Published Apr 16, 2015"There was so much more we could do and have shown the world, but you know, we didn't know anybody was going to listen to our record."
Brittany Howard laughs when she says this, but she's being honest. Three years ago, when her band Alabama Shakes released their debut album, Boys & Girls, the band — Howard (vocals and guitar), Heath Fogg (guitar), Zac Cockrell (bass), Ben Tanner (keys) and Steve Johnson (drums) — had barely ever left their pocket of the South and had never seen most of America, never mind the world. And then Alabama Shakes blew up, the good kind of explosion when a band are suddenly everywhere, on everybody's radar and the hype machine is actually working overtime to catch up. They have played Saturday Night Live twice and performed at the White House.
Now Howard is doing interviews for the band's brilliant and bold follow-up, Sound & Color, all the way from Australia like it's no big deal. She's just chilling out and eating walnuts, unfazed for the most part that she's a tremendous part of the Shakes' success. Howard is fearless and transfixing, and her voice is a mountain: wild and punishing, epic and gentle, unfathomable in its reach and range. Boys & Girls introduced her to the world, but Sound & Color is her red carpet arrival, a sonically challenging, genre-smashing masterpiece that's confounding, exhilarating and emotional in equal measure.
"I just want to make stuff I like," Howard tells Exclaim! "I think that's my goal. When we started writing this record, I was like, 'oh my god, I don't know if I can write songs anymore, maybe this is a fluke.' But of course I didn't really believe that. I was just doubting myself, but that's no good and I should have never doubted myself."
Howard's focus is what makes her (and the band) happy, and that's evident throughout Sound & Color. Co-produced with Blake Mills, Howard says there was no rush this time and that the band dug deep in the studio, wanting to put more creative flair into this record while still staying true to recording songs they could also play live.
Howard did more of the legwork in advance this time, writing songs in her basement and recording more demos. If the lyrics came, great, and if they didn't, she wasn't going to force it. The result is that some songs are more lyrically spacious than others; the music itself does much of the storytelling throughout, which changes the dynamic of the listening experience in an exciting way, particularly since the album's influences are all over the damn map (in the best way possible). Sound & Color is gospel-punk-meets-Southern-rock-freakout-meets-blues-funk-disco with a tiny bit of free jazz thrown in because why the hell not.
"I'm bored very quickly, so it was nice to just be a band that writes songs and not have 'Oh, we're a rock'n'roll band, we play '70s rock' or 'we're a punk band, we only play punk.' Or have all these labels, because within the confines, I think it's boring," Howard says. "To be honest, when people used to say we're a '60s throwback retro R&B band, I don't think they were fully listening. This was always the goal, to mix all of these genres, and when we recorded the record, we didn't think all these people would hear it.
"I remember doing all of these interviews and being like, 'no, no, no, it's not like that' and having to explain. Now I feel like this record explains everything. We're just this group of people who like to write songs and make music and figure out how we can all do this and enjoy ourselves. I don't want this to be a job, I want it to be a labour of love every time we make a record. I believe that not everyone is going to understand, especially our older fans who have preconceptions, and I can't be sorry really, because this is what I love to do and it makes me happy."
Sound and Color will arrive on April 21 via ATO. As previously reported, the band have several tour dates lined up in support of the new album, and you can see all those here.