Kristian Bush is squeezing out every bit of “new” that the “new year” has to offer.
In addition to scoring the new musical, Troubadour, a romantic comedy set in Nashville in the 1950s that opens in Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre on Jan. 18, the former Sugarland patriarch is releasing a new single, “Sing Along,” on January 23. The tune is the debut single from Kristian’s upcoming new album, which he hopes to release this summer. On top of all that, Kristian is currently producing Lindsay Ell’s debut album, which is slated to drop this year.
In a wide-ranging interview, Kristian chatted with Nash Country Daily about all the “new” things the new year has to offer.
NCD: You scored the music for the new musical, Troubadour, creating 16 original songs. Is this something playwright Janece Shaffer asked you to do or is this something you pitched to her?
Kristian: “Janece came to me. She is a fairly well-known playwright in Atlanta and has had some success nationally and won a bunch of awards. Of course, I didn’t know this at the time. She literally cold-called me. She said, ‘Hey, I have a play about country music in 1951, and I wondered if you’d be interested in meeting with me, hearing more about it, maybe writing a song for it.’ I said, ‘Ok, but full disclosure, I do not have a theater degree. I mean, I do have a degree in creative writing, so I can help a little.’ Our first meeting, she is such a compelling storyteller, as you would imagine a playwright of her stature would be. She was just completely mesmerizing to eat breakfast with. I started to ask the same kinds of questions I would ask of an artist I’m writing with. She gave me all the answers, and I started writing the song right there on the spot.
“I finished it the next day and sent it to her, kind of nervously thinking, ‘Well, I’ve written for TV and film before, and sometimes when you send it to a director, it’s really hit or miss. You either really got exactly what they were doing, or they have very specific comments for you about the work that you just did and how it’s all wrong. She was over the moon. She was like, ‘This is perfect. Oh my gosh, would you consider doing more?’ One song really turned into about four songs. I guess about that time, she took it to the executive director of the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, which is our giant theatre, you know. That’s when I got the real phone call that said, ‘Hey, we want to do a table read of this, and we want the songs to be in it. Can we have permission to send the songs to the actors so they can learn them so during the table read they’ll sing them down?’ I was like, ‘Who are you? Are you serious? Okay.’ Next minute I’m on the internet Googling ‘table read.’ By the time I showed up, I was amazed. There were people around the room that I recognized from television, you know. The table read happened, and that was about it.”
You’ve written songs for albums that tell a story. How is it different writing 16 original songs that tell a story for a play?
“It’s the same and different. The albums tell the story after you’ve written the songs. You put them in a particular order, and you go and only finish the last two or three songs that stitch the whole thing together, or I try to find a narrative in the songs that I’ve written that was unconscious while I was doing it. This is different. The narrative is fully formed, and not only that, but the alternate world, the universe, everything about these characters has already been . . . it’s already arrived with information. Really, what you have to do is hold still in the middle of it and write the song that they need for that moment. Not really the other way around. It’s like co-writing with a person that doesn’t exist.”
The musical is set in the 1950s. You’re writing new songs that are taking place 65 years ago. Do you have to get into a different mindset to write songs like that?
“Absolutely. You just have to steep yourself in it. Without being a spoiler, [main character] Billy Mason is being forced to retire in ’51, but his career is like a 25- or 30-year career, so those songs had to start happening really in earnest in the 1930s. That’s Carter Family time.”
Troubadour premiers January 18 in Atlanta. I assume you’ve been attending rehearsals. Have you had to do rewrites, and how’s that process going?
“Yeah. I was unfamiliar with exactly how much rewriting goes on for a world-premiere of a musical. It’s a great deal. Yesterday [Jan. 11] and the day before [Jan 10], I had assignments to fix lyrics, rewrite stanzas. I’m also doing all of the underscore, so I’m having to literally step out into the hall and write something and step back into the rehearsal room and say, ‘Here’s how it goes.’ My imagination didn’t have in it what this process was like. Now it does. Now I totally understand. There are 60 people waiting for you to rewrite that melody.
“There are a lot of ways to tell stories, and music is the one I’m very familiar with, and especially the uniqueness of commercial music, which is a three-minute version of that. I’ve dedicated most of my life to understanding that. Watching those songs live in the context of these characters really feels like you’re creating a soundtrack to people’s lives. They’re also not just your life. It’s not just the songs you loved when you were 17 and when you were 25 and when you were 35 or when you were 45. Or even the songs that you wrote at those times. It’s the songs that those people wrote. It’s turned into something akin to Harry Potter, like how J.K. Rowling created an entire world, and then it doesn’t matter when you tell the story in the world, the world is believable. It’s like [J.R.R.] Tolkien or something. The Wikipedia pages for the songs that I wrote and what happened to them since Billy Mason sang them and why he wrote them, all those things have been created. It’s fascinating. It’s hard to tell sometimes who’s real and who’s not.”
From that first sit-down that you had with playwright Janece Shaffer over breakfast to today, how long has this process been in the works?
“It’s coming up on two years.”
You’ve obviously dedicated a great deal of time to this. Hopefully it has been a rewarding experience.
“Yeah, it’s been rewarding, but it’s been happening at the same time that a lot of reinvention’s been going on in my life. [My single] “Trailer Hitch” was at the top of its run. It was in the Top 20 when I first spoke to Janece. My new single, ‘Sing Along,’ is coming out the same week as the opening of Troubadour.”
Let’s talk about ‘Sing Along,” which impacts radio on Jan. 23. It sounds to me like it’s a relationship song, but trying to remember the good. It’s like a happy breakup song. Is that a correct take?
“Yeah, I think that’s a correct take. There’s a lot of bittersweet in that. I think when I am being my best self or when any of us are, you make wishes like that song wishes. I know we made some mistakes, and way out past those, I hope you remember that what we had was good.”
What can you tell me about your upcoming album? When can we expect it? Are you still writing and recording? Have you finished it? Where are you in the process?
“I’m still writing and recording, but I do that anyway. It’s whenever they decide to hit the ‘Hey, Kristian, let’s release it’ button. The process itself is fully informed by my life. My father passed away [in 2016]. That has been inescapable. That’s going to drift in. I’m putting my heart back up into a place where I want to use it. I’m six years out of a divorce. I feel like love is worth chasing. I’m a single dad. I have an 11-year-old and a 14-year-old. In many ways, I’m going to reveal my whole life and where I am in this. I’m very dedicated to it being on the radio. I’m using those chops at the same time. I love producing records and making records and love to hear them on the radio. There’s a lot of joy in doing that and trying to do that with as much class and excitement and newness as you can.
“Having the relatively surprising and very welcome success from [2015’s Southern Gravity], I didn’t anticipate that. Now with that kind of validation and that encouragement by people saying, ‘Oh my gosh, we believe in you and your voice, who you are right now at this stage and this time.’ I’m like, ‘Ok, well here it comes.'”
Can we expect the new album by summertime?
“Yeah. If they’re impacting the new single now, that would make sense.”
On top of the musical and new album, you’re also producing Lindsay Ell’s upcoming debut album. How did that opportunity come about?
“In the middle of the year, [Broken Bow Records founder] Benny Brown asked me if I would consider producing Lindsay’s record, and I said ‘Really?’ He said, ‘Yeah. You really work well with the voices of women and writing those things and making those records. She seems to have a heart that’s similar to yours because her songs have messages in them.’ So I met with her. I’m not sure she knew what kind of bootcamp I was going to put her in. I’ve been making records since I was 13, and this is her first. I am so excited for what I’m hearing. We’re easily halfway in.
“She has become a freaking superstar. I think one of the things we’re finding is no one knew how well she could sing because they were just looking at her guitar. They were like, ‘Oh, that must be the device we’re using to talk about Lindsay Ell.’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know. Have you guys heard her sing? Like really sing.’ I didn’t get a lot of reaction until we started making recordings. Then I’m watching people’s eyes. They get bigger and bigger, and it looks like you’re looking at a cartoon character. And now the music. I told her, ‘You have to believe in the music you’re making. Otherwise, no one will believe you when they look at you or listen to you.’ She has done a fantastic job at stepping up to the plate and making and singing and interpreting. It reminds me of a female John Mayer, if he was making his first record or his second record, or Sheryl Crow’s first record.”
It seems like you’re due up for at least a day or two of vacation, Kristian.
“We’ll find that in March, maybe. Thank you for supporting me and telling the stories of all the stuff that I’m doing. I’m grateful.”
main photo by Joseph Llanes