Jennifer Nettles' bright smile, warm twangy voice and smart songwriting have made her a hit on arena stages as part of Sugarland, the Grammy-winning country-pop duo that comprises her and musician-songwriter Kristian Bush.
This year, though, Nettles is connecting with fans in a new way -- as a solo artist.
Nettles released "That Girl" (Universal), her first solo record, earlier this year, and she's in the midst of a tour that brings her to the Chicago Theatre on Wednesday, March 12.
Performing live as a solo artist isn't much different from performing with a band, Nettles said during a recent phone interview.
"My job is still the same: to be a frontwoman," she said.
What has changed is the nature of the music she's performing, Nettles said. That's why she's playing smaller, more intimate venues like the Chicago Theatre, rather than giant arenas.
"That Girl" features 10 original songs, all written or co-written by Nettles, and a cover of Bob Seger's iconic anthem "Like a Rock." Helmed by superstar producer Rick Rubin, the album strips away some of Sugarland's pop sheen and surrounds Nettles' voice with an earthier sound.
The songs cover varied sonic territory, from the rockabilly-tinged "Know You Wanna Know" to the understated acoustic shuffle of the title track. Nettles attributes that variety to her songwriting collaborators, who included singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles and late-'80s hitmaker Richard Marx.
"On a basic level, (collaboration) is fun," Nettles said. "I can get out of my own way. It also allows me more colors to play with. On my own, I can get bored."
Nettles wrote some of the songs on "That Girl" while pregnant with her son, Magnus. She recorded the album with Rubin in California when Magnus was just a few months old. She set up a temporary nursery in the studio and fed her baby between takes.
Did motherhood have an effect on the creation of "That Girl"?
"I don't know if I can specifically point to things," she said. "But I know I've been opened (by becoming a mother), I'm more compassionate, and I can see how that would feed into my writing."
Nettles said it was Rubin who suggested the idea of including a Bob Seger song on the album. She agreed immediately, but then came a more difficult question -- which Seger song?
Nettles said she thought "Like a Rock" presented the most interesting challenge.
"Most people hear it as a very masculine song," she said. "I thought it would be fascinating to interpret it as a woman. Regardless, though, I think we can all relate to the nostalgia (in the song)."
Nettles and Bush, who's working on his own solo material, have said repeatedly in interviews that Sugarland has not broken up, that they will work together again. For now, though, Nettles is enjoying the chance to share "That Girl" with her fans.
"I hope people come out to the Chicago Theatre," she said. "If it's still cold, we'll huddle together inside and get warm!"