the saturday interview

Brittany Howard: ‘I didn’t want to end up back in the trailer park’

On the release of her debut solo album ‘Jaime’, the Alabama Shakes frontwoman talks to Patrick Smith about growing up gay in the American South, spending her childhood playing in a junkyard, and why she thinks people voted for Trump

Saturday 21 September 2019 07:28 BST
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‘I had never heard a song, much less an R&B song or in black music, where a woman was singing a love song to another woman’
‘I had never heard a song, much less an R&B song or in black music, where a woman was singing a love song to another woman’

Brittany Howard spent her childhood in a junkyard. “We were broke,” the 30-year-old explains, sitting in a bar in north London. “So my sister taught me how to have fun without money, how to use my imagination, how to make music. We made a club house, which was a car stacked on top of a car, stacked on top of a car, stacked on top of a car that didn’t have doors. We were definitely at risk of it collapsing on our tiny children’s bodies.”

A bespectacled former postal worker, Howard was last seen as the powerhouse frontwoman of the Grammy Award-winning Alabama Shakes, but now she’s releasing her debut solo album, Jaime, named after her sister. Jaime died at 13 of retinoblastoma, a rare of form of eye cancer, when Howard was eight, but Howard has never lost the sense of imagination her sister gave her. Musically, her voice characterised Alabama Shakes’s garage-soul sound, moving between a hushed falsetto and a guttural roar with gospel-like zeal. Watch her live in her rock’n’roll side project Thunderbitch and she’s likely to appear on a motorcycle, wearing white face paint, dark shades and a black leather jacket.

In person, Howard is warm and considered, possessed of a wicked laugh and a soft Southern drawl. Ask her about the music she grew up on – The Supremes, The Marvelettes, Dion, Prince – and she’ll brim with childlike enthusiasm. But you sense, too, that she’s tired of talking about the new album, with its astringent views on race, sexuality, faith and America today. Unsurprisingly, interviews with journalists are a series of invitations to sound off about one or all of the above. Jaime’s wonderfully melodic mix of funkadelia, synth rock, hip hop, jazz and neo-soul inevitably becomes a backdrop to the smouldering consciousness of Howard’s lived experience.

Take “Goat’s Head”, in which she sings over fidgety piano chords, “When I first got made, guess I made these folks mad”. The song addresses what it was like to grow up as the child of an interracial couple in the small town of Athens, Alabama. “I was only a few weeks old,” says Howard. “Our car’s tyres were slashed, windshield broken in, goat head in the back... basically, ‘Don’t come here anymore’. My mum didn’t tell me about it till I was about 14 years old. My parents did a really good job of protecting me from racism.”

On the beautifully skittish “Georgia”, Howard – who married fellow musician Jesse Lafser last year – reflects on having a youthful crush on an older girl (“I just want Georgia to notice me”). “I had never heard a song, much less an R&B song or in black music, where a woman was singing a love song to another woman, so I decided to write one,” she says. “I was trying to come from a juvenile perception of not being able to understand my feelings, but it’s really innocent, really beautiful, really pure.”

In a recent interview, Howard said she didn’t become fully aware of her identity as a lesbian until she was 25 or 26. Her life changed once she got out into the world and “saw people who were in same-sex relationships and happy and living their life not being afraid”. Before then her world was Athens, a religious town in the South where she’d attend two different churches. “When I went to church, it was very hellfire, brimstone,” she says. “If you sin, you go to hell. One of my churches, you couldn’t even make music in the church because that was considered disrespectful. Then my other church I was going to, my dad’s church” – her parents separated – “had the best band I’ve ever heard. So it was really confusing.” When her sister died, she stopped believing in God, “because who would do that to our family? We prayed and He never answered our prayers. So I was like, ‘He must not be real’.”

But as she got older, she realised there was a gap in her life. ”I missed having that connection," she explains, ”so I began learning what my relationship to God meant.“ On the slinky R&B ballad “He Loves Me”, she comes to a new vision of spirituality, singing “I know He still loves me when I’m smoking blunts/Loves me when I’m drinking too much.” The song, she says, is a riposte to the people who force their image of God upon others. “Do you think He really cares if I’m stoned? Who gets to say anyway? Some old white guys? They’re like, ‘Jesus said...’ Well, actually, I can read too. All I’m trying to say is your relationship with God is really personal. No one can teach you.”

Just as the church made it harder for Howard to embrace her sexuality, so now the Trump administration seems determined to marginalise the LGBT+ community. She says she’s scared of what America’s become. “People are crazy. Some people voted for Trump because of tax reasons, economical reasons, and some voted for him because they’re literally uneducated. They could be great people with great lives but uneducated and also you have crazy and educated, like serial murderers. You never know what you’re going to get over there right now. It’s crazy, man.”

There’s a real sense of the US returning to the kind of prejudice that her parents’ generation faced. “Imagine being a kid and someone asks, who is a strong, powerful, rich, black woman that you look up to, and I’d be like, Oprah? That was it. The only one. I could see her, I could hear her. Then more and more started coming out and that’s why it’s so important to give the child options to be like, ‘Oh, I’m like her. I can do that.’”

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Certainly there weren’t many female-fronted bands around, and if there were, those women were usually thin and white. Not that this deterred Howard from getting together on Tuesday and Thursday nights with bandmates she had met in high school; the four of them would become Alabama Shakes. Over two albums, Boys & Girls (2012) and Sound & Colour (2015), they cemented their reputation as one of the most exciting guitar acts to emerge from the US in the 21st century. Their licks-heavy postmodern soul and emotionally intense live performances even won them a fan in Barack Obama, who invited them to play at the White House. Howard was always determined to succeed. ”I had this survivalist mentality when Shakes started because I grew up broke,” she says. “One thing I didn’t want to do was end up back in the trailer park. Not that there’s anything wrong with the trailer park; I just didn’t want to go back there to cold running water, having to decide when I’m going to the grocery store, because I can’t afford a lot of groceries. So, I was like, ‘I’ll work twice as hard as any person.’ I wasn’t taking care of myself, because the main goal was to keep the operation running and have the most excellent shows and I was just really exhausted and tired.“

Going solo was a step into the unknown. “Walking away from something that works is never advisable but I did it and I didn’t think I could, didn’t think I would, but then I did and that’s very rewarding because I’m finally taking my power and being empowered.”

Howard isn’t sure if Alabama Shakes will get back together, but says that feeling of empowerment is profound. “Learning about myself and being proud to be myself, being seen and being heard and saying, I created this, I produced this. I arranged this, I composed this. This is mine and no one edited me.” She pauses to take a swig of her beer. “God, I highly recommend it.”

‘Jaime’ is out now

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