Brittany Howard’s speaking voice sounds just as cool as the raspy, booming, larger-than-life vocals that make Alabama Shakes one of our favourite bands right now. When we spoke to the lead singer-guitarist over the phone from the band’s 93-stop tour for their second album, Sound & Color, we were totally charmed by her laidback Southern drawl—usually reserved for gun-slinging cowboys (and Matthew McConaughey). In addition to her musical influences (she’s an Usher fan, you guys!), we talked about writing, what it’s like to play in front of 10,000 people and what she thinks about being compared to D’Angelo. Consider us her official fan-girls.
When did you start playing and writing music?
All at different times, because I’ve always sang, and I started playing guitar when I was 11. I’ve been writing songs forever. But I guess I started taking it seriously when I was around 11.
Is that when you started wanting a career in music?
No. Where we’re from [Athens, Alabama], that’s not really an option. It’s just something fun to do. Making a career out of music was kind of silly to think of.
Was there a turning point when you realized you actually were making a career out of music?
Yeah, when we had to quit our jobs. Then it was pretty serious!
I’ve read that you grew up with musical inspirations like Elvis and Motown. Growing up in the ’90s, did that make you feel excluded?
Oh, no. I listened to all that music too. I liked George Michael and Warren G and Usher. We listened to TLC. There were no boundaries. I liked [Elvis and Motown] because my grandma really liked that stuff and to me, it was just cool, good beats. I liked James Brown like I liked Destiny’s Child.
After the success of your first album, did you find it challenging to stay focused on making the record that you wanted for your follow-up?
No, I don’t think any of us really cared if it was going to be a commercial success or not. We wanted to make something that we liked and were into. We were trying to impress each other and write the best parts we could together. Our main focus was making something we could enjoy, something that was exciting to us.
What has the reception been like on tour?
Everything’s going really great and performing songs is really challenging, so that keeps us always trying to stay sharp. It’s really awesome to see people sing our new songs now and a song like “Sound and Color”, which is not a very “songzy” song, people are really enjoying and taking it in and it’s really, really cool to see.
Is it ever interesting to to read what influences people note in your music?
What’s interesting to me is people will be like, “Oh it’s like D’Angelo’s record”, but our record was done before his record came out. I think, “Yeah, that’s cool but we didn’t have any idea what his record sounded like!”
What’s your favourite part of touring?
Hanging out with my buddies, playing video games, watching movies, drawing and just having fun. Sometimes you go to some really beautiful places and we go fishing or just do something out of the ordinary that I wouldn’t regularly get to do at home. Play in the ocean, swim in a mineral salt bath…
You played Coachella and Bonnaroo before. Do you prefer festivals to smaller venues?
I like smaller clubs where you can control your show environment and how you want to present your music. A festival’s kind of a smorgasbord, you know? You get a time limit and the sound may not be how you want it, but you do the best you can. There are pros and cons to it, and the pro is that a lot of people get to check you out and maybe people who never heard the band before are like “Woah, what’s that?” and become a fan. That’s definitely a pro.
Do you have a favourite memory from one of your live performances?
It may not be that crazy but one of my favourite things to do is watch people dance from the stage and then after the shows we’ll be like, “Aw man, did you see how cool that dude was dancing?” We pay attention to who’s out there and we enjoy it. I’ve seen 80-year-old women dance.
What’s next for you guys?
I’m hoping we can get a tiny break in after the tour, but I have the urge to write. I’m restless. Doing this last record I found out that where I like to be: creating something, sitting and listening to it, figuring it out, but also being frustrated, being stressed out—all those things that come with making a record, I actually enjoy. And the part where you’re done and it’s out there and people are enjoying it.
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