Vertex Music Festival August 5
By Brian F. Johnson
On the ethereal and spacey funk-rock of the song “Future People,” Brittany Howard effortlessly belts out words of advice. “Children/Take a living/Gotta keep up/You got to give a little, get a little,” she sings. Then, just a bit later, she adds, “Listen to teachers/Imagine a sound/Listen loud and they’ll reach the top.”
Advice that sound doesn’t flow from the mouth of most Grammy-winning artists these days. In the era of a potential pre-Trump presidency sometimes the deepest lyrics on the radio are verses like “I got a dirty mind. I got filthy ways.” (Thanks, Kanye.)
But Howard, her band Alabama Shakes and their sophomore album Sound & Color hasn’t grabbed three Grammys, more than a half-dozen nominations, and an almost universal critical acclaim by adhering to the modern definition of a role model. Howard is a paragon precisely because she’s the antithesis of so many pop stars today. Simply put, she’s real.
“It’s really cool, because I get to be a different type of role model,” Howard said during a recent interview with The Marquee. “I’m a real person that someone could be instead of this intangible super model that must have this and this to be considered pretty or successful. I never had role models like kids today. My role model was my grandmother who is a real person, who could make good decisions in hard times and things like that and I appreciated that. So I don’t know, I think it goes a long way for me too. It definitely keeps me self-assured.”
Howard and her bandmates were grounded from the very outset. The band, which formed in Athens, Alabama in 2009 never had any intention of touring, or really doing anything beyond playing local shows.
Howard was a mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service when the group first began to take shape. The daughter of a mixed-race couple, who had lost a sister to a rare cancer called Retinoblastoma (and herself was treated for the same disease) was an awkward trouble maker at a young age. As a teenager she was bored by her simple, small town roots and felt isolated from her peers. Eventually the boredom caused her to pick up her departed sister’s old guitar— Howard can’t recall exactly what kind it was, other than it being a cheap J.C. Penney Les Paul imitation. “All I know is it started with an H,” she said. (Most likely, it was a “Harmony Beginner Electric” which was found in the Penney’s catalog in the late ’80s and the early ’90s.)
She immediately began writing songs, and soon started seeking out other local musicians to collaborate with. At a party she discovered her high school classmate Zac Cockrell who worked at an animal clinic and played bass. They found drummer Steve Johnson who was driving trucks for Fed Ex, and Athens guitar player Heath Fogg, who had played in what Howard once called “the best band in our high school.”
“We thought when we toured it would be like, ‘O.K. we’re going to go up to New York and come back down and work really hard because we just lost a lot of money.’ We thought that’s what it was going to be,” Howard said.
But alas that realistic albeit somewhat cynical take on touring wouldn’t actually happen. In April of 2012 the group released their debut album Boys & Girls and within no time the band skyrocketed from obscurity into critical darlings. Boys & Girls would go on to be nominated for three Grammys and earn the group spots at SXSW, Bonnaroo, and a show at the White House with the Obamas front-and-center.
Then in 2015, the band came back with Sound & Color and took the retro, revivalist soul rock of Boys & Girls and completely flipped it around into an almost futuristic vision of rock and roll. NME wrote “whereas their debut was cast in sepia hues and downhome earthiness, its follow up is a more kaleidoscopic affair.” That same reviewer, Barry Nicolson, said quite poetically, that the only issue with album number two is that “you’ll never be able to hear Brittany Howard’s voice for the first time again.”
“It’s strange because to me where we started in 2012 and where we are now — I’m pretty much the same person,” said Howard. “So, of course, I love playing those shows I love the idea of playing a show to somebody who doesn’t know who we are and I love the idea of having to prove myself to an audience that doesn’t really have any expectations and I miss that and I feel like most musicians would. But at the same time now when we play to these people they’re coming here for a reason they’re coming here for emotional reasons to see us and it’s connecting with them in a different way than playing to people you’re trying to impress, you know? It’s a different beast, but I’m still the same person.”
But while Howard and her band may be the same people, the music is certainly different, and for a while after the release of Sound & Color it almost seemed like the group was distancing themselves from the sound that brought them initial acclaim. The group even played some shows without touching on their break-out hit “Hold On.”
“For a while it was like we were just giving ourselves a break from the song,” Howard said. “It’s a special song to a lot of people and I don’t want to be trapped in that cage of trying to make everyone else happy, you know? We have a lot of love for our fans and our fans have a lot of love for us and you know it’s important that we respect what we do. It’s very near and dear to us and it was kind of not even a decision not to play ‘Hold On’ it just kind of happened. We’d be making the set list and it was like ‘You want to do this one? You want to do this one?’ And I’d be like ‘Nah, let’s do this one instead.’ It wasn’t a jab or any point we were trying to drive across.”
For all she knows when album number three comes along the band may make another turn with their sound, but Howard said that she is still way too early in the process to tell. She said that writing really excites her and that she’s pondering getting back to things, but that she’s not ready to enter that state of mind yet. “It’s kind of like day dreaming and dreaming up these ideas in my head and seeing what’s exciting again and then eventually I’ll sit down and start working that stuff out. But we’re not quite there yet,” she said.
In the mean time, Howard just completed work on an unlikely collaboration, not in terms of who she worked with, but what they did it for. In July, the singer, along with Jim James of My Morning Jacket released a song in conjunction with a Pixar-styled short film that serves as an advertising campaign for the burrito giant Chipotle. In it, Howard and James sing a touching, if odd cover of The Backstreet Boys’ classic “I Want It That Way,” while the commercial shows an anti-corporate message of two competing juice stands growing into behemoth corporations before their warring owners end up falling in love, and opening a simple, mom and pop, organic food truck together. “It was actually extremely fun, Howard said of making the commercial. “It was like being in a playground and we got to sing this song from my childhood that used to play on the radio all the time and I already knew all the words to it. I didn’t need to learn up at all.”
Well paying endorsements and Grammy accolades aside Howard remains grounded. The singer, who said that the most extravagant luxury that she’s treated herself to since her success is the automated Roomba vacuum, hasn’t changed much since Alabama Shakes first started grabbing attention, and she said that in the unlikely scenario that all of the attention suddenly went away it wouldn’t be too tough to handle. “Nobody would really be pulling the rug out from under me,” Howard said. “Because at the end of the day I get to go home and I think through this whole experience I’ve learned something very important which is that home and the people you love are very precious ’cause we don’t get to spend a lot of time at home and I would be just as fortunate if I got to be home more. But also I’m not really worried about it because my job is to be studious. My job is to entertain and I’m not really worried about those things going away.”
Go If You Dig:
- My Morning Jacket
- Etta James
- Janis Joplin