Published Sep 17, 2019From the outside, it's easy to think that Brittany Howard has it all.
Howard's on the brink of releasing her debut solo album, Jaime, but the lead vocalist for acclaimed blues-rock outfit Alabama Shakes long ago earned critical acclaim, Grammy Awards and Saturday Night Live performances for her work with the band. Not to mention that she kept busy in the years since the Shakes' sophomore record, 2015's Sound & Color, with her other bands, Thunderbitch and Bermuda Triangle. But last year, on the precipice of turning 30, Howard found herself unhappy, questioning her success and what to do moving forward.
"Obviously, my career was doing real great, that was good, but everything else, I just wasn't really happy," she recalls to Exclaim! in an interview over the phone. "I just had to be like, 'Well, why wouldn't I be happy? I got my dreams, right?'"
She found herself unsatisfied by "just the normal, everyday, human things, like 'Oh, I could lose some weight, I'm tired of this, tired of that, X, Y, Z. I need to do better.' Just normal, human stuff. Normal stuff. Nothing outrageous."
It was a line of introspection that led her to Jaime, which sets her distinctive croon atop a bed of R&B, hip-hop and funk sounds — and finds her grappling with some of her most personal lyrics to date, as she processes many of the dichotomies that inform today's divisive political climate.
"Not everything's so black and white," remarks Howard. "I had to go in that gray area and figure out, 'Well, what's wrong?' And in that process of introspection, I got this record."
That gray area is one Howard's music often occupies, as she explores the nuances of a world that seems to increasingly want to ignore them. On "He Loves Me," she aims to reconcile her spiritual inclinations with her substance-using, church-averse lifestyle — "I know he still loves me when I'm smoking blunts, loves me when I'm drinking too much" — and on "Georgia," she succeeds in her goal of writing a wide-eyed song about young, queer love.
"I just thought there weren't enough songs like ['Georgia'], honestly. You never get to hear 'em, you know what I mean?" says Howard of the song's mission statement. "I wanted to hear a song that was a really innocent love song about loving someone of the same gender, and being so young you don't even understand the implications of it, it doesn't matter. Just how, when you're young, how all-encompassing love feels; it's everything that matters, the most important thing. And I enjoyed writing an R&B love song about really innocent love."
Howard describes her sexuality as "fluid," and has been in a relationship with her wife and Bermuda Triangle bandmate Jesse Lafser for around three years. The relationship began after Howard released her previous albums, Alabama Shakes' Sound & Color and Thunderbitch's self-titled album, both in 2015, which makes Jaime the first time the relationship has been able to inform her songwriting.
It's no coincidence, then, that the record is dotted with moments of love — which, according to Howard, came from "just being in love and being in a happy, fun, supportive relationship and just feeling like I belong there. I had a lot to say about it!"
The record also draws on her childhood growing up in Athens, Alabama to a black father and white mother. On arresting late-album cut "Goathead," Howard speak-sings over a spare, looping beat about a real-life anecdote from her infancy about a hate crime committed against her father.
"Thirty years ago," she recalls, "my dad was leaving for work and someone had put a goat head in the back of his car, bashed his windshield out, slashed his tires and wrote on his car."
As Howard processes this story on the album, she sings, "My mama was brave to take me outside because mama is white and daddy is black. When I first got made, guess I made these folks mad."
The story is front of Howard's mind as she processes her home state, especially in light of the wave of right-wing populism that has flexed its grip on the American South, stifling efforts to protect the rights of women, people of colour and members of the LGBT community — all identities with which Howard identifies.
"Growing up around beauty and having the Southern culture be a beautiful thing in my formative years, and then also remembering all the ugly things about the past" is a dichotomy that Howard has become adept at expressing over her ever-growing body of work, She wants to reconcile these differences in the hope of working toward a more inclusive future.
It's a sentiment she best expresses on "13th Century Metal," a whirlwind of blaring keys and breakbeat drums in the middle of the record, over which she howls statements like "I promise to think before I speak, to be wary of who I give my energy to, because it is needed for a greater cause," and "I am dedicated to oppose those whose will is to divide us and who are determined to keep us in the dark ages of fear," in a moment that serves as the album's manifesto.
The music is culled from an eight-minute, one-take jam between jazz pianist Robert Glasper and drummer Nate Smith, with Howard's missives taken from a document she found on her phone when looking for something to sing on top of it.
"The way that the song sounds and what I'm saying is a juxtaposition. The music is so chaotic but [with] the words, I'm trying to bring light into the situation," says Howard. "The subject matter felt appropriate for bringing light into a dark place."
Bringing light into dark places is something that Howard aims to achieve both with the songs of Jaime and with her body of her work at large, with a powerful current of hope surging through the music and her messages.
"There's a lot of people who'd love to change the archaic system of our government in that state," she says of Alabama. "There's a whole lot of people who want nothing to do with that agenda. And I can't give up on those people and I can't give up on Alabama, because who's gonna change it? Are we just gonna let Alabama blow itself up? There's so many good people there!
"And I think the same thing of America," she continues. "We can't give up on that, y'know? We didn't give up on America in the 1960s, we didn't give up on America when it was first founded, it was something we believed in, and a lot of people still believe in it. And so, we're gonna fight for it."
Jaime is out September 20 courtesy of ATO Records.