Jennifer Nettles's new album is a proud celebration of a new century of Broadway
By Matt Chisling
I can admit that Jennifer Nettles has blown me away three times in my life. The first moment? When I sat in the audience while she took to the stage of the Ambassador Theatre for a gutsy, whimsical turn as Roxie Hart in Chicago on Broadway. The second? When I sat in a sold-out Nashville arena while her Grammy Award-winning band, Sugarland, proudly declared that everyone — regardless of race, gender, or sexuality — were welcome and loved at their shows. The third moment came just days ago, upon listening to Nettles' newest album, Always Like New, a celebration of a century of Broadway classics reimagined with a southern sound. An album that is an homage to theatre and a chance to acknowledge where it can go. An album that, for Nettles, has been a lifetime in the making.
Nettles's foray into the theatrical space is hardly an accident or a pastime. Theatre's been in her blood from day one, though life took her on a different path. As she shared with us, "All through school - elementary, high school, even college, I did theatre and music. I even had gotten to a point where I was like 'what do I want to pursue here? Do I want to pursue music, do I want to pursue theatre?' I had had some good traction on writing original music and playing in clubs in Atlanta, and so I thought that this would be the way to go since it had a clearer path at the time. But I always wanted to be able to do it all."
It seems like, with this album, she does. Always Like New spans a century of Broadway standards in just 10 tracks. The album, which drops June 25, includes numbers from Guys and Dolls ("Sit Down, You're Rockin' The Boat"), and Brigadoon ("Almost Like Being in Love"), all the way through today's most popular titles. It's a collaboration between Nettles and Alex Lacamoire, the musical director of Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen — so it's no surprise that both shows also make appearances here. But don't expect to hear traditional covers: The tracks are reimagined from the ground up to showcase Nettles's singular vocal prowess and, in some cases, give the song a whole new meaning. It's an album that feels like a perfect fit within both Nettles' catalogue and any Broadway fan's Spotify playlist.
"It's definitely an album that I've always wanted to make — in terms of both my history and my love of theatre. Musically, I've always had these ideas in my mind that these songs make sense the way I might sing them while at home," she said, referencing "Loverly" from My Fair Lady, the album's opening number. When Nettles pitched the idea to her executive producer, he connected her with Lacamoire, who helped Nettles shape the sound of the songs she already loved to sing — and who was her collaborator in hand-picking the tracks that ultimately got recorded. The power of technology? All it took was some voice notes being sent back and forth for these two artists to realize what they had was a project worth pursuing.
"We put a lot of emphasis [in choosing tracks, deciding arrangements, and in recording] on criteria that was twofold: We need to be able to pay respect or homage to the original composition that would allow listeners a sense of discovery or rediscovery. But it needed to feel fresh enough or new enough." This level of scrutiny is what pushed Nettles to record some offbeat tracks with a new bluesy, twangy, soulful flare.
I was pleasantly surprised to know that Alex was open to rearranging "Wait For It" — when you're so close to something, and you've already made it the best, why would you do it again? But he really was able to do that. We wanted a song to have this drony, swampy, sound. Originally I wanted that to be "Hurricane," but Alex suggested "Wait For It," and once our guitarist [Scott Patton] got in there he really brought that specific treatment beautifully. It ended up really surprising me on a couple of levels." It really ended up pleasantly surprising this writer as well.
Perhaps the most surprising new take on Always Like New is "It All Fades Away," the heartbreaking 11 o'clock number from The Bridges of Madison County. Originally sung by Steven Pasquale on Broadway, Nettles covered the track at MCC's Miscast gala in 2019. Here, it's once-again reimagined as a duet between Nettles and Grammy Award-winner Brandi Carlile. "I am such a huge fan [of Carlile]," Nettles noted when asked about the decision to turn this number into a duet. "She is one of the most important artistic voices of our time... and once we started exploring the song, she was the person I immediately went to. She was the first choice and the right choice."
The choice to transform the number into a heartbreaking duet between two women may be one that appeals to fans of both artists, as well as theatre fans. But it's not an insignificant choice to make - and one that came right from Nettles's heart. "This may be my heterosexual privilege, but I said yes, I'd love to sing this song. But for Brandi [who is out as a gay woman], it was the first time that she had released a romantic song between two women... It made me even more excited about the song to know that she was so touched by it."
These artistic choices are ones that Nettles has been unafraid to take on many times in her career. She's been a staunch activist for LGBTQ+ rights and has been honored by the Human Rights Commission for her efforts. For her, being an icon to the queer community is an important part of the artist that she is. That this album is dropping during NYC Pride is a bonus. "It's beautiful timing, with Broadway coming back [this fall] and with Pride. It's a fun, celebratory, joyous record. The theatre community is such a beautifully embracing community. And I hope that fans listen and share, and celebrate with it." As she wonderfully calls out, "every celebration needs a soundtrack. Why not this?"
Broadway's return is just a few months away, and Nettles has a few titles on her own shopping list for when shows reopen, including Dear Evan Hansen, Springsteen on Broadway, and Hamilton. But she's really pumped for Six: "All the great buzz from the West End, the female cast, celebrating one of the stories that we didn't have in history - I'm curious about [Six] for sure." And while Nettles remained coy about when we'll next see her on Broadway, her album is sure to unlock the same joy, warmth, and love for musical theatre as she had as a young girl with a very big dream.
Always Like New is available wherever music can be bought or listened to on June 25.
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