grammy and Tony Award winning orchestrator Alex Lacamoire, well-known for his work on Dear Evan Hansen, In the Heights and Hamilton.
“As a writer and an arranger, I’ve had a few of these songs that have been bouncing around my brain for years, specifically what I call the trinity foundation of this album, which is ‘Oh What a Beautiful Morning,’ ‘Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat’ and ‘Wouldn’t It Be Loverly.’ I had shared some of those ideas with my executive producer on this album, Adam Zotovich, and he said, ‘You need to do this project. You need to do it now and you need to do it with Alex Lacamoire.’ I had known of Alex and definitely knew his work but did not know him personally. So, Adam connected us, and I shared with him the ideas. We sent some voice notes back and forth, specifically of those three songs and he loved the concept, loved my take on those and we jumped into it together.”
Nettles has been in a particularly creative period lately. In addition to the new album, she has been writing a musical about 17th century poisoner Giulia Tofana and has been starring on HBO’s hit series The Righteous Gemstones. She also earned positive notice for her role in the Harriet Tubman biopic. “I’m just so happy to be at the point in my career where I can,” she says of pursuing other creative endeavors. “When we have success, sometimes we then get pigeonholed because of that success. It can be sort of like that guilted cage scenario where it’s like well it’s beautiful and it’s gold, but it’s still a cage none the less. Before I came onto the mainstream public consciousness with Sugarland, I had been paying my bills as an independent musician for 10 years and before that I had grown up in musical theater, always singing and performing. So even though I may have come onto the public consciousness in one specific way where country music is concerned, to me, I have a whole trajectory as an artist that started well before that and continues to expand even outside of that. We see that, not only in this album, but you also see it in my TV and film acting. You see it on stage, all of those different places and areas that I have loved getting to expand into.”
Nettles loved working on Always Like New and getting to put her own touch on songs she’s loved for years, but admits it was hard to narrow it down to the 10 songs on the album. “We had different criteria as we moved along, but first and foremost what we wanted to do is to choose songs that when we approached them, we could pay respectful homage to the original compositions because as they are beloved in his community and within the theater community, we can be a little bit precious about the original material. It has a sacredness to it, so we wanted to make sure we could pay respectful homage to the original compositions while at the same time elevating those compositions with arrangements that allowed them to be heard differently, that felt fresh and new, but are re-envisioned in a new way. We also wanted to make sure that we celebrated not only the classics, but also some contemporary theater pieces as well, which you’ll hear in ‘Wait For It’ [from Hamilton] and ‘You Will Be Found’ [from Dear Evan Hansen] and ‘It All Fades Away’ [from Bridges of Madison County]. There were times when we were like okay, we have to make sure that we include specific composers like [Stephen] Sondheim on ‘Anyone Can Whistle.’ So we had different criteria in different ways, but overall the main one was, ‘Can we pay respect to the original and can we elevate it?’”
Brandi Carlile joins Nettles on “It All Fades Away.” “I definitely wanted to have a collaboration on the album, and I thought it would be a beautiful offering to have that collaboration be with someone outside of the musical theater world because we’ve heard many of these masters interpret these songs before. I wanted to continue to honor and celebrate that criteria of making sure we could elevate things into something different and into something new,” Nettles says. “When I heard our arrangement for ‘It All Fades Away,’ I immediately thought of Brandi and her voice. I’m such a fan of hers, not only of her voice as a vocalist, but also her voice as an artist in terms of her writing and her activism. In my opinion, she’s one of the most important artists of our generation and so I knew I wanted her voice on there and then honestly, selfishly as a vocalist myself and a singer it’s so fun to get to sing with someone in some ways has similar sensibilities artistically like you do. That can really be a beautiful, a joyous moment. And it certain is on this album.”
One of the highlights of the album is Nettles’ unique interpretation of “Tomorrow,” the oft recorded hit from Annie. “We are accustomed to hearing this song as it was originally arranged and many times like small town talent shows of little girls screaming. I was one of those little girls screaming,” she says with a laugh. “The first album I ever owned was the soundtrack to the show Annie, and I loved it as a young girl of my generation to have a show, and the hero of the show was this little girl. I was so captured by that production and so inspired by it. When we recorded, I had asked Alex, ‘Can we take this and make it somber? Can we give it some gravitas? Can we take it out of the little girl screaming and really think about the longing that this lyric implies?’ When you think about it, the bitter sweetness to this arrangement that we did, there’s a patina on it. There’s some maturity and some age that says, ‘Yes I have hope and I also have enough experience to know the strength that it sometimes takes to have hope.’”
When asked if she has a favorite Broadway show, Nettles says, “It is impossible to answer because there are so many good ones. When I think in terms of classics and in terms of theater that I did growing up, you’ll hear ‘There’s A Sucker Born Every Minute,’ which is from Barnum. I did the Barnum musical when I was in high school, so you’ll also hear some of that on the record that is just personal and fun to me. Then also I really got excited again about theater when Wicked came into play because it was a story of women. I loved that production so very much. I loved my friend Sara Bareilles’ recent production of Waitress. I loved that. It’s hard to say though what’s my favorite. There are so many.”
Nettles is looking forward to Broadway reopening and has several shows she’s excited about seeing. “We’ve missed it all for so long. It’s really going to be ‘Okay which one do I go to first?’ I love Hamilton and Dear Evan Hanson. I’ve seen both of them multiple times. I’ve seen Book of Mormon more times than I can count. You want to talk about fun and hilarious even though it has been around for such a long time now! Obviously then there’s the Disney classics. I’ve taken my son to everything that is age appropriate. That’s always super fun. There are new ones too that I’ve missed like I want to see Jagged Little Pill. I didn’t get to see that because that’s one that opened and before it had a real chance to be celebrated in many ways, it had to close down. Same thing with Six. It’s one that had just opened when the pandemic hit, so there are a few of them that I want to see.”
Nettles is excited about fans hearing the new album and experiencing her love for Broadway. She’s also proud to say she owns the master recordings. “I have really enjoyed partnering with Concord for this record,” she says. “They have such a wonderful history within musical theater and putting out albums of artists within that community, so I really thought they were wonderful to partner with, but I’m also proud to say this… I’m partnering with them in terms of marketing and promotion, but I own these masters. It’s a brave new day in terms of artists learning their power and learning their role and learning more about the role of a record company as the landscape within the industry continues to shift. So I own these masters, but am super happy to be licensing it to Concord to be able to promote it in a beautiful way that they have so much experience and knowledge doing. I’m definitely going to be focusing on this project and hoping to be able to do a little tour with it by the end of the year.”