Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard Talks New Album, Songwriting in the Basement and Why She Pours Beer on Her Feet

Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/ Getty
Black girls rock! Nowhere is this more apparent than in fiercely talented Alabama Shakes frontwoman Brittany Howard.

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?
Any beer.

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