Jennifer Nettles Talks Working With 'Megastar' Taylor Swift on 'Babe' Ahead of ACM Awards (Exclusive)

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Jennifer Nettles
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Jennifer Nettles is soaking up all of her success.

ET recently caught up with the country songstress, who gushed about working with Taylor Swift on "Babe," which has gone on to earn an Academy of Country Music Awards nomination for its retro video.

The collaboration came to be thanks to Swift, who was a fan of Nettles' duo, Sugarland, and jumped at the chance to have a song on their album, Bigger, which dropped last summer.

"We all sort of started out at the same time. Now, she was 15 and we were just beyond 15, but around the same time," Nettles quipped of herself and her duo partner, Kristian Bush. "... Throughout the years, obviously, she has become a mega, megastar and a completely accomplished songwriter." 

The duo was "blown away" by Swift's eventual offer of a song and "wanted to do it justice." "We were just like, 'Oh my god. This is amazing. Who gets this? What a gift,'" she recalled.

"We had never recorded a song that wasn’t our own before that we hadn’t written, so we thought, 'OK. Let’s be sure we can make it ours, but also that it honors her and that she likes it,'" Nettles, 44, explained, adding that both Sugarland and Swift "loved" the track. In fact, Swift was so into the vocals that she offered her idea for the '60s-style video, which was shot on the set of Mad Men.

"We did the video with her and it was absolutely so fun," Nettles gushed. "She’s such a professional. She’s such an amazing songwriter in what she has tapped into and the way that she’s been able to tap into it. I’m so proud for her and all of her successes and so grateful that she offered us this song."

As for the video's nomination, Nettles was delighted, albeit unsurprised.

"I love that we were nominated for this and I think it’s right," she said. "I think it would’ve absolutely been definitely a missed opportunity for them to have not honored it with this nomination. Because it’s just so good. I mean, politics aside... there are some moments where it’s just like, 'OK. Politics or not we have to honor something that is good.' And I believe that was the case with this video because it’s just so well done."

After she wrapped working with Swift, Nettles began filming Harriet, her feature film debut, alongside Swift's boyfriend, Joe Alwyn, and others including Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr. and Janelle Monae. The movie, which follows the life of Harriet Tubman, is set to debut later this year.

"The cast is absolutely dazzling," she said of the star-studded group. "It's fantastic... And the story in and of itself is so important... I believe that the past is prologue and if we don’t remind ourselves from where we came it’s easier for us to remake mistakes. And so I think we need to hold those mistakes, even if they’re hard and gross to hold, we need to hold them." 

Apart from her work with Sugarland, Swift and on Harriet, Nettles is focused on her solo music, the latest addition to which is "I Can Do Hard Things," a powerful anthem of womanhood in all its stages and forms that dropped last month.

"We are always tempted to dissect things and quantify them into these dualities. To distill them down into something that’s easier to hold: this is bad or good; this is right or wrong; heaven or hell; boy or girl. All these pieces," Nettles said of the inspiration for the song. "And the reality is, we live most of our lives in a very deep, rich and complex gray and in between area that doesn’t fall into either of those stark categories."

For Nettles, "I Can Do Hard Things" took on an additional personal meaning thanks to her role as mom to a 6-year-old son, Magnus.

"What I learned in becoming a mother in certain ways is, yes, there are absolute joys that are just cathedral ceiling joys that come with being a mother. And, at the same time, it doesn’t necessarily mean that everything is good, that you love everything about it, that everything about it makes you happy," she said. "… In some ways, it’s better, but in some ways, it’s worse! I can sit here and own that and say that in a way that is not contingent on the love of my child, but it just means these are hard things that we go through."

As for what she'd like to teach her son through her music, Nettles said that, although she won't be able to shield him from all of life's pain, she can equip him "with the self-love and the strength and the safety from being loved that you know that you can do these hard things."

"We try as much as we can to shield our children from any sort of pain, but the reality is that’s not a realistic view of life. Because pain is going to come and there’s some of it that we’re not going to be able to protect them from," she said. "We would be well served to also teach them that they are able to go through this pain; that they can do the hard things; that they are capable of walking through the fire as well." 

To accompany the song, Nettles recently released a video featuring women of many different types, colors and creeds. Shot in stark black-and-white, with a simple shot and a focus on the women's stories --  one broke the glass ceiling, another said #MeToo, a third is transgender, the next is a caregiver, and on, and on -- the deceptively straightforward video is actually a master class in how to shine a light on diverse stories.

"[It's] a beautiful contrast and juxtaposition with these not stark, not sparse, but very complex, and very nuanced, and very detailed stories that these women have," Nettles said. "... What we wanted to do was pick stories that did show a diverse array and I think we really accomplished that." 

"You’ve got to make your dreams for yourself and you’ve got to have accountability, and these are women that are doing this in ways that are so inspiring," she added.

As for her music as a whole, Nettles said that "one of the most rewarding parts" of her work comes from hearing stories from people all over the world about how her songs have affected them.

"If something that I write can do that, I think that, for me, is probably the highest compliment," she said. "Because I think it means that I’ve tapped into something that is wholly human and that’s what we’re constantly striving to do as artists, is really tap into something that is human."

The 54th Academy of Country Music Awards will air on CBS on Sunday, April 7. 

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