Rocking On with Brittany Howard

The dynamic front woman of Alabama Shakes takes a fearless leap
on her solo debut

Photo: Brantley Gutierrez

Brittany Howard, photographed in New Mexico. Her upcoming album, Jaime, is named for her late sister.

Growing up in Athens, Alabama, Brittany Howard spent hours in front of the piano at her grandmother’s house. Her older sister, Jaime, would always sit next to her. Blind from retinal cancer, Jaime was a creative dynamo, teaching Brittany how to write poetry, play the piano, and write songs. The first lyrics they wrote together were for a blues number about a potato. “I don’t think we ever scored that one,” Howard says, laughing. And Jaime encouraged Brittany to trust her intuition. “She always said, ‘If it doesn’t feel good, then that means you’re not playing it right.’” Jaime died at thirteen after the cancer returned, and instead of playing piano, Brittany, four years younger, would spend hours alone in her room or outside, running around the Alabama woods with her dog to escape the sadness that had swallowed her family.

Jaime’s passing has loomed over Howard, the leader of the group Alabama Shakes, throughout her career. The blistering “On Your Way,” from the band’s 2012 debut, Boys & Girls, is fueled by her grief, with Howard howling the lyric “Why wasn’t it me?” So it would be easy to assume that Jaime, Howard’s dazzling upcoming solo debut, is filled with tributes to her sister. Except it isn’t. Rather, the songs are mostly about her own awakening.

While Howard has sprinkled autobiographical elements in many of her songs, the details have remained vague, easily transferable to one’s own interpretation. On Jaime, though, Howard is at her most honest and vulnerable. The child of a black father and a white mother, she grapples with identity and racism in “Goat Head.” “He Loves Me” addresses her struggles with organized religion, while the intimate “Georgia” is a coy love song to another woman. Howard’s sexuality hasn’t exactly been a secret, but it wasn’t something she openly talked about before. “It’s about not being able to tell somebody you love them without feeling like an outcast,” she says of the song. “I wanted to write a rich early-nineties R&B song that was from one woman to another. There isn’t one right now.”

Howard says she’s constantly writing down ideas for songs, whether a turn of phrase or a snippet of a piano or guitar part. Her lyrical candor is matched by the adventurousness of Jaime’s sound, an extension of the wilder, psychedelic atmospherics on the Shakes’ sophomore album, Sound & Color, peppered with Prince-esque falsetto-driven funk, electronic blips and bleeps, and sheets of guitar. “It was all pretty purposeful,” Howard says. “I was going for the guitar in your face. It’s a little offensive, but hang in there. That which causes discomfort provides a remedy.”

Since the Shakes have been on hiatus (Howard says there aren’t any concrete plans yet to work on their third record), Howard took long road trips with her partner of two years, Jesse Lafser, scouting the western United States for a place to live. A longtime resident of Nashville, Howard had grown weary of the city’s up-in-all-your-business music scene and the daily grind of traffic and crowding. “I’m a country girl,” she says. “I need space.” While driving across lands flat and wide, Howard says, they encountered “great surprises and terrible experiences” all in one day. “We had firecrackers thrown at us on the side of the road one afternoon, but then later were welcomed with open arms at this tiny bar,” she says. “We pulled away from there thinking, ‘This must have been what it was like on the chitlin circuit—you never know when you’re safe.’ It helped to inform the record. I found out a lot about myself.”

After considering places such as Bend, Oregon, and Bozeman, Montana—“Shout-out to Bozeman, but it was just too cold,” Howard says with a laugh—the couple eventually settled in New Mexico, where Howard can walk to the Rio Grande and fish, something she and Jaime did with their dad as kids. Turning thirty last fall stoked the fearlessness Howard shows on Jaime; the milestone, she says, helped her develop a swagger and propelled her into something richer and more aware. “It’s a new beginning, a blossoming, if you will. I’m tired of people guessing who I am, making up who I am. Like I’m just this throwback Aretha Franklin–like soul singer, which I can do, but there’s so much more to me than that. But I have to show it.”