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Brittany Howard Makes Her Declaration As A Solo Star

Sep 18, 2019
Originally published on September 19, 2019 7:55 am

As lead singer and guitarist of Alabama Shakes, Brittany Howard has earned her accolades and then some. Since 2009, the band has won four Grammys, performed at the White House and heralded some of roots rock's biggest hits this decade. Still, Howard feels the urge to try something new every few years.

In 2012, Howard formed the band Thunderbitch with Nashville's Clear Plastic Masks and Fly Golden Eagle. Then, in 2017, she led a new band, Bermuda Triangle, with Jesse Lafser and Becca Mancari. But before she plotted her next artistic move, Howard did a lot of thinking.

"'Do I want to do this solo record that I've always wanted to do since I was, like, 11 years old when I first picked up the guitar? Or am I going to keep trying to make more Shakes records?,'" Howard remembers thinking. "At the time, when I was rehearsing with the Shakes, it was really not coming to us... The music wasn't really coming through. So, when I stepped away from that, that's when things started coming through."

Now, Howard strikes out on her own. The musician's debut solo album, Jaime, due out Sept. 20, is named for the older sister Howard adored — the sister who taught her how to play the piano and write poems.

"She was a creative person all around," Howard remembers. "And when I came into the world, my sister kind of took me by my hand and was like, 'OK, you know, our family doesn't have a lot of money but this is how you have fun,' and just showed me how to use my imagination; how to be creative."

Jaime died of cancer when the girls were still kids and Howard uses her solo debut to explore how her earliest relationships and the loss of her sister shaped who she is as an artist and a person.

On the album, she sings about what it meant to grow up as a biracial child in Athens, Ala. in the 1990s. The album's lead single, "History Repeats," strikes a funky, sweltering groove while "Stay High," and its accompanying video, channels the spirit Howard's hardworking father.

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But it's not all happy memories. On one song called "Goat Head," Howard recounts an act of racism her parents experienced.

"[My mother] told me the story about how my dad got off work and came to the apartment complex where she lived," the artist says. "He goes, stays the night, wakes up the next morning, and someone had taken a goat from the co-op — you know, where they raise animals and cattle and stuff — and they had dismembered this animal and put it in my dad's car. Slashed his tires, broke his windows out of his car and wrote on it, basically, like, 'Don't come back here no more.' And that's something that really stuck with me."

As Howard explains, her parents worked hard to shield her from racism as much as possible while she was growing up, but she still picked up on subtle acts of prejudice every now and then: "Growing up, I was just an oddity no matter where I went, you feel me?"

Now, as she steps out on her own, Howard is sure of the solo star she's presenting to the world.

"I'm a 30 year old woman now. My identity is very clear to me and I don't have to make it clear to anyone else, because I don't think that's important — what anyone else thinks about me, or what box they want to put me in," she affirms. "But I will say, for myself, making this record definitely was just a declaration of who I find myself being."

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(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLD ON")

BRITTANY HOWARD: (Singing) Bless my heart. Bless my soul. Didn't think I'd make it to 22 years old...

NOEL KING, HOST:

Brittany Howard is the lead singer of the group Alabama Shakes. Over the past few years, they have built a fan base. They've won Grammys. And they've even performed at the White House. And so with respect to the band, it seems like Brittany Howard would have every reason to take her own advice...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLD ON")

HOWARD: (Singing) You got to hold on.

KING: ...But instead, she took a break from Alabama Shakes to try something new. And here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRITTANY HOWARD'S "HISTORY REPEATS")

KING: This week, Brittany Howard is releasing her first solo album. It's called "Jaime." The record started with a road trip. When we talked recently, Brittany told me she was inspired by this long drive across the country.

I'm surprised there's no songs about, like, wheat fields or Blue Mountains or...

HOWARD: No, because it wasn't about external. It was about internal, right?

KING: Oh, you were thinking the whole way through.

HOWARD: Thinking, yeah...

KING: Yeah.

HOWARD: ...Because there's nothing like you driving through Oklahoma - there's a large stretch of it that's just grass and cows. Nothing really to look at. And you just think.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HISTORY REPEATS")

HOWARD: (Singing) I just don’t want to be back in this place again. I mean, I done cried a little, tried a little, failed a little. I don't want to do it again.

As for me, it was like, what do I want my career to look like? Do I want to do this solo record that I've always wanted to do since I was, like, 11 years old when I first picked up the guitar? Or am I going to keep trying to make more Shakes records? - which, at the time, when I was rehearsing with the Shakes, it was really not coming to us. Like, the creativity, the music, it wasn't really coming through. So when I stepped away from that, that's when things started coming through.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HISTORY REPEATS")

HOWARD: (Singing) I don't want to do it again. Don't push me, push me, push me, push me...

KING: How do the songs come to you?

HOWARD: It's different every time. It depends on which song we're talking about. So I have a song on my record called "Georgia"...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GEORGIA")

HOWARD: (Singing) Georgia, see, you don't know it, but I'm afraid to tell you how I really feel.

That song came about where I was making myself lunch. And I'm reading this article by Georgia Anne Muldrow, the producer. And she works with all these musicians that I really like. And I'm reading this article. And I was like, man, I wish Georgia would noticed, man. I wish she heard my music, she worked with me. And then I'll just start singing, (singing) I just want Georgia to notice me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GEORGIA")

HOWARD: (Singing) I just want Georgia to notice me. I just want Georgia to notice me.

And I was like, ooh, that's catchy. And I was like, uh oh. Song time. And I put my sandwich down, ran to my little studio and just got to work.

KING: "Jaime" is a really personal record. It's named for the older sister Brittany adored, the sister who taught her how to play the piano and write poems. Jaime died of cancer when the girls were still kids.

What was she like?

HOWARD: First thing I picture are her nails.

KING: Why?

HOWARD: Because she used to scratch me with them...

KING: (Laughter).

HOWARD: ...And she really went for the eyes. But besides that first thought, my sister was a genius. She was just a creative person all around. And when I came into the world, my sister kind of took me by my hand and was like, OK, you know, our family didn't have a lot of money, but this is how you have fun - and just showed me how to use my imagination, how to be creative.

KING: On this album, Brittany Howard talks about how she became herself - the artist, but also the person.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOAT HEAD")

HOWARD: (Singing) My grandmama's a maid. My momma was brave to take me outside, because momma is white and daddy is black...

KING: This song is called "Goat Head." It's about a racist incident that her parents experienced. It's also about what it meant to be a biracial kid in Alabama in the 1990s. Growing up, Brittany had a lot of questions.

HOWARD: My parents have been really great about protecting me from racism. They didn't reveal anything about their past or what they've been through as an interracial couple in the south until I was old enough to understand it. So I one day went up to my mom. And I started asking her questions like, what was it like, you know, for you guys growing up here and being together? And my mom was just like, it was really awful and really traumatizing.

And she told me the story about how my dad got off work and came to the apartment complex where she lived, stays the night, wakes up the next morning. And someone had taken a goat from the co-op that was next door to the apartment - you know, where they raise animals and cattle and stuff. And they had dismembered this animal and put it in my dad's car, slashed his tires, broke his windows out of his car and wrote on it. Basically it was like, don't come back no more. You know, that's something that really stuck with me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOAT HEAD")

HOWARD: (Singing) Who slashed my dad's tires and put a goat head in the back? I guess I wasn't supposed to know that - too bad.

I wrote this song from a vantage point of being someone young and trying to understand the world around them and where they fit into it. And then there was something as shocking as this that they couldn't really forget.

KING: Are you glad that they protected you from racism? Yeah?

HOWARD: I am. I am. Otherwise I would've been scared to go fishing at the fishing places I was going to. Or I would've been scared to go hang out with my friends at the end of this road in the field, like, you know I'm saying? I didn't think - I didn't have to think about those things. I just got to be me and form my own opinions.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOAT HEAD")

HOWARD: (Singing) See, I'm black. I'm not white, but I'm that. No. No. I'm this, right? I'm one drop of three-fifths, right?

KING: Toward the end, you're questioning. You're like, wait, I'm this? No. I'm that? No. I'm one drop of three-fifths? And it struck me as unusual for you - an unusual way to deliver a song. Do you have questions about your identity? Are there things that, for you, are still not answered?

HOWARD: Well, to me, growing up, I was just an oddity no matter where I went. It was like - you feel me?

KING: Yeah, I do. (Laughter).

HOWARD: Yeah - just an oddity and didn't know where I fit in. I mean, I would hang out with my cousins - you know, that's my dad's side of the family. And I wouldn't quite fit in with them because as soon as we'd be fighting each other, they'd be like, well, you're not really black. You're only half black. And they'll put that in my face.

And then when I'm hanging with my white family, like, we can't even go to the zoo. You know, they, like, let so many people through to go into the little exhibit. And then they would close the gate right before me...

KING: No. No.

HOWARD: ...So many times. Yeah, because they didn't think I was part of the family. Now - I mean, I'm a 30-year-old woman now....

KING: Yeah.

HOWARD: ...My identity is very clear to me. And I don't have to make it clear to anyone else because I don't think that's important, what anyone else thinks about me or what box they want to put me in. But I will say, for myself, making this record definitely was just a declaration of who I find myself being.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAY HIGH")

HOWARD: (Singing) So don't question my state of mind. I'm doing wonderful, just fine. Thank you. Thank you.

KING: That was Brittany Howard. Her new album is called "Jaime." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.