When one mentions bluesy music circa 2012 names like Jack White or The Black Keys may well spring to mind first. Our pick, however, for their soulful blues-tinged rock ‘n roll coupled with vocalist, Brittany Howards’ raw, emotive vocals has to be Alabama Shakes. Chatting to Brittany, Mickdotcom discovered the feisty yet down to earth vocalist in a contemplative mood…
Alabama Shakes’ music recalls the best of early Rhythm ‘n Blues and golden era Rock ‘n Roll, each song an immersive experience drenched in sunlight and swaying wheat fields of emotion. Where most music today is Produced, with a capital ‘p’ – sliced and spliced and compiled from an assortment of sonic slabs and slivers, the Shakes take us back to the full, warm analogue world of music-making.
There’s something special about a bunch of talented musicians, with their own little worlds of musical influence, evolving together and playing music. Add to this that elusive chemistry that makes certain bands connect into something… bigger, and you’ve got music magic. Bassist Zac Cockrell is something of an authority on Southern Soul bassists and the studio bass legends of Motown era R ‘n B, with other members bringing a slew of different influences to the table; but Rhythm & Blues rule the roost, with the elemental force that is lead vocalist Brittany Howards soaring and transforming the music into something that grips and don’t let go till the final note.
We sat down with the lady whose voice flexes from serpentine Robert Plant to seething Joplin to seductive Doo-Wop likes she’s just ringing a bell.
Muse: Alabama Shakes’ rise has been very sudden and, I imagine, quite intense. Barely having released your debut, y’all have been lauded by the likes of Bon Iver and Jack White, and invited to open for the latter. What does this kind of upheaval feel like?
Brittany Howards: Well it’s always fantastic to be acknowledged by your heroes. We’ve learned a lot from touring with Jack White and his band – his production is something he is very focused on and it always seems to change from show to show to keep things interesting. I respect that kind of effort. As far as the “sudden” rise goes, it doesn’t feel so sudden to me. We’ve been in the South writing and performing for anyone who would have us. The word spread rather quickly, yes, but it isn’t anything we would dwell on. We are constantly wanting to work and I feel like now is a good time to be writing rather than reading. I’ve learned a lot in the past year and I’d like to see what will come out when we get a little time to put our heads together.
Muse: We folk living on the southern tip of Africa don’t know all that much about Alabama (excepting, o’ course, the generalized). Tell us about growing up there in the 21st century?
BH: Growing up in Athens, AL was peaceful… even a little boring. It’s a small hard working town of about 20,000. All sorts of people live and work here together. There wasn’t much to do growing up in Athens, so we had to be creative: exploring the woods with my sister, fishing with the handful of neighbouring kids down the street or playing with our dogs in the creek. When I stayed with my cousin we would play buckets and harmonica in her garage for change. It was a lot of fun growing up here. I’d like for my own children to grow up like that.
Muse: Brittany, your vocals are beautifully androgynous – you seem effortlessly able to move from masculine to feminine vocal contours. Is this at all conscious?
BH: I never noticed.
Muse: I love the old-school musical atmospheres of Boys & Girls. Why is Alabama Shakes so infatuated with the analogue period of Rhythm & Blues and Rock?
BH: We love all types of music. We certainly are not stuck in a time machine. I’m listening to Kavinsky right now. But, I’ll tell ya, when we first got together it was hard to figure out how to get along with so many different influences between us. One thing we shared in common was the music we grew up with – James Brown, The Rolling Stones, Prince, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, AC/DC, Otis Redding and Patsy Cline to name a few. We started with what came naturally to us and had a lot of fun learning that those different influences actually had a lot in common.
Muse: Tell us about the highs and lows of your garage band period. Many teens start garage bands – there are the familiar negotiations with parents, and the more than occasional neighbour complaints. Please recall specific moments of delight and frustration that you guys experienced?
BH: Do you mean my old punk band? Well, the highs were when we could actually play a song together and the lows were when we were constantly waiting for our drummer to show up. I was about thirteen at the time and we practiced in a room across from my father’s bedroom. My father complained and the dogs barked. We didn’t play very many shows but I remember being determined to make that band work. It didn’t and that was probably for the best.
Muse: The period of Western music your album evokes was, outside of its sonic electricity, very electric in socio-political realms. Even political icons like Springsteen and Dylan seem drowned out by today’s tsunamis of information overload. Do you feel music still has the power to effect social change?
BH: I’ve seen music bring people together. That’s what it does. How many people need to be affected in order to cause a “social change”? I’ll settle for people being happy with one another for a little while.
Muse: Your favourite/most inspiring album of the last, say, year? Given, that is, you’ve had time to listen!
BH: Swagger by Fly Golden Eagle.
Muse: Outside of the POW of musical influence, and, well, the even more intense emotional stimuli of being alive, what other media – books, cooking shows, Facebook – in/directly spur your songs?
BH: If I’ve seen a good film I like to elaborate on it by guessing what the characters are thinking. That can inspire a song.
Muse: Ta much for your time Alabama shakers!
BH: We want to come visit South Africa!!!!!
And we here at Muse most certainly hope they do! The Shakes’ debut Boys & Girls is already being hailed a classic, make sure to check what all the fuss is about!