You may know Kristian Bush as the silent half of the country duo Sugarland, but on the launch of his first solo album he has a lot to say.
Sugarland was far from Bush’s first success in the music industry, the veteran musician, songwriter, and producer has a long list of credits. He was half of the folk rock duo Billy Pilgrim in the ’90s and toured in support of Melissa Etheridge. Bush, who has garnered six BMIs for his songwriting, first formed Sugarland in 2002. Jennifer Nettles auditioned and became lead singer for the group’s second album. That’s when the group took off, eventually selling more than 22 million albums worldwide and garnering numerous awards, including Grammys, AMAs, ACMs, CMTs, and more.
With Sugarland on hiatus since 2012, Bush has launched his first solo album, Southern Gravity. The project came about unintentionally, born out of a rush of creative energy as he dealt with the aftermath of several personal tragedies, including a divorce and the 2011 Sugarland stage collapse. Even though it came from a tumultuous time in his life, Southern Gravity delivers joy and inspiration, rather than sadness and angst.
Bush recently shared the story behind Southern Gravity, as well as some songwriting tips with Making Music readers.
Making Music: How did this album end up with such an inspirational feel?
Kristian Bush: That’s a very good question. There were many of those [sad songs]. I over-wrote for this record. Normally, for me, I write about one song a month—12 to 15 a year. Suddenly, as soon as we parked the bus when we came off that last tour, I think I was writing one almost every other day, which felt really weird. I was a little worried that the songs weren’t any good because they were coming too fast. I kind of lost my editor in my brain.
While there was a lot of sadness and mourning that happened, every once in a while, one of these incredibly bright songs would pop out and I’d be like, ‘Wow, where did that come from?’ It started to remind me that, when you go through all the different things that kind of piled on top of me, the bright songs are the buoys … like hot air balloons. You just want to hold onto them and see if they lift you up. Enough of those happened and I thought, “Oh my gosh, this is an album, but should we even put it out? I don’t want people to think I don’t love my band.”
KB: Sugarland is still together. We still have a couple records left with our label and it’s going to be super exciting when we get to do it. I can’t imagine what kind of album we are going to make. It’s going to be fun.
MM: When you and Jennifer decided to put Sugarland on hold, had you thought about launching an independent career?
KB: An independent career was not really in the forefront of my mind at all. I had an entire career before Sugarland with a band called Billy Pilgrim on Atlantic records in the early ’90s, so I’ve been around. I’d played with many of my heroes by the time I was 30. Sugarland was really an application of my knowledge and my joy and wanting to make more music.
My solo album is purely an extension of someone talking me into the idea that it’s not going to affect my band for me to have a solo record. I realized this is not going to get in the way of my baby [Sugarland]. That’s awesome! You know? I have totally different management and a different band and a different record label. Now I have two careers, which is exciting. It’s what I love to do as my hobby, as well as my job!
MM: Did it feel strange to be on stage performing as a solo act?
KB: I was concerned about what it was going to be like. What surprised me was that I had been using those muscles for years playing arenas and even stadiums. I walked out there and I was so nervous for my first show. It was strangely at the [huge] O2 Arena in London. I was opening for Little Big Town and Tim McGraw. I walked on stage and my heart was practically beating out of my chest. I broke into the first song and suddenly I was like, ‘Wait a minute, I totally know how to do this. I’ve got this. I can rock 17,000 people.’
It makes for an interesting and fun night, especially when I travel across the world right now. People look up at me and they get nervous. They are like: ‘I know you, I love you, I love your band, but I have no idea what you are about to sound like when you sing.’ Then I watch people relax after about a half a song.
MM: How is the songwriting for your solo effort different from Sugarland songwriting?
KB: When we are writing Sugarland music I’m translating the emotions into a female voice. That was new at the time [when Sugarland began]. Jennifer really pulls a lot of the weight on how to translate it; she’s such a great co-writer. That’s kind of one of the magic points of Sugarland. I can be a really strong writer, and my “Springsteen-y” attitude on a song is delivered by a woman. It makes it one or two steps outside of the norm.
When I write for myself, I’ve noticed how much of what I do has been Sugarland. When I started writing my own thing it sounds like a Sugarland record, except that I’m singing.
MM: What is your songwriting process like?
KB: I’m the kind of songwriter who can come at it from anyplace. My toolbox is like a Swiss Army knife. I’m great with lyrics; I’m great with melody. I’ve just been doing it so long. The thing that is the most simple to me is to find a melody that goes along with a lyric. So, if I’m carrying around a bunch of lyrics, I can pull them out and stick a melody on them at any time. When I walk around I hear things in my head; it’s kind of scary. It clouds up every day things, even when I’m driving the car pool, or fixing breakfast for my kids. I have to shut it off a little to do everyday life.
MM: I saw that you have a degree in creative writing, do you think that’s one reason you have a knack for lyrics?
KB: Definitely! On my first record on Atlantic some of those songs started as poems. It was very esoteric, emotional poetry. It was fun to go to college to learn how to say something in fewer words. That’s worth everything, especially in songwriting.
I consider country songwriting the ultimate challenge. In a successful country song, you only have 20 lines and four of them have to repeat three times; but they change their meaning every time you hit them, if you are doing it well. That means you really only have 16 lines to tell your story. And, a good country song, at least the ones I love, are very conversational, as if you can’t even tell it’s a song. It’s as if it’s someone speaking—language that you would use every day. You don’t get the heightened language of poetry. You want it to be something that everyone can relate to. It’s like a Rubik’s Cube, inside of a Rubik’s Cube. Every time you change one thing, it changes the alignment of everything else.
It is some of the most fascinating work from a background of creative writing. You get to cheat a little because you use two languages at the same time—English and music. You can put emotion in the melody and not in the lyric, or flip-flop it, with lyrics that are super emotional and music that is not.
MM: How did you find the songwriters that you worked with on Southern Gravity?
KB: The beginning of this process was a question to myself. “What if, at this level of success, people aren’t telling me the truth on whether you are any good? What if I’m not as good as the commercial success? How am I ever going to answer that question?” I thought the only way I could figure out an honest answer would be to start writing with the best people I could find and figure out what those songs feel like and to absorb everything I could from those people. So I went all over the world. I went to see Will Jennings in L.A. who wrote the Titanic theme song and “Up Where We Belong,” I said, “Will, teach me how to write for film.” And I went to Stockholm and Jøgen Olsen and said, “Teach me how to write a pop song.” And I went to Nashville, to Paul Overstreet, and Bob DePiero, and said, “Teach me how to write the best country music you can write.” I just kept going and I just kept writing. I went to London and wrote with Sacha Scarbek who wrote early Adele stuff, and with James Blunt.
These people are all over this record. But the journey itself was kind of cool; I started to realize these songs weren’t just experiments or exercises.
MM: Was it difficult to narrow down what your voice would sound like on your first album?
KB: Well, my voice is different … When I started Sugarland it was pretty clear that my voice was not going to fit country radio because most of the singers signed on country radio at the time, like Josh Turner and Billy Currington, had very rich baritone voices. So I thought, we are going to need a singer—enter Jennifer Nettles. But now, when I listen to the radio, I realize I’m a good fit for current commercial country music, though it wouldn’t have fit 10 years ago. So suddenly this first record, my third first record, weirdly enough, is right on time.
Every record I’ve made in my entire career I wanted to reach the most people possible and radio is one of the greatest megaphones we have right now. When I started to think about what I sound like and what I want this album to sound like, it was really about my voice. But, it’s kind of like listening to yourself on your voicemail. It can be unsettling at first and then, once you get used to it, you accept yourself. I wrote 300 songs for this record and I also recorded them all. So the process of that also felt like discovering my voice.
MM: How hard is it to self-produce your own voice on an album? Is it difficult to get the right perspective?
KB: It is difficult. For me it takes more time. One of the things that I love about producing albums, and that I’m really good at, is producing vocals. But it’s weird to produce your own vocals because you have to emotionally detach. You have to give yourself some distance when you are listening, so the hardest part was the speed. I usually like to record fast. I would do full takes and then cut them together. Then I would take it home and listen to it for two or three days and come back. I have my own project studio so it is easy to go back in. If I was just the producer, or just the singer, between the two of us, we would figure it out within an hour.
MM: Do you have any tips for aspiring songwriters as far as getting the process started? Growing the “songwriting” muscle?
KB: The first thing I would say is, don’t give up; don’t judge yourself until about 100 songs because it’s going to suck for a while. They are going to be emotionally very much your babies. Write them as exercises. The second thing I would recommend is, write against a beat. There’s so much great technology out to give you rhythms to write against, whether it’s an app in your phone, a piece of software, or a drum machine. I love the way lyrics bounce against a rhythm. While you may not be the best piano player or guitar player, or whatever your main instrument is, you can certainly become a better one by playing with a consistent tempo. Writing against a tempo can drive the physical charm of the song.
MM: What can you tell us about the NASH TV documentary Walk Tall: The Journey of Sugarland’s Kristian Bush that just premiered on television?
KB: It’s about this record and what it’s like to make music after terrible things happen. It’s about Southern Gravity, but it’s also about the journey it takes to get to something like this. The context is that, as Americans, as people, the idea of never giving up is really important. And when you have a passion, a belief, and a joy when you do something, whether its writing or performing music, life throws us all sorts of curveballs, and the only choice you really have is how you deal with that. There’s a resiliency in loving what you do. You go back to it as a way to ground yourself. And as long as you never give up, you can achieve things that people thought were impossible. That doesn’t mean always, but it means you can. If you just keep going something incredible is bound to happen.