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Jennifer Nettles Talks About Taking Risks and Collaborating With Jennifer Lopez on New Album 'Playing With Fire'

Jennifer Nettles performs at the CMT Next Women Of Country Tour at The Wiltern on Feb. 23, 2016 in Los Angeles.
Gabriel Olsen/Getty Images

Coffee County, Ga., wouldn’t exactly qualify as your hustling and bustling metropolitan area. Located in the southeast portion of the state, the county seat of Douglas boasts a population of just over 10,000. However, whether it be U.S. Highway 441 or State Route 32, there are plenty of spots in the county where the roads are wide open. Someone who can attest to this is one of the county’s most prominent natives -- Jennifer Nettles.
 
“Many times I would speed down 441 in Coffee County,” she recalled to Billboard. “I have had lead foots on all of those roads, and have probably been pulled over on all of them, for sure.”
 
That “caution to the wind” attitude can be heard in various spots on Nettles’ second solo album, Playing With Fire. She says that living outside the lines has had an appeal to her in the past -- to a point.
 
“In general, I definitely take the vibe of asking questions ‘What if?’ and ‘Why not?’ and changing the script if necessary,” she says. “An example of how that has played out in my life was when I was in college, I probably made a lot of decisions -- but I also had a lot of fun. I hitchhiked with two other women through Central America back in the 1990s,” she recalls before stressing, “Kids, don’t do it now because it’s way different. I’ve done things like that which were risky, but I’m not stupid. I don’t have a death wish nor do I want to go to jail,” she says with a laugh.

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The first single from the set, “Unlove You,” is moving up the charts -- currently No. 31 on Hot Country Songs. And there's much talk about her collaboration with Jennifer Lopez, “My House,” that closes the disc. As someone who has teamed up musically with Jon Bon Jovi, Beyonce, and Rihanna either on record or the stage over the years, Nettles says that the underlying theme of the song is how much people are alike -- regardless of heritage or musical genre.

“I think what the song celebrates are the ways that we are more alike than we are different. At the end of the day, the things that happen in our house and keep us up at night -- the things we dream of for our children are the same," she explains. "We get to see that in music across the board, not just in terms of our daily lives. When art imitates life, if we are more alike than we are different, we will see those similarities celebrated within the art, as well.”

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Nettles wrote or co-wrote 10 of the 12 cuts on the album (including seven with critically acclaimed singer-songwriter Brandy Clark). As a tunesmith, she feels that she has come a long way since “He Couldn’t Give Up The Bottle (So She Had To Give Back His Name),” her initial foray as a writer. “Wow. that was the first song I ever wrote with a guitar. Clearly, it was a country song. It sounds like it for sure,” explains Nettles. Though she hopes she has evolved as a songwriter, her creative approach remains pretty much the same. “What I was into then I’m still into now. I still enjoy levity and having fun, but I also enjoy telling the stories lesser told. I enjoy expressing the hero’s journey. I enjoy exploring the parts of life that are life-giving, but also challenging. I also love telling about the parts of life that fill us as much as they hurt us. I enjoy that richness of the spectrum of life. I think I was celebrating life with that song all of those many years ago.”
 
The singer has just wrapped up the successful CMT Next Women of Country tour, where she was the veteran in a group that included newcomers Lindsay Ell and Tara Thompson, among others. “I told them we should call it ‘Babes and Old Broads.’ Seriously, I love championing women," says Nettles. "To be able to get to do it within this context within this industry that I love so much has been very rewarding for me.”
 
Spending time with so many newcomers gave her a chance to share some of her thoughts about the business. “We have certainly been having fun -- not just in terms of doing ‘girly’ things, but also in terms of having conversations about this industry and sharing some of my own experiences in the hopes that it might offer some perspective for them as they continue on their path.”

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One of the more interesting cuts on Playing With Fire is the deeply felt “Salvation Works,” which she co-wrote with Clark and Lori McKenna. “That song in particular talks about what salvation really is -- be it self-redemption, a God -- depending on how one worships. It deals with ideas of perfection," says Nettles. "It says in the first verse that she thinks if she’s perfect, she can outrun all the hurt. But, that ain’t how salvation works. If we were perfect, we wouldn’t need salvation. Grace fills the cup, and empties the cup. It’s a beautiful cycle that happens with human beings. I think that song really celebrates that journey.”
 
Nettles has also lent her name to a great cause -- Outnumber Hunger. “That happened through Big Machine," says Nettles (whose likeness appears -- with other Big Machine acts -- on select boxes of General Mills products, such as Cheerios cereal). "They have a partnership with them to really address the subject of hunger within this country. I didn’t know it was as big of an issue as it is. Forty-eight million people struggle with hunger every year in the United States, and this is a first-world country that is full of luxury and we throw food away. I was shocked when I learned those numbers. This program is fantastic because it’s convenient for people to go to their grocery store, and buy what you would normally buy, then you enter a code on the back of that product, and you secure five meals at your local food bank. While it is overarching, it is also grassroots at the same time, and I like doing that.” 

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