Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard On Small-Town Life, Big-Time Music

Eric Ryan Anderson, Contour by Getty Images

Billboard named Brittany Howard its Women In Music Powerhouse artist in 2015.

Brittany Howard, the lead singer, songwriter and guitarist with Alabama Shakes, says she still remembers the day she decided to start a band. She was 11 or 12 and attending a concert in her school gym put on by some classmates (including future Alabama Shakes guitarist Heath Fogg).

“Probably about 45, 50 kids showed up that night, and we watched them play and … it was like having a double life. It was like watching a James Bond film. I didn’t know these kids had these talents,” Howard tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. “I was like, ‘That is what I want to do,’ because I was so amazed.”

Howard’s family’s house was in the middle of a junkyard they owned in the small town of Athens, Ala. Her older sister died of cancer and her family home burned down after being struck by lightning, but Howard says, “I didn’t feel sorry for us, because that’s just the way life was.”

Before she died at 13, Howard’s sister taught her how to write poetry and play the piano; Howard learned guitar, bass and drums on her own. Eventually, she joined together with other musicians from her town to form Alabama Shakes. Sound & Color, the band’s second record, has been nominated for six Grammy Awards, including Album Of The Year and Best Alternative Music Album.

The songs on Sound & Color draw from rock, R&B and psychedelic sounds — a blend Howard says was intentional. “I wanted to explore songwriting and what you can do when you don’t pay attention to genre boundaries or anything like that,” she says. “I just wanted to be free to do what I want to do as a musician.”

Interview Highlights

On trying out a new sound on Sound & Color

I wanted to try everything, because we finally had the opportunity, and it was also an exciting prospect that people were going to hear it. For some people, that would be a lot of pressure, but I was really excited about it. Because there were so many ideas I had and so many things I wanted to try — not only musically, but also with my voice, with my instrument, and I knew I could do a lot more things.

The first record was recorded hastily but written really slowly — because, as they say, you have all the time in the world to write your first record, and we did. We went in and recorded it in probably about a week or so, and this time was different. This time, I could really think about what I wanted to say and how we wanted to express it, and also … the more music I was listening to since the first record, the more I appreciated space and the ability to let the listener have time to think about what you’re doing, and not just being bombarded by all of the instruments.

On getting into music as a teenager

I remember when and where I was when I first heard Pink Floyd. I was 14 years old and I was getting a ride from school, from a senior, back to my house. And they started playing Pink Floyd and I was like, “What is this?” and they explained it to me, and I had never heard any music like that. It wasn’t one genre or another; it was just whatever they wanted to create, and I thought it was so interesting. And I started getting into music around that time, like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath; I started getting into that kind of music, and I thought, “I been missing everything!” It was like having blinders on. I started really diving into the history of music when I was around 14 years old.

On growing up in her father’s junkyard

We lived down a long gravel driveway, and you’re driving through these woods, and then you cross a bridge over a creek, and then you keep going up this hill. And on either side of you, it just starts filling in with junk cars, newer cars, boats, motorcycles, a shop; it’s all around you. And then you get to the top of the hill, and that’s where we grew up, in a little trailer. But it was really nice. My mom was really good at making our home — no matter what our situation was, [it] always felt like a home. Always felt really nice. And I played with our animals. We had a lot of different kinds of animals.

I grew up on a farm in a sense, but it was always a junkyard, so it was a really interesting way to grow up. Because I would be playing on all of these stacked-up cars, which is super-dangerous, but then I’d also go run around the woods with my dog and go play in the creek. … The way I think of it is, you’re surrounded by the junkyard and think of [it] like a hurricane, and you’re in the eye of it. The little patch of grass that has the animals and the little trailer and then the rest was, to me, was like a labyrinth, an amusement park.

On her sister’s death at 13 from retinal cancer

Being a kid, it’s just how life is. Never did I feel bad for myself. I didn’t know any better. I thought, “OK, I have this sister, she’s sick,” but in my mind I was like, “Everything is going to be fine. We go to the doctor. The doctor’s going to take care of everything.” And really, we just found out, how do we live life? How do I play with my sister? Because she was blind. So we made games. We played. She taught me how to draw, even though she was blind. She taught me how to write poetry. She taught me how to play piano. It was just life.

On her first tour and leaving the South for the first time

I had never seen any real mountains. I had never seen an ocean outside of the gulf. I had never seen snow-peaked mountains or ice and snow on the side of the road. I had never really felt really cold wind. I had never seen the desert. I had never seen what the sky looks like in the West. Everything I saw was new, and I got to experience it with the guys.

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