Alabama Shakes' Brittany Howard On Small-Town Life, Big-Time Music
Brittany Howard, the lead singer, songwriter and guitarist with Alabama Shakes, says she still remembers the day she decided to start a band. She was 11 or 12 and attending a concert in her school gym put on by some classmates (including future Alabama Shakes guitarist Heath Fogg).
"Probably about 45, 50 kids showed up that night, and we watched them play and ... it was like having a double life. It was like watching a James Bond film. I didn't know these kids had these talents," Howard tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "I was like, 'That is what I want to do,' because I was so amazed."
Howard's family's house was in the middle of a junkyard they owned in the small town of Athens, Ala. Her older sister died of cancer and her family home burned down after being struck by lightning, but Howard says, "I didn't feel sorry for us, because that's just the way life was."
Before she died at 13, Howard's sister taught her how to write poetry and play the piano; Howard learned guitar, bass and drums on her own. Eventually, she joined together with other musicians from her town to form Alabama Shakes. Sound & Color, the band's second record, has been nominated for six Grammy Awards, including Album Of The Year and Best Alternative Music Album.
The songs on Sound & Color draw from rock, R&B and psychedelic sounds — a blend Howard says was intentional. "I wanted to explore songwriting and what you can do when you don't pay attention to genre boundaries or anything like that," she says. "I just wanted to be free to do what I want to do as a musician."
On trying out a new sound on Sound & Color
I wanted to try everything, because we finally had the opportunity, and it was also an exciting prospect that people were going to hear it. For some people, that would be a lot of pressure, but I was really excited about it. Because there were so many ideas I had and so many things I wanted to try — not only musically, but also with my voice, with my instrument, and I knew I could do a lot more things.
The first record was recorded hastily but written really slowly — because, as they say, you have all the time in the world to write your first record, and we did. We went in and recorded it in probably about a week or so, and this time was different. This time, I could really think about what I wanted to say and how we wanted to express it, and also ... the more music I was listening to since the first record, the more I appreciated space and the ability to let the listener have time to think about what you're doing, and not just being bombarded by all of the instruments.
On getting into music as a teenager
I remember when and where I was when I first heard Pink Floyd. I was 14 years old and I was getting a ride from school, from a senior, back to my house. And they started playing Pink Floyd and I was like, "What is this?" and they explained it to me, and I had never heard any music like that. It wasn't one genre or another; it was just whatever they wanted to create, and I thought it was so interesting. And I started getting into music around that time, like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath; I started getting into that kind of music, and I thought, "I been missing everything!" It was like having blinders on. I started really diving into the history of music when I was around 14 years old.
On growing up in her family's junkyard
We lived down a long gravel driveway, and you're driving through these woods and then you cross a bridge over a creek. And then you keep going up this hill, and on either side of you it just starts filling in with junk cars, newer cars, boats, motorcycles, a shop. It's all around you. And then you get to the top of the hill and that's where, um... we grew up in a little trailer, but it was really nice.
My mom was really good at making our home — no matter what our situation was — always felt like a home, always felt really nice. And I played with our animals. We had a lot of different kinds of animals. I grew up on a farm in a sense, but it was always a junkyard. So it was a really interesting way to grow up, because I would be playing on all of these stacked-up cars, which is super-dangerous, but then I'd also go run around the woods with my dog, and go play in the creek. ... The way I think of it is, you're surrounded by the junkyard. Think of it like a hurricane, and you're in the eye of it. The little patch of grass that has the animals and the little trailer and then the rest was, to me, was like a labyrinth. It was an amusement park.
On her sister's death at 13 from retinal cancer
Being a kid, it's just how life is. Never did I feel bad for myself. I didn't know any better. I thought, "OK, I have this sister, she's sick," but in my mind I was like, "Everything is going to be fine. We go to the doctor. The doctor's going to take care of everything." And really, we just found out, how do we live life? How do I play with my sister? Because she was blind. So we made games. We played. She taught me how to draw, even though she was blind. She taught me how to write poetry. She taught me how to play piano. It was just life.
On her first tour and leaving the South for the first time
I had never seen any real mountains. I had never seen an ocean outside of the gulf. I had never seen snow-peaked mountains or ice and snow on the side of the road. I had never really felt really cold wind. I had never seen the desert. I had never seen what the sky looks like in the West. Everything I saw was new, and I got to experience it with the guys.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Brittany Howard, is the lead singer, songwriter and a guitarist with the band Alabama Shakes. Their second album, ''Sound & Color" debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 chart and is now nominated for six Grammys including album of the year, best rock performance, best rock song and best alternative music album. Their inclusion in both the rock and alternative categories is an indication of how the band crosses genre lines. You can add rhythm and blues and soul to the genres it draws on. Howard received Billboard's 2015 Women in Music Powerhouse Award, and she is a powerhouse. In early 2013, after the release of Alabama Shakes' first album, she was described in Rolling Stone as a sort of soul queen anti-diva not afraid to sweat, howl or shred on her turquoise Gibson SG. The members of Alabama Shakes are from the small Alabama town of Athens where they played together in a local bar before they were discovered. Howard had a difficult childhood dealing with vision problems, the death of her older sister, her parents' divorce and the loss of the family home in a fire. We'll talk about that and more, but let's start with the Grammy-nominated song from their album "Sound & Color. This is "Don't Wanna Fight."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T WANNA FIGHT")
ALABAMA SHAKES: (Singing) My line, your line, don't cross them lines. What you like, what I like, why can't we both be right? Attacking, defending until there's nothing left worth winning. Your pride and my pride. Don't waste my time. I don't wanna fight no more. I don't wanna fight no more. I don't wanna fight no more. I don't wanna fight no more. I don't wanna fight no more.
GROSS: Brittany Howard, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on all the success that you've been having. It's just great. So the track that we just heard, "Don't Wanna Fight," that's some squeal that you start with. Like, I don't know what to call it.
BRITTANY HOWARD: Yeah, that's...
GROSS: Do you have a name for it?
HOWARD: No, that's something I was just messing with in the studio. And Blake - you know, he was our co-producer - he said, oh, we'll keep it. We'll keep that. We'll keep that. So that was just something I was doing just to warm up, and it stayed in the song.
GROSS: So now do you have to do that every time you perform the song?
HOWARD: I do. I do.
GROSS: So "Sound & Color" is Alabama Shakes' second album. The first album was recorded, basically, in a local studio. I think you paid for a lot of it out of your own pockets. That was a hit. So you had considerably more money and more time for the second album. What are some of the things you wanted to try on the new album that money and time and experience gave you the opportunity to do?
HOWARD: Well, I wanted to try everything because we finally had the opportunity. And it was also an exciting prospect that people were going to hear it. For some people, that would be a lot of pressure, but I was really excited about it 'cause there's so many ideas I had and so many things I wanted to try not only musically, but also with my voice, with my instrument. And I knew I could do a lot more things. And the first record was recorded hastily but written really slowly because, you know, as they say, you have all the time in the world to write your first record and we did. And we went in and recorded it in probably about a week or so. And this time was different. This time I could really think about what I wanted to say and how we wanted to express it. And also, you speak of experience. The more music I was listening to since the first record, the more I appreciated space and the ability to let the listener have time to think about what you're doing and not just being bombarded by all of the instruments.
GROSS: So you said you wanted to try new things with your voice for the second album. Is more falsetto or head voice one of the things you wanted to play around with more?
HOWARD: Well, when I'm writing songs, they're always different, you know? The voice is an instrument, and you can play your instrument any kind of way you want to. And I always think it's a shame that I'd have to stay stuck in one kind of personality when it's like a palette. There's so many colors you could choose. So many things don't need that, they need this. And I've always written songs like that. I've always - each one is different, each one has its own landscape. And I was really just singing for each song.
GROSS: I want to play another song of yours called "Over My Head." And this is the last track on the "Sound & Color" album, your second album. And it's very spare, but you've overdubbed your voice for the chorus. And it's kind of, like, cumulative in the way, like, the voices keep getting added to each other. And I was hoping you could talk about what your intentions are with this and how you heard the song in your head that convinced you that this was how you wanted to produce it.
HOWARD: The meaning of the song was, I guess, existential. I was just thinking how neat it would be to have this belief that, you know, you've lived before. And if energy isn't ever destroyed, then anyone you've ever loved, anyone that's ever loved you in a past life, none of the love goes away. It never disappears. It's always around you. And the meaning of the song was realizing it. I'm over-my-head in love. And it's not necessarily romantic love. It is love, you know? And when I was singing those waves of vocals - and like you said, they were accumulating - I wanted it to feel like you were being buried but not buried in a bad way, buried in the best way possible. You're buried with love, buried with sensation, buried with memories that are never lost or forgotten. But you realize it, and that's what I was going for there in the production.
GROSS: Well, I love this track. Let's hear it. This is "Over My Head" from Alabama Shakes' second album, "Sound & Color." And my guest, Brittany Howard, is featured on guitar and singing lead.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OVER MY HEAD")
ALABAMA SHAKES: (Singing) I'm in over my head. I don't think of you in bits and pieces. I think of you only like a miracle. Loved him so deeply, I feel it through all my past lives. It feels good. I'm never saying goodbye. It feels good. I'm never saying goodbye. I'm in over my head, over my head. I'm in over my head, over my head. Signs, they explain it to me. There's no joy I can take with no one worth waiting. Here for now but not for long. When will my mind slip away? Explain that to me. I'm in over my head. Loving so deeply, I'm in over my head. I'm in over my head. Loving so deeply, I'm in over my head. I'm in over my head. Loving so deeply, I'm in over my head. Loving so deeply, I'm in over my head. Loving so deeply, I'm in over my head.
GROSS: That's Alabama Shakes from their second and current album, "Sound & Color," which is nominated for a whole bunch of Grammy Awards. And my guest, Brittany Howard, is singing lead on that. When you were growing up, who had the record collections in your family?
HOWARD: My mom. My mom had it. She pretty much collected one artist's records, Elvis Presley. She had all of them.
GROSS: That was it, just Elvis?
HOWARD: Yeah, she had a whole closet just full of Elvis.
GROSS: (Laughter) So when you started listening to music that wasn't, like, your parents' music, what did you start listening to?
HOWARD: I remember, like, when and where I was when I first heard Pink Floyd. I was 14 years old, and I was getting a ride from school from a senior. And they started playing Pink Floyd. And I was like, what is this? And they explained to me, and I'd never heard any music like that. It wasn't one genre or another. It was just whatever they wanted to create. And I thought it was so interesting. And I started getting into music around that time like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath. I started getting into that kind of music, and I thought I've been missing everything. It's like having blinders on. And I started really diving into the history of music when I was around 14 years old.
GROSS: So describe where you grew up.
HOWARD: I grew up in a town called Athens. It's in the northern center of Alabama. When I was growing up, it was really slow, and there was still, like, a lot of farmers in the area. The houses were sparse. There was a lot of fields, a lot of horses and people kept goats. And then, yeah - you know, about 15 minutes away from where I was growing up, which was kind of, like, in the woods, you know, in Limestone County - out in the county. About 15 minutes away, you got Madison, which is the city. And in the other direction, you have Athens City. And that's where, you know, you got Burger King and you can go get some McDonald's and got to Walmart. And our town was a town where all the people who worked in the cities, they would come and that's where they lived. So it was, like, a really slow-paced place. And that's a good place to stay forever, you know what I mean? It's a good place to raise your kids, raise your grandkids, take care of your parents. It's just a really nice, peaceful town.
GROSS: And, correct me if I'm wrong, your father ran a junkyard and a used car lot?
HOWARD: Yeah, that's right.
GROSS: So did you have a lot of stuff from the junkyard around your home?
HOWARD: Oh, yeah, so...
GROSS: What's some of the coolest stuff that you had?
HOWARD: So the way our house was situated is we live down a long gravel driveway. And you're driving through these woods, and then you cross a bridge over a creek. And then you keep going up this hill. And on either side of you, it just starts filling in with junk cars, newer cars, boats, motorcycles, a shop. And, I mean, it's all around you. And then you get to the top of the hill and that's where - you know, we grew up in a little trailer, but it was really nice. You know, my mom was really good at making our home - no matter what our situation was - always felt like a home, always felt really nice. And, you know, I just - I played with our animals. We had a lot of different kinds of animals. We had a - you know, I grew up on a farm, in a sense. But it was also a junkyard. So it was really interesting way to grow up because I would be playing on all these stacked up cars, which is super dangerous. But then I'd also go run around the woods with my dog and go play in the creek.
GROSS: So the junkyard was basically in your backyard, more or less?
HOWARD: Well, the way I think of it is you're surrounded by the junkyard. And you're...
HOWARD: Think of it like a hurricane and you're in the eye of it - the little patch of grass that has the animals and the little trailer. And then the rest was just, like, to me, it was like a labyrinth. It was an amusement park.
GROSS: So you kind of lived in the junkyard is what you're saying.
HOWARD: Yeah, absolutely.
GROSS: Wow, so that must've been an interesting experience. Did you grow up with an appreciation for how things could be reused - about, like, how one person's junk was another person's treasure?
HOWARD: I don't even think I even thought about that. My dad, you know, he's a used-car salesman. And he's always making deals. So whatever I wanted, I got. But it was used, you know (laughter)?
HOWARD: It wasn't brand-new and shiny. It needed a little work. You know, if we got a - I'd say to my dad, like, Daddy, I want a pony. And he would get me a pony, except this pony bites. This pony's mean.
HOWARD: That's how it always was.
GROSS: Were there animals in the junkyard?
HOWARD: Yeah, but they had grass to graze and stuff. You know, it's, like, there was a nice part in the center and then all around was the junkyard. So they, you know - they had a good life.
GROSS: My guest is Brittany Howard, the front person of the band Alabama Shakes. Their album "Sound & Color" is nominated for six Grammys including album of the year. We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Brittany Howard who is the lead of Alabama Shakes and guitarist. And their second album "Sound & Color" is nominated for a bunch of Grammys. And I'm going to play something from the first album. And this is the opening track of the first album, which was also, like, the hit from the first album. And it's called "Hold on." Let's hear it and then we'll talk about it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLD ON")
ALABAMA SHAKES: (Singing) Bless my heart, bless my soul. Didn't think I'd make it to 22 years old. There must be someone up above saying come on, Brittany, you got to come on up. You got to hold on. Yeah, you got to hold on. So, bless my heart and bless yours too. I don't know where I'm going to go, don't know what I'm going to do. But must be somebody up above saying come on, Brittany, you got to come on up. You've got to hold on. Yeah, you got to hold on. Yeah, you got to wait. Yeah, you got to wait.
GROSS: So that's "Hold On" from Alabama Shakes's first album "Boys & Girls," and we heard my guest Brittany Howard singing on the song. She wrote the song. Brittany, in this song, you say that you didn't think you'd make it to 22 years old. Why not?
HOWARD: I think when I wrote that line, it was more about look, I'm grown up now. Look at me. I have to make all these decisions for myself. I have to be responsible for myself. Here I am. I have to pay these bills. I never thought that my life would be like this. I thought I was going to be a little kid forever, and I think that's where I was coming from.
GROSS: Is there anything else you'd like to say about writing this song? I mean, this song helped put you on the map.
HOWARD: How the whole song started was it was me and our guitar player Heath, our bass player Zac, and Steve is our drummer. And when we got together, all we had was music, and I thought that the rhythm was really hypnotic. And it just kept going on and it didn't really change, so I used to try to write lyrics when I drove around in my work truck. I used to be a porter. So, it's kind of like an outdoor janitor. So I'd be outside all by myself all the time, so I would keep a little book with me, and I would try to write for it because it was just so - it was such a vast landscape. I could have done anything with it.
And I was working every day, and I was tired of working. I wasn't getting ahead. I was trying to pay for school. I wasn't getting ahead, and I felt so downtrodden upon, you know. I felt like I couldn't get no help, and I wasn't going any place. I didn't know what I was going to do, and so I started writing based on that, based on how I was feeling everyday - day in, day out, going in and out of work. And one night we were going to have a show, and Heath said to me - he was like, guys, let's try to play that one track, you know the one doesn't have words. And I said yeah, let's do it, and I'll just sing what I have so far and make the rest up.
And so we got on stage, and here comes the part of the set where we're going to do the song, and it starts going. I sang what I had and then after that, I didn't have a chorus and I just sang hold on. And people in the audience were immediately responding to it. And they thought it - because we were playing covers at the time, they thought it was a cover song, so they started singing it with us like yeah, I know this song, too.
HOWARD: But they didn't know that we were writing it on the spot. And everybody just understood the structure kind of immediately, and we just remembered it from there on. And we though yeah, I like this song. Let's keep that song around. Keep playing it. And that's really how the song came to be.
GROSS: That's great. So let's talk a little bit about your childhood. What I read was you've always worn eyeglasses. Did you have a problem with one of your eyes when you were born?
HOWARD: Yeah. I had what's called retinoblastoma, and...
GROSS: Which is - what is that?
HOWARD: It's like - I'm not a doctor. I'll do the best I can here, but it's like having little tiny tumors inside of your eye. And so what they have to do is freeze them with a laser, which can scar your retina, you know, depending on where those tumors are.
GROSS: And did you have any permanent damage?
HOWARD: Yeah. That's what happened. Because of the location of it, scarred my retina, so my vision in my left eye isn't, you know, 100 percent. I'd say I could probably see about 10 percent out of it. And my sister had the same thing, and I was fortunate enough that the tumors didn't grow back. And I've been, you know - I go every year, but I'm absolutely 100 percent fine, you know?
GROSS: But your sister - you said she was born on the same thing.
GROSS: And when she was 12, she got it in her second eye, and it was cancerous, those tumors. And she died at the age of 13.
HOWARD: That's right.
GROSS: What was your understanding of death when she died?
HOWARD: I think I was so young I didn't understand the concept of what was happening. When she was really sick, I was around 7 or maybe 8 years old. And I was concerned with things like getting a new doll, or - why can't the animals live in the house anymore? You know, I was concerned about the way things were changing around me, but I never had the concept of someone being terminally ill. I guess as a 8-year-old, I thought everything was going to work out.
GROSS: My guess is Brittany Howard, the frontperson of the band Alabama Shakes. Their album "Sound & Color" is nominated for six Grammys. After a short break, we'll talk about forming the band, its surprising success and how that's changed her life.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALABAMA SHAKES SONG, "FUTURE PEOPLE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Brittany Howard, the lead singer, songwriter and guitarist of the band Alabama Shakes. Their album "Sound & Color" is nominated for six Grammys, including album of the year. When we left off, we were talking about her childhood. When Howard was 8, her sister, who was five years older, died of cancer. Howard was saying that at the time, she didn't really understand what was happening. Was it very frightening to think that a sister could be taken away from you like that and that therefore maybe you were vulnerable too? You know, not everybody is exposed to losing a sibling at a young age like that.
HOWARD: You know, when I was - it's interesting. Like, being a kid, it's just how life is. You don't - never did I feel bad for myself. I didn't know any better. I thought, OK, you know, I have a sister, she's sick. But in my mind, you know, I was like, everything's going to be fine. We go to the doctor's, the doctor's going to take care of everything. And really we just found out how do we live life? How do I play with my sister because she was blind. So how do we - you know, we make games, we play. She still - she taught me how to draw, even though she was blind. She taught me how to write poetry. She taught me how to play piano. It was just life. I didn't feel bad for us. I didn't feel sorry for us because that's just the way life was. And it wasn't until I got older that I started thinking about everything that our family went through.
GROSS: Yeah. Well, OK, so your first album, "Boys & Girls" starts with "Hold On," which we heard, and with you singing about how you didn't think you'd make it to 22 years old. And the album ends with a song called "On Your Way." And two of the lines in that song are, on your way to God, did you think of me? On your way to the promised land, did you say she was such a friend? And in listening to that, I couldn't help but wonder if that song was at all about your sister.
HOWARD: Yeah, it was.
GROSS: It's a beautiful song. Would you say a little bit more about writing it?
HOWARD: Losing my sister was something I didn't deal with until recently because I just thought, you know, bad things happen sometimes and bad things happen to everybody. You know what I mean? You carry on. And we're just normal people. You know, we didn't have exorbitant amounts of money. My dad worked really hard doing what he does. My mom tried really hard to make us into good people. And I think that song - writing that song - was my way of trying to console myself because everyone tried to carry on the best. Do you know what I mean? And that was my way of having someone to talk to was writing this song and saying, I acknowledge what happened; I need to make my peace with it.
GROSS: Well, let's hear it. This is Brittany Howard's song "On Your Way," and it's from Alabama Shakes' first album, "Boys & Girls."
(SOUNDBITE OF ALABAMA SHAKES SONG "ON YOUR WAY")
ALABAMA SHAKES: (Singing) On your way to die, did you think of me? On your way to heaven, did you say I'll see you again? You and me, why wasn't it me? On your way to the promised land, did you say, oh, she was such a friend? Then they took you higher and I don't know if I can follow. You and me, why wasn't it me?
GROSS: That's Alabama Shakes from their first album, "Boys & Girls." The song "On Your Way" was written and sung by my guest, Brittany Howard, who also plays guitar. So, you know, that song is about your sister who died when she was 13. How has your life changed being the only child after that?
HOWARD: It's weird the concept of before and after because to me it's all one timeline. You know, I'd say after my sister passed and my parents - it's hard to stay together when everybody's grieving. So they split, and I went to live with my mom. We moved to the city in Athens and we lived in a little apartment. And that's really where I started learning how to play guitar 'cause I was alone most of the time. She was working. And I was just like, there's something to do. I've still got this guitar. I'm going to learn how to play it. And trying to find some stuff do with my time - I drew, I wrote, I learned songs. And that was - I think of that after - that's when I was really - I put importance in all the things that my sister had taught me when I was little - how to draw, how to write poetry. And I took all those things I knew, all those skills I knew, and I started using them. So I think of it as a kind of nesting period for creativity because that was my thing that I had to do. I had one thing to do because I was living in a tiny apartment and it was really boring, you know. There weren't a lot of kids to play with. So I spent a lot of time with myself, entertaining myself.
GROSS: I know your house was struck by lightning about a year after your sister died. Was that the place that you'd moved into in town with your mother, or was that the trailer you were living with you parents in before they separated?
HOWARD: No, that was actually while my sister was still going to the hospital.
HOWARD: Yeah, so what happened was I was staying with my grandmother because I stayed with her a lot - my grandmother Ruby. I stayed with her a lot and I would do that when my parents were taking my sister to the doctor's. So nobody was home at the time. So all I know is, you know, wake up the next morning - ain't got a house no more.
GROSS: Wow, to have such terrible things happen in such a short period of time - did you feel like you were being chosen for hardship? You know?
HOWARD: (Laughter) No, you know, that's the thing that keeps coming back to the resilience of children because I just thought this is how life is. This is how it goes. Stuff happens. It's not until I started getting older that I realized, no, stuff like that doesn't happen to everyone.
GROSS: No, that really doesn't (laughter).
HOWARD: (Laughter) It doesn't.
GROSS: It really does not. So when you fell in love with music - both with listening to it and playing it - where could you go to hear it performed?
HOWARD: Oh, I didn't have anywhere to go. So I think the first concert I went to, I was - I think I was 12 - 11 or 12. And it was actually - ironically - it was actually our guitar player Heath, he had another bad. It was his band. That was the first band I ever saw. And I thought it was amazing. After seeing his band play - what they did was, you know, they had some bands that were going to our school. And what they did was they went to the principal and they said, hey, can we throw a concert in the old gym? We'll donate the money to build a new football stadium. And he was like, yeah, do it. So probably about 45, 50 kids showed up that night, and we watched them play. And I was like, that is what I want to do because I was so amazed at - it was like having a double life. It was like watching a James Bond film. It was like, I didn't know these kids had these talents. And look how cool they are. Look at everybody looking at them and thinking the world of them. I was like, I want to do that. I could do that. And, you know, as soon as I saw that I was like, I'm going to start a band; I'm going to be in a band. And I must have played with over, you know, 1,000 kids, trying to get a band together.
GROSS: What are odds that in such a small town there was a group of musicians - you know, you and your band mates - who were that good and who were able to do what you've done?
HOWARD: Well, when I think back on it, I think it's miraculous, really, because I been watching Heath. You know, I used to sneak out of my house and go see his band play. And they were playing songs by Bowie. You know, I was really into Bowie when I was coming up songwriting. They were playing songs by Prince. I've always loved Prince. Nobody else was playing music like that. A lot of the music was country or pop country. You know, we had a lot of rappers. Nobody was playing rock 'n roll music, especially not this kind - especially not, like, Black Sabbath and things that I respected and I enjoyed. So I used to sneak out -- this was about the time I was 15 years old - I would sneak out and go see the band. And you know, of course everybody's underage drinking and all this stuff, but I wasn't interested. I would always go with an express purpose of watching this band. Maybe I could talk to them. Maybe they'll listen to my music. Maybe I could start playing with them. And I feel like everything was divine, the way we got together, because the first time I met Zac, you know, we didn't really like each other. We didn't like each other's personalities, and that's OK. But, you know, we both liked to play music. And I said - you know, I didn't know him. I approached him in school. We shared a class together. I said, I'd really like it if you could listen to my music. I've been writing some music and I'd like for you to listen to it. And at the time I was doing these demos where I had all the instruments laid out, all the structure laid out. So it was like making, you know, your own little record. And we got in his little Honda and we drove around, listened to it. And he said, OK, yeah, I'll play with you. And that's where it started. It was me and Zach and the floor of my father's trailer. We would get together and we would just play, every day, every day until he had to go home. And we never stopped.
GROSS: So you mentioned that you used to sneak out to hear music. Your mother, during one period, to prevent you from sneaking out, padlocked the door. Was it the door to your bedroom or the door to...
HOWARD: Oh my God.
GROSS: ...The trailer?
HOWARD: So it was the - I had my own door that goes outside because we lived in this old house, you know, it was just an old-style house where you could split the house into a duplex. So my room had a door to outside. And let me tell you - she sprayed some Great - I don't know if you know it what Great Stuff is...
HOWARD: But it's like a hardening foam - I don't know, it's like a hardening adhesive foam. She sprayed the door shut, and she put a padlock on it. She was trying to keep me in there.
GROSS: Was that a good idea?
HOWARD: It didn't work.
GROSS: How did you get out?
HOWARD: When she was at work, I'd just chisel the Great Stuff off and keep the padlock, making it look like it was close when it wasn't closed. And then I would turn my TV all the way up and I pushed the bed away from the door. She also put the bed in front of the door. I'd push the bed away from the door and just sneak out.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Brittany Howard, and she's guitarist and lead singer for Alabama Shakes. And their latest album, "Sound And Color," is nominated for several Grammys. Let's take a short break; then, we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Brittany Howard, the front person of the band Alabama Shakes. Their latest album, "Sound & Color," is nominated for six Grammys, including album of the year.
So you've had the chance to perform with people who I'm sure you never thought you'd get to meet, let alone play with. And I'm thinking specifically of Paul McCartney and Prince. Did you talk to them before the performance and let, like - do - in a situation like that, do you try not to be the fan but to just be the fellow musician or - you know what I mean (laughter)? How do you...
HOWARD: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
GROSS: How do you decide how to approach it when you're meeting somebody who is such - whose music was such a fundamental part of your childhood and who you look up to and so does everybody else in the world?
HOWARD: It's interesting because I never know who I'm going to get star-struck by. You walk up to them. You can be nervous but then once you start talking, sometimes the conversation just flows naturally and it doesn't feel awkward or forced. You know, someone like that was Paul McCartney - meeting Paul McCartney. He's just a guy that was in a really good band. He's like super nice and down to earth and good at making you forget he's a Beatle. He's just a nice guy, and I like him a lot. And that was really cool. It was a really cool experience, but I didn't fangirl, you know? I didn't oh-my-God, oh-my-God.
Prince - I was barely hanging on with Prince.
HOWARD: I was just thinking, like, don't blow this.
HOWARD: Don't say anything stupid. Quit talking. You're talking too much. (Laughter) You know, in my head, I was really trying to keep it together, but you know, at the same time, he started talking and I realized, you know, oh, we're actually - you know, we have a lot in common. He's just a dude, just the dude who wrote a lot of really good song. And you know, the person that I got star-struck by was Jeff Bridges.
GROSS: Really? How come?
HOWARD: The Dude. I don't know. He was just - he's just such a legend on the screen, you know, when we were growing up as teenagers (laughter). And now here's the dude right in front of me, and I didn't know what to say. I think I just made a sound, like a squeaky sound (laughter) and then I left the room. Oh, man. So if you're listening to this, Jeff, let me try again, man. Let me try again.
GROSS: Let's close with the title track from "Sound & Color." And this is another original song of yours that has a kind of science fiction space story behind it. What's the story behind the song?
HOWARD: Basically, I had built a photo shoot set that looks like spaceship, and I had it down there in my studio in my basement. And while it was still set up, I went down there, and I was, you know, writing for the record. And I was inspired by this setup I had done there, and I wanted to write something different. And so I started writing about an astronaut that was sent on a mission to find a new Earth. And they put him to sleep, and everything's going as planned. They put him out there, and he wakes up and everything's wrong. Everything's chaotic. Everything's different, and he's getting these flashbacks, and his brain isn't functioning. And he realizes that he's been asleep for 500 years. And once that sinks in, the music kind of goes through these - sorrow and anger and all this grief. And then finally, he just accepts it. You know, I'm out here alone. But at the end, there's a new beginning because the sun rises over this new planet that he had found. And even though he's alone, it's just so beautiful.
GROSS: Yeah, "Sound & Color" has strings. There's a vibraphone. Are these the kind of instruments you were able to do on the new album because you were able to be more ambitious? You had more money to make it.
HOWARD: Well, yeah. You know, I bought the vibraphone and, you know, we got a...
GROSS: Oh, it's yours? Are you playing?
HOWARD: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah. I love vibraphones, you know. And - yeah, I was also playing it in the beginning. And I just wanted to do something I always wanted to do when we wrote that song. And people had this idea of the band because they were hearing songs like "You Ain't Alone" and songs that remind them of '60s R&B. And they were saying this is a '60s R&B throwback band. But they were ignoring our quirkier songs that had a little more depth to them like "On Your Way" or "Rise to the Sun" or "Goin' To The Party." And that was exactly what I wanted to be doing. I wanted to explore songwriting and what you can do when you don't pay attention to genre boundaries or anything like that. And that's what "Sound & Color" has become because I just want to be free to do what I want to do as a musician.
GROSS: So what made you fall in love with vibraphone?
HOWARD: It sounds so dreamy. That's what I think it is.
GROSS: It's usually jazz musicians who play it. What were you - what context did you hear it in?
HOWARD: I was hearing it, like, "Wizard Of Oz" or "Mr. Sandman," you know. (Singing) Do, do, do, do, do, do, do.
GROSS: Oh, yeah.
HOWARD: Things like that, those dreamier, nostalgic times where they set a mood, you know? It really sets a certain kind of mood, and I just wanted to work with one. I thought they were so neat.
GROSS: Well Brittany Howard, it's just been great to talk with you. Thank you so much. Good luck at the Grammys.
HOWARD: Thank you so much for having me. I'm a huge fan of FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Oh, that makes me so happy (laughter).
HOWARD: Yeah, I'm really excited. Thank you so much.
GROSS: Brittany Howard is the frontperson of the band Alabama Shakes. Their album "Sound & Color" is nominated for six Grammys, including album of the year. The awards ceremonies is February 15.
FRESH AIR's executive producer Danny Miller. I'm Terry Gross, and here's the title track of "Sound & Color."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOUND & COLOR")
ALABAMA SHAKES: (Singing) A new world hangs outside the window, beautiful exchange. It must be falling away. I must be sound and color with me for my mind. And the ship shows you where to go when I needn't speak. Not far now, not far now, not far now, far, far now, far, far now, far, far, far, far now, far, far, far, far out.
Sound and color... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.