Alabama Shakes Work It

Alabama Shakes Work It
Photo by Danny Clinch
"It's easy to get lazy. I feel like that's success's worst enemy: being lazy."
 
So says Brittany Howard, lead singer, songwriter and guitarist for Alabama Shakes. Not only did the band release one of the best rock albums of 2015, Sound & Color, but headlined almost every major festival on a massive world tour, christened Stephen Colbert's Late Night debut and played with Paul McCartney and Prince. Howard herself dropped a surprise full-length from her secret side project, Thunderbitch, and was just named Billboard's Powerhouse of the Year — whatever that is.
 
"I'm not sure what it means, but it's going to be cool, I think," Howard laughs over the phone from somewhere in the UK. "I'll learn more about it as the time comes."
 
Powerhouse is a pretty apt description for what Howard brings from behind the mic at every Alabama Shakes show. In fact, her face-melting vocal performances are the beating heart of the band's transfixing live shows, and have basically ensured a spot for Alabama Shakes on every music lover's bucket list.
 
"Yeah, isn't it crazy?" she asks with a hint of wonder, reflecting on the reputation she and the band have built since their 2012 debut, Boys & Girls. "I mean, I work really hard when I'm on stage and I guess it's good that people notice. It's a lotta hard work doing that and singing as hard as I sing every night, using all my energy every night and then you gotta wake up and do it again."
 
In most of their interviews, the band talk at length about the importance of hard work. They're not bragging, nor are they being tough on themselves when they say they know they can get better. They believe in the importance of a strong work ethic.
 
"That's the only way we deserve to be doing what we're doing," Howard says. "We're still trying to fix things in the set and we still got these challenges in playing the songs better, the material better, sitting more comfortably with each other when we're playing songs, listening and playing more gracefully. There are all sorts of things we're always trying to fix, even though we've been playing this record for a year."

There's also another reason Alabama Shakes' live shows are already legendary: when the band have the opportunity, they record their soundcheck and post-mortem the set.
 
"It's kind of like in football, you know they have a play-by-play? Our sound man will play it back for us and we'll listen for what is sticking out, what we don't like, what's too loud, what's not loud enough, what's slow, what's pushed, all those things, and we just say, 'Oh, okay, we need to pay attention to this tonight.' We need to do it. It's easy to get lazy."
 
The hustle has paid off. Earlier this year, Howard recalled the surreal things that she'd experienced so far with Alabama Shakes: visiting the White House, playing Saturday Night Live twice, hanging out with a prince at a Swiss chateau, seeing America for the first time. Just seven months later, Howard has added a few more major milestones: Paul McCartney asked her to perform with him ("There was no air of ego or hero worship; he's just a really cool dude and he still loves what he does and that's really impressive, because he's been doing that for, like, 50 years") and Prince asked if he could play with Alabama Shakes, an experience that Howard says will define her use of the word "incredible" from now on.
 
"We're all huge Prince fans and I'm especially a fan of his guitar playing," Howard recalls. "He said he wanted to play 'Gimme All Your Love' and I was like, 'Oh yeah, do it man,' and he was like, 'Okay, I'm gonna go listen to it and learn it.'" Howard laughs. "Like, he didn't even know the song! It's crazy. But he went back there and learned the changes and so it came time for us to play the song and we're looking at each other, like, okay, this is the one that Prince is going to come out on. We didn't know when, but I had a hunch. We're playing the whole song and we start going into the bridge and it's towards the end of the song and we're like, 'Oh man, is he comin' or what?' And then he just hops on stage, he's wearing all green and he's got this bad-ass guitar and [is] just shredding. It was the sickest solo. And we just had to extend the song. We all jammed on it, it was so epic. At one point, me and him did a double solo. I'm telling you how it went because there was no video allowed, this is it — this is just a moment we had. If you weren't there, you won't know, which is actually refreshing."
 
Howard's voice is still shiny with awe at the memory, but she knows that so far, Alabama Shakes' experiences in the music industry have been the exception, not the rule.
 
"In this day and age, when we're all connected to computers and data, you can do anything you want and get somebody to hear it," Howard says. "You can be your own label, your own distributor, your own accountant. It's a new age. But, I mean, we're not gettin' paid, you know what I'm sayin'? Nobody's buying the music, which is a shame, because there's so much work that goes into it, but how can I complain? It's something I love doing. Back in the day, Mendelssohn wrote music and got paid with food and board — he was just trying to make it. He was just trying to do it for the love of it. You gotta do this 'cause you love it. I would never tell anybody to do it so you can get a tour bus and go around the world and get paid."