Alabama Shakes frontwoman, Brittany Howard, shook the world with her voice. She explains the changes that come with success, writing Sound & Color, and how she prevents those changes from taking away from her love of making music.
Episode 5: Brittany Howard - LE
Shirley: The Jump is a podcast where I, Shirley Ann Manson, sit down with musicians and talk about the one song that changed everything.
Shirley: As her first band's name, Alabama Shakes, would lead you to believe Brittany Howard did indeed grow up in Alabama. After a stint as a postie to in the US postal service, which I just think is so cool. She developed the jaw-dropping voice from the heavens we’re lucky to hear today, goosebumps and chills aplenty. She's an incredibly soulful, and thought-provoking artist, and I just loved talking with her so much. This is the wonderful, magical Brittany Howard.
Shirley: So I've got a story to tell you.
Shirley: I was working with a photographer here in Los Angeles, working on a project and she went down to Alabama, and when she came back after a weekend away she said, “Shirley, I have met the most extraordinary woman”, and it was you. And her name is Autumn De Wilde and she came and photographed you. I think maybe your first, like a first big photoshoot
Brittany: First ever.
Shirley: Brittany's holding her hands to her heart. [Laughs]
Brittany: I love Autumn.
Shirley: We became obsessed with you and sort of when the first record came out, Boys & Girls came out the gate. I was like, well, I must be the one of the first people to buy it on iTunes. You know, it was like buy, you know, um, because Autumn had spoken you up so wild.
Brittany: That is so crazy. That's so amazing. That's so amazing to hear. I remember being, um, being like a teenager and we didn't have a lot of money. So buying a CD was like a very selective process and I'd be like, “Okay, I have $16, which CD am I going to buy this month. And um, I bought one of yours.
Shirley: Oh, thank you.
Brittany: And I have a favorite song too. I used to put it on repeat. I loved it so much. I love the chord changes and everything, and anyways.
Shirley: Well you just made my day. Thank you so much.
Brittany: You made my day!
Shirley: We're here to talk about you, Brittany Howard. Don't deflect. I know that trick.
Brittany: I'm a Libra. Let's talk about me. [Laughs]
Shirley: How did you get access to music? Um, particularly, I was wondering about the piano. Like how did you get hold of a piano?
Brittany: Yeah. My grandma had a piano, her name is Ruby. And she's, um, just the most dear to my heart.
Shirley: She's still around?
Brittany: Oh yeah. She's like, I love her to death. I smile every time I say her name. Um, we used to go over there when we were kids. I’d stay with my grandma a whole lot and she had a record player and we listened to her old records, a lot of Elvis, um, a lot of The Crystals and doo wop music, you know, 50s, 60s hits and things like that. And then my sister would go in and she would play piano, and I remember this big blue velvet chair that would spin around, and I would sit in that little chair, and I would spin around and around and my sister would be playing the piano, and then she would try to show me something, and I was too spastic so I wouldn't be able to like, I was like, “What's going on?”. Then we wrote like this little song together about a potato.
Shirley: Potato! I read that online. It's hilarious.
Brittany: And those were like the best memories of my life. Like every day was so exciting. So adventurous, so fun. So creative.
Shirley: What did you, what did you write about the potato? The common potato?
Brittany: Um, it was called Carlota the Potato. It's like a blues song and um, you know, the lyrics, it's just like Carlota the Potato. Carlota you're the only one. That’s it.
Shirley: And do you still perform that to this day?
Brittany: I don’t, I don’t.
Shirley: I think you need to bring it back.
Brittany: I don’t, but I could.
Shirley: You seem very young to me and still in like just the beginning part of your career, which seems extraordinary because you have had this unbelievable ascension, you know? And, but you're only on your third record.
Brittany: Yes. Yeah. I like to take my time. [Laughs] I'm in no rush. I'm in no rush.
Shirley: Yeah, and you've got plenty of time.
Brittany: I hope so, yeah.
Shirley: When you feel a shift, or your abilities take you somewhere unexpected, and you have chosen Sound & Color, which is the lead single, right? And the first track of the second record.
Shirley: And I wanted to start investigating that choice by asking you, first of all, like what was going on with you in your life, just as you were about to write that song?
Brittany: A lot of pressure. A lot of fear. A lot of can I write another record? Can I do this again? Am, am, am I meant to do this or was this a one off? Was this a fluke? I had all these, all this doubt, all of this doubt. And I would, um, I had a basement studio and it was just me and a bat. There was a little bat that could never find his way out of my basement.
Shirley: A bat?
Brittany: A little bat, yeah. I was scared of him. I don't know if he even noticed I was there or not, but I would go down there, uh, all hours of the night trying-
Shirley: Now where are you? What city? Are you in Alabama, or?
Brittany: Athens, Alabama.
Shirley: Athens, Alabama.
Brittany: Mhm, where I grew up and, um, pretty big studio. I built it up so I could use it. And I would usually start my nights around midnight, and I would go down there and I would always have an eye on this bat making sure he's not going to get me. I don’t know what I thought was gonna happen.
Brittany: And then I would, I would get to work and I was really pressuring myself to like, “Okay, this has to be great, this has to be great, this has to be great because if this isn't great, then no one's going to listen to you anymore and you're going to live in a trailer park again”. Not that there's anything wrong with a trailer park, it's just, that was my particular hang-up. I didn't want to go back to where I came from. Even though I cherish where I came from and it made me the person that I am. I just had a lot of anxiety around that, of, of, of screwing it up. So that's kind of where I was at the beginning of doing the album Sound & Color with Alabama Shakes. And then I'll never forget the moment that I was working on a song, and I was getting really frustrated and I was like, “Okay, I need to take a break. I'm just going to screw around”. And then I wrote Sound & Color. It was early days. It was the one that I was most afraid to bring to the band because it was so different.
Shirley: And in what regard did you think it was different?
Brittany: Well, it opens with a cold xylophone intro, and then the lyrics are very sparse and there's no real song structure. It's just a piece of music with remnants of lyrical meaning and odd harmonies. It was just so different. And when I showed the guys, I was actually really nervous. I was like, “I don't know, I did this”, cause I demo everything, you know, all the parts. I was like, “I don't know, I did this”. And um, they're like, “Cool, okay, yeah, let's track that”. And it was such a, it was such a huge moment for me because I took a chance and I was a little afraid to be like criticized at the moment because like I told you, I was already having so much anxiety about writing another record and not wanting to fail. But then once I like let go, everything showed up. That's why I chose this song in particular because not only was it like, yeah, it's a great song, it’s a popular song on that record and you know, obviously the record's called Sound & Color and it was the one we got Grammys for…
Shirley: And I went to number one, right?
Brittany: It went to number one, but also it was me beginning to realize I can do this, I should be confident in this. This is what I'm supposed to be doing. I don't have to force anything out. I should just be me and whatever that sounds like. And that's why I chose Sound & Color.
Brittany: The song feels lonely, but the song also feels hopeful. The song feels like you're a million miles away from anyone else or from earth, or from anything you understand. And it feels like a new beginning and feels scary, a new beginning. But something is very loving and comforting about it. It's like this, there's this wisdom that like this isn't, this is new, this is good. I'm going to open this door. I may be a million miles away, but I'm right in front of the next thing.
Shirley: And is there a favorite line or two that you have in there that you are like, this explains exactly what I needed to explain, right? No?
Brittany: I think, “This life ain't like it was”, and then “I wanna touch a human being” and then “I want to go back to sleep” and “Ain’t life just awful strange. I wish I never gave it all away.” You know? “No, no more to see the setting sun.”, you know? It's kind of like saying goodbye to everything that was, but it's not an ending. It's just like a new beginning. And that always gets me kind of emotional because I know the feeling of sitting in that basement with that little bat, and saying like, “Ugh, can I do this? Can I do this? I'm not sure.”
Brittany: And when I was doing the song, I was building them, like, a photo set for a photographer who's coming. So I built like a spaceship out of instruments and so I was sitting there-
Shirley: In the basement?
Brittany: In the basement. Yeah. I was sitting there staring at it, and I, it just piqued my interest. Like I want to do a kind of R&B inspired song about a man who gets lost in space. And then I never realized until later that I was really writing about myself the whole time.
Shirley: I am the man in space.
Brittany: I am the man and space. Yeah.
Shirley: To me, the production of it’s fascinating because you can literally hear it. I think it's either the wheeze of the Leslie, like the, the amp, or I couldn't tell if, or if it's like, I don't know.
Brittany: Is it the beginning of the song?
Shirley: Yeah, right at the beginning you can hear kind of what feels to me-
Shirley: Well, you know. Well, you know what?
Brittany: I can tell you-
Shirley: I'm in misery for God's sake, Brittany!
Brittany: I can't tell you what it is.
Shirley: Don't watch me sweat. [Laughs]
Brittany: I bought this vibraphone. I've always been really obsessed with vibraphones. It's actually in a museum now. I didn't realize that I bought a very special vibraphone. It's a really old Jenco that I found in Tennessee. And um, I purchased it. I've never really played vibraphone before, but I quickly learned how to play it. And, uh, the motor, the motor needed greasing. So we're in the studio here, you can hear the-
Brittany: The motor whirring and you can also hear the pedal being dropped and picked back up. And it was like a huge conversation when we're mixing down the song, how to get those sounds out. And I definitely was of the team that was like definitely keep those sounds in ‘cause they're interesting. Uh, so that's what that is.
Shirley: Yeah, it creates an incredible atmosphere.
Brittany: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Shirley: So simple.
Brittany: Absolutely. I love that too. I love that.
Brittany: Some, something I love about the song though is there is a string section. I wrote the string section and I wrote it really with a lot of intent. Um, and then Rob Moose, he's a wonderful, talented multi-instrumentalist and he came in and he performed all the parts for me. And I'll never forget sitting in the studio and hearing back that string section with actual strings, literally being brought to tears because I never believed that I could do some, well, we did it together, but I never believed I could write something like that and then have it come to fruition and then hear it in this most beautiful way that it was meant to be heard. And he gave that to me. And, um, I'm, that's something I'm very proud of in this song.
Shirley: So as a member of a band, you, I'm assuming, just because you're such a talented multi-instrumentalist, that you are the primary songwriter, is that fair to say, or?
Shirley: Do you write everything?
Brittany: Uh, some songs, yeah, I write every part. Like Sound & Color was something I wrote all the parts for. Other songs will be a little bit more, um, group dynamic, but it kinda just works. It kind of works out that way. And so when you demo, or I'm assuming you demo.
Brittany: I do demo.
Shirley: And how do you demo? What's your process?
Brittany: Usually the best demos start with me trying to learn how to do something. Um, so usually I'll get some new hardware or something. I also do do my own engineering. So I like get a new piece of hardware.
Shirley: A new toy?
Brittany: Yeah, exactly. Like for me, Sound & Color began because I had a vibraphone I didn't know how to play. And so I was just fooling around with it and then the drum beat came in. And I was like, what an interesting drum pattern. So the way that I demo is I just work down and I might have 80 tracks just to scratch on and just to have some ideas. But it usually just-
Shirley: Did you say 80?
Brittany: Yeah, it could be.
Shirley: That’s a lot.
Brittany: Well, they're just ideas, you know, and then I'll mute them and then I'll be like, “Well, what's this one?” But I think for this song in particular, I worked in giant blocks where I would throw on all these ideas, right. And then I just stretch it out. And then the words just came out. I didn't have to think about them. Wherever the melody sat is where it sat. And I knew the less that I worried about it, the better it would be.
Shirley: And how long did this take, this writing process from start to finish?
Brittany: I'd say it took me all night. Took me a night. Yeah.
Shirley: And then you sleep on it and come back and start muting tracks, or what, again, what's the process?
Brittany: Oh no, I finished it.
Shirley: You finished it?
Brittany: In a night, yeah. Yeah. Because like it's really hard for me to sleep if I'm in the middle of writing something. So I just stayed up all, you know, until like probably seven or eight in the morning and um, you know, finished the string section last and then listened to it. And then I was like, “Yeah”. And then went to bed.
Shirley: Cause I mean I'm grinning because I, I know what that feeling is when you finish an idea. Cause to me when you go and write, it's a little like hunting. You're going hunting.
Brittany: Yeah, it's true. Like hunting is like such a great word for it. I'm loving it. I'm in my natural habitat. That's why I like loving the studio cause it's just like, you know, what else can I bring to this?
Shirley: You've been in a band for a decade or more.
Shirley: Right, and you met, you guys met at high school?
Brittany: Yeah, Alabama Shakes? Uh, I knew Zach Cockrell, bass player. I've known him since I was probably 15 or 16 years old. Uh, Heath Fogg who's a guitar player. Uh, knew him. We went to school together, and Steve Johnson, the drummer, he was the only- he was the best drummer in town. I'd say that much. Met him at the music store. Um, you know, that's how we got together out of desperation to create something.
Shirley: And when you brought them Sound & Color.
Brittany: Yeah. Years down the road. Yeah.
Shirley: Can you remember what their reaction was to all of this?
Brittany: They were intrigued. I could tell they're intrigued. I know my bass player immediately liked it. Um, everyone liked it. I was pretty surprised. They liked it actually because it was so different. Boys & Girls to me was what we could all agree with. And we were starting out and I'm super proud of it and we all worked really hard on it. And God, I have so many great memories about it. And then there was Sound & Color, which was like, okay, we have toured, we have opportunities. Everything's different. I bought a house for the first time. I lived in our house by myself for the first time, um, everything was different. Life was like good, which I was like not super used to. Um, and so I enjoyed my break, but in that break I was like really exploring what does it mean for me to do this? And is it about, is it about making people happy? Is it about meeting expectations? Is it about plucking the chicken when the water's hot so to speak? Is it about everyone else? And then I was like, I don't want, I don't want my career to look like that because that's gonna run out ‘cause I'm going run out of energy for that. And so when I started working on this next record and it's exclusively this song, it was about me. Um, and then when I showed that to the guys, it was really like giving a piece of myself to them and saying, what do you think?
Shirley: Did it feel scary?
Brittany: Oh yeah. It was really scary. But they liked it and they're all really excited to work on it. And it happened and when it came out it was very, very, very, very happy and really, yeah, very happy.
Shirley: So why do you write?
Brittany: Because I must, yeah. You know, I'm not the type of person that writes a jillion songs a week or anything like that. When it hits, it hits and I have to be there for it. That's my job. Whatever it is, I have to go out of my way to meet it where it's at. You know what I mean? If that's like in a restaurant, bathroom and I'm going to do a voice note real quick, driving down the road, pulling over to write lyrics, whatever it is, that's my job. And then I will sing it and bring it to people.
Shirley: And do, you mentioned earlier that the words came very easily for Sound & Color. Um, is that common for you as a writer? That they've words come basically at the same time as the whole body of the-
Shirley: Of the beast?
Brittany: I like to work really, really quickly. So when I'm doing my demos, I could be getting it all at once, which, yeah, not going to say I hate when that happens, but I love when that happens. But it's, um, it's a race against time. I'll put it that way. And I feel like a lot of people could relate to that. Okay. Here's the whole song, all the parts right there in my head and I'm running into my little studio and I'm working as fast as I can to work each part out. The baseline, uh, the guitar part, the drum part, uh, there's a little key thing here and then it's like, okay, time to sing. And then it just comes out. “I already feel…”, it just comes out and then it, and I'm kind of watching myself a little bit. I'm like, alright, and then it's over and now I have to clean everything I did up and make it fit. And so I can take it to the studio and be like, Hey, here's my idea. That’s kinda how it works.
Shirley: What are you serving? What's the priority of your, your, of you as a writer? Is the priority the story? Is it the sound? Is it the voice? What, what? Cause I can't relate again because I just don't have that kind of talent that you have. What is it that you're serving?
Brittany: That is such a good question. Thank you for asking me that. Everything matters. The God is in the details. So when I write a song, the sound matters, the guitars matter. Why are these guitars even in the song? Where are they serving? Just to be a guitar in a song or am I trying to invoke some sort of memory of something, or some sort of sound with the drums? What am I trying to create? It's like a whole picture and everything in the picture tells you, informs you about something. And the way I sing it is informing you about something. Um, a song like Sound & Color has so many voices on it because again, I was just trying to invoke like all the voices in your head when you're like so alone. Um, and then also the music being so unfamiliar and kind of sparse and kind of falling apart. That was kind of the situation I was in. Everything informs another thing. And then also there's the blackness of space being there too. And these vibraphones linking everything together. It all matters.
Shirley: I love you Brittany Howard. Thank you so much.
Brittany: I love you too.
Shirley: That was like fucking ridiculous.
The Jump is an original series from MailChimp, and I'm your host Shirley Manson. It's produced by Lyra Smith in partnership with Little Everywhere, executive produced by Dann Gallucci, Jane Marie, and Hrishikesh Hirway. Original music composed by Hrishikesh Hirway.
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