A BUST Interview: Brittany Howard Is Back With A New Solo Album – What Now. 

by kathy iandoli

Brittany Howard rocks on a level most singer/songwriters can only dream of. Here, the soulful solo artist and former Alabama Shakes frontwoman reveals why for her, making music still feels deeply magical

For Brittany Howard, stillness is the move. When she’s not touring or recording new music, she’s enjoying the backyard of her Nashville home, listening to the birds sing, a respite from having to be the one singing herself. It’s been a decade since the Alabama native moved to Nashville, though she’s not particularly invested in the city’s “Nash-Vegas” rebranding. She’d much rather stay in her own quiet corner until she’s back out in the world performing. For nearly 15 years, Howard, 35, has been actively on her grind, first as the frontwoman for Alabama Shakes and now as a solo artist. The group formed in 2009, and by 2012 they had released the debut album Boys & Girls, a monumental success that hit the Top 10 of the Billboard 200.

The project introduced the world to Howard’s mind-blowing talent as a singer/songwriter and incendiary guitarist. Never destined for just one genre, her soulful voice carries listeners through rock, blues, and everything in between. In fact, artists including Beyoncé, Childish Gambino, and Drake have all cited Alabama Shakes as a source of inspiration—the latter making the group one of his muses for his fourth studio album, Views, in 2016. In 2019 (with four Grammys under her belt with Alabama Shakes), Howard ventured out on her own and released her solo debut, Jaime (in honor of her sister, who passed away from retinoblastoma in 1998), grabbing yet another Grammy for the album’s lead single, “Stay High.” Her new follow-up album, What Now, covers a lot of territory, though for Howard, the overarching sentiment is freedom. This is especially true on the title track, a demonstration of unbridled honesty delivered in a way that only Howard could concoct. And perhaps that’s her superpower. Here’s an artist who has always played by her own rules and continues to win in a business that doesn’t usually favor uniqueness. Here, Howard chats about her new album; home life with her spouse of six years; and puppies. Lots and lots of puppies.

What what was your mindset going into your second solo album?

I always keep a similar mindset—do whatever you want. Do whatever excites you. Follow that curiosity. Maybe what’s different this time is that I didn’t have as much prepared as I usually do. I usually have, like, entire blueprints—I know exactly what I want from top to bottom. But this time, I would have 25 percent of one song done, and 50 percent of another song done. Or I’d just write a song on the spot in the studio. I don’t usually do that, so it was exciting to see it all come together.

Did this more freestyle approach impact the sound or the songwriting since you were creating in the moment?

Absolutely. I was really surprised. Instead of freaking out and being like, “Oh my God, oh my God, studio hours, money’s going down the drain…” I was just like, “I’m gonna trust the process. I’m just gonna see what happens every day.” And it was super surprising what would come out. It had been three or four years since my last project. A lot of life happened since then. I’ve had so much learning in that time—coming out on the other side of the pandemic and being able to see people again, doing shows again, becoming a live performer again. I told myself, “You know what? Life is short. Just make whatever you want.” And with a song like “What Now,” that’s just how I was feeling. I surprised myself writing a song like that. It is a little poppier, but that poppiness is a juxtaposition with the dark feeling of the song and with the lyrics, which made it cool to me. It made it kind of an alluring song, and it made it just different enough that I didn’t throw it away.

You’ve been making music for so long. At this stage, what still excites you and gets you jazzed up to keep doing this?

I think what excites me still is the act of creating. It’s pretty crazy. Like, if you sit down and think about it, you just have, like, these ideas that come to you, right? And then you take all your tools and all your knowledge, and you use your hands, and you make it become a reality. Then you say something that has a color to it and has a feeling to it and an environment and a certain type of vulnerability to it. You create this thing, you put it into the world. And then people connect to it. They’re like, “Yeah, me too. I feel this, I feel that.” People witness the work in a way that is really cathartic—despite anyone else’s opinions. I’m so happy that people connect to the song. Also, kind of selfishly, it’s my own catharsis. It’s still just amazing to me that human beings have that ability to create something out of nothing. And that’s what keeps me excited about it. I never know what’s going to happen. I never know if I’m still going to receive music and be able to make music. It’s just, like, this thing that happens. I marvel at it. When you listen to my music, it could be absolutely anything at any time. And for me, that’s fun.

You’ve inspired so many people—who or what inspires you?

I’m inspired by people’s voices. I’m inspired by people’s stories, like in movies and photographs and poetry. What inspires me most, though, is being from a lineage specifically of women, women of color, poor women in my family—not being seen and not being heard and never having the opportunity for anyone to celebrate them or to have their stories heard. I feel like that’s what really pushes me forward. I have that opportunity. For the first time, it feels like all my cells are waking up, because my ancestors…I’m representing for them and having someone in our family line be seen and heard. And yeah, I take that pretty seriously.

Keeping that in mind, how difficult was it entering into the music space with your band Alabama Shakes? 

Well, it was kind of miraculous. It happened so quickly. I’ve been making music since I was 11. I’ve been in bands, and I’ve always known what I wanted to do. I wasn’t being paid for it, and I was basically losing money doing it, but it wasn’t about the money. I always told myself, “I’ll have a job, and then I’ll do this on the side, because I love it so much.” And then—fast-forwarding through this—we put some music on the internet. And then the next day, my inbox was full of all these interested people. It was a lot to decipher, being so green. Luckily, I had some great people come through and give me helpful information, and I found my own managers early on. They were so invaluable moving through the industry because they’re good people of good character. They really cared about us and about the music and about me. I feel very privileged and lucky that I had people like that on my side. Of course, I’ve seen a lot of things in this industry. I’ve seen wonderful things that support the arts. And I’ve seen things that are absolute trash that, to be honest with you, support patriarchal ideas around what people want to buy and how to sell it. I’ve been very fortunate to be protected from that, but I’ve seen it. I don’t keep anybody like that around me. It’s archaic, and that’s what’s killing the industry, in my opinion.

It’s gotta be trippy, though, to be in this position where you can experiment creatively and know you’ll still have fans who will receive and love the music. 

It’s funny you bring that up. I was talking about this in my kitchen yesterday because my partner [country artist Jesse Lafser] had put drawings some fans had done on the refrigerator. I walked by and said, “Oh, this is beautiful. Who did that?” They told me it was one of my fans. And I was like, “Oh, my God! Well, they’re super talented. It’s so crazy to have fans. Like, it’s just so mind-blowing.” Then we had a conversation about my fans. I’m so fortunate that almost all my fans are super-kind, open-hearted people from all walks of life, all ages, and all creeds. I think that is the absolute coolest thing. They go on this road with me creatively—sticking by me and staying willing to try new things, hear new things, experience new sounds, experience my voice differently. People who stick by my creativity and enjoy it…it’s amazing. The older and wiser I get, the more I appreciate these people because they allow me to do what I do. They allow me to share my stories and my music and hopefully that touches people and helps people. To me, it’s everything.

How do you personally define the word “feminism”?

I’ll put it this way: I have this awareness that I have grown up in a world that is very much shaped by men. More specifically, white men—older white men. It is a world that’s shaped by them, but the world has changed so quickly and moved so fast. I can feel some scrambling from these men who want to keep things the way that they were. But the world is different now, and the way I think about feminism is that we’re on the vanguard of this new reality. It’s a new world where we’re all equal players as human beings on this earth. We all have our positives, our negatives. We have things we’re good at, we have things we’re bad at. I don’t think it’s OK to call anyone less-than and treat them as less-than. The way I see feminism—we’re these soldiers on the very boundary of what was and what will be. So, we’re protecting each other, we’re supporting each other. We’re speaking to each other and we’re saying, No, we’re not gonna take it anymore. That’s just the way I think of it. It’s just…it’s necessary.

You’ll be back on tour again soon. How do you prepare for that?

I try to just be very still and collect my energy. You have to think about your spirit and about your energy source. You need to think about touring as taking that spirit and that energy source and moving it all over the place every night. So, it’s important to know how to be still. I have a meditation practice, and I keep my life as simple as possible so that I can do this. Because for me, stillness fills my cup back up. I’ve gotten older and a little wiser and all that partying that I used to partake in when I was younger—I thought that was doing something. But it was just running me down. The way that I do it now is very holistic. I’m just over here eating my greens and hanging out with my friends and laughing and petting animals and looking at birds and just absolutely chilling.

What do you put on your tour rider?

Oh my God, I have the most boring tour rider. It’s honey and turmeric. And, like, baby carrots and hummus and gluten-free crackers. And some cheese—like a big block of cheese. And hot water for tea. That’s pretty much it. And bitters. I like bitters. And soda water. Nothing abnormal. But also, like, I have puppies and kittens on the rider. So sometimes people come through with that.

Wait, for real?

Yeah! Puppies and kittens! Like, sometimes there’s an animal shelter in the area, and they’ll bring over a big ol’ crate of puppies and just set them loose. Then they’ll let us name the puppies, and they’ll put them up for adoption and be like, “You know, this one was touched by Brittany Howard and his name’s Landslide.” You know, stuff like that.

That is amazing. Do you have any puppies or kittens at home?

Oh yeah, I have three kitties: Bobby Brown, Arthur, and Etta James. And then I’ve got two weiner dogs: Wanda and Wilma.

Now when you say Bobby Brown, you mean “My Prerogative” and not the makeup company, right?

Yeah, 100 percent. “My Prerogative.”

Photos: Bobbi Rich

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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