Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on January 2013
It’s hard not to get caught up in the rush of excitement of a young band getting its first big break. When Metropolis catches up with formidable frontwoman Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes, she’s practically breathless.
“I just woke up on the tour bus in Glasgow after playing Manchester last night,” she informs. “It was a really good—no, a great—show, and a great audience.”
Coalescing in Athens, Alabama in 2009, the quartet garnered three 2013 Grammy nominations including Best New Artist for last spring’s debut long player Boys & Girls, a fevered gumbo of soul and rhythm & blues.
Did things click immediately the first time Howard hit the studio with guitarist Heath Fogg, drummer Steve Johnson and high-school friend, bassist Zac Cockrell?
“I wouldn’t say so,” replies Howard, “because the first time we were just trying to figure out how to play with one another. It was a little rocky because we didn’t know what to do. We were all kind of different, so it took a while. But then I remember one night we were in practice and Heath just started playing this riff for ‘Be Mine,’ and that fell together instantaneously. At the end we were like, ‘We shouldn’t change anything about it—that’s the kind of music we should play.’”
Their early audiences seemed to feel the same about “Hold On,” the lead single off the album and a track that Rolling Stone named the best song of 2012.
“We were playing at a bar, and Heath had this riff, and I’d never had any words for it,” Howard recalls. “And I said, ‘If you play that riff I’ll just make something up on the spot and see if we can make a song out of it.’ So they started playing it, and I just started singing, and the audience thought we were playing a cover song, and started trying to sing the chorus with me, which was crazy. We knew we had something when they were trying to sing along when we hadn’t even finished the song.”
Still, things didn’t always come so easy for Howard. She was a bit of an outcast early on. “I really wanted to be in a punk rock band at around 11, but where I’m from people don’t like that kind of music,” she explains. “I was really trying to find my own band, but no one took me seriously, so I just started playing by myself. I would record my own songs, until I got to high school and that’s where I met Zach.”
It all began to feel serious when acclaimed southern rockers Drive By Truckers offered them the opening slot on their tour. “We were like, well, if we don’t do something everything’s gonna remain the same, and if we do say yes, something cool might happen,” Howard continues. “We thought pretty hard about it because we all had pretty good jobs. And it was kind of scary going into the unknown. It was a matter of sitting down and asking, are we going to be able to pay our bills and keep the lights on if we go on tour?”
Like fellow American neo-roots rockers Jack White and Beth Ditto of Gossip, Alabama Shakes have struck a particularly strong chord with British audiences. But they remain true to their Deep South roots, offering up a more unreconstructed musical vision than White or Ditto.
“Where we grew up Southern Rock is elementary, Howard says. “But the biggest influence on the band was the session players of the ’60s,” she adds, citing outfits like the Funk Brothers and the MGs. “They’re so tight, and everybody knew what they were doing. They didn’t take solos, but they played with scientific precision.”
Howard’s vocals are imbued with strains of strong soul divas from the black Marva Whitney to the white Janis Joplin. The singer—herself seemingly a blend of black and white—takes a post-racial view of music.
“It could be black music or white music. Anything with a soul we’re interested in,” she affirms. “Elvis sang and played black music—that’s where rock came from. But I don’t know if our sound is a black-music thing, I think it’s just a music thing.”
Alabama Shakes’ Japan debut winds up a month-long tour of the Pacific. Then it’s back home to hole up in a studio to record the follow-up to Boys & Girls.
“I can’t really say what the album is going to be like yet,” Howard muses. “We have material that is straight ’50s and ’60s rock and roll, like Chuck Berry, but then we have songs where I don’t know what you’d call them. We’re gonna evolve, but it’s still going to be us.”