â€œI turned thirty and I was like, â€˜What do I want the rest of my life to look like?,â€™ â€œ says Brittany Howard. â€œDo I want to play the same songs until Iâ€™m fifty and then retire, or do I do something thatâ€™s scarier for me? Do I want people to understand me and know me, do I want to tell them my story? Iâ€™m very private, but my favorite work is when people are being honest and really doing themselves.â€
As the frontwoman and guitarist for Alabama Shakes, Howard has become one of musicâ€™s most celebrated figuresâ€”the band has won four Grammys (out of its nine nominations), and she has performed everywhere from the Obama White House to the main stage at Lollapalooza, where she sang with Paul McCartney at his invitation. But for her solo debut, Jaime, Howard boldly decided to explore new directions, with diverse instrumentation and arrangements and intimate, revelatory lyrics.
â€œItâ€™s scary to mess with success, because the Shakes are doing so good,â€ she says. â€œBut I needed to shake it upâ€”and if youâ€™re going to do that, you better go all out and make it worth it.â€
Howard had amassed a bunch of ideas and song scraps, things that felt like they were outside the realm of the band. Her plans werenâ€™t clear for these incomplete tracks, which were mostly recorded alone on her laptop and given temporary, random titlesâ€”making it challenging to even locate them later.
â€œI wanted to do something on my own, just my music, that didnâ€™t have to have a genre or stick to fansâ€™ expectations,â€ she says. â€œI knew I wanted to do a record, but I didnâ€™t know where to begin. I was freaking out, I didnâ€™t know what to sing or what it would sound like. I was writing every day, putting all this stress on myself, hoping something would happen.â€
In search of inspiration, Howard left her home in Nashville and went to Topanga Canyon for a change of scenery. â€œI was staying in this beautiful place and I was miserable because the songs just werenâ€™t coming,â€ she says.
When she eventually went into engineer Shawn Everettâ€™s studio in Los Angeles to record, she only had a handful of finished songs. But once she started working with the band she had assembledâ€”a core group of Alabama Shakes bassist Zac Cockrell (â€œWeâ€™ve known each other since we were kids,â€ she says, â€œso working with another bass player seemed ludicrousâ€), innovative jazz-based keyboard player Robert Glasper, and drummer Nate Smithâ€”Howard started to feel the music taking shape, sometimes out of their playing and sometimes simply out of conversations.
â€œI had forgotten some of these songs even existed,â€ Howard says with a laugh. â€œâ€™History Repeatsâ€™ took forever to mix because itâ€™s the original from my Logic recording, which I had recorded vocals on just to show my friend how the program worked and then forgot about it. The vocal on â€˜Run to Meâ€™ was recorded on a cell phone!â€
The work Howard has done with her side bands, Thunderbitch and Bermuda Triangle, also impacted her ambitions for the songs on Jaime. â€œThe Shakes do a cycle of recording and touring, and then I get restless in the time off,â€ she says. â€œActually, to me, there is no time offâ€”Iâ€™m a creative person and I need to create or I just feel weird, not fully human.
â€œWith Bermuda Triangle,â€ she continues, â€œI learned about raising my own voice. The other girls had their own songs, they could just play them on an acoustic guitar and they didnâ€™t need a band. My music is really composed, with lots of moving pieces, so that inspired me to really pay more attention to what I write and try to be a better songwriter.â€
Different sounds and approaches started to emerge. Howard plays all the parts on â€œShort and Sweet,â€ while â€œPresenceâ€ sees her accompanied only by a harp. â€œ13th Century Metalâ€ grew out of Glasper and Smith jamming in the studioâ€”â€œI heard that and knew I had to do something with it,â€ she says.
Even more striking, though, are the stories Howard is telling on Jaime, the deeply personal and emotional territory she covers directly and nakedly, stripped of overtly poetic distance. She confronts harsh truths about relationships in songs like â€œBabyâ€ and â€œTomorrowâ€ and examines spiritual ritual in â€œHe Loves Me.â€
Howard points to â€œGeorgiaâ€ as a breakthrough song on the project, and for herself. â€œThatâ€™s a straightforward love song to another woman, which is something I never confronted until I was older,â€ she says. â€œIn a small town like where I come from, different is badâ€”I never wanted to be different. My greatest wish was to be like everybody else. I didnâ€™t want to be almost six feet tall, didnâ€™t want this big, bushy hair. Thatâ€™s the truth of what it feels like to hold everything in and just want to be accepted for being yourself.â€
â€œGoat Headâ€ is a painfully candid account of Howardâ€™s family experience when she was growing up as a mixed-race child in a small Southern town. â€œItâ€™s a story my mom told me when I was 13 or 14,â€ she says, â€œabout how it was really hard to have little brown babies, how hard it was raising us. I never saw our town that way, never experienced it because I was too young, but it explained so much about my momâ€”why she was always so stressed, had so much trouble getting a job.
â€œWhen I sang it, I instantly felt afraid, embarrassed, vulnerable. I was definitely scared for the sake of my folks, bringing up bad memories, But it is my story to tellâ€”that song was the experience of growing up in the South.â€
Howard titled the album after her sister, who taught her to play the piano and write poetry, and who died of cancer when they were still teenagers. â€œThe title is in memoriam, and she definitely did shape me as a human being,â€ says Howard. â€œBut itâ€™s also about meâ€”the people who know me well know how important she is to me.â€
As the first project to come out under Brittany Howardâ€™s own name, Jaime represents an enormous step both musically and personally. â€œItâ€™s my first time making decisions on my own, being the captain of the ship,â€ she says. â€œIt brings up existential questionsâ€”why am I here, why do I do this? People think that touring in a band is super-fun, and it can be, but nothing about it is normal. You miss out on a lot of stuff, so I need to make sure Iâ€™m doing it for the right reasons.â€
Howard looks forward to playing these songs live, but is tempering her expectations. â€œI have no idea whatâ€™s going to happen,â€ she says. â€œI have to measure my success by the fact that I did something I didnâ€™t think I could doâ€”I knew I could, but I didnâ€™t know if I would. So just the fact that I made it, and gave myself permission to just fuck it up and do some stuff thatâ€™s maybe stupid and not cool, is pretty successful. Being a creative person, thatâ€™s the most successful thing.â€