Black girls rock! Nowhere is this more apparent than in fiercely talented Brittany Howard. As the lead singer and guitarist of Alabama Shakes, the twenty-something proves that women can more than hold their own in rock music.
The band’s 2013 debut Boys & Girls was a commercial and critical success, including three Grammy nominations. Bolstered by Brittany’s soulful, bluesy pipes, the band has steadily become a group-to-watch.
Born in Athens, Alabama, the biracial singer is often compared to the legendary Janice Joplin—much to her chagrin--but she points to Nina Simone and David Bowie as her real influences. Last week, Brittany and the Shakes released their new album, Sound & Color, which features the achingly pleading track “Don’t Wanna Fight." Brittany spoke to ESSENCE about the new release and her strange, yet totally rock star creative process.
Boys & Girls was so well received that there’s often a fear that a follow-up won’t do as well (known as the “sophomore slump” in the music industry). Was there any added pressure when making Sound & Color?
No. The only pressure we felt was from ourselves, impressing ourselves. I just wanted to do something I’ve never done before. I didn’t want to make Boys & Girls 2. That’s just boring.
What’s the biggest difference between Boys & Girls and this new album?
We had more time to make this record so we explored all the things we’ve always wanted to do. I think had we had more time on the first record, it would sound like this record. In a way, I was holding my breath and really waiting for the time to explore. Now’s the time we got a chance to do it. I’m really really proud of this record.
Do you have a favorite song on the album?
“Over My Head.” The last song. I like what the song’s about. It’s really timeless and has a really deep groove. There’s a bunch of beautiful harmonies. It’s really, really minimal and--what’s the word I’m looking for--the instrumentation is like a visual.
What’s your songwriting process?
Whatever works. Usually I’m just alone in my basement and I come up with stuff there. I have to push myself out and go a little bit insane and try not to sleep. That’s what works, I guess.
What’s your basement like? Is it tricked out or a creepy basement?
Well, the floors are painted like a galaxy. It’s a really large basement. It’s cold and dark and there’s a bat living there.
Wait. There’s a bat living there?
A bat. Like a Batman bat. There are real ones. Yeah. I don’t go down there.
Alabama Shakes have toured everywhere, from Glastonbury Festival in England to Saturday Night Live. How is life on the road? Do you have any pre-show rituals before you perform?
I pretty much just pack my bags and think positive. I’m pretty used to it now. We’ve toured nonstop for a year. At this point in my life, I’m pretty used to it. [Before the show] we do a little “mojo.” Mojo is when we pour beer on our feet, before the show.
Does it matter if the beer is a lager or ale?