Brittany Howard grew up listening to Nina Simone, drawn in by the quality of her voice and the legendary singer’s sensitivity. The latter, Howard says, it what she relates to the most and why she chose to speak about Simone for Rolling Stone‘s “Icons & Influences” series.
“She wanted love, connection, to feel her worth. She wanted to be heard. She wanted justice. She wanted to talk about the things that no one wanted to talk about in music,” the Alabama-born Grammy winner says. “One way she’s been an inspiration to me is not really buying into this need to be commercially successful. I think she had a lot of anger from being blocked out of that, but in the end, it didn’t matter. What we took away from that is that she was doing things her way. She was being herself, no matter how complicated or disastrous or how bad that could look at times. That was her.”
Howard’s personal favorite Simone performance is her set at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976, particularly her cover of Janis Ian’s “Stars.”
“Her and Janis were really good friends,” Howard explains. “The way she sang that was so incredibly visceral and true and real — like she was singing about her life, even though she didn’t write the words to it.”
Simone’s performances — and sometimes testy relationship with her audience — have made her notable as one of the greatest artists to ever grace any stage. For Howard, it was her imperfections and constant willingness to bare them that made the star one of a kind.
“She was rageful and she was vengeful and she was problematic and all of these things, but she’s a human being,” Howard says. “I think in our culture especially, we want our superstars to be perfect, and she’s a superstar, an icon, that is anything but perfect.”