The conversation wasn’t an easy one. Last year, Brittany Howard, the mighty lead singer and guitarist for Alabama Shakes got together with the members of her band and dropped a bomb. Any plans they had to work on and record a follow-up to their Grammy Award-winning 2015 album Sound & Color would have to be put on hold. Indefinitely. A frustrating spate of writer’s block combined with a yearning to try out new musical ideas under her own named compelled her to follow a different path. “We spent hours talking things through and I think at the end they all got it,” she said. “We had been in a bit of a creative slump and while it was really a tough decision they have been very supportive of me doing this which I really appreciate.”
Howard has never been the kind of artist afraid to take daring creative risks. The very same year that Sound & Color hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Top-200 album charts, she threw many of that band’s fans an unexpected curveball by slathering her face in white grease paint, throwing on a black leather jacket and dropping one of the rawest rock and roll records of the year with her other group Thunderbitch. Then in 2017, she went into a different direction entirely while embracing a more Country/Americana vibe along with Becca Marncari and her now-wife Jesse Lafser as part of the group Bermuda Triangle. And now here she is two years later, on the precipice of releasing her most ambitious, sonically eclectic and deeply personal project of her career, her very first solo album titled Jaime.
“I have always wanted to do an album under my name, where I called all the shots and did everything the way I wanted them and how I intended for them to be,” she explained. “With Alabama Shakes and even Thunderbitch and Bermuda Triangle, those were group environments where there were a lot of opinions that needed to be heard and while that is not a bad thing I just felt the need to fully do something from start to finish as I intended for them to be heard from the very beginning. I had been coming to terms with a lot of personal things in my life and this just felt like the appropriate time to do so.”
Howard named her first solo record after her older sister, the one who taught her very early on how to play the piano and write poetry. Jaime is the one who sparked the creative embers within her heart and mind that have raged into a bonfire of era-defining creativity and musicianship across this last decade. Sadly, Jaime died at the age of 13 after a tragic bout with a rare type of eye cancer called retinoblastoma. Howard herself was only 8 when she lost her big sister, but the mark she left on her life can’t be overstated. “I always looked up to her and wanted to do everything she did,” she said. “She is why I fell in love with music and art. We were super close and without her I’m not sure I would be doing what I do today, so I thank her constantly for leading me this direction.”
Taken away from the confines of a group structure where other people’s thoughts and opinions by sheer necessity have to be taken into account, Howard felt freer than ever on this project to mine her own past experiences and relationships while extrapolating on a whole host of heady subjects, covering God, race, love, and death. “I was definitely going through a period where I was reflecting on my life and really felt it was time that I told my story the way I saw it,” she said. “I wanted to talk about me, my family and where I came from. I wanted to be honest and speak from the heart for the things I believe in and love.”
In “13th Century Metal” for instance, a chaotic maelstrom of glitchy keyboards and clattery drums, Howard vows in sermon-like fashion to “Spread the enlightenment of love, compassion, and humanity to those who are not touched by its light.” After all, “We are all brothers and sisters,” she repeatedly protests. On “He Loves Me,” she opens up about her relationship to the almighty head-on, explaining over an array of jazzy guitar lines and walloping kick drums about how she doesn’t need to go to a house of worship to feel God’s presence. “When my sister passed away we stopped going to church and I always thought that god was punishing us for the hardships placed on my family but as I have gotten older I’ve learned he was always there looking out and guiding us,” she explained. “I still don’t go to church regularly, but I do believe there is a higher power looking out.”
One of the most personal and affecting songs on the album is a cut titled “Goat Head,” a sparsely arranged piano-adorned meditation on her personal experiences with racism in America. “Mama is white, and Daddy is black / When I first got made, guess I made these folks mad,” she croons. The title is derived from a terrible experience early on in her parent’s life when her father stayed the night at her mother’s apartment only to wake up the next morning to find his tires slashed, his car windows smashed, and the remains of a dismembered goat spread around the interior.
“That was something my mom told me in private but not really something we ever discussed as a family,” she said of the incident. “The moment I sung it I immediately came to tears. It was so difficult to say those words and actually admit what had happened in my town to my family. I almost didn’t put it on the record, but Shawn Everett said, 'No way, it was staying,' so it did!”
Shawn Everett served as the album’s engineer and the whole thing was recorded in his studio in Los Angeles. While you might not recognize his name, he has had a hand in creating some of the most influential and beloved indie rock and Americana records of the last five years, including Vampire Weekend’s Father Of The Bride, The War On Drugs’s A Deeper Understanding, Kacey Musgraves’s Golden Hour, and Clairo’s Immunity. He also took home a Grammy for Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical, for his work on Alabama Shakes’ Sound & Color. “I produced the album and all the choices and things you hear are intentional and how I heard it in my head when writing the songs,” she said. “I couldn’t have done it without Shawn Everett though, he is the best collaborator as far as helping me be able to try new things and just play around and have fun.”
“Fun,” is certainly the operative word to use when describing the pair’s creative process. Once they got into the studio, they both threw caution to the wind while taking her songs into unexpected sonic directions and trying new techniques. No idea was too crazy. “Stay High” for instance was recorded on a drum kit loaded only with snares. But that’s not all. “Not only is he playing a kit made of only snares but Nate [Smith] is also playing them with Chop Sticks!” Howard revealed. “We also used contact mics to mic the air conditioner and I played the soundboard like a piano; tons of crazy stuff.”
The myriad sounds, textures, beats, and melodies packed into these 11 songs are almost too numerous to fully account. It’s a record that does its damndest to defy any type of classification, which is exactly how Howard wanted it. “I really tried to make this record without referencing other records specifically,” she said. “I know people will always mention Prince or P-Funk or D’Angelo or Nina Simone and those are artists I admire and feel honored to be compared to. But I hope people will see this as my record with my own style.”
The D’Angelo/Prince vibes indeed come across as you listen to the funky, off-kilter opening track “History Repeats,” and “Short And Sweet,” certainly brings to mind of some of Nina Simone’s starkest and most affecting compositions like “Pirate Jenny,” or “Strange Fruit,” but there’s an inventiveness and perspective across Jaime that is truly all her own. “I’ve always wanted more, of, just about everything,” she admits on the harp-drenched song “Presence,” before the whole thing falls into a bottomless pit of low-toned, fuzzed out guitar-gurgles. No one else is making music like this in 2019 or ever before.
Ultimately, Jaime is a sonically and spiritually rewarding journey through the mind and memory of Brittany Howard, but she also made it for you, too. Somewhere along these 11 songs she hopes you’ll find some measure of catharsis, and a recognition that you’re worthy of life’s greatest gifts. “I want to help others feel a bit better about being,” she said. “Resisting that annoying voice that exists in all of our heads that says we aren’t good enough, talented enough, beautiful enough, thin enough, rich enough or successful enough.”
Corbin Reiff is the author of the upcoming book: Total F@&king Godhead: The Biography of Chris Cornell. He’s also a contributor to Rolling Stone, Billboard, Pitchfork, Spin, Uproxx and Noisey, to name a few.