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Brittany Howard on Her Solo Debut, Her Black Heroes, and Owning Her Greatness

[Pitchfork]

The Alabama Shakes leader opens up about doing things her way.

Photos by Brantley Gutierrez 

By Jillian Mapes

Brittany Howard is telling me about the event that wholly shifted her worldview—the one that made her realize people are far more racist than she was taught to believe—when these two guys come over to our table and try to hit on us. They’re brothers, and one of them is a rapper. It’s a recent Wednesday afternoon, and we’re in the back room of a Mardi Gras-themed dive bar on the outskirts of Manhattan’s Chinatown. The rapper offers to buy our next round. “We’re actually just having one because after that I’ve got to keep doing more stuff,” Howard says. The first part is a lie—Howard’s manager brings us more drinks while we analyze the guys’ ongoing pickup attempts from afar, which the singer compares to watching Animal Planet—but the second part is not. Brittany Howard has a lot to do today, this week, next month, and probably forever.

This Friday, she will release her solo debut, Jaime. The album’s namesake is Howard’s older sister, who died at 13 of retinoblastoma, a rare form of eye cancer, when Brittany was just 8. Jaime taught her only sister how to write songs and poetry, play the piano, and use her imagination to have fun without spending money. “I still talk to her every day, think about her every day,” Howard says. But she admits the album is more about Brittany than it is Jaime. For the first time, the Alabama Shakes singer, songwriter, guitarist, and producer opens up with painful stories from her past, meditations on the state of the country, queer love songs, and one wildly catchy tune that brushes off the notion that God doesn’t love church-skipping, blunt-smoking sinners like herself.

Jaime sounds looser and more eclectic than anything in Howard’s discography, from the Shakes’ two Top 10 albums to her current side projects, the country-tinged trio Bermuda Triangle and her too-tough rock band Thunderbitch. Here she worked with her longtime bandmate Zac Cockrell on bass, jazz drummer Nate Smith, and pianist Robert Glasper, whose work splits the difference between jazz, hip-hop, and modern R&B. The players help to conjure Prince, D’Angelo, and Roots-like sensibilities in places on the record, but it is all Howard’s handiwork—a combination of classic songwriting, left-turn instincts, and staggering vocal performances—that brings the swirling musical collage to life.

She tells me she thought about calling the album Black Björk. What the two composers share, besides their big-scale visions and hurricane voices, is a deep desire for their rightful due. After the Alabama Shakes’ second album, Sound & Color, captured a far more ambitious, almost-Afrofuturistic side of Howard’s songwriting compared to their debut, she got used to people wrongly assuming that Blake Mills, the band’s co-producer, must have written the songs. “Now I have to be adamant about what I did,” she says. “So I’ll just say that I’m very excited, as a woman in 2019, to have produced this record.”

Howard is rightfully proud of Jaime, but she’s also stressed about putting herself out there in a big way—so stressed that the gentleman who reads our aura photographs can see it. At the microscopic Chinatown shop Magic Jewelry, where we meet up before strolling over to the bar, Howard’s aura is cobalt blue at the bottom and Barney purple on top. The aura interpreter senses immediately that she is an artist on the brink of something, and that she could use a little more confidence. “Probably,” Howard says with a nervous laugh.

At the bar, she admits her skepticism about the accuracy of the aura photos, but she’s dead serious about astrological birth charts and Enneagram personality types, referring me to apps for both. In Enneagram terms, Howard is a proud Five: The Investigator; observant, cerebral, private. Her sign is a Libra, which she identifies with a lot (“I love teams and fairness”). “It’s been really great for me to know all this about myself, because I don’t feel bad about being a certain way,” she says. “In my family, nobody goes to therapy, or maybe has ever gone to therapy.”

Growing up in Athens, Alabama, Howard and her family weathered a lot. Brittany suffered from the same illness that led to her sister’s death and went partially blind in one eye; while Jaime was sick, the family’s house went up in flames right after Christmas (it was either lightning or “maybe somebody burned it down,” Howard says); and in one hateful instance, a goat’s head ended up in the backseat of her father’s car. Howard’s mother is white, her father is black, and as she says on the song “Goat Head,” atop elegantly clashing piano chords and skittering cymbal patter, “When I first got made, guess I made these folks mad.”

The album’s most affecting moments occur when Howard reconciles the hate she sees in the world with her own commitment to hope. Written in response to Prince’s death, Trump’s election, and “the whole fucking world seeming depressed,” “13th Century Metal” feels like the spiritual centerpiece of Jaime—an intergalatic journey of a jam session, total chaos by way of Glasper’s morse-code keyboards and organs, and Smith’s organized noise. On the song, Howard speaks sermon-like affirmations for nearly five minutes with steadfast wisdom, an almost enthusiastic fury, and yeah, a little all we need is love. “I am a master student and my spirit…” she says, pausing dramatically before declaring, “will never be stomped out!” At a recent Nashville show, one man shot straight up into the air when Howard played this song. “It was like he was waiting for someone to say what he’s been thinking,” she says, still amazed.

Howard came to some tough realizations before making Jaime. With her new wife—she married her Bermuda Triangle bandmate Jesse Lafser last year—she road-tripped from the Pacific Northwest all the way to Nashville, where she used to live, before driving back west, to Los Angeles. In Wyoming and especially Oregon, she felt deep-seated racism all around her and was taken aback by how actively the open-carry gun laws were on display. “I thought everything was better if I was out of the South—such a lie,” Howard says. “The South has tons of black people, so even if you’re racist, you’re still down with the black people. But up there, they ain’t got that many black people so they don’t even know how to act.” It made her angry, but mostly it made her sad. One night on the road, Howard found herself crying into her steak dinner, thinking, Fuck, I can’t believe people are still like this.

After the trip, Howard and Lafser settled together in Taos, New Mexico, where they live with their three dogs and two cats, all with human names like Rhoda and Wanda and David. (Taos is something of an artists’ enclave, and she jokes about trying to run into fellow resident Julia Roberts at the coffee shop.) In her downtime, the musician loves fly-fishing, painting, and belting out songs like Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” and Journey’s “When the Lights Go Down” at barroom karaoke. She also loves daytime-TV staples like Dr. Phil and Judge Judy. “Judge Judy taught me so much—no, seriously!” she says, after I catch a glimpse of the honorable arbitrator on her phone background. “How to use your logic and comprehension. How to argue. How to stay on topic when someone’s trying to get your emotions. And lots of catching people in lies. I’m very good at it, too.”

It’s getting to be evening, and the bar is filling up with the after-work crowd. Finally, after going table to table, the flirting brothers find a group of women to entertain. Howard, having flown in just this morning, is ready for her bubble bath. She smokes a yellow American Spirit on the curb in 90-degree heat and seems at ease, a hard-working truth-teller in repose.

Pitchfork: Did the highly personal nature of the songs on Jaime make you want to release the album as a solo project?

Brittany Howard: Yeah, and just… everything needed to be centered around me: the vision, the music, the arrangements, the sounds. Not in a selfish way, but in a completely-taking-your-power-and-owning-it way. It is strange being in the center, but I’m getting used to it.

Do you see your solo career changing things with the Alabama Shakes moving forward?

I can’t possibly know that, really. I just go where creativity wants to take me. I was trying to write with the Shakes, and it wasn’t working. For a whole year we tried rehearsing, getting together. Nothing was happening. It was really torturous, because we’re usually really good at that. I thought, Whoa, I got to take some time from this. We all sat and talked about it for a few hours, then came out the other side. It wasn’t bitter or anything, just like, “I’m going to go my own way.”

You wrote some of Jaime in Topanga, California, in the middle of a heatwave. What was your setup like there?

I was trying so hard to write stuff in this beautiful place, and it wasn’t coming. I was working in a fucking greenhouse. It was converted into a bedroom, but no one expected it to be 104 degrees. So I bought a real small air conditioner off of Amazon dot com, and I had to turn it off every time I recorded, because of the sound.

Inspiration hits at the funniest moments: I was sitting in there just like, fuck this, too hot. Then I went back in and made lunch, which was just a ham sandwich. I’m eating it and scrolling on my phone, and I’m reading this article about the producer Georgia Anne MuldrowMan, I thought, I wish Georgia would notice me. Everybody she works with is dope, so I figured if she notices me, that means I’m dope. And I was just walking around eating my sandwich and I started singing. The song [“Georgia,” which includes the hook, “I just want Georgia to notice me”] is not really about her, but it was inspired by her name for sure.

You know how, in movies and shit, there’s always like that little boy who has a crush on his older sister’s friends? That’s kind of what I was going for with that song, except it’s this little girl who has a crush on an older girl. It’s so innocent. I’ve never heard a song like that, and I was really excited to write it.

On the flip side, “Short and Sweet” strikes me as a mature love song, the work of someone who has been burned before and is trying to stave off romantic fatalism. Where did it come from?

“Fatalism” is definitely the right word. I wrote that song when I just started dating my partner, about three years ago. I thought, Oh God, here we go again, this is probably not going to work out in my favor. I had these expectations like, “This isn’t going to last very long, but it’ll probably be nice. How about we just have this beginning part and we’ll skip the end?” It’s a song full of expectations.

You have amazing vocal control on that song in particular, and such an expressive voice in general. Do you have any rituals as far as keeping it in shape?

I don’t do anything special. In fact, I probably need to do things. I don’t warm up, I just open up my mouth and sing. I trained myself by just singing along with records until my note would be right in the same wavelength with whoever was singing. A lot of Freddie Mercury, some Journey, and oddly enough, a lot of Anthony Kiedis. By the way, I love [Red Hot Chili Peppers’] records. Now I realize he had Auto-Tune on his voice, but it helped me practice.

Who’s a frontperson whose magnetism is inspiring to you?

Prince. And actually, Matt Schulz from Cage the Elephant. He’s just very good at being confident, I really respect that. Who else? Sharon Jones. I hate that she passed away. She was a hero in my eyes, I really looked up to her.

Speaking of heroes, you played “Get Back” with Paul McCartney at Lollapalooza in 2015. What was that like?

It was cool, man. Paul’s a really fucking nice guy, he’s got great energy. But I was really nervous so I practiced the guitar solo all day long, until my fingers were raw. I had it memorized deep inside my spine. I could probably still play it. So I go up there in front of like 80,000 people, and we’re doing the song, and I go into the solo—and I hear somebody else playing it. I was like, Who the fuck’s playing that? His guitar player was still playing the solo! I walked up to him and I was like, “Hey stop, stop, I got it.”

Your breakout song with the Shakes, “Hold On,” became a working-class anthem, and there are lines on this album like, “Where I come from we work hard and grind and hustle all day.” Is that grounded sensibility ever challenging to hold on to as you see more and more success?

Nope. Every time I take a hot shower, I’m like, woo, hot water! Or when I order room service, it’s like, wow, what a luxury. Or when I buy expensive veterinary cat food, I’m like, look at us. There’s nothing that will ever change that, because it’s ingrained. I’ve been working since I was 14 years old—working my little ass off, or big ass off. Well, my ass is still here. I’m just saying, I worked real hard.

What’s the worst job you ever had?

Cracker Barrel. I was a grill cook. I wasn’t bad at it, it just wasn’t my joint. I’ve had jobs people would think would be worse. I’ve been a porter, which is like an outdoor janitor—they pick up dead animals. One time, when I was working that job, a child asked their mother if I was in jail. But that, somehow, was not worse than Cracker Barrel. Some of the people I worked with really sucked—buncha cokeheads. If they ever read this: fuck y’all!

On “He Loves Me,” you sing about having God’s love even while you’re doing whatever the hell you want. Are you a religious person?

I’m not religious. I don’t blame anybody for being religious but it’s not my thing. But I’m definitely a spiritual person. I wrote this song for people who feel they can’t have a relationship with God because they think they have to be Christian, or religious, have all these rules, sins. I was like that, definitely afraid. And then my sister died, and it was like: There is no God. Because why would God do that to a kid? The way she died was very painful to watch.

Then, as I got older, I just changed my mind. I really missed having that connection to something. So I just started learning how to have a relationship with God. And that’s what that song is about.

“Goat Head” feels like the most personal moment on the record: You’re disappointed that life is more racist than you had thought as a kid, but you’re also so unflappable in how you present the facts of this story. It’s a complicated song.

It is complicated. And it’s a complicated song to perform. A lot of people, especially of the older Caucasian type, don’t seem to like that song very much, as soon as I say the line about, “All my heroes are black, why does God have blue eyes?” They don’t have any reference for what I’m talking about. I’m not saying white people are bad, but that the people who cut off the goat’s head and put it in my parents’ car are bad. I’m just talking about what my experience was growing up as a little brown mixed-race child in the South.

When did you find out about the goat head story?

It happened when I was a baby, but I didn’t find out until I was 13 or 14, because my parents protected me from knowing about it. I was just devastated when I heard. I had felt safe in the world—going fishing, being in the woods. I wasn’t scared of police. I knew this stuff happened, but I thought it was in the very small enclaves of Alabama, not most of the state. My mom, who is white, told me stories about how she would go to the grocery store and she’d be pushing me in a stroller, and an older white woman would come up to her and say, “What were you thinking?” And that wasn’t that long ago. It was shocking to learn that. Also shocking to learn why I couldn’t go to certain friends’ houses: because their parents hated my parents. I had a pretty good childhood besides all the tragedy, but learning this was like getting a whole new pair of eyeballs.