On her first solo album away from acclaimed Grammy-winning group Alabama Shakes, vocalist-guitarist Brittany Howard reveals a dynamic, emotional, uncommonly groovy and always fascinating exploration of her life’s experiences. She spoke to Zoë Radas.
He Loves Me, the triumphant see-saw of bass drum and ride cymbal, serene guitar licks and Brittany Howard’s voluptuous vibrato give way to the voice of Pastor Terry K. Anderson: “He’s gonna live longer than me and you, ’cause he ain’t worried about nothing!” the preacher hollers. Is this a reminder, a warning, a dance away from a bummer?
“It makes me feel good,” Howard explains. “It makes me feel like, ‘Why am I so worried?’ Things work out the way that they do. It’s something that’s really hard to be aware of, because as human beings, we’re very emotional beings – we always put emotion onto every single thing that happens to us. But what if I didn’t worry so much? Would I be happier? The answer is yes. It’s a comforting thing to think about.”
Named for Howard’s sister – who passed away when the two were just teenagers, but not before Jaime imbued Brittany with an ardour for poetry and piano – the album sees the acclaimed vocalist and guitarist leap from the nest of her four-time Grammy-winning band Alabama Shakes and take on the mantle of sole singer-songwriter – a liberating experience, characterised by that shedding of anxiety. “I was just really happy for the chance to make something where I didn’t worry so much about making mistakes, or it coming out in the right structure, or maybe this part shouldn’t go there, or having to deliberate over it,” she says. “If it sucks, that’s too bad. Nobody else is responsible. I’m totally fine with it!”
In plaiting its threads of soul, blues, alt-rock and experimental electronic sounds, one of Howard’s musical touchstones was Brazilian artist Jorge Ben (most prolific in the ‘70s), often called ‘the father of samba rock’. “He’s just so creative – so creative,” Howard enthuses. “Also, it makes you want to dance. It’s not so far out there that you have to think about what’s going on. And I really love the tone of his voice, he uses it in all sorts of ways – and then he throws a whistle in there,” she laughs. Her voice is similarly diverse across Jaime, channelling the thick-throated beauty and delicate tremolo of Billie Holiday in Short and Sweet, or slipping into a pondering conversational tone as she tries to pin down her race on the affecting stand-out Goat Head: “I’m a drop… two fifths? I’m not black? I’m… that.”
Some of Jaime’s tracks were deliberately planned, as in the wonderfully inconstant, meticulous Tomorrow. “That was definitely heavily mapped-out,” Howard says. “If it wasn’t, I’m not sure it would have the juxtaposition, the right dissonance to it. You have to be really careful, because it can turn into noise. Dissonance always needs comfort.”
Others, like the incendiary 13th Century Metal – in which Howard’s spoken-word poetry about our existence as brothers and sisters in love, compassion and humanity, builds in intensity throughout a cracked mosaic of organ and a stunning, fill-spattered breakbeat – were birthed in far more serendipitous circumstances. “The funny story about 13th Century Metal is that it was never supposed to happen,” Howard says. “[Drummer] Nate Smith was already in the drum booth doodling around, and Robert [Glasper, jazz-influenced keyboardist] goes in and just starts playing everything you hear. That was improvised. He just went in there and did it.” Howard and her engineer recorded the jam after which the singer started to figure out how she’d use it. ”I thought about it for a few days: ‘What am I going to put on this song? There’s so many melodies already… I got to do some spoken word.’ So I look through my songs and I find this thing I wrote, like, years ago. I was like, yeah, this.”
One of the highlights of post-production – which turned out to be, in the end, a total life highlight for Howard – was the filming of the clip for single Stay High, which features beloved actor Terry Crews as a man finishing his factory shift and heading home to his family. Each quietly joyful scene sees elements of this man’s suburban environment mimicking the song’s instruments: a worker sweeps the floor to match the syncopated bass drum, the beeps of the supermarket check-out follow the warm, pinging glockenspiel melody, a mother and daughter packing their groceries chime in the doo-wop backing vocals, and all the while Terry delivers the song’s message of affectionate content.
It was filmed in Howard’s hometown of Athens, Alabama, and features all of her family and friends (with several cameos from Howard herself, in various guises). “It was probably the most fun I’ve ever had in my life, making that video with Kim Gehrig – who is Australian, by the way, London-born,” Howard says. “Working with her was really inspiring to me. She was always positive. She was hard-nosed on what she wanted, and was going to get it, but she was very polite about it,” she laughs. “I was like, ‘I want to be like that.’ It was amazing watching someone take their creative vision so seriously. It was literally one of the best days of my life.”
Jaime by Brittany Howard is out September 20 via Sony.
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