At a time when major rock bands are an increasingly rare breed, and new success stories are even harder to find, Alabama Shakes are a big, bright beam of hope. With 2012’s Boys & Girls, the band earned three Grammy nominations and went gold (500,000 albums sold)––pretty much the equivalent nowadays of going diamond. Their follow-up, Sound & Color, might wind up achieving even more glory, having debuted at the top of the charts and drawn heaps of critical praise.
Standing at the center of the band (Zac Cockrell - bass; Heath Fogg - guitar; Steve Johnson - drums; Ben Tanneris - keyboard) is 26-year-old phenom, Brittany Howard, a former fry cook and postal worker who has made her mark with a commanding, distinctly Southern vocal style that ranges from howls to whispers. She recently spoke with Music Connection about The Shakes’ skyrocketing fame, how she has stayed down to earth and what ambition she has for the band’s future.
Music Connection: What is the most surprising aspect about becoming a successful band? What advice do you have for other performers on how to prepare for success?
Brittany Howard: As it’s happening, you don’t realize it, you’re wrapped up in it. One of the things that propelled us ahead is acting professionally. Play as long as you say you’re going to play, and play well. You want people to walk away happy, and if you love what you do you’ll work better at it.
MC: Which are you enjoying more at the moment, performing or writing?
Howard: It’s my passion to perform and write, but right now I really like the writing side of it. I’ve got a lot of ideas.
MC: Is it true that you’re writing 20 hours straight per day?
Howard: I used to do that when I was kid, but I’ve never written 20 straight hours. I take breaks. But lack of sleep actually really helps me as a writer. I like to cloister myself away. I like to think about the mood of the song, how it wraps itself musically.
MC: Are you writing parts for everyone in the band to play?
Howard: I often have a rough draft idea of what everybody’s doing. Sometimes I won’t fill in the gaps, but I usually come in with a rough draft of what the beats would do.
MC: Do you take any more extensive breaks while writing?
Howard: The only way I can work is if I keep working. I learned that the hard way, because we had taken a year off and gotten comfortable; then it was, “Wait a second, we have to put out a second record. Where am I musically?” We could’ve repeated the first album easily, but that’s not who we are as musicians. I try to think of where I am as a songwriter, where am I socially, what do I want to hear, what are the ways to do it, how can we do it and not copy somebody else.
MC: What parts of songwriting in particular did you most enjoy with this second record?
Howard: The sections of orchestral French horns. I enjoyed messing with that.
MC: Were there any new influences?
Howard: Listening to music, you pick up tiny things and don’t even realize it, but growing up, our heroes were The Meters and Curtis Mayfield and these rhythm sections, so we focused more on that. When it comes to a live audience, you want to shock them and soothe them. When we went to the studio, it was like, “Okay, this is something new to us.” This album shows you don’t need to have a formula, you just need to make music for yourself and stay true to yourself
MC: Can you elaborate on one new song and talk about what it means to you?
Howard: “Over My Head” is about this theory I have based off of reincarnation.
You don’t have to believe in reincarnation to understand the song. It’s just that I believethe energy that’s created is never destroyed, so if you think about it, love never goes away. It’s based off the concept that you recognize one day that you have all this love around you at all times, and it’s a very deep feeling to know that someone loves you no matter what. It’s something that can’t be explained by science or anything.
MC: How did you come up with that theory?
Howard: I’m not sure, I just had that thought years ago. It’s not hocus-pocus—I’m a realist, I’m a realistic person––but I try to stay positive.
MC: How did you develop your unique delivery? Did you have any vocal coaching?
Howard: No vocal coaches. I took The History of Music in my school. A lot of people compare me to Janis Joplin, and she’s great for any girl who wants to be a singer, but I didn’t say Aretha Franklin and Janis were my only options. There is no gender in music. I looked to people who were great—Louie Prima, James Brown.
MC: How do you maintain your voice and keep it from burning out while on a long tour?
Howard: It usually holds up pretty well. The most important thing is to not stay up late. And you’ve got to drink lots of water all day. Keep your vocal chords wet at all times, don’t let them dry up. I sleep with a humidifier on the bus. I party a little bit on a day off, but I don’t party otherwise. It’s not as glamorous as everyone believes.