Alabama Shakes' Brittany Howard on Jamming With Prince, Her Secret Identity

Singer talks Thunderbitch alter ego, taking stage with Paul McCartney and delivering mail in a tornado

Brittany Howard describes her Thunderbitch persona as "bringing back the performance side of rock & roll." Credit: Gabriel Olsen/Getty

The past year has been very good to Brittany Howard. In April, she topped the charts with Alabama Shakes' second album, Sound & Color; five months later, her side project, Thunderbitch, released a debut LP that sounds like a rowdy late-night party in the back room of a Memphis bar. Howard recently played a rare show with that group, appearing on a New York club stage astride a motorcycle, costumed in white face paint, dark shades and a black leather jacket. But don't ask her to acknowledge her alter ego — she'll talk about Thunderbitch in the third person only. "I've heard of them," she says with a wicked laugh. "I know they've got this singer that dresses up like a ghost, and I know they play rock & roll music." Howard called from Dublin a few hours before hitting the stage with the Shakes. "This is our final tour of the year, so I'm going to go out with a big bang," she says. "I'm definitely not going to take it easy or be lazy."

This summer you performed "Get Back" with Paul McCartney at Lollapalooza and jammed with Prince at Paisley Park. Who's cooler?
Oh, my God, you know I can't answer that! Paul is a pretty laid-back dude, and really good at making you forget he's a Beatle. I was nervous until I went onstage, and then it was my time to sing — "Ahhhhh!" — and then it was my time to take a solo — "Oh, my God!" — and then the whole thing was over. It was really fun.

And Prince?
Prince is so mysterious. He'll summon you, and you'll go meet him, and you don't know what to talk about, and you're just trying not to freak out. He was like, "I'm going to play this song with you. I'm going to go learn it real quick." In 15 minutes, he knew the whole song. When we were playing onstage, we didn't really know when he was going to come out — but then he popped out and shredded the most epic solo. The audience was going nuts. It's a shame nobody could record it.

Do you have any living rock heroes who you haven't met yet?
Yeah, David Bowie. He's a pretty far-out guy. I feel like we'd probably have some good conversations. Maybe we could go have tea or something one day. 

The Shakes' first album, Boys & Girls, got tagged as a throwback, but Sound & Color feels pretty different. Were you trying to break free of that label?
With Boys & Girls, we just wanted to be a real band. We never expected that album to get out like it did. Sound & Color was such a different experience, and it was kind of daunting. We had nothing but time and resources, and we could do anything we wanted — but I started thinking, "Maybe I should make a record like the first one, because that's what people liked." I had a lot of trouble doing that. So I just did what I was interested in.

There aren't many successful young rock bands left these days. Does rock feel like a lost art to you?
Nah! There are so many good bands, dude. They are out there. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, Promised Land Sound — I don't see myself as any more popular than those bands, to tell you the truth.

Really? They're not playing big outdoor stages the way you are.
Sometimes it feels odd. I consider us a club band — somebody you go see in a 500-capacity room. That's where I've always been comfortable. Then you get these beautiful theaters, and I feel a little out of place. But everybody gets to see us, so I guess it's all good.

OK, let's clear something up: Are you sure you're not Thunderbitch? I've never seen you and her in the same room at the same time. ...
Oh, you just ain't been hanging around! I've been to a few parties she's been at. Looks like a geisha or something to me. I've heard that record a few times. It's all right [laughs].

You mentioned Bowie earlier, and Thunderbitch reminds me a little bit of when he was Ziggy Stardust. Is it like that?
Yeah, maybe. It reminds me of someone like Meat Loaf. It's bringing back the performance side of rock & roll — what used to be the industry standard. Now it's all about wearing tight jeans and staring at your feet. Gone are the days of capes and motorcycles. 

I heard you like to haunt record shops. What's the last great album you found in a used-record bin?
Journey in Satchidananda, by Alice Coltrane. It's far-out — it's not songs, just free expression. That's what music can be if you just let yourself go, and I appreciate that. It's a record you can put on if you want to do chores, or if you're on an airplane, and just get lost in it.

Before the Shakes took off, you worked for the U.S. Postal Service. Is there anything that you miss about that job?
Oh, God, I don't miss it at all. I have so much respect for mail carriers — that's such a hard job. I once delivered mail in a tornado. I looked up in the sky and saw these swirling, angry-looking clouds. There's no radio in the mail truck, so I was calling everyone, like, "What's happening?" They're like, "Oh, you know, tornado." I started delivering the mail extra-fast so I could get back to safety. I could see the tornado forming. Then I got a flat tire. I went up to a stranger's house and said, "I'm your mail carrier, can I come inside? There's a tornado!" 

Your bandmates got you a Judge Judy birthday cake a few weeks ago. What's that about?
They know I love Judge Judy. I watch her show anytime it's on — that's my Days of Our Lives. She's so smart, and she doesn't take shit from anybody. I love to watch her deliberate.

Ever thought about getting into a small-claims dispute just to get on her show?
I don't know if I'm ready. I might break down in tears. She'd be like, "Why are you smiling so much?" And what am I supposed to say? 

What else do you do for fun if you're not making music or watching Judge Judy?
I like to go fishing. I'll go see shows, but it's getting harder and harder — I get recognized, and there are a lot of pictures, which is kind of hard when you're just trying to enjoy the band. Maybe I'll make some art or do some writing. Sometimes I'll write down ideas for movies, when I don't feel like writing songs.

What's an idea for a movie that you had?
I can't give it all away! Come on, man. People read this magazine! But "Gemini" came from a little short-story synopsis I wrote. It was about these alien twins that crash-landed on Earth. They grew up on this piece of land and never left its confines — kind of like an island. Once they got old enough, they figured out how to cross the river that separated them from the other side, and they built a raft. One of them started floating down this fork in the stream, and the other one was going the other way, and instead of joining, they decided to have their own adventures and never see each other again. I figured it would be interesting: What happens if all you know is the other half of you, and you have to be the whole you?

"Man, so many people follow me on Twitter, and I don't ever say anything. I don't get the concept — who cares what I'm thinking?"

What do you think of social media?
I'm on Instagram. Man, so many people follow me on Twitter, and I don't ever say anything. I don't get the concept — who cares what I'm thinking?

I guess those people who follow you care, right?"
Oh, yeah. That was kind of cruel. Maybe I'll post an apology or something.

I read that you're into science — what kind?
I love all science. I've always had a dream that I would work for NASA. I could be one of the aeronautical engineers that installs chips and copper metal on little rovers. It's like our little child, and then we send it into space and it's talking to us from millions of miles away. That's pretty far out, right?

What do you think about NASA's discovery of liquid water on Mars?
We always had this idea that Mars was this arid, desert-like landscape, but it turns out to be kind of muddy, and sometimes snow forms and melts. Is that going to change everyone's perception from here on out of what Mars is like? That movie The Martian just came out, and it appeared to be really dry. What's going to happen now? It's like finding out that the Tyrannosaurus Rex doesn't actually have little arms.

You recently said that Björk inspires you to feel that "Every facet of our creative being can be divulged." What did you mean by that?
Every aspect of her — her clothing, her music, her image — is innovative. Someone could look at her at the grocery store and think, "Oh, she's just this little woman," but she's so much more than that. This record she put out recently, Vulnicura, is so personal. She gave so much to us. She gave away what it feels like to have your family fall apart, and I was really moved by that. She's using her creativity in a divine way to help herself.

Does that kind of personal approach interest you? Are there aspects of yourself that you want to put into your music that you haven't yet?
I'm sure there's something I'm missing. But I have to figure out what that is on my own. Because as much as I'm inspired by Björk, I can't be Björk. I have to be myself.