At 26 years of age, Brittany Howard has seen her band hit some serious milestones. Alabama Shakes’ debut record Boys & Girls (2012) was both critically acclaimed and adored by music fans eager for something different. And now three years, three Grammy nominations, 2 Saturday Night Live appearances and one Jack White collaboration later, their second album was released in April and has been just as well received.
For a girl from small town Athens, Alabama the experience has been incredible. But ultimately, it’s still all about the music. I sat down with Howard at Field Trip this past weekend to chat about her writing process, the highlights of the past few years and how she’s managed to keep to what inspired her in the first place.
What was it like for you to enter this kind of industry at a young age?
I actually don’t feel like I was that young considering the industry I’m in. I think 17 is young, and there are people out there doing that. I think I was old enough to understand what was going on around me. It’s something I had to take onto myself, but we also have good managers. I ask our manager a lot of questions – like, “why does this work this way?” Now that I’ve been in it for 5 years, I kind of see how everything works. It’s really a big wheel of communication and everybody’s got to be cool with this and cool with that. You’re going to talk to these people and these people and everybody should have a good relationship and the wheel will move forward. That’s what I’m noticing.
Tell me a little bit about those early days when you all were working day jobs and heading to Nashville to record.
It was exciting and I always looked forward to it. It was very different from the way it is now. We all had jobs; I can’t remember exactly where I was working at the time, maybe the post office. But I’d get off of wherever I was working, drive straight up to Nashville, we’d do the session and then we’d have to drive that evening, maybe at 1 in the morning, back home to get up and go to work again. So it was hard to do. And we also had to save money to get the studio time.
I would imagine the writing and recording process for Sound & Color was quite different!
It was different. We took about a year off and were at home with our families, just relaxing…it was so nice and I guess we got kind of comfortable. And then it came time to write songs for a second record and it was like “Oh…OK”.
We also took our time with the writing…but then it came to deadline and “we’ve got to have some songs”. So we rehearsed a few times and had some ideas; some pretty good ideas and some interesting avenues to go down. I also would spend a lot of time demoing, because we paid for studio time and I felt that pressure. So I’d spend outrageous hours down in my little studio making demos. I’d be down there for like 14 hours sometimes. And songs would come out; sometimes they were awful, sometimes they were really good.
Often with debut records, bands can be “categorized”, particularly if they’re presenting something different. What, if anything, has Sound & Color done as a second record to shatter any of that “pigeon-holing” that may have resulted from Boys & Girls?
I don’t really think it’s that far out from what we did before. I feel like if we had more time with the first record, it would sound more like this record. Because I’ve always been interested in doing this record, so to speak. I’ve always been interested in harmonial singing, but harmonies that aren’t basic, that aren’t traditional harmonies. And then moods and space…those are always things that we wanted to do. I think we had to grow a little bit just to get there, but it’s something I’ve always wanted to do for sure. And dynamics is something that’s really important that I’ve learned from making this record. I would say if anything, we’ve just expanded on some of those ideas that we had to make this record.
How personal are your lyrics?
My lyrics are pretty personal but they don’t always have to do with me. They do with people that I know or care about, people that I’ve seen…or just me, myself. I just write about what I know about.
You’ve played all manner of venues and have a ton of festival shows coming up this summer. Having started out doing the small club gigs, is there a type of venue you’re most comfortable in?
I’m more comfortable in a club setting. I like clubs…they always sound great. So I also like theatres for that reason. But I’d say a club…it’s just that for me, it feels more natural. That’s where I like to be.
Over the past few years you’ve played some very historic venues, had significant collaborations, received Grammy nominations, played SNL twice…do any of those many highlights stand out for you personally amongst the others?
Yeah, like everything! But we got to play with Prince the other night, and that was pretty amazing. I never thought that that would happen. Because we’re all Prince fans…he’s a pioneer. For some reason, it’s like he is the epitome of what most musicians want to do. When I say that, I mean that attitude of “I want to do a show” and you do a show…or “I don’t want to do any shows for a really long time” and you don’t. Or “I want to go on TV” or “I don’t want to do this” or “I won’t go to soundcheck”…you know what I mean? But the thing is, he can do those things because he can back it up. Because he can show up and deliver. And that’s why I say, that’s where you want to be.
I read that you ultimately started a band to have something to belong to. This industry can be very alienating in its way…so how have you found it so far and how do you keep focused on that initial motivation?
Yes it can. That’s the whole struggle with this whole touring thing…staying driven to tour more. It’s a very strange life I’d say. I really enjoy writing songs but then I’m not the type of person who can write songs on the road – it just doesn’t happen like that and I feel uncomfortable. But when I get home, then I’m comfortable and it’s lots of fun. So doing the touring takes away from doing the songwriting. And when you’re gone touring, what you really want to do is go home and maybe not even listen to music for a while. You just want to sit in silence and do something that doesn’t have anything to do with this. Which is very interesting, because music has always been my outlet. So I go home and it’s again a little bit alienating. Because it’s like “well if I don’t do music, what do I do?” So it’s a very strange life and I think it’s all about finding a balance in that life. If you want the money, you can stay gone for an entire year. Because work will be there. But I don’t think people should do that unless they thrive off of it.