When Jennifer Nettles’ aunt and uncle took her to see A Chorus Line on Broadway, she was one: “scandalized” (she was in the third grade, and “Dance: Ten, Looks: Three” was a lot to take in), and two: enchanted. “As the legend goes,” the Sugarland favorite says, “I turned around and looked up at the marquee and said, ‘I’ll be back.’”
A country music career (and a couple Grammys) later, she fulfilled her promise, making her Broadway debut as Chicago's Roxie Hart in 2015. The “razzle dazzle” spirit hasn’t left her, with a subsequent Los Angeles star turn in Mamma Mia!, collaborations with Broadway's Wicked (and with Wicked star Idina Menzel), appearances at the famed MCC Miscast gala, and now, an album dedicated to Broadway.
Always Like New, out June 25, is a testament to Nettles’ love of theatre and a celebration of her singular musical eclecticism. The recording features takes on 10 showtunes—from Golden Age staples to contemporary favorites. Nettles collaborated on the new arrangements with Tony winner Alex Lacamoire (Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen).
As for upcoming theatrical pursuits, Nettles is at work on musicalizing the life of Giulia Tofana, a 17th century Italian slow poisoner famed for helping fellow women kill their husbands. “I wrote a lot of material for it over the pandemic,” Nettles says. “It was an absolute escape into another world, out of the madness and fear in which we were living and into someone else’s, which is way more fun than your own.”
Until then, Always Like New is available to stream or purchase from Concord Records. Read on as Nettles shares insights into each song on the album in an exclusive Track-by-Track Breakdown.
The following is excerpted from Playbill's interview with Nettles, edited and condensed for content and clarity.
1. “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” from My Fair Lady
This song, “Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin',” and “Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat” are the three that I had had in my head for a long time as a musician, as a writer, as a vocalist. So I had actually sent this song along to Adam Zotovich, who's the executive producer of the album. At the time, he was like, "Oh my God, I hardly even recognized it." So he got excited about that and I said, "I have others that I am feeling in different ways." And he said, "You should really make this record, you should do it. And you should do it with Alex Lacamoire." Adam connected us, and we chatted about the idea, and he was totally on board. What I love specifically and musically about the treatment of this song is, normally whenever you hear it, it's very—dare I say—jaunty. But when you think about the longing of the lyrics, it really lends itself to a treatment that is much more intimate. So you hear that longing in the treatment and in the arrangement on this album. I think that's much more in line with me as a vocalist and felt really organic to do it that way. I liked making it the first song, because I feel like it was one of the first inspirations behind the whole album, but also in that you get from the very first note: "OK wait, this is really going to be a fresh take on these beloved compositions."
2. “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” from Guys and Dolls
When you think of the original, it's very snappy, very zippy. To be able to offer it some soul, a back beat—and also a gospel feel [with the Broadway Inspirational Voices], I think it really serves the lyric. Because he's talking about his own soul's damnation in his life choices. In the music video, you'll see a cameo of what is an animated '60s version of myself from the Christian Siriano-Alice Mizrachi piece that I wore to the Country Music Awards a couple of years ago for Equal Pay. There are lots of ways that we can rock the boat, and one way that I have is in using my career to celebrate my activism. And it always goes well for me when I do so, I will say that, in terms of rocking the boat.
3. “Wait For It” from Hamilton
I was pleasantly surprised, because sometimes when you're so close to something, it's hard to imagine it any other way, because being the original, you have already created the quintessential version. So I was really happy that Alex was open to revisiting some of his masterpieces, because we really wanted to all make sure that not only did we have the classics represented, but that we also had some contemporary piece. This track in particular was really exciting to discover. I knew that musically, I wanted something that was kind of swampy and had that minor, drony vibe. No matter what I am writing or performing, I'm always creating a character. That's imperative in being able to interpret any song, whether or not I wrote it. That was a lot of fun with this song because it is much more narrative and specific, so I was able to offer my own Aaron Burr—and maybe it was an Erin Burr in that moment.
4. “Almost Like Being In Love” from Brigadoon
This song is so beautiful and so romantic, and I love it so much. It is one that has often been interpreted as a classic and as a standard by many different artists. But the treatment that we gave it in this arrangement has such a Stevie Wonder vibe to me. It feels like a lot of those Stevie tracks. Even from the top, with what Alex is playing on the top with that little sort of music box sound on the keys, sounds sonically as romantic as the lyric reflects.
5. “It All Fades Away” from The Bridges of Madison County (feat. Brandi Carlile)
I'm such a fan of Jason Robert Brown. I love what he does and wanted to be able to represent him as a composer. This song is so beautiful, and I knew in general I wanted to have a collaboration on the album. I didn't know yet what that was going to be, but when I heard the way that this song presented itself, I felt like it was a powerful contender for that collaboration, and immediately then felt like Brandi was the right choice. I feel like she is one of the most important artistic voices of our time right now, and I mean that not just as a vocalist, but also as an artist, as a writer. I was excited about us singing together, because we hadn't before, and approached her about it, and thankfully she loved the song and loved the idea. And she was also excited about the song being a duet—a love duet—even though it wasn't originally. Having it be made into a love song between two women, that was really significant for her and consequently for me as well.
6. “There’s a Sucker Born Ev’ry Minute” from Barnum
So I was a high school musical production of Barnum. So there's that, first of all. But I also feel like “There's A Sucker Born Ev'ry Minute” holds this barn burner-like hootenanny. It's just all smiles and fun. There's such buoyancy, whereas many of the other tracks either have a gravitas or a grandness to them. This one, tonally, I feel is such a fun palate cleanser and a moment of levity for the album. There’s also a tongue-in-cheek implication in our world of “infotainment" now, our world of not knowing what is true, our world of constantly feeling like we're being sold a bit of goods in the political climate in the last four years that we've had. I think the idea of the Snake Oil Medicine Show, so to speak, is one that is, at times, painfully current.
7. “Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’’ from Oklahoma!
This song, for me, is absolute praise. It is absolute praise and gratitude. It is waking up in the morning with a smile on your face and with joy in your heart for what you've been given, and if there were a song for that feeling, this song would be that. Being able to incorporate larger parts of the Broadway community on this track and this record— the BIV and the arrangements that Michael McElroy did for the choir, plus you'll hear the beautiful piano stylings of Joseph Joubert—was such a joy and such a treat, and also a conscious decision, because there's such talent (obviously), and being able to share that talent was really rewarding for me. Not only through this music, but hopefully to people who will be coming to this music as prior fans of mine.
8. “Anyone Can Whistle” from Anyone Can Whistle
There are some composers who have to have a representation and have to have a piece on this record—Sondheim being one of them. I love the sentiment, because I think we all relate to it, but I'll speak of myself personally. If somebody's in a crisis, like, "Yeah, I'm your girl.” You want me there? I can handle the big stuff. But please don't hand me your phone if something is fucked up with it. The small stuff somehow in some ways can seem harder on the day-to-day than those big things that happen in our lives. And I love the treatment of this arrangement. Alex and I were actually in the studio and had been working on recording some of the other songs, and we were visiting what we wanted to try next, and he had brought up this song. And I picked up a guitar and played around. I'm not the best guitarist in the world, but just in terms of vibe. And we immediately heard sort of this “Blackbird’ feel, like The Beatles. It is a comfort. You listen to it and you feel seen.
9. “You Will Be Found” from Dear Evan Hansen
You want to talk about feeling seen? This song is one of them, and I think one of the more emotionally powerful tracks on the record. One of the most fun parts about singing this song though is the end. Obviously, in the original, it is written for an ensemble, and I'm only one person, so making the specific choices of how to honor the arrangement in a way that allowed for it to organically grow with all of the vocals was super fun, like a puzzle.
10. “Tomorrow” from Annie
We recorded the whole album over a few different sessions from 2019 into 2020, but this was the last song we recorded. I literally sang the last note of it on March 12, 2020, and walked into the booth and everybody's phones are lighting up saying Broadway is closing. There was such a shock through everybody, because Broadway is an iconic American institution. For it to be closed? That was major. So as we re-emerge into the world, to be able to have this record sort of waving the flag, if you will, and celebrating all the beauty that's about to be on those stages again, is really special to me. The hope that is this last song, that the sun will come out tomorrow, is wonderfully symbolic.