The Alabama Shakes frontwoman on her solo debut, breaking the glass ceiling, and that Fleabag finale.
Transportive. Since their inception, the searing soulful tone and inexhaustible lung capacity of Alabama Shakes has become a pulsing sonic vehicle for taking its listener somewhere far away. Somewhere grittier, where the thick hot air is leaves a constant sheen on your forehead.
Scooping armfuls of Grammys for their impressive 2012 debut, Boys & Girls, and their 2015 follow-up Sound & Colour, the roots-rock revivalists – known for their retro-soul sound, tinged with blues and psychedelia – have now taken a backseat as frontwoman Brittany Howard steps out on her own.
Howard’s solo debut Jaime is named after her sister, who died after a rare form of eye cancer at 13 years old, and the record is her most vulnerable one yet, speaking volumes about identity, history and self-discovery. Her first single “Stay High” (starring our man Terry Crew in the visuals, of course) is a mellow, bluesy mediation on wanting to stay locked in a euphoric moment with a lover forever.
We caught up with Howard about the new album, the glass ceiling, and the Fleabag finale…
Congratulations on launching your solo career! Why did you feel like you wanted to put Alabama Shakes on hold?
It was just what felt right at the time. I love the guys in Alabama Shakes and I am grateful for everything we have done together but we had been having a tough time creatively and the guys had a lot of other things going on in their lives and I had hit a time in my life where I needed a new challenge and this is where it led me.
Why is your debut album called Jaime? What was the inspiration behind it? How does this album feel different from what you were creating for Alabama Shakes?
Jaime was my older sister who passed away of eye cancer when she was 13 years old. She was very creative and introduced me to a lot of things from music to writing songs and poetry to drawing. She could do anything and I always looked up to her and wanted to do everything she did. Naming this album after her was a way for me to share this achievement with her. As for how this album is different, it is by far my most personal album. For the first time on this album I am writing about me, my family and my life growing up. In the Shakes I always wrote more vaguely and not necessarily about me. Also, for this album I was able to explore a bit more with instrumentation. I have songs on the album with no bass, no guitar, harp and even one song that is just me solo. With the Shakes we always had to write songs that included everyone in the band and all instruments, with this album I am able to play with instrumentation and arrangements a lot more than I’ve ever been able to.
How do you want people to feel when they listen to your music?
Empowered. I want to help others feel a bit better about being them. Resisting that annoying voice that exists in all of our heads that says we aren’t good enough, talented enough, beautiful enough, thin enough, rich enough or successful enough.
What do you think the biggest change has been in you since you started your career?
Growing up. Being more aware of the world, the people, the good and the bad. The past 8 years touring the world both with the band and on my own has opened my eyes to so many things and informed my outlook on the world and in my writing and music.
You also had your rock band Thunderbitch – do you think each of these musical iterations represents a different iteration of you – a different side of you?
In some way, also just outlets to express all the different music I love and write.
Do you feel vulnerable stripping back everything and just having yourself?
For the first time it was just me making all the decisions, which is both incredibly liberating to be able to fully execute my vision of a song all the way through but also scary in that there was no one else to challenge me. For the songs I wrote for this album it was best for them to come straight from me but I also had Shawn Everett in the studio to help me fully realise what I wanted to do and also Robert Glasper, Nate Smith, Zac Cockrell and Lloyd Buchanan there to add their unique voice to the various songs.
Has the way you’ve found inspiration for your songwriting changed since you first started out?
Definitely, I’ve grown up a lot and experienced so much more. On this album for the first time ever I am telling my story which I think that alone says so much about how my songwriting has changed.
Your song “This Feeling” soared up the charts after being featured on Fleabag’s finale – how did this come about? Were you a fan of the show before?
No, they just reached out to us, I did watch that episode and it was so well done and the use of the song was incredible. I’m honoured they chose to use it how they did.
What would be your response to people saying you make feel-good music? If you could say that your music was made for a certain kind of person in a certain kind of situation, what would you say?
I’m honoured it makes them feel good! I never think of that as the goal when writing necessarily but it’s always great to hear. Music has such power sometimes and people interpret in different ways… often different than how I intended but I’m always happy when someone can find any sort of connection or meaning for themselves in the music.
You’ve been really vocal about breaking the glass ceiling and gender imbalances in the industry – how do you feel like your viewpoints have changed since your early career, and do you think this is something that will be heightened now you’re a solo artist?
It’s really always been an issue. You can see the data, it speaks for itself. I just participated in a discussion about it with the CMO of Citi at Cannes and we discussed the issues and what we can try to do about it. On a smaller level, I can do my part by putting women on my team which I have. I also try to be supportive of other female artists, whether it is having them open for me or helping spread the word on their projects. I am always looking for opportunities on a bigger scale to make a difference too.