Brittany Howard: Rock n Roll Queen of The Blues, Finding her Voice by “Going Solo”
Brittany Howard is a queer, biracial musician who unapologetically creates music that fights for an ideology of inclusivity. She stands for women’s rights as a powerful artist in her own right, and is a symbol for any marginalised girl looking to make it in the musical scene.
Howard is best known as the lead singer of the Alabama Shakes. Rising to fame in 2010, the Alabama Shakes (previously known as “The Shakes”) have now been nominated for multiple grammy awards, winning four, and have performed at the White House.
Howard herself comes from a working class background in rural Athens, Alabama, and talks fondly of growing up in the deep South - despite living in a junkyard. Her trailer home was even burned down once, after being struck by lightning. Howard’s father left the junkyard when Howard was still young, prompting her and her mother to move to the city. In Madison, Howard discovered the guitar.
Recently, in 2019, Howard’s decision to break from the Alabama Shakes to pursue a solo album and tour has been met with scepticism online, especially to fans of the rock band expecting a third album after Boys & Girls (2012) and Sound & Color (2015).
Like many artists who break from bands to “go solo'', fans have become suspicious of the new solo aspirations of the artist. Howard replies to these veiled criticisms as either: ‘it was time to do something for herself’, or ‘that she left because she started making money’. Either response doesn’t quite capture her true ambition and are equally saturated in satire, characterising her charismatic energy both on stage and off.
By remaining purposefully elusive, Howard builds up the real reason for her break: her new album Jaime is a cathartic expression of her individual experiences as a biracial woman, from high-school to broadly encapsulating what it means to be inclusive and diverse in the modern world.
Jaime On Tour: The Show
Having listened and loved the Alabama Shakes since I was a kid, I was curious to see how Howard would perform without her backup band.
As soon as I saw that she was coming to a concert hall near me, I bought a cheap ticket and made my way over. I would like to note that when I say “cheap” I mean it, seeing as the last time I saw the Alabama Shakes in concert was at the ever-expensive Montreux Jazz festival in Switzerland. Perhaps the lowered prices reveal already the nature of inclusion that her gig perpetuates. He Loves Me from Jaime has the lyrics, “He loves me when I’m smoking a blunt/ Loves me when I'm drinking too much”, and here again we see how even God is an inclusive entity. Echoed through Howard’s voice, “He” is accepting of all things individual but unauthorised in the bible. In fact, throughout her gig, Howard transforms gospel music into something transcendent - not just for Christians, not just for whites, not just for believers.
Being a European-bred girl of Eurasian descent, I have always revelled at how a mixed-black woman from America can make music that resonates so deeply with me. Songs like Rise to the Sun or This Feeling from the Alabama Shakes were my anthems as I grew up and became an adult.
Admittedly, I was a little disappointed that there was no confirmed third album for the band of my childhood. Yet, having already witnessed the raw and unrivalled talent of their lead singer in Montreux, I bought a ticket to see her live anyway because she is a feat to behold, whether you like the music or not.
But what happened was unexpected, if only because Howard is humbly indifferent to the clutches of fame or social media (she does post a lot of fishing photos on her instagram, which seems to be her favourite hobby as a true Southern American).
Howard’s performance was energetic, as it usually is, but seeped in so much suffering and emotion - the kind that could characterise a Nina Simone gig (who is also a hero of Howard’s). When I came out of the concert hall, my answers as to why this singer decided to break from her group were clear in my mind, and Howard didn’t even have to explain:
Her lyrics pertain to her journey as a biracial woman in America, so that her melodies coalesce traditionally black and white genres into one. Even the instruments on stage and their melodic construction confront stereotypes; A red harp was brought together elegantly with the electric guitar; Church organs played meticulously over drums, as if Church and Rock n Roll suddenly found love on Howard’s stage.
And that sweet, unplugged moment when Howard picked up an acoustic guitar and sang Short and Sweet, with only a single spotlight on her, reminiscent of a folk song sung in Western movies, or a Native American ballad. The lyrics, “There are mountains between us” countered by “something Short and Sweet”, suggested in that moment how people can come together, despite racial, cultural boundaries, or differences in sex.
Looking around at the crowd around me I found this to be physically reflected: to my left a mixed race couple clutched onto each other, to my right an elderly woman was filming Howard on stage, and behind me a girl of Spanish descent was holding her heart.
In Goat Head and History Repeats Howard speaks of her childhood as a biracial girl in the South: “When I first got made/ guess I made these folks mad”. Her Jaime set ends with the call to action “We are all brothers and sisters” that is repeated over the electrical chaos of drums and guitars, and the wild clapping of her responsive crowd (me included, with tears in my eyes). Halfway through her set, Howard even includes a jazzy rendition of the Beatles’ Revolution, a cover that promotes togetherness and upheaval. This kind of subtle political activism is what characterises her as not only an artist paying homage to the Rock n Roll hall of fame, but a champion of human rights.
At the end of the show, Howard admitted that she was pleased we had all came out to see her, despite not knowing any of the songs beforehand. It didn’t matter that this was a pre-promotion tour of songs not yet out - the crowd was swaying to the Blues, clapping to Rock, and crying during Short and Sweet. The acoustic moment within the vibrant R&B and soulful jazz offered a moment of insight for the audience, where Howard revealed more about herself than she could ever have done singing lead for the Shakes.
Where the Alabama Shakes are made up of white men, Howard’s solo album now puts her own name at the face of her music. This is the motivation for her to “go solo”, and a reason which she has hitherto evaded, either to save the Alabama Shakes from the buzz around “splitting up” (which has not been confirmed either), or forcing you to go see her perform live to really figure out her true intentions.
Howard’s new album, released in September, is called Jaime after her sister who died of retinoblastoma when Howard was just 10. It’s only natural that a multi-talented artist like Howard would want a moment of individualism on stage, one without the input of the other members of the Alabama Shakes, where she is free to compose her own music and describe through song her own experiences with loss and trauma. Noting herself how “music is a universal language,'' her concert reflected the diversity of her lyrics and their potential to bring people together.
With Jaime, it feels that after 10 years with the Alabama Shakes, their singer has finally found the strength and skills to iterate her own voice. And herein is how empowering Howard’s break from the band is.
After the Alabama Shakes released Sound & Color, Howard did another empowering thing. In 2015, and totally incognito (without press or publicity), Howard released a self-titled LP under Thunderbitch. The band and record were a total surprise, but to me the 5 tracks on Thunderbitch feel like a nostalgic repurposing of all those female-headed Punk-Rock bands of the ‘90s - a retelling of counterculture through the eyes of a woman. It sounds like something I’ve heard before, and negating any semblance of self-promotion, Thunderbitch thus exists in this timeless space, belonging to all women and for all women.
In a Rolling Stones review of the album, they say, “[Howard] doesn’t just reinvent rock tradition or make it her own. She makes it her bitch.”
During elusive and unpredictable Thunderbitch concerts (under “gig dates” on their websites there is only the promise “Maybe soon…”), Howard paints her face white and dons a black wig, as if choosing to remain hidden from the spotlight and keeping Thunderbitch as her dirty little secret. Thus, doused in the raw mystery of Rock ‘n Roll, Thunderbitch balances out the mainstream fame of the Alabama Shakes.
Now in her 30s, Howard is choosing the path of political activism told through her personal experiences with Jaime. And this couldn’t come at a better time given the political nature of Howard’s home country, overrun with white male egos.
Strong and Powerful
In a similar revolutionary vein, Howard advocates for the rights of women. Conscious that she doesn’t have the stock “feminine” characteristics, Howard’s success shows just how these social stereotypes have no foundation, and utterly obfuscate talent or personality. Thus, Howard’s #SeeHerHearHer campaign strives to increase women’s representation in the music industry. She tells Variety about finding success in the industry as a woman of colour:
“They said I looked strange, I was too tall, wrong colour skin to be playing Rock n’ Roll music so no one wanted anything to do with me.”
Now, shaking her hips on stage like Elvis, and pointing her finger in the sky like Freddie Mercury, Howard has certainly proved those disbelievers wrong. In this way she reclaims the representation of women everywhere, transforming the feminine stereotype into a powerful representation of Soul. Her cover of Prince’s Breakdown is proof that she is able to - crudely put - vocalise her middle finger to all those people who thought that she couldn’t make it:
“Keep breaking me down, down, down”.
I join her on this cathartic musical journey, despite the fact that on the surface we are completely different women. Fundamentally, however, being able to empathise with her experiences is the merit for her to “go solo”. Women everywhere should be supporting each other, reinforcing the politics of inclusivity and diversity through the power of music.