- 23 Sep 19
Following a stunning set at Electric Picnic, Alabama Shakes leader Brittany Howard reflects on grief, childhood memories, Donald Trump and her debut solo album, Jaime.
The first time Brittany Howard held a copy of her new record in her hands, she was overcome.
Jaime is named after the older sister who was so much more than a sibling to the young Brittany. Jaime Howard taught her guitar, instilling in her a lifelong love of, and curiosity for, music. And she told Brittany that she could be somebody. Then, at 13, she died from a rare form of cancer.
But Howard wasn’t sad as she gazed at her album in physical form for the first time. She felt proud her name and her sister’s were together on the sleeve. This was how it should be.
“It evokes feelings – a lot of feelings,” says Howard. “But to be honest, it evokes great feelings. It would seem like it shouldn’t. It does. We’re all so proud in the family.”
Howard grew up poor in Athens, Alabama (population 21,000). Where she comes from people – especially not young women – don’t get to live big, dramatic lives. Her sister, she tells Hot Press, was her first guiding light.
“She was my mentor. We didn’t have a lot of money. She showed me how to play music, to draw pictures, to go outside and have fun. Everything I am today is what she taught me. It seemed appropriate to me to have both our names on the album. I didn’t make it alone.”
With Alabama Shakes, Howard (30) has become the first lady of pedal-to-the-floor indie-blues. Jaime takes her in a different direction. It’s more experimental. Hip-hop beats bleed into psychedelic breakdowns and free-floating jazz. It’s fantastic. But Alabama Shakes fans might be forgiven for scratching their heads. Jaime really is out there.
“A solo record takes a lot!” she laughs. “It’s a thing I always wanted to do. I told myself that one day I would choose all the instruments and all the arrangements. ‘I’m going to make it sound as weird as I want to.’ It was always ‘one day’. But then ‘one day’ came around.”
The lyrics Howard wrote with Alabama Shakes tended towards the universal and the inscrutable. Not here. On the new album, she looks back upon her childhood, growing up in a house in the middle of a junkyard (her parents’), the daughter of a white mother and black father.
The culture wars currently rocking America also seeped in to the studio. How could they not? Jaime isn’t anti-Trump, per se. But the orange Destroyer of Worlds of course casts a shadow.
“It wasn’t my goal,” she says. “But I’m affected by my environment. Just being me was my act of resistance. It was like, ‘I’m fucking me dude… what you say, what you believe… let’s be real about it.’
“You can’t change my mind,” she says, continuing to address an archetypal Trump supporter. “I can’t change yours. I’m just gonna stand up for what I believe and try to get this motherfucker out of office, you know what I’m saying.”
The stereotype of Alabama as a hotbed of racial strife isn’t something she necessarily recognises. That’s one of the things she wanted to communicate with Jaime: her love, as an African-American, for her home state.
“Alabama is full of beautiful people. Great culture, great food, great music, great heart… just beautiful. You would never know that if you were looking in from the other side.”
She shakes her head whenever she hears someone caricature Alabama as full of racists. If the 2016 election told us anything, it’s that nowhere in America has a monopoly on xenophobes.
“You can go anywhere in this country and there are racists. You can no longer peg that on Alabama.”
These things were never an issue growing up, she continues. Her upbringing struck her as perfectly normal as a kid. Being of mixed race was no kind of novelty.
“Yeah my mom’s white, my dad’s black. I would go stay with my aunt and make cupcakes. Then I would go with my cousins and we would be playing in a ditch with buckets and getting chased by dogs. I love these people and these people love me.
She has sensed a change in the conversation around race since Trump came into power
“What people don’t understand, they fear. Fear turns to anger and anger turns to hate. A man has taken office who doesn’t think before he speaks or tweets. He will say things that will really activate a certain part of the country. They believe in white power and separation. They have their own demons to deal with. Why they do that, I can’t say.
“But he [Trump] doesn’t think about what his words do. You have a man sitting at the controls of a society as large as America, where we are all so different and come from so many places. It’s irresponsible and it’s bringing out a lot of bad in a lot of people. You’re seeing people for what they really are. They’ve always been here but now they are speaking louder.”
Despite how far we’ve travelled, a woman playing guitar is always still a novelty. A female guitarist recently told me that Howard inspired her to pick up the instrument and play. She’s flattered.
“I remember seeing my music teacher when I was 11-years-old take a guitar and start playing. Playing it well. I never knew a woman could play guitar. The industry is definitely changing. Look out boys. Them days are over. It’s changing – mark my words.”
She obviously didn’t set out to be a role model. But she remembers as a child being inspired by Missy Elliott. Howard would like to think that she could have the same positive impact.
“Growing up, I thought you had to look like one of the people on TV,” she reflects. “Be rich and famous. Missy Elliott was so different. It changed how I saw myself. I just want to share who I am. To show the little girls that grow up just like me that you don’t have to be xyz. You can be different, strange, tall… take up a lot of space, have a lot of opinions. It’s fine.”
Jaime is out now.