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.
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.