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Brittany Howard Taps Into the Ancestors, and Finds a New Groove

The singer and guitarist socked away songs grappling with frustration, pain and love during the pandemic. They became her powerful second solo LP, “What Now.”

[New York Times]

By David Peisner

When Brittany Howard was 17, she lived alone, in a haunted house in Athens, Ala., that had belonged to her great-grandmother.

At first, she was thrilled. Alabama Shakes, the band she’d started with her high school classmate Zac Cockrell, practiced there. Then doors started to open on their own. Cabinets slammed shut. One day, Howard was outside the back door when she heard the lock slide closed on the inside. Thinking someone had broken in, she crept into the kitchen and grabbed a weapon she kept behind her fridge.

“I had this machete, and I’m clearing rooms in the house like I’m Bruce Willis in ‘Pulp Fiction,’” she said on an afternoon in early January. “There’s nobody in the house.”

After seven years, Howard abandoned the old, run-down duplex, but she has long maintained a connection to the ghosts of her past, and her music has often felt haunted. The Shakes were imbued with the essence of artists who preceded them by a few generations — Otis Redding, Janis Joplin, Curtis Mayfield — and shaped by an American South that sometimes struggled to look forward instead of back. In 2019, after two albums, and just as the band appeared poised for superstardom, Howard walked away, releasing “Jaime,” a solo debut named after her late sister.

On Feb. 9, she returns with “What Now,” an album filled with wailing soul, jittery funk and buzzing grooves born of frustration, pain, love and intense questioning. Its roots can be traced to the pandemic, and another house Howard believed might be haunted: a big 100-year-old yellow rental filled with antique furniture in East Nashville.

“I came by this album pretty honest,” Howard, 35, said while sitting at a desk at the Sound Emporium in Nashville, the studio where she recorded it. She wore a gray button-down, white sneakers and rings on most of her fingers. She has spent nearly all her life in the South but in 2019 was living in New Mexico with her wife, the singer-songwriter Jesse Lafser. As Howard was getting ready to release “Jaime,” their marriage was coming apart.

“I got divorced and drove back to Nashville,” Howard said. “I was like, ‘Man, I thought I was through with this place.’” In March 2020, she was preparing for a European tour when the pandemic scotched those plans. It was just as well. After nearly a decade of writing, recording and touring, Howard was burned out.

“I was in the house, excited not to have to be a musician and just be a human washing groceries,” she said. “I was hiking, fishing, outside every day. I was listening to Stevie Wonder’s ‘Songs in the Key of Life’ to keep my mood up. I finished all of ‘Tiger King.’ Then I ran out of stuff to do. I got to a point where I was like, ‘What am I for?’”

She set up a bare-bones studio in a small spare bedroom. “I’d just go in there and make whatever I was feeling that day,” Howard said. She didn’t think the songs would ever see the light of day.

It wasn’t until she revisited them a couple of years later that she realized what she had. “This album, for me, was just a series of journal entries,” she said. “Because it was the pandemic, my heart was going through so many things. There was all this sorrow about seeing the world on fire, seeing people the same color as you getting beaten in the streets. On the other hand, I was falling in love.”

The joy of this new relationship was shaded not only by the darkness of the world around her, but also by the specter of past romantic failures. “There was a lot of fear,” Howard said. “What if this happens again? What if they don’t like me like that? Why can’t I enjoy this? All that had to go somewhere.”

The songs aren’t really about Lafser or any other former partners. They aren’t even about Howard’s new relationship at the time, which ended before the album was finished. The songs are about Howard, herself. “I’m the common denominator,” she said.

AFTER THE STUDIO visit, Howard walked into the living room of her latest house — a well-appointed but unassuming midsize home in East Nashville — and was besieged by her small, feisty dogs, Wilma and Wanda. The room felt like a display case for Howard’s enthusiasms. A wooden chess board sat atop a baby grand piano. “Sister Outsider,” a collection of essays by the queer Black feminist poet Audre Lorde, was on the coffee table. Tucked into a corner was a photo of Howard with the Obamas. A sitar case leaned against the credenza housing her record player. A giant portrait of the Supremes dominated one wall.

“It’s from the first gay club in Nashville,” Howard said. “I’m just borrowing it because the person who owns it doesn’t have tall enough ceilings.”

Howard bought the home from the singer-songwriter Vanessa Carlton and her husband, John McCauley, of the band Deer Tick. Behind the house, between an old fishing boat Howard rebuilt and an archery target shaped like a deer head — “I have strange hobbies,” she noted, walking through the backyard — was a garage that had been converted into a home studio. Howard finished recording the “What Now” demos in this comfortably disheveled space with guitars adorning the walls, a movie screen hanging from the ceiling and a sauna beside the door.

“You’ve got to have a sauna in your studio,” she said. “To sweat it out.”

A small control room was dominated by a large vintage mixing board once used to record Prince’s debut album. Howard is a huge fan, and apparently the feeling was mutual. In 2015, he invited her and the Shakes to play at Paisley Park, and joined them on guitar for “Gimme All Your Love.” One of the new songs, the dynamic, tempo-shifting “Power to Undo,” feels animated by his spirit.

“When I was making it, I was like, ‘Prince would’ve liked this,’” Howard said. The song, she explained, is about trying to leave someone who keeps coming back. “There’s a part of you that’s like, ‘I kind of do want to go back,’ and then the older, wiser part that’s like, ‘Don’t you dare.’”

“What Now” feels like a breakup album, albeit one tinged less with bitterness for her exes and more with a harsh lens turned on herself. “Out there, there’s a love waiting for me,” Howard sings on the opener, “Earth Sign,” her voice floating over spare, ethereal piano chords. “I can feel, I can’t see/But will I know when I feel it?”

Howard produced the album alongside Shawn Everett, who engineered “Jaime” and the second Shakes album, “Sound & Color.” He recalled that “Earth Sign” was a spare 30-second demo when Howard brought it into the studio.

“One day, she was like, ‘Just give me the drums,’” Everett said. “Then without any chords even being there, she put this insanely complex harmony over the whole thing.”

Everett, who has worked with Adele, the Killers and John Legend, was taken aback. “The amount of singers able to build a complex ocean of harmonies without any chord progression is almost zero,” he said. “Then she sat there composing this beautiful piano arrangement. Some studied musician could maybe figure that out, but she just does it by feeling.” The resulting vibe is simultaneously hopeful and despairing, setting a tone for the album.

From song to song, the album approximates the emotional whiplash of falling in and out of love. “The best time that I ever had/That’s when the worst times started,” Howard sings on the humid, stuttering “Red Flags,” a track about careening into new relationships. “I wanted to talk about how I just let my heart rule everything,” she said. “When I feel love, I’m going in that direction. It’s like, ‘Honey, that’s not a parade! That’s danger!’”

For “Samson,” a hypnotic meditation on a dying union, she came into the studio with 16 bars of a drumbeat, some keyboard chords and a few lyrics. Working with Everett, she began to color in the rest, cutting, chopping and mixing in elements including a winding muted trumpet melody by the Nashville-based jazz artist Rod McGaha. As the deadline loomed, the lyrics remained unfinished. “I just made them up in real time,” she said. “The vocals on it are live. The way I sung it, it’s like you’ve been wrung out.”

The effect is devastating. The singer-songwriter Becca Mancari, one of Howard’s closest friends, recalled when Howard first played her a rough mix, in her car one night in Nashville. “I started tearing up,” she said. “I have chills thinking about it now. I remember being like, ‘This is my friend tapping into the ancestors.’”

Mancari introduced Howard to her current partner, Anna-Maria Babcock, when Howard was selling merch at one of Mancari’s shows. “When they saw each other, I felt this energetic wash,” Mancari remembered.

Amid all the tumult and heartache, “What Now” offers moments to dance through the tears. “It feels like this liberated, queer Black music,” Mancari said. “You could hear these songs in a queer club, which I’d never thought about a Brittany song.”

“What Now” doesn’t sound too much like what Howard has done before. As Cockrell, who played bass on both of Howard’s solo albums, put it: “The songs are all very different, but I can hear elements of Brittany in all of it.”

Considering her previous successes — five Grammys, a Billboard No. 1 album, multiple performances at the White House — Howard’s refusal to repeat herself is refreshingly risky. Although she has never closed the door on another Alabama Shakes album, she is committed to her own restlessness. “There are so many interesting things about music,” she said. “Why just do one of them?”

Howard credits therapy for helping her navigate her emotional life, understand her ghosts and channel it all into art. “Therapy has made my life bearable,” she said. It has also clarified her goals. She has a remarkably detailed vision of a not-too-distant future when she would like to be effectively retired, playing music only when and how she wants.

“I want a farm with animals somewhere in the South, an orchard to grow plums, a five-acre pond, a golden retriever and maybe some kids,” she said. “I want to grow food in my backyard, and have this big barn with three doors, where my studio equipment is, a place for my hobbies. I can woodwork and do whatever weird projects I’m into. And I want one of them four-by-four vehicles.”

As to whether she can imagine growing old with someone else in that picture, notwithstanding her current happiness, those old ghosts breed skepticism.

“I’ve got to see it to believe it.”