Brittany Howard’s back yard stretches nine acres down through the forest to a creek, and is occasionally home to coyotes, armadillos, possums, foxes and owls, all of which she worries might one day attack her two pet cats. A family of deer pass through occasionally, by a pond that dries up for much of the year.
When she was buying the house, in the wake of the first Alabama Shakes album selling over a million copies, Howard wanted somewhere secluded and quiet. She also bought a place in Nashville, 100 miles up Interstate 65, but could never envisage permanently moving away from her hometown of Athens, Alabama. “I’m pretty sure Nashville would kill me,” she says. “I’m the type of person who loves to be involved in everything going on. So I go up there, have my fun, and then when I can’t stand it anymore I come back here. There’s a duality to all of us. I think you gotta keep things in balance.”
The living room of Howard’s Athens house is calm and pastel-shaded. A few gold discs and French art deco prints are framed on the walls, and an acoustic guitar lies recently abandoned on an armchair. With characteristically informal diligence, she has been figuring out how to play Curtis Mayfield’s “Think”, from the Superfly soundtrack. When she enters from the porch, she stubs out her cigarette. Smoking inside is forbidden – “Otherwise my couch would smell weird.”
It is permitted, though, in the basement, a cold and expansive space that Howard has equipped as a rehearsal room and rudimentary recording studio. On one shelf, vinyl copies of Mayfield’s first solo album and James Brown’s Live At The Apollo are displayed next to an empty Jameson’s bottle. There is a drumkit, a $100 upright piano, a clutch of Xbox games, a vintage whammy pedal, a rack of guitars. Beneath a crude painting of a black panther, a large old hi-fi cabinet that once belonged to Howard’s grandfather has been playing “Future Primitive”, from Santana’s Caravanserai, at a selection of inaccurate and faintly disconcerting speeds.
Right now, Howard is reclining on a chair in front of her computer, a selection of cheap analog keyboards close at hand. On her chest, a cat extends itself languidly. She has cued up a series of demos that were recorded down here; spacey, Aquarian funk songs that, in their basic electronic form, recall Shuggie Otis’ Inspiration Information, or one of Sly Stone’s demos for his Stone Flower label – none of which, incidentally, Howard has ever heard. These are the songs that form the backbone of the excellent second Alabama Shakes album, Sound & Color, songs that retain a silvery otherworldliness even when they have been reconstituted with the guitar, bass and drums of her bandmates. Where a wallowing guitar solo sits on the finished version of “Gemini”, for instance, there is a sci-fi voluntary, played on an old synth. “Lasers!” Howard shouts, cracking up.
“Brittany’s probably the biggest influence on the experimental side of the band,” says Blake Mills, the producer who gave them room to manoeuvre on Sound & Color. “I got a strong Maggot Brain vibe from her demos, and also Curtis, because while she’s a rambunctious musician on whatever instrument it is she’s playing, the band don’t play like her. They end up executing it with a little more finesse than she puts into the demos. So what comes out has the spirit of that psychedelic, untethered force, from a group of musicians who really care about that and cherish that, but who might not necessarily come from that world.”
Howard’s mop of curls, so familiar from Shakes performances around Boys & Girls, have now been shaved and sculpted into a precarious quiff. She also has a fresh tattoo, two months old, to go with the one of Alabama on her right arm; Athens is marked on her map with a love heart. The new ink, mostly obscured by her glasses, traces two lines running straight and parallel away from her left eye. “I was just bored with my face,” she laughs. “I’d been looking at it for a really long time and I just wanted to switch it up.” She ponders for a moment the confluence of these adjustments to her image with the arrival of a new and surprising Alabama Shakes album; one that begins, appositely, “A new world hangs outside the window/Beautiful and strange.”
“Oh Jeez, so many changes,” she eventually sighs, theatrically. “People are gonna think I lost my damn mind…”