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Brittany Howard Just Wants to Make Soul-Stirring Music

Brittany Howard performing.

Flooded in pink, teal, and violet light beams and surrounded by a thick fog, singer Brittany Howard emerges before a racially- and gender-diverse crowd on stage at the Moore Theatre in Seattle. It’s mid-November (less than two months after she dropped her debut solo album, Jaime) in the wet, chilly city, but there’s a noticeable warmth in this medium-sized venue. Howard cloaked in all black — save a silvery, sequined cardigan, grips her guitar as if it’s the most cherished thing she’s ever held. As a mellow, yet heavy drum beat gears up, she begins the concert with “He Loves Me,” a soulful ode to God and what spirituality means to her.

“I know he still loves me when / I’m smoking blunts / Loves me when I’m drinking too much / He loves me then, yeah,” she sings out to the crowd.

The brazenness of writing, essentially, a gospel song that’s all about the sinful aspects of her life is the kind of clever songwriting the world has come to expect from the 31-year-old crooner. Prior to the release of her solo album, Howard rose to prominence as the frontwoman of Alabama Shakes, a bluesy, soulful rock band hailing from Athens, Alabama. Though she had been in other groups as a youth, the band’s true beginning came when she met Zac Cockrell and Heath Fogg in high school. With a shared interest in creating and playing music, they brought Steve Johnson into the fold and initially united as The Shakes in 2009. They soon transitioned from performing mostly covers to the world hearing Howard’s rich and often gruff voice singing (and sometimes wailing) original tracks about everything from heartbreak to the everyday difficulty of life on their debut album, Boys & Girls. Fresh out the gate, Howard brought a powerful mix of influences.

“[Brittany] has always had an incredible ear for detail and arrangement and it has been fun to watch her get more adventurous and experimental with it,” Cockrell says. “She likes to push boundaries and do what she hasn’t heard before.”

The work was well-received and landed the group three Grammy nominations for Best New Artist, Best Recording Package, and Best Rock Performance for lead single, “Hold On.” Though the crew didn’t receive their gold that go ‘round, it was their follow-up album, Sound & Color, that more than made up for those losses. In 2015, Alabama Shakes received six Grammy nominations, winning for Best Alternative Music Album and Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical and Best Rock Performance and Best Rock Song for lead single, “Don’t Wanna Fight.” Beyond the gold, during their Grammy performance a national audience saw how much Howard — with an ivory cape and energetic fingers — was standing in the legacy of Black queer rock pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe. She would go on to play a masterful tribute for her role model during Tharpe’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

“I’m grateful for her. She was a bisexual woman and also grew up in the church playing gospel. Then she took that and turned it into her own music,” Howard says. “And all of us, especially when I was growing up, didn’t have a lot of female guitar players to look up to. There’s so many female guitar players that are amazing now, which is wonderful. But when I was growing up, I didn’t even know girls played guitars. She was just iconic.”

The kind of fearless experimentation that Tharpe infused into her musicianship has clearly left a mark on Howard, who loves pulling from an eclectic mix of genres. In fact, she’s had a number of side-bands and projects throughout her tenure in Shakes. Most notably, there is the rockier-leaning Thunderbitch (founded with Nashville musicians Clear Plastic Masks and Fly Golden Eagle), in which she dons a wig and white grease paint almost nodding to rock band KISS, and the smoothly-folkish Bermuda Triangle, of which she started with Becca Mancari and, her now wife, Jesse Lafser. In the latter, she even tried her hand at playing upright bass and programming drum machines for the first time.

“It was just different elements of myself. I was really wanting to be powerful and becoming Thunderbitch is almost like an alter ego. It was just freeing, fun, and fascinating to be someone else and to be loud and outrageous,” she says. “With Bermuda Triangle, it was a much more reserved, sensitive, vulnerable set. It was completely out of my comfort zone. And I wasn’t loud. I was tempered and singing beautiful songs about the way I felt. This is just another part of me. All of them are true and all of them are real.”

Though Howard always maintained a penchant for raw songwriting with Shakes and other projects, she’s been able to get even more personal on Jaime. The album, named after her late older sister who died of eye cancer at age 13, still has those direct call outs to the universal difficulties of life, but now, she’s inserted more of her own story. On “Georgia,” she pines after an older woman leaning fully into her queer identity. But, perhaps, the vulnerable core of the album lies in “Goat Head,” in which she discusses growing up biracial in the South, how stigmatized her parents’ interracial relationship was (her mother is white, her father is Black), and a very real hate crime that occurred when someone who frowned upon her parents’ relationship slashed the tires of her dad’s car and left a gory, severed goat head in the backseat of his car.

“My mama was brave / To take me outside / ‘Cause mama is white / And daddy is black,” she fervently sings in the song. “Part of my experience is having my identity always being questioned, but then having no experience other than a Black woman, because of the color of my skin,” Howard shares. “It wasn’t ‘til I got older [that] my mom told me that during the ‘80s it was still really, really hard for her and my dad just to be together and be in a relationship together and it was dangerous even.” The complexity of loving the South as her home and feeling like an outsider is a hallmark of her songwriting. But it wasn’t just grappling with her biracial identity that complicated her experience in the region; it was also her queerness. But once her music career began taking off with the Shakes — she was able to meet other queer people who gave her a glimpses of a well-rounded and affirming life.

“My sexual orientation never felt strange, but being attracted to women and growing up in the South had me thinking, ‘Oh God, I don’t need any more problems. I’m already tall and Black. I just don’t need any more adversity,’” she says. “But I started traveling more, leaving the South a lot for work, making a lot of new friends, and seeing how people moved in their own queerness and how they lived their life. I didn’t really come into [my queerness] ‘til later in life, about 25, when I finally met myself and realized that it doesn’t matter who you love at all.”

These stories lie between the lines of Jaime, for which “History Repeats,” the album opener, boasted Grammy nominations for Best Rock Song and Best Rock Performance. But these accolades are no match for the home she’s built in Taos, New Mexico with her wife (and Bermuda Triangle bandmate), Lafser. The two met through mutual friends, then became friends in their own right, and later fell in love. In 2018, the couple wed in the small town on what the former describes as a “beautiful day,” opting for a simple ceremony rather than the standard blowout surrounded by everyone they’ve ever known.

“It was just me, her, and the preacher. We climbed up this mountain and there’s a stream that runs down this mountain and we just had a small ceremony there, exchanged vows and rings, and that was it,” she says. “It was tiny — just three people — and I liked it that way. We’ll eventually have an actual wedding party or whatever, probably.”

It’s that kind of flexibility and embracing of uncertainty that permeates most aspects of Howard’s life. It’s clear, if she doesn’t really feel something to her core, it’s not going to happen. While there seem to be many years of creating transformative music ahead, she resists giving a definitive answer on whether she’ll do more solo work, group work, or a combination of both.

“I’m just following where my creativity takes me; that’s always worked in my favor. Even when it comes to Alabama Shakes or any projects I’ve ever been a part of, I just followed what felt great and I was excited to create in. I don’t make a lot of plans of what I want to do next. I just am guided to it.”

This piece originally appears in Out’s 2020 Culture Issue, available on newsstands on 2/25. To get an advanced look at the issue, download it for Kindle or Nook, and grab your copy by subscribing now.

Tags: Print, Music

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