Kristian Bush is a man of many hats. Perhaps best known as one half of the county music duo Sugarland, the Grammy Award-winning, multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter first came under a national eye with the folk rock duo Billy Pilgrim in the early ‘90s.
He founded country music sensation Sugarland in 2002. To date the group has record sales exceeding 22 million albums sold worldwide while achieving five No. 1 singles.
For his songwriting abilities, Bush has received six BMI Awards and in 2011 Bush founded Songs of the Architect, a music publishing company and songwriting collective.
His seemingly endless well of songwriting inspiration prompted Bush to go it alone, at least for a while. He is currently touring the country dazzling fans with a colossal set-list in his sonic arsenal.
Bush was kind enough to speak with SCENE about the tour, his songwriting and a couple of the hats he’s currently wearing.
SCENE: Growing up in Sevierville, you started playing the violin early on. At some point you wanted to switch from the violin to playing guitar. Your mother made you a deal, can you tell us how that came about?
Kristian Bush: That’s a fun story! I was really lucky, because I was exposed to the suduki method, which is an experimental Japanese method of learning music where you learn music at the time you learn language. So I learned to play music at three years old, and I learned to play the violin — called a fiddle in Sevierville — and I played Bach, which was strange for everybody. I played it and I loved it.
About the time I got to middle school, my family drove me to a private school in Knoxville for lessons. I was around a culture of people that I’d never been around before, as I grew up in the mountains. But city people were fun and interesting, and wealthy, and when you’re a teenager, or at least in middle school, you want to impress girls, and I figured that my problem was that I was getting made fun of for carrying around a violin case … and I was from the mountains … so I was like double strange. I thought that maybe if I played guitar, I could get a girlfriend.
So, I asked my mom if I could play guitar and she said no. But she agreed to let me play guitar if I played one year in the symphony and I told her that I couldn’t read music and she said that wasn’t her problem.
So what I would do is go take my little cassette recorder with me to rehearsal and orchestra on Wednesdays and record them. Then, I would go home and look at the music and write in the letter names and make notes and memorize it before Friday. By Saturday, I knew what I was doing enough to get by long enough to give up violin.
SCENE: Historically you always seem to be working in duos, with Billy Pilgrim and with Sugarland. Can you explain the decision to go solo after performing with other artists for so long?
KB: You know it’s a product of creativity. I normally write between 12, 15, sometimes as many as 18 songs in a year. I put out a record about once every two years with whatever band that I happen to be working with at the time. In the past two years, I’ve been writing 160-180 songs per year, and it’s pretty overwhelming. I feel like a faucet has been turned on, and it’s a little scary. But it’s a crossroads that I’m lucky enough to be where opportunity and creativity are meeting right now. I’m making a lot of songs, and then I have the opportunity to record them the same week that I write them. I have a backlog of more than 300 songs, and there aren’t enough days left in my life to put out 10 songs every two years. I just won’t get to them all, there are not enough days left in my life!
I always let the art lead the business, and I have wonderful people who are in my management and support me. They always have my back. So every Monday, I put new songs out to the public on my website, and I’d tell a little bit about the song, why I wrote it, etc. And visitors were asking to purchase the music, looking for a way to support me. And it’s really exciting.
SCENE: Does going solo create extra pressure on you based on the success of your past; is there more pressure for you to succeed on your own?
KB: I love to succeed! I’m in the commercial music business, and I love to hear my stuff on the radio. It’s exciting to communicate to many, many people at the same time, and it’s exciting for me to connect many people to each other. I don’t think it’s necessarily about me; it’s more about the listener. That’s the reason that I love music. A lot has been given to me, and I love to give back. Do I feel pressure to succeed? All the time, but do I feel like I need to out-succeed the thing before me? Well, I have, every single time! And we’ll have to see what happens next, and it sure is fun!
SCENE: Let’s talk a little about your tour Put Your Soul In It. Can you tell me about your collection of 300-plus songs that you’ve been creating? It seems almost backwards in the traditional sense because there isn’t really an album that you’re touring in support of, but you’ve got fans waiting for an album. Is there going to be an album, and how have you gone about selecting the songs that you’re taking on this tour?
KB: There is going to be an album. I have seven days to finish picking the songs, so by the time I get to Green Bay, I will know. I built the tour based on the participation of the audience. I usually tell people that their hand is their buzzer, so clap if you like it!
SCENE: Are you traveling with only your new material or will we hear some items from your back catalog?
KB: Absolutely. If you’re a Billy Pilgrim fan, then you’re gonna hear some songs. If you’re a Sugarland fan, you’ll hear songs from that as well. And you’ll hear some new stuff, too. I try to explain to the audience during my shows that they will discover something new, and I hope that they will love it!
SCENE: The success has definitely been there for you with all the awards, the Grammys, the CMA’s, all these achievements. As far as you’re concerned, musically, what has been your greatest achievement this point?
KB: When I write a song and record a song that does exactly what I intend for it do … one of my joys is when someone hands me a TV or movie script, and they ask if I’m able to write a song for it, and then I’m able to find a way to make that happen, that has the thrill of success in it for me.
I think that’s my job as a songwriter, to see all of our stories and to repeat those back to you. It’s also my job as a singer, to take you on a journey for three or four minutes at a time to a place, and it’s your own story, but it’s somewhere else.
SCENE: You love it when a plan comes together! You’re a guy of many hats, both literally and figuratively. Speaking figuratively now, your song writing abilities outside of the songs that you are well known for, but that have been recorded by others but that you’ve written, do you approach those songs differently knowing that someone else will be performing them? Is it any less rewarding for you, knowing that it won’t be used for your own personal use?
KB: It has the exact same reward for me! If woke up that day, and harvested something by writing, then I’ve done my job. I feel good at the end of the day knowing that I’ve done my job. There is a lot of freedom sometimes when you’re dealing outside of the edges. I have experienced this, when I hear a Japanese pop song that I wrote, you can still hear that it’s me! Which is totally weird!
There is a truth to your voice as a writer, as well as truth to your voice as a singer. When, as a teenager, I realized that Prince wrote “Manic Monday” as well as “Nothing Compares to You, ” after finding that out, I was so inspired by that, that I wanted both of those!
SCENE: Well, I think you’ve got it.
KB: Oh yeah! I think if you practice, no matter what you do, it may not feel as though you’re getting better from day to day, but certainly when you look back from year to year, you can see progress. I’m really excited about the progress I see when I look backwards. So I can only imagine that forwards is going to be cool as shit!
SCENE: Literally, how many hats do you own?
KB: (laughter) You know, I kind of joke about those people, like golfers. For Christmas, you’d get them golf gifts for the rest of their life! It’s the same gig with my hats. You wear a hat, and then all of a sudden, people give you hats! There are a lot of hats at my house. What I love is when kids come over and put them on, and start wearing them!
I’m very involved in men’s fashion. I think it’s okay to have some man-style. And it is the number one selling men’s’ accessory on earth! It’s the one thing that almost all men have at least one of! And who knows, maybe they’ll make a come back! Like beards!
SCENE: They certainly are. I don’t know how I feel about that. I’m nervous about it.
KB: I don’t know, but they’re going to look back at the Oscars this year and ask, “why is everyone is so wooly?”
SCENE: It’s kind of like those sunglasses that everyone wore in the 1950s and 1960s! You can almost tell the date of the photograph just by looking at those glasses!
KB: Right! (laughter)
SCENE: Is there anything in your future that you’d like to share with us, maybe something about Songs of the Architect?
KB: In Atlanta, I started Songs of the Architect. It’s a lot of fun if you’re a fan, and want to go a couple steps deeper. I’m a fan of a lot of bands. There are very few record stores where you can go through that discovery process. So I try to provide a couple of hidden trails you can follow, and Songs of the Architect is one of them. It’s based around a studio in Atlanta, and the idea that life is better with a soundtrack. My brother, Brandon Bush, and a famous engineer named Tom Tapley, and I started with this idea of writing and recording, not just for us, but also for other people and it has turned into some amazing things. Whether it’s an indie band, or a seven-foot clown … or “The Walking Dead,” … it’s really great ways to express yourself.
SCENE: What’s the fate of Sugarland?
KB: The fate of Sugarland is that we’re going to make more records and continue touring! I don’t want everybody freaking out!
SCENE: So the future looks good for Sugarland! Do we have a tentative date for your solo album?
KB: We don’t have a real date for it as yet, but I believe sometime this summer. Maybe in May, but I’m not certain about that. Fans can go to my website and listen to my preview playlist, and get familiar with songs that are about to go public for the first time.
SCENE: Fantastic! We appreciate you taking time to speak with us, and we’re looking forward to having you here in Green Bay! And good luck on the tour!
KB: Thank you so much, my friend!