Brittany Howard has always followed an unconventional path, but her latest turn feels different. Sitting by the pool of the Hotel San Jose on a hot Texas Saturday before her Austin City Limits set, the Alabama Shakes frontwoman can’t help but chuckle about her circumstances. After a decade of recording and touring relentlessly with the Shakes, she can finally relax.
"Look at me, hanging out by the pool," she says. On the heels of her critically acclaimed solo debut, Jaime, life is pretty good for the Athens, Alabama raised singer and guitarist. But despite commercial success, Grammy awards, headlining tours, and the comfort of financial stability, the road Howard traveled to get to Jaime was surprisingly difficult.
After the release of 2015's Sound & Color, inspiration suddenly escaped Howard, and the Shakes were left with a clamoring audience and nothing to give them. "It’s just one of those things where everybody could feel that something was different," Howard explains. The band earned four Grammys from 2016 to 2018, but at the height of the Alabama Shakes' success, before Jaime was even an idea, she decided to put her band on hold.
In late 2017, Howard took a cross country trip with her wife, Jesse Lafser. "We went on this massive road trip and went all the way out to Oregon, and then from Oregon back to Nashville. From there we went from Nashville to LA. We just went everywhere that we'd never been before. We almost drove to Canada,” she explains. By ending things with the Shakes, Howard inadvertently forced her own hand, practically willing solo music into existence.
She says, "Because I had cut ties with the idea of making any more music with Alabama Shakes at that time, I didn’t know what I was gonna do," she says. “After the road trip I was really like, ‘Well...what am I gonna do? I’m only good at one thing.' So I decided to make this solo record.”
Howard needed a clean slate, but she had to put everything on the table about her plans for a solo album with the Shakes, a group of people she had spent her entire adult life with. "Talking honestly and being open about it was the best way to go about things. I really didn’t want to be sneaky. I have respect for them and they’re my family," she says about her bandmates. “The inspiration just wasn’t coming. Once I got some space away from it, there was an aha moment.”
After settling into her new life in Taos, New Mexico, Howard departed again, this time to Topanga, California, where she recorded Jaime with Shakes bassist Zac Cockrell, drummer Nate Smith, and keyboard legend Robert Glasper. "Sometimes I felt like I was crazy. I was like, 'Who does that?' But there was an internal voice pushing me, telling me it would be okay," she adds.
The Alabama Shakes were never a burden, but the various commitments that project entailed began to wear on her. This was a fracture that couldn’t be healed—at least at this point in time. But performing at a late-afternoon slot at ACL, unencumbered by her guitar, it was easy to tell she feels free. "For ten years I played all of these guitar parts and sang. I was glued to the center of the stage. Now, I’m running around and dancing like an idiot. It’s so fun," she says.
The sticky funk and broken pop of Jaime explodes into technicolor in a live setting, with Howard’s ace backing band allowing her the freedom to plumb the album’s depths on a nightly basis. Named for her late sister that died at the age of 13, Jaime doesn't erase all that Howard has accomplished with the Alabama Shakes; it's a re-birth and a move away from some of the more exhausting aspects of the music hustle. "It gives me a whole new reason to love what I do," she says, adding: "I’m being more honest than ever."
Read on for our conversation with Howard about finally making something that truly felt like her own.
Is it more nerve-wracking putting out an album under your own name?
Somehow not. I don’t really care what anyone thinks. It’s a whole different thing for me. The Alabama Shakes had their own fanbase, and we were always gonna do what we wanted to anyways. When I made this, I pulled the rug out from my under myself and decided that wherever I landed was where I landed. Fuck it, let’s do it. I wasn’t nervous about that. The hardest part of doing this record was getting my inspiration in check. As writers, if you don’t have the muse, what are you even living for?
How did you find it?
I quit looking for it.
What did that muse end up being?
Things just started entering my creative sphere. I started hearing music again. I had to quit trying to write songs and I allowed myself to be open enough to receive ideas.
The album is very personal, and has some socio-political elements as well. Is it easier for you to dive into those themes as a solo artist?
That stuff enters regardless of the project. With this record, I really just needed new ingredients. That’s why I had to do it on my own. Also, I didn’t need input. Everyone in the Shakes is really creative and has a lot of ideas. That’s cool, but not for this stuff. I wanted this album to be my vision and what I hear.
What sort of stuff were you listening to while writing? The album has so many different sonic elements that are all pretty disparate but flow into each other with ease.
I wasn’t listening to anything while I made the record. Everything that it sounds like is probably an accurate reflection, because that’s my musical education. I didn’t take any theory classes. Everything I’ve ever been exposed to was an education. When I was doing this record, I made it a point to not get too inspired by any one thing. I was just listening to my wife’s music, which is just Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan.
The record doesn’t really sound like that.
[Laughs] No way. That stuff is so dark.
How comfortable were you putting such a successful, Grammy award-winning project on pause?
The hardest part was how close me and my guys are. Our lives have changed together. We went to school together. We’re so entwined. I was trying to explain to them how I was feeling. I didn’t want to hurt anybody.
It reminds me of that cliché, 'It’s not you it’s me.' But in this case, it really was the me.
Everything has its season. It was a lot like a breakup. It was crazy.
It must have been very intense. Did that inform the record at all?
No. I think I got a sense of freedom. When you’re in a band, everything you do affects one another. You’re not really free. It's not a bad thing, you’re just tied to other people. Me wanting to do everything I wanted to do was affecting them anyways, because everyone was asking about me all the time. That’s fucking weird! I had a huge sense of freedom just saying, ‘Okay, now my life is in my hands, and it doesn’t affect anyone else.’
Do the stakes feel lower for this project? Like a side project?
No, it feels like I opened a door. It’s a new beginning. It’s an introduction, showing everything I can do, and trying to figure out what’s next.
Do you feel an accountability to Alabama Shakes fans to explain this decision? Y'all had such a loyal following.
My responsibility has, and always will be, to be a creative person. I need to serve up that, because I wouldn't be here without that, and I wouldn’t have any fans without that. The fans I have may want me to remain in this box, but I feel like a lot of them are open-minded people anyways. I have the coolest fans ever. This move may be surprising, and if they’re disappointed, it’ll be okay [laughs].
How weird is it after so many years playing in a new band and playing new songs after so many years?
It's really different because I play less guitar. The parts are a little too technical. I can’t be singing and playing these harmonic parts. I'm so much more vulnerable on stage now. I don’t have this guitar blocking me. I'm just standing there. You have to figure out how you’re gonna interpret the music. That’s been really different for me. It’s like a re-birth in a way, but it’s been fucking cool. It’s all so different.
It must feel really galvanizing and rejuvenating.
I’m in control of the ship. Now I’ve got money, and it’s not about that. When I was traveling the country, we were staying in these nice places, but I was really sad because I wasn’t making music. Now, I feel like I have my cards in a row.
Does that push ever really go away? To make sure you’re never poor again?
It can if you want it to. Being aware of what trying to survive all the time does to my reality sucks. You’re always fearful, and what drives you isn’t what you love. You have to get rid of that. That’s some shitty intent.
In that way, it’s funny you went into music, because it’s so hard to make a living now.
That’s why I work my ass off touring. It’s all less about money now than I ever thought it could be. This is what I will do for the rest of my life. Watch older me be like, ‘Ahhh, you dumb bitch! You’re actually a fishing guide now!’
Does this time away make you want to return to the Shakes?
I don't know. A huge lesson I learned from this record is to follow your creativity wherever it hits. If I have this great idea to work with the Shakes again, we’d talk and decide whether or not to do it. But for now, I’m really excited just to be doing something new and challenging.
With the Shakes, you have a very charismatic personality and a rabid fanbase. I imagine they think they know you in a way they probably don’t.
This is the cool thing about this record. Jaime is more me than the Shakes was. That was a part of me, but when Shakes fans would meet me, I feel like they’d expect a big and boisterous personality. They’re always surprised I’m tall [laughs]. With this album, they see me as more vulnerable and sensitive. I’m also more observant. I’m not always fucking loud [laughs].
This album is also weird, in a really exciting way. Where does that come from?
That just comes from me being weird. I’m fascinated by things I can’t put my finger on. I love King Crimson, Sun Ra, the odd Temptations records...just the anti-music vibe. I like to take anti-music and make it musical again. It’s fun picking it apart and putting it back together in ways that are familiar but also pretty weird.
Has playing these songs live revealed anything to you that you maybe didn’t realize while recording them?
I didn’t realize the guitar parts would be so hard. I did them all on the record and I tried to play them live at first. I was getting ready for rehearsals, and there’s a song like "He Loves Me," which sounds really simple, but has seven guitar parts. I was like, ‘Oh shit. I can’t play this.’ I found out there was a lot I couldn’t make happen, and I really had to swallow my pride. I focused on being a performer instead of trying to do everything myself.
What do you hope people take away from this album?
I don’t really have any intentions. I just made a record. It’d be nice if people were inspired to be brave as their own selves; just people being cool with themselves and giving some self-love. People look for external validation to make sure they’re good. Just know you’re good.