TAOS, N.M. — A rectangular medallion swung from the rearview mirror of Brittany Howard’s car as she steered a scenic drive — through mountains, desertscapes, forests and gorges — around this high-altitude city she calls an “energy epicenter,” her home since December.
It looked like the kind of locket that holds the image of a saint. But up close, it was a faded photograph of two young girls, both in red home-sewn clown costumes. One was a very young Howard; the other was her older sister, Jaime, who died at 13 from retinoblastoma, a rare form of childhood eye cancer; Howard was just 8 years old. During Jaime’s illness, the family’s house burned down, and the photo is one of Howard’s few keepsakes of her sister. “I take it with me everywhere,” she said.
“Jaime” is also the title of Howard’s solo debut album, due Sept. 20, as she steps out from Alabama Shakes, the Grammy-winning soul and rock band she has led for most of this decade. “Jaime” memorializes the sister who was Howard’s role model as a musician, writer and more. “She was a thinker,” Howard said. “She was a creator. She was just immaculate, just genius-level stuff. She taught me that if it don’t feel right, that means it’s not right. She taught me everything about everything.”
But in a statement about “Jaime,” Howard wrote: “The record is not about her. It’s about me.” It’s simultaneously more personal, more socially conscious and more unruly than her albums with Alabama Shakes. The songs are funky, experimental, rowdy and exposed: the work of a songwriter going deep to explore spirituality, sexuality, traumas of the past and ideas about the present, by way of danceable propulsion and sonic escapades. It gleefully ignores conventions of genre, structure and texture, sparse at one moment and wildly overstuffed the next.
“For me this whole record is like, what do I want to listen to? What do I want to hear?” Howard said. “That’s the whole point. It’s not made for anybody else.”
Last year Howard told Alabama Shakes that she needed a hiatus. Grounded in 1960s Southern soul but never confined by it, Alabama Shakes had backed Howard’s whisper-to-shout vocals in songs about romance, heartache and tenacity. The band released two albums, in 2012 and 2015, as its touring circuit expanded from club showcases to headlining sheds and festivals worldwide.
Their roots were in the rural South. Alabama Shakes got started in the small town of Athens, Ala., where Howard grew up poor, the daughter of a black father and a white mother; they divorced after Jaime’s death. She was raised by both parents and by an extended family — grandparents, aunts, cousins — in Alabama and Mississippi. During Alabama Shakes’s early years of constant touring, Howard’s home address was a room in her father’s trailer.
“I didn’t have no new clothes when I was a kid,” she said. “You don’t think about it. But I still had a mom, I still had a dad, I still had a family. My life taught me what I need to know so I can do what I got to do in this lifetime.”
Howard learned to sing harmonies in church, and she discovered R&B, rock and pop from parents who loved Prince (her father) and Elvis Presley (her mother), from friends’ record collections and from MTV. She soaked up Led Zeppelin, the Velvet Underground, AC/DC, Donny Hathaway, Michael Jackson, Missy Elliott. As a shy teenager she taught herself how to assemble songs, part by part. She borrowed her sister’s guitar and recorded on a PC that her sister had been given by the Make-a-Wish Foundation, using the free multitracking software Audacity.
“I was just really trying to keep the world away from me, because the world weighed a ton when I was a little kid,” she said. “I relate to that Beach Boys song, ‘In My Room.’ I get it, man. Total solitude, total imagination, totally retreating into his own world, being his own being.”
While earning a living as a mail carrier, she got together on Tuesday and Thursday nights with bandmates she had met in high school for practices that forged Alabama Shakes. The group’s first album, “Boys and Girls,” reached back to the naturalism of old-school soul. Its second, “Sound and Color,” broadened the music well beyond any kind of soul revivalism, wandering at times toward psychedelia and punk; it won three Grammys. But by the time Alabama Shakes finished its most recent major tour, in 2017, Howard felt “emotionally drained, kaput,” she said.
She was also thinking about turning 30, and she didn’t want music to become a routine. “Life was looking real simple, and any time it starts feeling like that, I kind of go, ‘Uh-oh,’” she said. “Any time it’s just looking like, ‘That’s your bag, there you go, stick with that, do that, you’re going to be great’ — I’m just like, ‘Naw, that don’t feel right!’"
During the downtime after the tour, Howard told the band she was putting it on hold indefinitely. “‘Honestly guys, I don’t know what I’m going to do, I don’t know if I’ll make a new record, I don’t know what’s going to happen,’” she recalled telling them. “Because at the time I really didn’t. They were really gracious enough to understand. And we’re still really close.”
The situation is “a bittersweet thing,” said Zac Cockrell, Alabama Shakes’s bassist. “But there are no hard feelings anywhere. She’s always done her thing. I feel like with this, she just took it one step further.”
Howard had already started making music outside Alabama Shakes. In 2015, she fronted a hard-rock band called Thunderbitch; she would ride through club audiences on a roaring motorcycle and perform in a tight leather jacket with white greasepaint on her face. By then she had moved to Nashville, where Alabama Shakes recorded its debut album, and in 2017 she joined two other songwriters — Becca Mancari and Jesse Lafser — to form Bermuda Triangle, sharing one another’s songs and doing a small-scale tour by van. Howard and Lafser, who had lived in Taos, grew closer; they married in 2018.
They live together now in the house Howard bought on the outskirts of Taos, with their cats and dogs — “five animals that all hate each other,” Howard said — on 16 mountainside acres with a few low-slung buildings, including a recording studio in progress. Their neighbors are elks, coyotes and black bears. Loud crickets punctuated an interview on Howard’s porch, as she shared a bottle of Barbera d’Asti.
Before deciding to make the solo album, Howard said, she began writing a memoir, reaching back to the events and sensations of her childhood. She got as far as the founding of Alabama Shakes before pivoting back to songwriting — delving through her hard drives and completing songs that hadn’t been right for the band, coming up with new ones. She wrote lyrics and blueprinted parts — drums, guitars, keyboards, bass lines — before booking studio time and calling in trusted musicians: Cockrell, the drummer Nate Smith, and the keyboardists Robert Glasper and Paul Horton, while supplying all the layers of guitar herself.
Howard and her engineer, Shawn Everett, deliberately recorded with eccentric setups. For the blissful song “Stay High,” Smith arrived to find a drum kit that was all snare drums; at another session he was asked to play with chopsticks. For much of the album, Everett placed contact microphones — picking up small impacts — on the keys of electronic keyboards, giving physical heft to synthetic tones. Testing a new keyboard turned into a spontaneous studio jam that Howard edited into “13th Century Metal,” a roller-coaster of a spoken-word rant that’s part self-help exhortation, part sermon.
“She’s brave — she’s not afraid of the unknown,” said Glasper, a jazz-and-beyond keyboardist who has collaborated widely. “When she knows what she wants, she knows exactly. Yet she’s very open at the same time. She’s fearless — she just jumps in and goes with it and sees what happens. And when you don’t know the outcome, you’re allowing the possibility of breaking into new territory.”
The specificity of Howard’s memoirs apparently carried over into the songs on “Jaime” — songs that didn’t have to speak for an entire band. In “Georgia,” she sings about having a youthful crush on another girl. Howard calls it “an awakening song.”
“Just being gay or whatever,” she said, “being different, being young, being in a spot where you can’t really explain to someone how you feel or why you feel it, but you know you’re different.”
In “He Loves Me,” a slinky, changeable R&B ballad with a hip-hop undertow, she sings, “I know He still loves me when I’m smoking blunts/Loves me when I’m drinking too much,” a declaration of faith outside the institution of a church. It was one of the first songs that cemented her decision to make a solo album. “I wouldn’t want to put those opinions on anybody else,” Howard said. “To me it was, this is my song, like this is not for the Shakes. This is coming from me. That’s my spiritualism.”
“History Repeats,” the densely layered funk song that opens the album, links personal neuroses — recurring kinds of self-destructive relationships — and societal patterns: “Humanity doing the same old dumb over and over again.”
And in “Goat Head,” Howard directly addresses growing up as the child of an interracial couple in a small Southern town. “My mom got treated terrible for walking around with little black kids,” Howard said. “I think they took real good care of me not seeing that stuff. Now, when I’m older, I can look back and be like, yeah, I was definitely treated different when I went to that tea party. Or that’s why I wasn’t invited, or that’s why I couldn’t go to my friend’s house.”
In an incident that happened when Howard was a baby, but that her mother later told her about, Howard’s father woke up one morning to find the family car with its tires slashed and a goat head placed in the back seat. “I was just, like, if this is going to be about where I’m from, I need to talk about this story,” Howard said. “’Cause I’m not painting a true picture of my experience if I don’t include this one thing that my family never talks about.”
She hadn’t yet told her parents about the song, and didn’t intend to. “I don’t want to be second-guessing myself, I don’t want to consider somebody else’s feelings,” she said. “That’s what I’ve done my whole life.”
“Even when I was with the Shakes I practiced that because that’s what I was taught,” she continued. “It’s not until I got older that I realized that it’s important sometimes to be selfish so that you’ve got your own power, your own energy.”
So she’s ready to be selfish? “This is not about nobody else,” she declared. “This is about myself.”
8. "after a few listens..." In response to Reply # 0
I have to say I really, really like this album. It feels totally fresh and unexpected from Howard - she doesn't lean on her voice or her old sound much at all (she almost goes to lengths to muddle her voice a la D'Angelo) -- I kept thinking that it felt like a Meshell record in the best ways. Totally not what I expected from her first solo outing but a welcome surprise. Need to absorb it more but definitely worth checking out if you haven't yet.
10. "Live Twitter Concert..." In response to Reply # 0
Just concluded, she did covers of Your Love Keeps Lifting Me, You’re What I’m All About (Players Anthem sample), Breakdown (Prince) and new material. This woman is powerful live. Band was crazy, perfect combo of soul, funk and rock.
11. "RE: Live Twitter Concert..." In response to Reply # 10
>Just concluded, she did covers of Your Love Keeps Lifting Me, >You’re What I’m All About (Players Anthem sample), >Breakdown (Prince) and new material. This woman is powerful >live. Band was crazy, perfect combo of soul, funk and rock.
Wow - would have loved to have seen "Breakdown" -- hope it circulates or she records it at some point!
18. "Finally got around to this. It's dope as expected." In response to Reply # 0
I think I like the Shakes a bit better overall but I liked this change of pace from her. Will be giving it a few more spins this week.
Is it just me or does her voice sort of mimic Bilal's on certain songs ? "Tomorrow" is one that immediately jumped out at me as having a particularly Bilal-like tone to it. I think they sound most alike when she's hitting the higher notes.