By A.D. Amorosi; photo by Autumn de Wilde on June 8, 2012
There is something very telling about how Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard views life from the way in which she describes her musical inspirations. The dusky and soulful singer, guitarist and lyricist liked David Bowie, Bob Dylan and AC/DC’s Bon Scott while growing up because each of them were great storytellers. When she was a kid, Howard also liked James Brown because he got to “screech and move around a lot,” she says. “I was into that then. I’m into it now.”
But when she discusses Famous L. Renfroe, the self-acknowledged “Flying Sweet Angel of Joy,” and his holy spooky 1968 album Children—of which little is known—
Howard focuses on Renfroe’s rugged individualism in the face of solitude. “It was this man’s gospel that assured me that it’s OK to only know how to do things your own way.”
Without making her out to be Frank Sinatra or Sid Vicious, “her way” is the only way that Brittany Howard understands how to do things.
The 23-year-old Athens, Alabama, native was, like most of her current hometown bandmates, a punk rocker with a soulful twirl. Hard bands such as Kerosene Swim Team were her dominion and Howard sought out suitable players and collaborators to suit her noisy goal. Bassist Zac Cockrell came first when the two were both students in the same high school. “I wanted to play with Zac initially because he was the only bass player I knew of,” says Howard. “He liked a lot of really interesting music considering our rural surroundings: Modest Mouse, At The Drive-In, T. Rex. Zac had no expectations and just wanted to play; it was a perfect match.”
Push Howard a little bit more and ask about the first people who truly got what she wanted to do and she answers without hesitation. “Zac, Steve [Johnson, Alabama Shakes’ drummer] and Heath [Fogg, the guitarist and last member to join the band].” They were her first band members and, judging from the matter-of-fact manner in which she puts it, will probably be her only. ’Til death do they shake, you know.
Howard’s manner is funny and self-deprecating. Ask her when she realized the moment that Alabama Shakes had nailed down its shivering garage R&B strut and she’ll instead ask, “Is it nailed down?” Mention the addition of “Alabama” to her band’s original name, The Shakes, and she says that theirs was a “booking agent’s nightmare.” Besides, adding “Alabama” was appropriate—it’s where most of the band’s individual and collective memories exist. “It’s fitting since a lot of our songs are about our experiences growing up,” she says. “A lot of the songs are recalled in Alabama.”
The emotional grown-and-raised songs on the band’s eponymous 2011 EP and its full-length debut Boys & Girls are a Whitman’s Sampler of teen dreams and ruinous experiences as poured through Howard’s Janis Joplin-by-way-of-Poly-Styrene voice. “It is howling and it takes a lot of power,” says Howard of her prowess.
“Hold On” is about its protagonist talking herself through trouble. “I’m trying to hold on, but at the same time so tired of always waiting for things to get better,” says Howard about its woeful way. “I Ain’t the Same” is about realizing you’re no longer a child and that life is never going to be as easy at that again. “One day I was trying to remember the last time I felt carefree and easy, and I couldn’t remember,” says its writer. “It made me very sad because I knew that this was a part of growing up and this was my way of mourning.” So far the songs seem autobiographical. Still, when it came to the shivering “You Ain’t Alone” and the way its speaker asks about fear and bullet-biting, it can’t be resisted to ask Howard about her own fears and the song’s target–it feels so pointed at another person, a shadow situation between two intimates.
“You are the first person to ask me that,” says Howard. “That song was written to myself.” F
3 albums that inspired Alabama Shakes to make music
FAMOUS L. RENFROE
I took refuge in his unique style of writing gospel. It sounds like it came from a very sad and desperate place, while expressing hope and promise. The recordings are far from perfect, but there is something in them that is raw, deeply personal and beautiful.
THE ROLLING STONES
This not only changed how I felt about the Stones, it changed everything I thought I knew about making music and playing guitar. I was determined to figure out their secrets. It’s an endless well of inspiration.
Houses of the Holy
I remember when Walmart used to have headphones that you could preview albums on; I must have listened to the samples 100 times before I finally bought it. It’s influential in so many ways.