Once Brittany Howard threw on a sequined cape and strode out to her spot in the center of the stage of the Beacon Theatre in New York on Tuesday night (Sept. 24), she was surrounded by her band, a series of cloth columns that constructed a pantheon of sorts behind her — and a portrait of a black panther.
The painting is huge: the top of its frame grazes the cymbals of drummer Nate Smith’s kit, and the glowing eyes and bared fangs of the formidable feline could be seen from the back rows of the venue. “That’s my spirit animal!” she says when asked about its addition to her show. “To get charged up, I have that painting on the stage. It’s been in my studio all these years, and then one day I was just cleaning out my studio, and I was just like, ‘I should bring this with me, otherwise I’ll never see it.’”
Though she glances at the panther throughout her performance, her power, in this moment, is undeniably her own, one that “charges” on self-renewing, smoldering strength. Howard is currently touring in support of Jaime — named for her sister, who passed away following a cancer battle when the girls were young — her solo debut album she released on Friday (Sept. 20).
As the frontwoman of Alabama Shakes, she drew a devoted fan base after she let her earth-shaking belt rip on “Hold On,” the band’s breakthrough, in 2012. Since then, Alabama Shakes have collected a handful of Grammys for 2015’s Sound & Color, which had them deviating from the Southern-fried flavors of their debut into groovier, bluesier territory.
Howard dipped a toe in the musical waters outside of the Shakes’ pool after Sound & Color‘s release, lending her voice and writing to other collaborations in her (then) new home of Nashville. With Thunderbitch, she suited up in a leather jacket, white facepaint and a wig, and this gritty alter-ego fronted a band (including members of Clear Plastic Masks and Fly Golden Eagle) that threw back to the rough-and-tumble spirit of ’50s and ’60s rock and roll. Bermuda Triangle, her folk-rock trio with Jesse Lafser and Becca Mancari, offered an instrumental change-of-pace and a fresh songwriting perspective. “Short and Sweet,” Jaime‘s acoustic ode to a small-but-mighty love, is a song Howard’s performed with Bermuda Triangle before, and the group’s “Bring Your Love to Me,” which she hasn’t recorded yet, is a highlight in her current setlist.
In between these exciting projects and her own tours with Alabama Shakes, Howard pursued new adventures and marked major life milestones. She and Lafser got married in 2018, and moved to Taos, N.M. after they drove from Nashville to Los Angeles on a transformative road trip, one that inspired Howard to finally get moving on writing the album that would eventually become Jaime.
Some of the songs — like “Goat Head,” which zeroes in on a nightmarish incident her parents experienced when she was growing up, or “Georgia,” the first song she’s ever written where the object of her affection is definitively a woman — break personal ground that she hadn’t previously tread with Alabama Shakes. From the various ruminations throughout to the melding of blues, soul, jazz, pop, spoken word and rock, Jaime is a potent distillation of Howard’s very essence. If the panther she sings to every night is her spirit animal, this is her spirit album.
In a conversation with Billboard, Howard reflected on Jaime, the journey that brought her to it and why it marks a rebirth for the bared-soul singer.
Jaime is all you — you wrote this; you produced this; it’s your opus. You’ve had some wonderful collaborations leading up to this moment, with Thunderbitch and Bermuda Triangle, and of course the dudes in Alabama Shakes. Can you hear anything that you gleaned from those different collaborations on the album?
Thunderbitch really doesn’t care what anybody thinks. Thunderbitch, to me, really symbolizes lots of power. Lots of empowerment comes from being that character on the stage, and just not giving a shit in the best way possible. With Bermuda Triangle, that was more of an opportunity to learn about songwriters and writing lyrics and saying what I mean, just becoming a better songwriter. It’s a different stage when it’s just you and a guitar, and that’s it, so then people are listening to what you’re saying. Being in a group with those girls taught me a lot more about being a better lyricist.
Your wife, Jesse Lafser, is one of your Bermuda Triangle bandmates. Did you bounce any ideas off her when you were working on Jaime?
I did, I tried, but in the end it was one of those things where no one could do it for me, I realized. Even though I asked her for help, the way she encouraged me the most was just encouraging me to keep trying to figure it out. Because eventually I did.
I know that the two of you went on an eye-opening trip across the country and spent some time in California before you settled in Taos, N.M. You’ve been to the most visually inspiring and enchanting places, but you’ve dealt with some not-so-savory scenes on the road before you sat down to write this. Is this album the product of this journey? Are there certain visual experiences you encountered that left an imprint on Jaime?
The road trip really inspired me to double-down and do this record. Some towns I would drive through in the middle of nowhere, just literally in the middle of nowhere, America, being like, “Wow, this is it for these people. This is where they want to be and where they want to die, this little town that doesn’t have industry anymore — literally ghost towns that people still live in.” Us pulling through them and them staring at us, and we’re the weird ones, you know what I mean? It was really eye-opening. I was just like, “I really want to do the things I want to do while I’m here.” I don’t just want to be like, “This is enough.”
This thing with Alabama Shakes is all I’m ever gonna do, it’s the pinnacle, it’s comfortable, it’s going great — so I’m gonna stay there. I think I was really inspired to just be like, “What happens if I go outside my comfort zone and try to do something that I’ve always wanted to do?”
You write through painful experiences and ones your family went through. “Goathead,” in particular, represents this: you sing about your black dad and white mom, and the horrible treatment they were subject to when you were too young to know what was going on. Was there any point in that process where you felt like you went too far outside of your comfort zone, or could have?
I think only “Goathead” — and the only reason I felt that way was just because it’s my parents’ story. But then the way it affected me, and from their generation to my generation, I think we’re very different in the way we hold things that traumatize. I think they were just like, “I’m gonna suck it up, that’s life.” Then it’s like, yeah, that is life. What is, is, but also, if you just tell the truth, you don’t know who that’s affecting or who that can help. I thought of it that way. I think I felt really vulnerable immediately once I performed that song in the studio, and once it was out, I was really scared what they were gonna think, but it’s all okay.
These last four years since the last Alabama Shakes album have seen tumultuous change in this country, this community. There’s been a lot of terrible shit that we’ve witnessed. Did this album provide an outlet to explore some of that?
I think all creative people are sensitive people and it’s impossible to not be affected by our society, because we’re all human beings going through a lot of the same things at the same time. Somehow, I don’t know how that works, but it seems like it. I literally was just doing my story; I was just telling my story, talking about what I knew, because I wasn’t really sure what I was going to talk about on the next record. I guess you can’t help but be political just by being. I don’t know how else to say that. I wasn’t trying to make a record that was America today or anything like that; I just happened to be a part of it.
Of course — it’s hard not to, unless you put on blinders.
Yeah — and I tried to put blinders, but that doesn’t really work.
I was curious about whether or not we’d hear an Alabama Shakes song in your current set. Was there a chance of performing a Shakes song in a different way, or are these just separate things that you want to keep that way?
I’m definitely doing it this way for now. The way I think of it is, if I’m going to set forth on this journey, with my name, I kind of have to leave things in the past and really shoot forth and do my thing and see if I got it, see if I can do it. There’s a lot of songs that I’ve written that I love, and I’m very aware that there are lots of fans that want to hear those songs again. I’m not saying that’ll happen, I’m not saying that at all; I’m just saying, at this point in time, can I do this on my own without that back catalog?
You played a song for us that you hadn’t recorded yet, too. Was that one you wrote while working on this album?
It’s actually a song I used to play with Bermuda Triangle. I just kind of missed it. I like that song; I liked performing it. I just wanted the opportunity to keep playing that or else it would never be heard ever again.
There were also some other songs that you’d worked into the mix — a Prince tribute, and that sensational performance of Jackie Wilson’s “Higher and Higher.” How do these covers compliment the songs of Jaime for you?
Because the album is all about me, we only do three covers. One of them, New Birth’s “You Are What I’m All About,” I really use to show off everyone in the band. The Prince song is just one of my favorite songs that Prince ever wrote. “Breakdown” is [about] someone coming into your life and it changing because you met them: you become a richer person, a better person, more aware of yourself, you know, and that’s what that song means to me — growing up, you know? On a late night YouTube hunt, I saw [a clip] when Prince was talking on a talk show about how his favorite song he ever wrote was that song, and I had no idea. I thought that was really cool, so I wanted to perform that song.
“Higher and Higher” was one of the songs I remember listening to as a kid that’s always made me so happy. I think it’s one of those songs that was written to instantly put joy into the room. I just wanted to experience that for myself and it seems true.
Was this one of the songs your sister introduced to you?
Yeah, you know, me and my sister really loved Ghostbusters, and that song comes on in the end [of the second movie], when the Stay Puft marshmallow man is marching through the streets, and they play that song to make everyone in New York City get along again. [Laughs.]
What was the biggest risk you took, from a songwriting or personal perspective, on Jaime?
I think the risk was making this record in and of itself. It’s not like a risk I perceived, because I had to do it, I was going to do it. I did consider the risk for a second, like, “Okay, your career is over!” But then I was like, “You know what, it doesn’t matter: I gotta do it.” As far as the material on this record, it didn’t feel risky or scary when I was making the songs; I think maybe musically they were a lot more adventurous. I wanted to take people to a more adventurous space.
I feel like what’s interesting about the fans I’ve had previously with Alabama Shakes — each record, we could take them further into something kind of strange. I wanted to keep going in that direction, but at the same time still make them sound like songs. I guess that is a risk. To me, [Jaime] just really feels like a whole new thing. Everything is very new again, which I think is rare, maybe, in a musical career — “This is who I am and what I do and I’ll always have those same people come to see it.” With this, it’s like, and here I am starting all over again with much more information. It’s a trip.
That’s super exciting, too. You wrote some of these songs about prior heartaches, crushes and relationships that didn’t work out. In terms of this new chapter in your life, and sharing love songs anchored in the past, is this a new experience?
No — I’ve been writing about love since the get-go. That feels very natural to me. I think working outside of that is where my exploration begins. I can write a really good love song, because I have a lot of feelings, you know. But then getting outside of myself and examining myself and different areas of my life, I think that is a lot more challenging.
Is “Georgia” your first love song where the object of your affection is female? I was thinking about previous Shakes songs and I couldn’t think of any that were explicitly about a woman.
Yeah, “Georgia” is definitely the first song I wrote like that. I really wrote it just because I never heard a song like that before. I thought, “Oh, how cool, what a cool opportunity to write about this in this way!” It’s actually my favorite song because of that. I’ve never heard anything like it. Maybe somebody else has, but I haven’t. It remains my favorite.
The chord structures during the verse, the big overwhelming ending — the whole song explains the feeling. It’s supposed to sound really minimal and juvenile and innocent because that’s what the song’s about: it’s about a young girl having a crush on an older girl and not understanding what that even means. She really keeps it to herself. In the end, when it gets big and blown out and reverb-y, that’s [us] revealing how that feels, that soundscape. It’s a cool subject, what the song’s about, and the way it’s displayed is really unique.