Sugarland star Jennifer Nettles ventures out on her own

Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland performs onstage during day 1 of Stagecoach: California's Country Music Festival 2010 held at The Empire Polo Club on April 24, 2010 in Indio, California. (Christopher Polk, Getty Images)

Jennifer Nettles wanted more.

Sure, the singer had already achieved so much as a member of the multiplatinum country duo Sugarland. She’d enjoyed chart-topping singles and albums, collected Grammys and other major music awards, and played at packed amphitheaters and arenas across the country.

By 2010, however, Nettles found herself searching for a new challenge. So she began the long process of reinventing herself — at least temporarily — as a solo artist. The result can be heard on the major-label solo debut “That Girl,” which hit stores in January.

“The decision to make this solo album was really one from an artistic and personal standpoint,” Nettles says during a recent phone interview. “I wanted to it, personally — and, artistically, I needed to do it.

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“It was getting to a point, for me at least, in Sugarland that I didn’t want to stagnate artistically. I didn’t want to become a caricature, which is super easy to happen, especially when you put success in the equation. And I wanted to push myself and shake it up and do something different.”

Mission accomplished. “That Girl” is definitely different from what fans have come to expect from the Sugarland singer, who made her fortune crooning such high-gloss mainstream country-pop tunes as “Want To,” “Baby Girl” and “All I Want to Do.”

“That Girl” is a much more intimate and personal affair, which celebrates its rough edges while exploring a variety of musical flavors.

And the fact that it doesn’t sound like a Sugarland album is anything but accidental.

“It was extremely important, because I feel like if you are going to put out a solo album that sounds just like your ensemble work, only with a different name on it, then what’s the point?” the 39-year-old musician says. “I made a decision to leave myself open to exploring something new as an artist with this solo project. Consequently, I wanted to honor that and to really show a part of myself that maybe I hadn’t been able to access when I was collaborating in Sugarland.”

She didn’t enter the proposition lightly. She had to give it her all, which meant taking a temporary break from Sugarland. It also meant enlisting the right collaborators — especially the one who’d fill the producer’s chair. Fortunately, Nettles was able to link up with producer extraordinaire Rick Rubin, who has helped craft landmark albums for the likes of Johnny Cash, the Beastie Boys, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Slayer.

“He’s wonderful at helping an artist be his or her best,” Nettles says. “He has said before that if he makes an album that sounds like it’s his record, as opposed to the artist’s record, then he doesn’t feel like he’s succeeded. He’s really good at conversation, collaboration and working together to bring the best out of an artist.”

“One of many strengths in the studio is allowing for space and emotion and working a song to achieve its highest emotional peak,” she adds. “He was integral in that on this album.”

Nettles co-wrote nine of the albums’ 11 cuts, penned another (“Falling”) on her own and filled out the track listing by covering Bob Seger. It was Rubin’s idea to mine Seger’s mighty songbook, but it was up to Nettles to decide which of his many hits to cover.

“I love Bob Seger,” Nettles says. “From a quality (standpoint), every one of (his songs) was a contender. But I just felt most connected to ‘Like a Rock.’ And I love the way we treated it — it now has this kind of Otis Redding treatment to it.”

Nettles sounds thrilled as she talks about her solo album. It’s obviously been a refreshing change of pace, after so many years spent working with multi-instrumentalist Kristian Bush in Sugarland. The band has had its share of great times, as well as challenging moments — the most notable being when a stage collapse killed seven fans and injured many more at a Sugarland concert at the 2011 Indiana State Fair.

Yet the singer wants fans to know that Sugarland isn’t breaking up — it’s just taking a break.

“I did not decide to do a solo record because of a lack of love for Sugarland,” she says. “I love the music we’ve created. I love what we’ve done in Sugarland.

“I think when the time is right, and we do come together to create something again, I’ll be excited to see what we might create after doing all the things we’re doing right now separately.”