She has one of the most recognizable female singing voices in today’s country music, and she’s quickly becoming a powerful voice for women in the arts as well. “It was a long time coming,” Jennifer Nettles admits of the fight for equal play across genders in music. “This has been a challenge within the industry for a long time, but there was definitely an inspirational moment.”
We share a few laughs as we chat about her recent headline-grabbing CMA’s look, created by designer Christian Siriano, which was decked out with artwork reading “Play our f*@#in records please and thank you.” As the words flow effortlessly and passionately from Nettles, I realize she is every bit as tenacious and intelligent as she is bubbly and charming. Between her fight for equal play, new tunes, and an upcoming tour, as well as acting roles in both film (ahem Harriet) and television, Nettles is an undeniable force to be reckoned with.
“When I learned that this year the CMA’s were going to be celebrating women and I was invited to be a part of the opener, I thought, okay this is an opportunity to further the conversation beyond the applause of that evening,” says Nettles. “What I didn’t want to happen is for everyone to be able to check the box and say, look how much we celebrated women here, and for them to feel good about themselves when the reality is that there is a huge disparity and large inequality. So, I had the idea to make a statement through fashion because what’s more womanly than that?” As the starlet puts it, Siriano was “a wonderful, perfect choice [for the design] as he is an ally, advocate, and activist for equality across the board.” Nettles adds that New York City-based artist Alice Mizrachi was also “super down with the idea” and finished the ensemble with women-empowering visuals that successfully sparked “a collective gasp and giggle” on the red carpet.
Nettles’ hope is for the equal play movement to be taken seriously within the music industry and for corporate brands to step up to the plate. “I’m super excited,” she says happily about a new collaboration she’s involved with. “I got a call from Secret Deodorant and they said, your message directly aligns with our new women’s initiative with nonprofit Women in Music (WIM), would you consider joining us on this? I said absolutely.” As part of the effort to help female artists get their feet wet in the music world, Nettles has teamed up with Secret to host an Instagram casting call, where women can enter to win memberships to WIM, access to mentorship and major industry events, and the opportunity to have their music featured in a future campaign. Of the brand’s commitment to feature 100 percent women-made music, Nettles states, “I thought it was fantastic that they’re putting their money where their mouth is so to speak.” On top of that effort, she’s having discussions with people who specialize in coding, algorithm, and data to discuss effective change for equality and diversity (and not just in the music industry). You go girl.
Switching gears, we start talking about Nettles’ recent (and drastically opposite) roles as Aimee-Leigh Gemstone in the HBO series The Righteous Gemstones, and Eliza Brodess in the film Harriet, which is receiving Oscar buzz for Cynthia Erivo’s portrayal of Harriet Tubman. Of playing the villain [Eliza] in Harriet, Nettles says it was “wonderfully rewarding because it does require you to get in touch with the humanity of the character, who isn’t a very sympathetic character.”
“There was a lot of desperation in her [Eliza’s] story, and the understanding of desperation is something we can all relate to, so I was able to dig into that. And the story of Harriet Tubman—I can’t believe it’s taken this long to have a feature film for it because she’s an American hero and an icon. To be a part of that, even on the wrong side of history as the bad guy, I was so thrilled,” she explains. “Harriet is such a bright light, and I wanted to be the darkest shadow that I could considering the character I was playing.”
When I ask what’s cooking for Nettles music-wise, she gets giddy. “This past year I have written and recorded more music than I have in the entirety of my career,” she says proudly. Lately, Nettles has been in the studio with Sugarland band mate Kristian Bush as the duo is gearing up for their summer tour. Separate from country music, she has two new albums coming out next year: one with Latin artist Noel Schajris, and the other with Alex Lacamoire of Broadway’s Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen. In 2020, Nettles promises “lots of music, lots of acting, lots of stories!”