By Gayle Thompson
Kristian Bush might best be known as one-half of Sugarland, but his career expands far beyond the award-winning duo. With Sugarland now on temporary hiatus (his bandmate Jennifer Nettles had a baby last year and is finishing a solo album), Bush isn’t showing any signs of slowing down.
In fact, as he tells Radio.com, this hiatus has turned into one of the most prolific times of his career. The Tennessee native welcomes the chance to focus on his own ambitions, chief among them his debut single as a solo artist, ‘Love or Money,’ released earlier this month in the U.S. (the song was released in Europe earlier this year).
Bush wrote the song with Jeff Cohen, whom he says he’s “known for years,” and they were joined by another writer he’d just met that day. “Jeff signed me to BMI and my first record deal in 1994,” Bush recalls. “He had suggested writing with Matt Thiessen. Matt has a band called Relient K, and he had recently had some hits with a band called Owl City.”
The song, which Bush says was written very quickly, was part of Bush’s quest to learn how to work with other writers from all walks of life. “I love writing, and this journey into country music and Nashville and this environment has been a journey of learning about collaborations. I’ve been a collaborator most of my life, but the art of the co-write is a different art in this town.”
Admittedly, Bush never imagined he would be able to record his own songs, let alone earn a paycheck doing it. For his family, who owned Bush Brothers Cannery (now Bush Beans), being a professional musician was the most unlikely of choices for anyone, but especially for him.
“Until I was about 11 or 12, I thought my fate was to run a cannery, because my granddad was going to give it to my dad, and my dad was going to have to give it to me, because I’m the oldest child,” he says.
His home was way up in the mountains, about as far removed from any modern-day civilization as he could possibly be, but music became part of his environment – although even he couldn’t see how far-reaching those influences would extend.
“I grew up in Sevierville, which was the home of Dolly Parton,” Bush explains. “And I grew up with music being something that’s either country music, or Appalachian folk music, or church music. That’s what I knew of as music.”
Thankfully, his mother saw enough of a gifting in her young son to enroll him in music classes as a small child, and his passion was born. “As early as I can remember, I have been able to play,” he says. “I don’t remember not playing something. And I never learned to read music, because I learned it all by ear. There’s this weird confidence – I picked up a guitar when I was 11 or 12.”
And the rest, as they say, is history. His first band, Billy Pilgrim, launched in the early ‘90s, which was followed by Bush launching Sugarland in 2002. Now, after more than two decades of making a living in music, the 43-year-old is actually calling all the shots. The freedom, he says, is liberating.
“I’ve never quite felt like this, where the power to write and create – people are paying attention to what I’m doing without me having to constantly stand in a corner and wave a flag,” he notes. “And, I’m less invested in critiquing myself. I’m more invested in figuring out if I’ve created what I’m trying to get at. If I’m trying to get at an emotion of what it feels like to do this one thing, did I get that? Or is it not right yet? If that’s not right yet, then I need to peel it back a little bit, and mess with it until it’s right.”
Bush finds irony in the fact that people seem to be discovering his music for the first time, when he has done nothing but make music all his life. But while he’s happy to finally have an outlet all his own, he insists he isn’t upset that it has taken him this long.
“It never occurred to me that that was a problem, or that that was missing,” he says. “There was never anything missing, because I was expressing my voice as much in the lyrics and music and recordings. I produced all those records, Jennifer and I did. That’s what I do. I make records. The art of album making is what I do.”
One of the best parts about his time on his own is the ability to write songs without any restrictions, though he concedes even that comes with a price. “This is the first time in my life that I have truly felt, not just compelled, but it’s a little out of control what’s happening,” he admits. “I don’t know if I can stop it. There are times when you can turn the spigot off, and then there are times when I’m afraid I can’t.”
The endless flow of creative energy is something Bush is tapping into as much as he can, for as long as he can. “It’s very compulsive at this point,” he adds. “The compulsion is, there was some kind of a flip of a switch, where I’m less fearful of what I might say. I’m willing to make a mistake and be stupid sounding right now. And because I’m willing to, it’s super dangerous. Dangerously successful. There’s an edge in there.”
Bush says he has written well over 200 songs for an upcoming solo album, even though no announcement on a new project has been formally made. But when the time comes, he will be more than ready.
“In the past two years, this kind of journey has created a prolificness that is changing me somehow,” Bush says. “I don’t know if it’s permission that has done this, or opportunity, or a combination of all those things, but maybe not being on the road, and also being home and being a dad, and having a studio and having support. I now write 160, 180 songs a year, which is like four a week. I had to build a database just to hold them and remember them, and I love it. And some days it doubles. It’s a fascinating place to be right now. It’s a weird feeling.”
With Nettles already storming up the charts with her debut single, “That Girl,” and Bush churning out song after song, it may seem that both of them are more content pursuing their own solo ambitions.
Bush, though, insists that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“This break was actually instigated because Jennifer wanted to start a family,” he explains. “We’ve always been a very organic band. We were a band of choice, rather than a band of origin. So it’s different. And because of that, there’s a great deal of respect among the two of us and our creative process and what that is.”
“I’m just in a different place in life than she is,” he continues. “You can either look at that as a good thing or a bad thing. I look at it as a good thing. Can you imagine what we will do after we gather all this knowledge? It’s going to be insane!”