A Conversation With Sugarland's Kristian Bush
The number "three" holds a special significance for singer-songwriter Kristian Bush. Music fans in Charleston might remember Bush as one half of the folks rock duo Billy Pilgrim, which enjoyed quite a following here in the 90‘s thanks to radio station 96 Wave playing songs such as “Insomniac.” Nowadays, Bush is a founding member of the country supergroup Sugarland, which has sold 14 million albums worldwide and won numerous music awards. Bush, who plays a special solo show this Friday at the Windjammer on the Isle of Palms, says that for the last 20 years, his music has followed a curious cycle. “It happens in March of every year with a three in it,” says Bush, speaking by phone from his home in Atlanta. “March of 1993 is when Billy Pilgrim got its deal with Atlantic Records, March of 2003 is when Sugarland signed with Universal Records, and this past March was when I released "Love and Money," my solo single.” That solo effort is a perfect example of Bush’s songwriting style, with playful, catchy lyrics set to an equally intoxicating melody.
With Bush writing and recording solo material and his Sugarland partner, Jennifer Nettles, having just released a solo album of her own, it’s possible that Sugarland fans might be a bit worried about the band’s status. According to Bush though, all is well in Sugarland. “We’ve taken a hiatus at the moment,” Bush says. “There’s some life stuff that’s sort of been going on in Jennifer’s life. She got married, she just had a baby and she’s never been a mom before, so it’s a lot of adjusting. So we just pulled off of the cycle, and she had always wanted to put out a solo record, because she had not had the previous career like I had. When you’re looking down our discographies, I’m on record number 34, but she’s on record 7. I’ve been doing it since I was 13. It’s just different. So she chose to do a solo record, and just completely by somewhat circumstance, where I normally write about 20 or 25 songs a year, the last two years I’ve written about 160 to 180 songs a year.”
Bush admits that the sudden burst of creativity is “mind blowing,” and it has left him with a very happy problem. “Now I’m sitting on 300, maybe 400 songs, and Jennifer and I get to put a record out every two years with 10 songs on it,” says Bush. “So you can see that, in order to keep from breaking my own heart, I need to go put out records as fast as possible, and they maybe need to all be double-albums (laughs). I would actually be okay with it if the material was half-assed or sucky, but they just get better. So now I’m in a really weird spot, where I have to start getting these songs out. Knowing that Sugarland wouldn’t be going out for however many months, I said, ‘Well I guess I should put out a record. I started to realize that my biggest problem would be choosing the songs. I’ve always trusted my audiences, whether they were Billy Pilgrim audiences or Sugarland audiences, so I’m taking my songs out for a test run.”
Friday night’s Windjammer show is part of a tour that lets Bush road test those new tunes, which he promises to mix with some more familiar material. “We’ll play some Billy Pilgrim stuff and some Sugarland stuff too,” says Bush, “because that would be one of the reasons you’d come see me, but I’m also pretty dependable for bringing you new music that’s as good or better than the last music of mine you heard.”
I tell Bush that right before the call, I was poking around his website and came across an unreleased song called “I’m in Love with Drinking Beer.” The ode to barley and hops is a perfect example of why Bush is considered to be a gifted songwriter, and could easily be a chart-topping hit for an artist like Kenny Chesney or Eric Church. “You see my problem now,” laughs Bush. “It’s a beautiful place to be. I feel very inspired artistically, and very supported, because I have a studio down the street with an engineer where I can go in every day and record these songs. That’s why I want to get these songs out in front of an audience and say, "Clap if you like them, go listen to them, they’re all out there for free." I like nothing more than going out and playing songs for people. I encourage people to bring their phones, clean them out so you can record everything, and to get online and go to the Music Monday section of my website and dig through the songs.”
Bush also talked a little about how much more wide open the definition of country music had become, and how that open-mindedness allowed artists like him to better participate. “For a long time, I was concerned that my voice wasn’t a country music voice,” says Bush. “My singing voice, the way you heard me, it sounded more like Rod Stewart or Paul Westerberg. I had gotten a lot of pushback early on in Sugarland, stuff like, "Hey, just let Jennifer sing," and I was like, "I’m totally cool with that. I’ve been singing for 10 years." I thought, "This is a great gig! I’ll just write songs and play guitar and perform and have fun!" Then as it went on, Jennifer was very supportive. She was really into my voice, as were the producers that worked with us. Jennifer suggested I sing more, and I said, "Well, I’ve already done that," and they said, "No, no one knows what you sound like." So now it’s so much more open, and there are more guys on country radio that sound like me, and it’s kind of like, did 1994 show up again?”
I asked Bush to describe a bit about how Billy Pilgrim ended, and Sugarland began. “(Andrew Hyra and I) kept touring as Billy Pilgrim up until Sugarland began, Bush explains. “There’s one kind of mysterious album that got released in there, where the idea was kind of a turning period. Charleston is kind of a big part of this story, because my mother died, and she died in Charleston. She’d been living there for 10 years. It was a tragic, overnight, kind of over Thanksgiving type of thing. During that time, a couple of years before, Andrew and I had been touring. We’d been to the Music Farm maybe two or three times a year for a few years straight, working on songs and getting them better and better. I put us in the studio, and I insisted that we only go in when we were in a very good mood, and that we would record everything we could, and then I would sort it out later and put it on an album. I felt like Billy Pilgrim wasn’t finished yet, and that there was an album that we hadn’t yet done. It took us the better part of four years on and off, between playing club dates, taking all that money and throwing it into recording. We recorded about 70 songs, and I brought that down to 11, and the result was an album called "Billy Pilgrim and the Time Machine." It’s one of the best things that I’ve ever done. Andrew and I made that record and put it out, my mom died, then it was the turn of the millennium, and shortly after that, the studio burned down where we had the masters to that record, and so I had one copy of the record. I went and got it manufactured, and we made 1,000 copies of the record. We released that record, and within maybe a month after that release all of the other songs that didn’t get to be on that record kind of fell forward and became Sugarland. So my overwriting for one band became the birth of the next band. The same thing is happening now. Whatever the next Sugarland album is, I’ve overwritten for it already.”
For Friday’s show, Bush will be bringing a full band with him to the Windjammer, including some very notable names. Bush explained that his success with Sugarland has allowed him to work with some of the best musicians out there. “I have a solid reputation among the music community with people who want to come play with me,” says Bush. “If you’re a musician, I’m not going to hire you because you can regurgitate my record on the stage. I want you to make me better. As a result I’ve created a band where I’m the worst person on the stage (laughs). It’s a lot of fun.” The band includes Rebecca and Megan Lovell from Larkin Poe, Tim Smith formerly of Jellyfish, Brandon Bush (Kristian’s brother who has also played with Train), and several other great artists.
Tickets for Friday’s show at The Windjammer are $20 in advance and $25 the day of the show. Doors open at 8pm.