The story of Alabama Shakes is one fit for Hollywood. A group of young, small town musicians find themselves propelled from the tiny town they cut their teeth in to a career selling out shows across the world, before bagging themselves a staggering four Grammys with just their second album. It’s a made-for-the-big-screen narrative that was literally the stuff of dreams - essentially a full-band, southern A Star Is Born. But for frontwoman Brittany Howard, there was always something more, something different, that she wanted to reach for.
Four years on from the release of that second record ‘Sound & Color’, Brittany is doing just that. “Yeah, I knew,” she begins, on the other end of a call from Nashville where she’s currently making preparations for her new album’s release. She’s referencing the fact that, when she booked some studio time back in the second half of 2018, she went in knowing that she wouldn’t be joined by the rest of her band. “I just wanted to do something that was unedited, [and didn’t] have anybody else’s input; I’ve never really done that. I wanted to do something that was very much mine, very much me. [I wanted] to make my own mistakes while recording and have my own triumphs. I just wanted to experience that.”
Things, however, didn’t get off to the smoothest of starts. Newly-relocated to California’s Topanga Canyon, where she planned to work on the album without the distraction of her day-to-day life back in Nashville, Brittany found herself hit by a severe case of writer’s block. “I was staying in this beautiful house, with this incredible view, and then I just hated it at the same time,” she explains. “I was supposed to be working, but I didn’t know anybody. But it was definitely time to rise to the challenge. I had already put so much into it that there was no turning back.”
“I just wanted to do everything and have no boundaries.”
By the time she reached producer Shaun Everett's L.A. studio, the singer had six ideas but planned to play things by ear with her fellow musicians. “I thought we'd just jam it out,”she continues. What she wasn't expecting, however, was for memories of older tracks – hidden on unused laptops from way back when - to resurface. “It was over lunch when we'd be having random conversations. Someone would say something like, 'Oh, Prince, wasn't he a Jehovah's Witness?' And I would be like, 'Ohhh, I have a song called 'Jehovah's Witness'...’ – it was just a working title – and that made me realise I should get someone to pull my hard drive and send us the song. That happened, that became the song 'Daisy', and it just kept happening.”
The resulting record, 'Jaime', sees Brittany channel feelings and experiences from across her life. With tracks quite literally plucked from across the last decade, it's a patchwork album that feels rich with emotion, but alive with experimentation. From the infectious funk of opener 'History Repeats' to the raw, unfiltered memories she explores in 'Goat Head' via the slinky pulse of 'Georgia', it's a record that's unafraid to push at the boundaries, both sonically and lyrically.
“I've always wanted the freedom to creatively be where I want to, and I don't think that's too much to ask,” she confirms, nodding to her previous side projects Thunderbitch and Bermuda Triangle. “You only get one life to live so I feel like you should do whatever it is that you wanna do, and how you wanna do it. I'm just an explorative person by nature. I just wanted to do everything and have no boundaries on it. I just wanted to make music that I felt like I wanted to make.”
And though the record finds Brittany in the midst of redefining her musical self, the making of it also provided an opportunity for reflection. “I've been pretty much just touring since 2011, and I've never really had a chance to think, 'Hey, my life's changed a lot, I've changed a lot',” she explains. “I've never really had time to think about that. It's a strange life. It's a great life, but it's very different to the life I had before.
“I had to think about why I do what I do. Alabama Shakes have had a lot of success and I mean, I've met the President – the good President!” she laughs, “and I've done crazy things with that band that I never thought would happen. But this project was about something totally different: this project was about doing music because I like music, not just to be successful or to make money. It was more about why I want to do this. You know, when we were touring, we were literally gone all of the time, and your relationships suffer for it, and life goes on without you. I realised that if I'm doing this, I need to be doing it for the right reasons and make myself happy too.”
'Jamie' is out now via ATO Records.
As featured in the September 2019 issue of DIY, out now.