Alabama Shakes: The band from the backwoods that has become the year's new big hitter
A year ago, they were working deadbeat jobs in the backwoods. Now, after their lead singer turned down Simon Cowell, they’re the world’s most fêted band. All hail the Alabama Shakes
The young girl in the back seat had a question. The house at the end of the gravel path wasn't much, but she had spent the first four years of her life living in a caravan in a trailer park and as she took in the surrounding woods, the small creek and the house on a nearby hill, she called to her mum in the front seat and asked, "Are we rich?"
The young girl was Brittany Howard, the now 23-year-old lead singer of the year's most fêted band, Alabama Shakes. Let's get the name-dropping out of the way immediately, because it embarrasses Howard. Adele, Robert Plant, Bon Iver, David Byrne, Neil Young, Alex Turner, Jack White and Jarvis Cocker have all publicly professed their love. The actor Russell Crowe turned up to see the band in a north London pub. None of which matters much, but it does make Alabama Shakes' success one of the year's most heartwarming stories. Because all four of the band come from the sort of place – Athens, Alabama – that young people find it tricky, if not impossible, to escape from.
All four had day jobs this time last year. Howard delivered the mail while she saved up to go to college. The behatted and bearded bass player Zac Cockrell worked for a vet. The boyishly good-looking and brilliantly named guitar player Heath Fogg was painting and decorating houses. And the drummer, Steve Johnson, the only Shaker with kids, was holding down the zillionth job of his short life at the nearby nuclear-power plant.
"It's been pretty crazy," says Howard (who pronounces her first name like Spears, rather than the place in the north-west of France). "It's been pretty surreal at times. I remember waking up on the tour bus when we were doing the summer festivals and I was like, 'What am I doing in Switzerland?' When I was younger this wasn't an avenue, being in a band and touring the world. This just doesn't happen to people where we're from."
To make sure that no one is going to come along and pinch them to wake up any time soon, Alabama Shakes are fast gaining a reputation as one of the hardest-working bands in music: America, Australia and Europe this year; Australia, the Far East and South America next. It's exhausting just looking at the band's itinerary, but tonight we join them in Berlin, in a suitably shabby-chic venue called the Astra Kulturhaus in the Freidrichshain district.
Here, the largest remaining section of the Wall is a short walk away and the gleaming 17,000-seater O2 World arena (this week: Chris Brown; next week: Lionel Richie) stands just the other side of the sprawling railway tracks. This brushing up against each other of the historic and crumbling past with the sparklingly modern here and now is the perfect backdrop and metaphor for the band's music, which is best described as what the classic soul acts of the past might have sounded like if they had also witnessed the energy of punk-rock. On stage, Howard is whelping and hollering her way through the songs that make up Boys & Girls, Alabama Shakes' half-million-selling debut album which came out last April. As ever, watching Howard sing calls to mind Otis Redding, Janis Joplin or any other singer you might care to mention to whom the act of performing feels like a matter of life and death.
Even those who do not buy or listen to albums will probably have heard the band's calling-card single by now. "Hold On", as well as being 3 minutes, 45 seconds of pop-soul bliss, also contains the best first verse in recent memory. "Bless my heart/ Bless my soul/ Didn't think I'd make it/ To 22 years old/ There must be someone/ Up above/ Saying 'Come on, Brittany'/ You've got to come on up/ You've got to hoooooooold on." Tonight, the song is all the permission the Berlin crowd needs to whoop its approval. When the show is over and the crowd has filtered out, Howard, her voice a tattered and husky whisper, will stand outside as the tour bus is being loaded and smoke as many cigarettes as she likes. Soon, the bus will leave to drive its 11-strong band-and-crew cargo through the night to Hamburg, where, in a stolen hour backstage, we will sit down to discuss subjects ranging from that day's American election to whether, nearly two decades after asking her mother if they were rich, Brittany Howard has anything to show for all this hard work and acclaim.
labama Shakes came together when Howard and Cockrell met in an advanced psychology class at high school that both of them had taken to avoid having to study farming. "I was determined to get to know him because I'd heard he played bass and I knew I had to have a bass player to be in a band," says Howard, who proceeded to invite Cockrell over to play him some songs she had written and roughly recorded. When the first song had finished, Howard says she was "cowering" because she couldn't tell what Cockrell was thinking. The bass player's verdict was a characteristically dry, "That's cool. What key's it in?" Howard's response? "I don't know, man. What are keys?"
The pair started hanging out and making music in every spare moment. And then they met Johnson, the drummer, who, if Howard is to be believed, only got involved because he thought her friend Maggie was cute. "About a year later, Heath [Fogg] turned up," says Howard, "and I was like, now we're a band. We have all the pieces necessary to go and play."
And play they did. Mammoth sets – mainly consisting of rock and soul classics – that won the band a reputation as a covers act of some distinction. k
"What was most exciting for me at that point was just that they all turned up to practice, because I've been in a lot of bands where people didn't show up," says Howard. "But now the bar has to keep being raised because new things keep happening for us. First, I just wanted to be in a band, then I found a band and was like, I just want to write songs. Then I started writing songs and I just wanted to record an album. And now we've recorded an album and so…" she trails off.
Given Howard has that undefinable thing we call "raw talent" coupled with a look that one writer harshly compared to "a school teacher, or someone who might renew your driving licence", if Alabama Shakes had not come together as they did, would she ever have considered auditioning for The X Factor? "No," she says emphatically. "It's not fair. You go out there, people gawk at you, they love you or hate you and it doesn't mean anything to them but it means the world to you. So it's kind of a fucked-up show. I would never do it. I've been asked actually."
Really? She takes a deep breath, considers whether to say any more, whispers "Let me see…" to herself, and then decides to continue. "Yeah. It was a representative, a talent searcher. They heard of us through the internet and started sending me emails which kept going into my spam folder. One day she called me to ask and I told her, 'No, I'm not going to do that.' She was like, 'Are you sure about that?' and I said, 'Yeah, I'm sure. I have something going on now that I believe in and want to stick to.' She was shocked."
Howard, then, is not a person who can easily be swayed from what she believes in, and for that reason we get to talking about that day's election in her home country and whether or not – being on tour – she has voted by absentee ballot. "I voted last time but I'm not feeling it this time. It's going to take a lot more than just the president to fix the country. I used to be political but I'm not inspired whatsoever right now. It's a damn shame."
When I put it to her that such apathy is surely the enemy of fixing things, she says something surprisingly eloquent and profound, and which could, given a musical backing, sound like the sort of heartfelt soul-searching that goes into Alabama Shakes songs. Here, verbatim, is her response: "It's just that it's a long, long fight and you're getting older and older and still trying to fight for your ideals and there comes a point when you realise that you can't take care of everyone in the world. I just want to take care of what I can take care of and it's like a burden when you also have to worry about your own nation. We appoint people who are supposed to do that. That's not my job and I'm just happier not to be involved."
And before you go accusing Howard – who might just be on the cusp of making serious money from doing the only thing she's ever loved doing – of pulling down the shutters, it's worth remembering her situation. Home right now is a room in her father's shoe-box shack surrounded by "stuff from around the world that I keep meaning to give to people but I'm never home long enough". She describes life there with her father, a used-car salesman when Howard was growing up but now a bail bondsman, as "very eventful, cos he owns a junkyard and all sorts of people are always coming and going so I can't work on music there."
fter the Hamburg show, the male members of Alabama Shakes are listening to 1960s soul and picking at the local delicacy, curry bratwurst, on the tour bus. There is talk of finding a bar on the nearby Reeperbahn, in the heart of the city's red-light district, for cocktails. There is the usual chatter of people who spend much of their time in close quarters, but there is also an egoless camaraderie that makes the Shakes a rare thing: a rock band who genuinely seem to like spending time together on stage and off. In Berlin, Cockrell had thrown water over Johnson's cymbals and the pair are laughing about how cheesy but visually effective this proved. Johnson seems slightly disappointed that the trick was not repeated tonight.
Howard wanders in and out of the bus, her red duffle-coat hood up, either barely able to speak or preserving her voice for the next show, in Amsterdam, as the group slowly make their way to the UK for the gigs that culminated last night at the Forum in London. Some time next year, the Shakes will stop to draw breath and work on the songs that will become their second album. Howard knows the importance of that record and is busy soaking up all the musical influences she can in preparation. "I grew up kind of alone," she'd said in the dressing-room. "Everyone I got to meet, I met through music. I was a late bloomer and I remember exactly where I was when I first heard Pink Floyd, say, or 'Five Years' by David Bowie. When Zac came along I couldn't believe the knowledge he had and now I've been getting so deep into music – everything from Carla Thomas to Television to Michael Kiwanuka – it's almost scary."
This gathering of everything that has gone before and is now at everyone's fingertips is what makes Alabama Shakes more than just another retro-soul band, updating the music of the past for those too young to remember it first time around. But there is clearly a pressure on Howard to repeat the trick of Boys & Girls – which at one point was outselling Adele's 21 in the UK – and, soon, she will separate herself from the tour-bus banter to go and sit alone on the now-empty stage, smoke some more cigarettes and stare into the middle distance.
Because as much as Howard is looking forward to starting work on that follow-up, there is a more pressing matter that has to be taken care of the next time she gets to spend some time back home in Athens. "When we come off this tour I'm closing on my house," she'd said earlier. "I figure if I have only one thing to show for myself out of all this, it should at least be a nice home."
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