Brittany Howard on Going Solo, Making Music With a Message, and Where She’s Headed Next
First-round Grammy voting gets underway on September 30th and runs through October 12th. For our 2021 Grammy preview issue, we asked a series of likely contenders for next year’s awards to reflect on their past experiences at the ceremony, look ahead to the future, and discuss the albums and singles that could earn them a statue come January.
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In June, Brittany Howard put on her mask, headed into a studio in Nashville, where she’s been quarantining since March, and played with other musicians for the first time in three months. The occasion: a virtual Tonight Show performance of “Goat Head,” one of the potent highlights of Howard’s 2019 solo debut, Jaime.
The song, which recounts Howard’s childhood memory of an act of racial intimidation against her parents, has become newly relevant in the midst of this year’s Black Lives Matter protests. Performing the song with her bandmates, though, felt like pure jubilation.
“Everyone felt this great relief of just being around one another making music,” Howard says. “When you haven’t played in so long and you’re just sitting around and dreaming of playing, and then you finally get to do it, there was something special… And then of course having the message that that song did, it made everyone feel really powerful and sure about being there. That’s what music does: It gives us the chance to express ourselves. Us playing ‘Goat Head’ was a chance to say, ‘Look here, this has been going on. This hasn’t been anything new.’”
What have the past few months been like for you?
I’ve been down, like anybody else. I was excited to tour this record. The band was super-tight, and I was having a lot of fun with this music — and then, the breaks hit. Quarantine, global pandemic. I was kind of excited to have a break, because I had been working so hard since the record came out. It was nice at first to sit around the house and not jump on airplanes and meet lobby calls. That was refreshing. Then the malaise sets in, and you’re like, “What am I going to do to support all this work I put into this record?”
I imagine it must be hard to think about how much to self-promote your own work during a time of suffering and calamity.
I don’t find it difficult, because I know that a lot of people who are on the side of good, the side of compassion, the side of humanity — those are the people who listen to our record. I’m glad to be a small cog in this wonderful movement for a more equal place for all of us.
Before your Jaime tour was stopped short, what did it feel like to play with a band as a solo artist, rather than as a member of Alabama Shakes? Did it feel different?
I felt like I was on a really great basketball team. I had Shaquille and Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, all the greatest players getting behind this mission of spreading this message. It was, “We’re going to do the best we can every night, and we’re not going to be jaded, and we’re not going to get tired. We’re going to lift each other up.” It felt so powerful having them on stage. It felt different. Because the intention was there: Everyone understood it. Everyone was there for it.
Now that it’s been a year since Jaime came out, how has the response to your album matched up to how you thought people might receive the album?
I didn’t have any expectations for this record. I can say that very sincerely. Now I know that the songs people gravitate to most are “Goat Head,” “Short and Sweet,” and “Run To Me,” oddly enough. The record is so all over the place. I have people coming out of all of the pockets of different genres. Did I expect all of that? No. Am I surprised by it? Not necessarily.
Do you feel like you’ve been reaching new audiences with this album, music fans from other genres?
Oh, yeah, definitely. The way I learned music was just from listening and exploring music as I came across it. When it came down to creating my own material without other bandmates’ opinions, I pulled from that. I’m taking all of my lessons from everything I’ve ever heard, and no one had opinions: “Well, maybe don’t do that.” Or, “Maybe this repeats too much.” This record is me, making my own mistakes, making my own successes. It felt very freeing. I’m not really asking anyone’s opinions.
Nate Smith’s drumming plays such a central role on this record. The rhythm feels so much more modern, and danceable, than anything you did with Alabama Shakes. Was it a conscious decision to take your music in that direction?
That’s just what I like. I didn’t think it through. It was more just like, “What would feel good underneath this?”
Sometimes when a frontperson makes a solo record, it feels like a detour. Jaime felt like a new beginning. Have you been writing new music lately?
I have been. And first off, I want to say, yes: Jaime is the beginning of something. I was proud it even came out. A lot of work went into it, a lot of fear, a lot of “I’m not sure if this is a good idea.” A lot of humility went into making the record. I walked away from my guys that I love to create something that I love. But because I released it, I now have this understanding of my own creativity, which is just: “Go for it. It doesn’t matter. You’re the one making it.” So I have been writing new music, not worrying what’s going to happen with it, if it’s going to be released, if it’s going to be on the charts. I don’t care. In my own experience, you can’t write something genuine also having 600 billion people in mind.
The earliest Alabama Shakes material speaks to that in some ways.
Right. People just liked it. I still have the same mentality. I have to be proud of it. Because ultimately I am the one that is spending hours and hours and hours of my life performing it.
How would you describe the new music you’ve been writing?
Oh, it’s all over the place, man. It’s pretty crazy. Right now, in its infant stages of what I’m demoing out, it’s definitely music that I’ve never heard before. I’m excited about that, but it doesn’t mean it’s good, it just means I’ve never heard anything like it.
You were recently nominated for a number of awards by the Americana Music Association. Was that surprising to you, considering how much of a departure Jaime is from your older work?
It was surprising for it to be considered in the Americana genre, but it also makes sense. My roots are deep in the history of music from any time or place. So of course I’m always referencing music from the Americana genre, because I’m referencing everything. I think this record could easily be considered a lot of things.
On that note, your song “History Repeats” was nominated for two in two rock categories last year. Songs that strange don’t often get nominated for Grammys.
Honestly, I don’t think people know what to do with it. It’s very odd for “History Repeats” to be nominated for a Best Rock Grammy. I didn’t see it coming. But I was happy to be there and I was happy to be thought of. It’s crazy, that song is just so freaking accurate.
You couldn’t have predicted how urgent Jaime would sound a year after it was released.
I feel the same way. If you listen to my record with what’s been going on the past couple months in mind, it is eerily, what word do I want to use, relevant. I didn’t see that coming.
The music industry has been facing a reckoning in the wake of the Black Lives Matter uprising this year. What do you make of what you’ve seen take place in the industry? Do you feel that real progress is happening?
As far as my label and team goes, they walk the walk. They’re good people. Some other things I see in the industry are lip service, but that’s what you’re going to get. Some businesses are doing it so they don’t get called out. Some businesses are doing it because that’s what they stand for. Can I really speak on who’s doing what? No, I can’t. The thing about revolutions is, they make revolutions themselves. History will show how it will go. It’ll show us what to do, and what not to do. All you have to do is study it.
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