ACL Fest 2019: Brittany Howard breaks from Alabama Shakes with solo debut
Winning Grammys and topping the Billboard charts as the leader of adventurous Americana band Alabama Shakes made Brittany Howard one of the most widely known and influential musicians of the past decade. So what influenced her when she decided to put out her first solo record this year?
“I’d say everyone I’ve ever heard, even people I didn’t like, and also nothing at all,” she says, covering every possible base with an answer delivered partly in jest even as it’s ultimately honest and on-point. “It’s hard to explain how ideas work. But I definitely wasn’t trying to be like anything.”
If Howard’s album “Jaime,” released last month, consequently sounds unlike anything you’ve heard before, that’s by design. “I wasn’t listening to a lot of music when I was writing the record, because I just wanted to see what would happen if I didn’t,” Howard says of the strikingly original sounds and styles of the record’s 11 songs.
A case in point is “13th Century Metal,” a track with a structure as unusual as its name. “That’s what the music sounds like to me,” Howard says when asked about the song title. “The chord changes are kind of like Gregorian, but it’s also thrashing.”
“13th Century Metal” is a spoken-word piece, set to staccato keyboard rhythms and lively drums that appear to draw from both jazz and industrial music. The intensely rhythmic backing sets the stage for a recitation that sounds like a mission statement, with phrases such as “I dedicate my spirit in the service of what is good and fair and righteous” and “I am dedicated to oppose those whose will is to divide us.”
“It’s just who I am,” Howard responded when asked about the song’s personal-manifesto vibe. “I was just like, ‘Well, what do I stand for, and who am I?’
“There’s so many things that flash across us every day that are designed to disempower us and disconnect us from ourselves, and knowing who we are. So I just did the opposite: I decided to empower myself with knowing exactly who I am.”
In another line from the song she declares: “I promise to love my enemy, and never become that which is not God.” So are spirituality and religion a big part of Howard’s life?
“Not religion, no; I’m not religious at all,” Howard says. It’s worth noting that while the album’s second track, “He Loves Me,” features audio excerpts from noted Houston pastor Terry K. Anderson, the song begins with this revealing couplet: “I don’t go to church anymore/ I know he still loves me.”
“But I definitely believe in something,” she quickly adds, “something higher and wonderful and full of love and goodness. That’s what I subscribe to. And I think the whole point of writing a song like that was because I think spirituality or your relationship to whatever you believe is very personal and very important. And no one should tell you what that means to you.”
Anderson is one of two Houstonians who appear on “Jaime.” The other, Robert Glasper, is a Grammy-winning pianist and producer who also plays in the soulful hip-hop outfit August Greene. Howard met Glasper when they played together at an event in Alabama.
“He was a fan of what I did, and I was a fan of what he did,” Howard says. “We started talking, and we switched numbers — like, ‘Hey, if you ever want to write together or work together, give me a call.’ That’s basically how it started. And then once I started doing this record, I was like, ‘I’ve got Robert’s number, let me see what he’s doing.’”
Our phone interview with Howard caught her in Minnesota just a day after the tour for “Jaime” began, following five August shows previewing the new material. When she hits the Austin City Limits Music Festival on Saturday, she and her eight-piece touring band (which includes Alabama Shakes bassist Zac Cockrell) will have just a dozen shows under their belts.
“It’s been really cool because the people don’t know all the songs yet. It’s been awesome watching the reactions,” Howard said of presenting her new material in front of an audience for the first time on this tour. “I really like surprising people with music they’ve never heard before.”
“Jaime” was named after her older sister, who died of cancer at age 13. “I think it was just a way to have her part of the conversation,” Howard says. “And also just as a thank-you to my sister for teaching me how to make music — how to be creative, how to use my imagination. She taught me how to play piano and introduced me to music, and how important it is, and how fun it is.”
Howard was clearly the dominant artistic presence in Alabama Shakes, whose 2016 sophomore album “Sound & Color” brought them three Grammys. But her solo debut offered a degree of artistic control that was new to her, following collaborations with side-project acts Thunderbitch and Bermuda Triangle.
“It felt really good to be free. I could do whatever I wanted to,” she says. “I made my own terms, had my own sounds, had my own arrangements, had my own triumphs, my own failures.”
That “Jaime” ended up sounding quite different from all of her previous work was no surprise, really. “Everything I’ve ever done creatively has been completely different from the next,” she says. “This one’s much more of an expansive emotional experience than anything I’ve ever done.”
Will more albums with Alabama Shakes follow, somewhere down the line? “I don’t know,” Howard answers frankly. “I just follow wherever creativity takes me. So if that’s something that I feel like I want to explore, I’ll definitely have a conversation with the guys about it and see if that’s what they want to do.”
AT ACL FEST
Catch Brittany Howard at 4 p.m. Saturday on the Honda stage.