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“Maybe it’s divine”: Brittany Howard on breaking away from Alabama Shakes and finding her own God

She was the frontwoman that powered Alabama Shakes to international success. Now, she’s taking a risk on her first solo album, Jaime.

“Look, I don’t want to cry,” admits Brittany Howard as we perch on a sofa in the rather swish drawing room of London’s Soho Hotel. “I get emotional talking about it.”

The near-tears might have something to do with jet lag (Howard flew in from the US just the night before) or the hysterically strange animals that adorn her fancy espresso cup (“What is this creature? Is it a cucumber with a tail?”). But what’s really getting Howard choked up is thinking about the girls who come up to her after gigs to tell her they want to be just like her when they grow up. “I remember this little girl named Pumpkin, she was probably eight or nine years old, and she was like: ‘Imma play guitar just like you, you think I can play guitar like you?’ And I was like: ‘Yeah! Just do it!’” 

Watching Howard perform, it is no wonder she instils this sort of ambition in even the youngest of gig-goers. A ferociously talented guitarist who merges soul, blues and rock influences, on stage Howard exudes an almost unbearable cool. As the frontwoman of Alabama Shakes, one of the US’s break-out guitar bands of the last decade – they have won four Grammys (of nine nominations) and in 2013 performed at the White House for the Obamas (with Howard returning as a guest vocalist in 2016) – she made one thing certain: though it may not yet be a familiar sight in mainstream music, women of colour can play guitar, “and they’re damn good too”.

Now, on the cusp of releasing her first solo record, Howard is deep into a 21-date US and European tour. She is far more reserved in person than onstage, speaking quietly with a distinctive Southern drawl, carefully considering each of her words. How did the rest of the Shakes react, when she told them she was going solo for a little while? “Everyone was really gracious because we’re family. There was no bad blood at all, they understood.”

Howard, now 30, was born in Athens, Alabama, and met her bandmates at high school. The quartet started playing gigs at house parties and later in bars in their small town. “I was 20 when I started out – I remember I couldn’t drink at the bar. But I did anyway,” Howard says. Hers were humble beginnings: she was born in a trailer park, she reminds me, and her success is “still hard to drink in sometimes”. She looks around the room – at the china plates that adorn the walls and the waiting staff who hover, on-hand to take coffee orders at any moment. “Where I come from, we didn’t always have hot water. So when I go to the shower in a hotel and I turn it on and it gets hot really quickly, I’m still like, wow!” 

After two critically acclaimed Alabama Shakes albums – their 2012 debut Boys & Girls and its 2015 follow-up Sound & Color – Howard began work on songs that felt “just so different. I couldn’t work them into our repertoire at the time, and I didn’t want them to change.” These earliest solo tracks, “History Repeats” and “He Loves Me”, appear on Jaime, released on Columbia this Friday. It is a staggeringly vibrant album that rings out with deep funk sensibilities and a confident, no-holds-barred approach. And it felt like that for Howard too. With Jaime, she says, “everything just worked. It was very easy. I was prepared to cut off an ear and shave my head for inspiration, but I didn’t have to do that.”

It came off easily because, finally, Howard could follow the inspiration that led her to a career in music in the first place – and call the finished product her own. The record is named for her elder sister, Jaime (“I wouldn’t say it’s in tribute to her, it’s more in collaboration with her”), who died from retinoblastoma as a 13-year-old. Howard was nine at the time; her partial blindness in one eye, the result of treatment for the same cancer, is just about noticeable today. 

“I named the album after her because when I showed up in the world, my family was really impoverished, we didn’t have any money. But my sister was like: ‘This is how you have fun: use your imagination; we can draw; we can make this out of this; we can listen to music, have a dance, write a song.’ She was a teacher, my first teacher.” 

Jaime taught Brittany to play piano. She would open up a “huge, heavy, grey box” of cassette tapes and together, they would sing Michael Jackson, Prince and Bruce Springsteen songs. “She left me everything she loved, and now look at me,” Howard smiles, peacefully. 

Howard’s first memories are of “dancing and singing, playing harmonica, playing buckets”, but although she went with her family to church every Wednesday and Sunday, she never sang there. "I was really too shy," she says. She went to the Church of Christ with her white mother, where she learnt about vocal harmonies: “they don’t believe in instruments, so you use your voice.” At her black father’s church – a Southern Baptist Church – “they had a great choir, a great drummer. It was like a concert every weekend. I loved that. I would have this big smile on my face. I wouldn’t sing but I’d be enjoying it.”

The Howards stopped going to church when Jaime died. “We quit because we weren’t sure we believed in God at that point.” At first, Howard suffered from survivor’s guilt, questioning why she was the one left when her sister – “she was smarter than me!” – was gone. “I don’t feel that way anymore. I feel like if she hadn’t left, I don’t think I would have been set on the path that I have been on, so, really, maybe it’s divine. It’s been a wild ride.”

Howard may have found the gospel songs of her childhood “very slow and ominous”, but that doesn’t mean she’s thrown out the idea of writing about faith altogether – she’s just had to go about it a different way. “Religion is not so much my thing anymore, but I’m a very spiritual person,” she says, preferring to reckon with God on her own terms rather than following the rules of traditional religion. 

“People really worry about going to heaven or hell. I feel they miss out on a lot of life, on a lot of life lessons, because they’re so eager to let something else rule them. I wanted to write a song that says: you don’t have to sign up to x, y or z to have a relationship with your maker. I’m fine not knowing what it is.” 

That song finds its way onto Jaime as “He Loves Me”, a swaggering, drum-filled number on which a breathy Howard revels in her God’s affections, even when she’s “smoking blunts” or “drinking too much”. Her voice is punctuated with a preacher’s, Terry K. Anderson, whose sermon Howard found on YouTube: “I loved the timbre of his voice. It’s very hellfire and brimstone”. Howard’s, meanwhile, is relaxed and confident, made all the more compelling by interjections of shredding guitar. Faith marks itself onto other places on the record too: on “13th Century Metal”, Howard speaks of equality and peace. “My spirit will never be stubbed out,” she insists. “We are all brothers and sisters. I repeat: we are all brothers and sisters.” It’s a powerful, burgeoning sermon of her own. 

“The catharsis lies in performing these songs” – not in having written them, Howard insists. “Nothing I wrote about is an open wound, it’s all healed. I’m like: here’s my story, and I’m gonna perform and share that energy with someone else. That’s my catharsis. I’m encouraging people to be more aware of where they’ve been, and what they have arrived in, and to take a look: are you happy where you are? Or do you want something else?”

Ellen Peirson-Hagger is the New Statesman's culture assistant.