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Alabama Shakes’s Soul-Stirring, Shape-Shifting New Sound

[New York Times Magazine]

With its highly anticipated second album, this band of small-town misfits finally has a ticket out — not that they would ever leave.

By Joe Rhodes

In the upstairs dressing room at the Georgia Theater in Athens, Ga., in January, Alabama Shakes was getting restless. The band was about to perform songs from its second album, “Sound & Color,” for the first time, and the room was full of distractions. Friends and relatives had driven over from Alabama: cousins and uncles, wives and girlfriends, crying babies and unrestrained toddlers. Sippy cups and spilled Cheerios were scattered everywhere.

Off to one side, Brittany Howard, the 26-year-old lead singer, stared into the middle distance, listening to the new tracks on her headphones, concentrating on the sections that had given her trouble in rehearsal. She got the last touch-ups on her makeup and hair, a sort of Mohawk-bouffant cropped close on the sides, her bouncy curls left free to run wild on the top, and slipped into her show boots: ankle-high burgundy suede.

As the band made its way toward the stairwell that connected the dressing room to the stage, the backup gospel singers, a first-time luxury, followed close behind. The procession moved slowly down the six flights of steel and concrete, which formed a sort of vertical echo chamber. The singers ran scales as they descended, and invited Howard to join them, to take advantage of the acoustics and the last few remaining seconds to prep her vocal cords.

“I don’t really know how to warm up,” she said, laughing. Maybe she was joking. Maybe not. Then, as if to punctuate the point, she let loose a guttural roar that reverberated up and down the stairwell. She laughed again just before she walked through the door to the stage, where a thousand fans screamed at the first glimpse of her. Then she turned around and shouted the University of Alabama rally cry back to the musicians assembled in the stairwell, at the top of her lungs: “ROLLLLLL TIDE!”

Alabama Shakes’s rapid ascent has been largely fueled by Howard’s singular stage presence. When she first steps in front of a crowd, there are moments when she seems like the awkward adolescent she used to be, all too aware of her size, her looks and her lumbering gait. But when she hits that first big unrestrained note — her face contorted as if possessed — or a thundering chord on her Gibson, stomping and quaking, preaching and confessing, her jaw jutting out like an angry, pouting child’s, everything changes. It becomes impossible to look anywhere else. She can sound by turns ferocious or angelic, sometimes in the same song. When she sings about heartbreak, it feels as if, right there at that moment, she is consumed by it.

Early in the Georgia Theater set, it was obvious that Howard had evolved as a performer between albums. Thanks mostly to her rawboned exhortations, the Shakes’s debut, “Boys & Girls,” made the band an object of near-universal critical adulation when it was released in 2012. The record would eventually make the Shakes the must-see buzz band at South by Southwest and Bonnaroo, earn gigs at the White House and on “Saturday Night Live” and be nominated for two Grammys and named song of the year by Rolling Stone. Howard still conjures hurricane-force sounds at will, but she also teases the lyrics more than she used to. She coos, coerces and cajoles. She whispers and pleads. She doesn’t just stomp across the stage; she sashays.

The crowd, tentative at first, was mostly willing to take the ride, not seeming to mind when the Shakes ended the set without even playing their hit song, “Hold On.”

Later, Howard told me it felt good to be liberated from the same set list the band had been playing, more or less, for the past four years. “It reminded me of 2009, when we were getting up onstage together for the first time, and it was scary, and you felt completely vulnerable to the crowd,” she said. “It was that feeling of: I’m terrified, but I need to do it. I have to do it. ’Cause if I don’t do it, then everything’s gonna stay the same.”

If the members of Alabama Shakes had grown up in a bigger place — New York or Nashville or even Birmingham — they probably wouldn’t have found one another. But Friday nights in Athens, Ala. (population 20,000), consisted of hanging out at the Interskate roller rink, going to Dub’s Burgers or driving around the courthouse square until everyone got bored. “One of the reasons we started playing music together is that there wasn’t much else to do,” Howard said.

If she had been born somewhere else, maybe Howard wouldn’t have felt so much like one of the “nobody kids,” as she likes to call herself. She might have found an identifiable peer group, kindred spirits who would have taken her in: a punk scene, maybe, a goth scene, a metal scene, a scene of any kind. There was no place in Athens where a girl like her, self-conscious in a hundred unspoken ways, could not feel so alone. She was too big, too tall, a girl with thick horn-rimmed glasses and a taste for vintage clothes, a daughter of a black father and a white mother and, because of a retinoblastoma treatment that scarred her retina when she was a newborn, nearly blind — and noticeably so — in one eye. “I was a strange kid,” she told me. “I’m still strange. People didn’t get me. And I didn’t expect them to.”

“I was a strange kid. I’m still strange. People didn’t get me. And I didn’t expect them to.”

She grew up just outside town, and when she wasn’t running in the woods, climbing trees, chasing her pet pig, Nugget, or playing with her older sister, Jaime, Howard liked to write songs. Her mother, Christi Carter, says that Howard was a mischievous girl. “I don’t remember a day that went by that this child didn’t get a spanking,” she told me one afternoon, sitting on a sofa in her daughter’s new house on the outskirts of Athens, a neat, white ranch with a porch swing out front and a backyard facing the woods. As Carter recited a partial list of Howard’s childhood transgressions, Howard snuggled up against her.

There was that time Howard swallowed her grandfather’s heart pills; when she fell and broke her elbow and then decided to take off the cast herself. Once she got caught imprisoning the cat in the refrigerator; another time, she asked to borrow a knife, because she wanted to cut up a dead frog on the porch. When Howard was 6, she found some chemicals in a toolshed, chlorine tablets among them, took them into her treehouse and mixed them up in a Coke bottle, to see what would happen. The explosion set fire to the treehouse and sent her to the hospital, with burns covering her arms.

“One way or the other,” Carter said, “she was always going to be the center of attention.”

“I’m sorry I put you through all that, Mama,” Howard said, clinging even closer to her mother. “I really was a terrible child.”

The showmanship that runs in her blood seems to have come from her father, K. J. Howard, a natural salesman, all broad smiles and warm handshakes. When she was little, he ran a used-car lot and a junkyard in Athens. He still owns those businesses, but now he’s also a bail bondsman. “We all knew she was going to be a star,” he told me when Howard and I met him at a catfishing pond in nearby Tanner, Ala. “I always thought she sounded like Etta James.” At this, Howard rolled her eyes, as daughters do.

But she did love to perform, even as a little girl. She and Jaime, four years older and a promising pianist, used to sing together, improvising the words as they went. At every family gathering, Brittany would pretend she was Elvis or sometimes James Brown and demand that her relatives watch her routine. Her childhood was idyllic until she was about 8. Then terrible things began to happen.

Jaime, who had already lost one eye to cancer as an infant, went blind in the other when the cancer returned. The Howards’ home was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. Jaime died at 13 the following year. The year after that, Christi and K. J. separated and divorced. Brittany and her mother eventually moved into a house that had been owned by her great-grandparents. It was small and wood-framed and sat next to a barbecue joint, hard by the railroad tracks.

Howard spent a lot of those years after Jaime’s death alone in her room. “I think she went through a period where she was angry, which I understand,” Carter said. “I went through that whole thing too.”

“I don’t remember being angry,” Howard said. “I just remember being bored.”

She was bored at school, bored with Athens, bored with everything but playing music. So she taught herself to play the drums, then bass, then guitar. She filled notebooks with stories and poems and song lyrics. When she was in junior high, she found out there were other kids, older ones, who had put together bands at school. There was a boy, a few years older, named Heath Fogg. Howard used to sneak out to see him play guitar at house parties — her mother was eventually compelled to put a padlock on her bedroom door — fantasizing about what it would be like to have a band of her own.

Then in high school, Howard met a guy named Zac Cockrell. He was in her psychology class, but the two didn’t really talk until they met at a party. Howard noticed Cockrell wearing a T-shirt from a semi-obscure post-punk band, At the Drive-In. She didn’t know until that night that he played bass and, like her, felt alone in Athens and was hungry for musical companionship. They started hanging out, listening to albums, all sorts of albums — Led Zeppelin, Missy Elliott, the Ramones, AC/DC. They taught themselves to play some of the songs they liked and, slowly, started to write their own.

After high school, Howard’s mother remarried and moved out, so Howard had the full run of her great-grandparents’ house. She turned it into a musician’s hangout, with twice-weekly jam sessions. Her sense that she didn’t fit in in Athens, however, had begun to crystallize into hard economic truths. She found work as a truck driver for a while. Then she had a job at a frame store and, eventually, as a postal worker. But she barely made enough money to pay her bills. She tried to take some classes at the local community college, but there just weren’t enough hours in the day. She was stuck.

Steve Johnson, a talented drummer from Athens started showing up at her jam sessions in 2009. At the time, he was driving trucks for FedEx. He remembered Howard from when she was just 13, sneaking into those house parties, and was stunned by how much musical progress she and Cockrell had made — and how much chemistry the three of them immediately had.

“Sometimes you just know,” Johnson, now the band’s drummer, told me during a break in the Georgia Theater sound checks. “There was so much going on with her voice and Zac’s rhythms that it was like my body was telling me what to do on the drums before I even had a chance to think about it.” The three formed a band and called it the Shakes. They just liked the sound of it.

Fogg was one of the first people to hear their demo. He had come back to Athens after attending the University of Alabama, painting houses so he could afford to play gigs with his band, Tuco’s Pistol. They were the kings of the local cover-band circuit, cranking out Rolling Stones and ZZ Top standards at every logo-plastered, neon-lit sports bar in northern Alabama. Intrigued by what he heard, Fogg invited the Shakes to open a show for Tuco’s Pistol at a place called the Brick Deli & Tavern in downtown Decatur, 20 minutes down the road from Athens, the sort of place college kids go on the weekend to do shots of cinnamon-flavored whiskey. There was a stage in the corner, dart boards along the wall, some pool tables and an extensive sandwich menu.

Howard recalls how the crowd — those who were paying attention — eyed them skeptically as they plugged in. “Usually a band has a look of some sort, but we all looked different and strange, like we wouldn’t even know each other,” she said. Howard told me she was terrified at the prospect of singing for strangers, many of them not even interested, none of them with any idea of what they were about to see. But her fears soon subsided. “As soon as we started doing our thing, they were like, Holy [expletive], it doesn’t suck!” she said.

“I felt sorry for Heath’s band, because they had to follow us,” Johnson told me. After finishing his set with Tuco’s Pistol, Fogg made it clear that he wanted to cast his lot with the Shakes instead, becoming their lead guitarist. “He knew,” Johnson said. “It was electric. We would have been fools to not keep playing together.”

For two years they continued to play weekend shows in empty clubs and bars like the Brick. And at the same time, they recorded most of the songs that would become their first album, “Boys & Girls,” in Nashville, paying for the sessions themselves, often driving the 100 miles back to Athens overnight, just in time to report to their day jobs.

During one of countless shows at the Brick, Cockrell and Fogg started playing a riff they’d been working on for weeks. Howard jumped in and improvised some lyrics about how frustrated she was with her circumstances, how tired she was of working with no end in sight. It starts, “Bless my heart, bless my soul, didn’t think I’d make it to be 22 years old.” The lyrics she tossed off that night were virtually the same as the ones that would become their first hit single, “Hold On.”

“It’s not about suicide or anything like that,” she said, though many fans interpret the lines that way. “It was just that I hated my job. I hated everything that was going on in my life. But what could I do about it? I just had to hold on.”

There is some degree of autobiography in every song Howard writes. In “On Your Way,” which the band often plays toward the end of the set, she sings: “It wasn’t me! Why wasn’t it me?” The song, Howard told me, is about her sister. And when Howard performs it live, the anguish in her voice is punishing.

She cannot explain the how or why of any of it. Not the contortions, not the charge that sweeps through her whenever she’s in front of a crowd. “I don’t know where it comes from,” she said. “But I know it when it’s there. It’s like — BOOM! — this thing comes through, and I know that this is my crowd. These people are mine, and I’m theirs,” she said, becoming animated.

“That’s why I’m there. For that connection. It’s hard to explain. The only thing I can say is that it makes the world seem not so bad, to know that people do like you, that they think like you, that they get it. It’s good to know you’re not all by yourself.”

One day in June 2011, Justin Gage, the Los Angeles music blogger and SiriusXM host, saw a photo of Howard performing and was intrigued. He found the Shakes’s music online, contacted the band and then posted a track on his blog, Aquarium Drunkard. Gage also emailed Patterson Hood, a North Alabama native with an admirable musical pedigree. Not only was he a lead singer of the Drive-By Truckers, one of the most successful rock bands to come out of the state before the Shakes, but his father was a session bassist who helped create the Muscle Shoals sound and recorded with Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and the Staple Singers, among others.

The Shakes happened to be playing the next day at a store called Pegasus Records in Florence, Ala. Hood went and then called his managers, Kevin Morris and Christine Stauder, before he set foot outside the shop. He couldn’t believe what he’d just seen.

“It’s like they were already fully formed,” Hood told me. “Completely unschooled in certain ways but able to do things that you just can’t learn.”

Because of the online attention, the Shakes (who wouldn’t become the Alabama Shakes until they were negotiating their record deal and found out how many bands shared their name) suddenly found themselves besieged with all manner of offers, from regional labels, questionable promoters — including one who suggested they wear matching suits — and name-brand agencies making big-money offers that seemed to them, still leery about leaving their day jobs, beyond ridiculous.

“It was almost like a dating show or something,” Fogg said. “Some of them were cool, and some of them you felt bad when you had to tell them no. But a lot of them were people you didn’t want anything to do with.”

“Remember that guy,” Fogg asked his bandmates, “who said he’d fly us up on a G-something private jet?”

“A G-5,” Howard said.

“Yeah,” Cockrell said. “I remember thinking: But you’re in Nashville, right? Couldn’t we just drive up?”

Once the band started receiving critical acclaim, reviewers speculated about its influences. Some assumed that because they grew up in Athens, only 40 miles east of Muscle Shoals, the Shakes — especially Howard — must have been trying to emulate the classic soul music of Muscle Shoals’s glory days. But Howard, whose tastes ran more to David Bowie and Led Zeppelin, says she didn’t even know about the Muscle Shoals sound until Cockrell (whom she calls a “music encyclopedia”) told her about it. Fogg worried that the success of “Hold On” in particular — with its no-frills production and Howard’s soul-shouter delivery — might lead people to assume the Shakes were trying to pass themselves off as revivalists, something they never aspired to be.

The band’s new material is markedly trippier and more sophisticated than their bluesy, foot-stomping debut. There are psychedelic slow-jam dreamscapes, with names like “Gemini” and “Dunes” and “Future People” that call to mind Prince or D’Angelo. There are layered falsetto vocals, some of them borderline operatic, distorted guitars and high-frequency feedback. There are vibraphones.

If changing musical directions or taking three years between albums costs the Shakes some fans, they’re fine with that. “We didn’t want to put something out just because somebody else might approve of it or to follow a pattern because the first album was successful,” Howard said. “I don’t think we’re really interested in being that kind of a band.”

Howard was emphatic that being rich and famous was never the point. “I just wanted to be in a group, to be a part of something that’s bigger than me,” she said. “That’s what I always wanted. And now we’ve got it, this precious little thing that is ours. And we’ve got to be careful with it. We have to cherish it. It’s our passion. It’s our baby. It matters more to me than maybe the guys even know. Why would we give that away just for money?” she asked me. For Howard, the band offered an escape from solitude, but never from her hometown. “I live in Athens, Ala., and I’m 26 years old,” she said. “What do I need with five million dollars?”

On a warm spring night last year, Howard and I drove out to the Brick. She still stops by every now and then, often enough that she knows most of the bartenders by name. No one seems surprised when they see her walk through the door.

We were sitting at the bar, the beginning of a long night for the two of us pretty much “drinking the menu.” There would be many local I.P.A.s, some shots of Irish whiskey and Baileys dropped into pints of Guinness and something called a Belletini.

We went out to the patio so she could smoke a few Camels. She talked about what she saw for herself in the future. “By the time I’m 35, I’ll probably want to have a family. I’d be happy doing that, teaching my kids to do the right things, to do good things.” I asked if she thought she’d live to a very old age. “No,” she said, surprisingly sure. “I have a terrible lifestyle. And I don’t really see it changing. Maybe in 10 years I’ll see it differently — I’ll want to see my great-grandchildren and live forever. But right now, young Brittany is not setting things up for old Brittany. And young Brittany does not care.”

It wouldn’t be long before the next round of touring, another appearance on “S.N.L.,” a television show in France, a festival in Australia. A different life, one outside Athens, at least for the time being.

“I don’t care if we get another chart-topping hit,” she told me. “I suppose it would be nice for my family. I could buy my dad a truck.” But if she and the Shakes had to go back to being a barroom band in northern Alabama, she would be fine, she insisted. She would get a day job and write songs, just like before. “I’d write probably even better songs,” she said, “ ’cause then I could write about how I had everything and lost it.”