Brittany Howard Has Learned How to "Hold On"

Brittany Howard has put Alabama Shakes on pause while she tours in support of her first solo LP.EXPAND
Brittany Howard has put Alabama Shakes on pause while she tours in support of her first solo LP.
Danny Clinch
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Brittany Howard’s new album, Jaime, is her first solo effort. The project takes its name and inspiration from her older sister, who died in 1998 after a battle with retinoblastoma, a disease Howard herself has dealt with, causing partial blindness in one eye.

The singer, now 31, was inspired by her sister to write poetry and play music. And she has made a life of it.

After two hugely successful albums with Alabama Shakes, Howard — who plays Denver on November 14 and Boulder on November 15 — has blossomed with Jaime, which is genre-defying, powerful and at times downright funky and fun.

Westword caught up with her to discuss her tour and the new album.

Westword: I saw this video of you saying how excited you are about this tour, and as the camera zoomed out, you were getting a mani and a pedi at the same time.

Brittany Howard: [Laughs.] Oh, yeah, sometimes that happens. You know, we treat ourselves every once in a while.

How important is it to have a sense of humor on the road, with all the stress?

Massively important. Otherwise, who knows what could happen? It’s super-important for anyone’s well-being.

Have you discovered the things on the road, over the years, that you should absolutely do and absolutely not do?

You should absolutely not go out every night after a show. Absolutely do drink lots of water and make sure you sleep a lot.

You’ve played in Colorado quite a bit. Do you have a specific feeling about the area?

Yeah, the crowds are usually pretty cool in Denver; they’re a real chill, laid-back, cool bunch of open-minded people.

What was it like opening for Neil Young at Red Rocks?

That was one of my favorite shows ever. I got to meet Mr. Young and talk some. It was really cool.

The new album is obviously your first solo record. What were the biggest differences writing and recording as Brittany Howard rather than as Alabama Shakes?

Just the freedom to make whatever choices I want, whether they’re good choices or bad choices. It’s just fun to make those choices and get to paint my own picture how I envision it, how I hear it. I think that’s been the biggest difference, just steering my own ship. Touring, it’s been interesting because I play less guitar when I’m on stage, so I’ve been really exploring what it’s like to just be so open to a crowd when I’m on stage. It’s been new and cool.

I heard you were a big fan of AC/DC growing up. How did you discover that place where Bon Scott might meet Aretha Franklin or Nina Simone?

I think the cross-section would be just performing from a real place. You know, there’s a difference between just performing and making tons of dough, and being a performer because your spirit needs to do it. I think that’s the difference between something good and something great.

There seems to be a parallel between your new album and the new records by Sturgill Simpson and also St. Paul and the Broken Bones. These artists who come from a rootsy background and are now just shattering boundaries. How did you get to that place where virtually anything can be a Brittany Howard song?

I mean, I’ve never liked musical boundaries, just because it puts a limit on what you can do creatively. If it’s fun to do a little concept record or whatever, then do it. If it’s fun to mix and match everything you’ve heard before, do it.

How do you carry where you come from with you on stage every night, and writing? How much Alabama do you keep with you?

Well, it’s always ingrained in me. I think, for me, I feel pretty empowered to come from Alabama, just because the history is so radical and challenging. For me, just existing came from overcoming those things, so I’m very much proud to be an Alabamian and just stand on stage and say, “Yeah, this is me. I’m a pretty radical person, and I come from a place that’s considered so conservative, backwards. But guess what? I’m from there, so can it be all that you think it is?” It’s kind of neat in a way to be this sort of un-elected ambassador.

Do you feel like a role model for young black women who might not have seen a black woman with a guitar fronting a rock band before?

I could see how someone would think like that, just because I’m different to see on a stage as far as media goes. You don’t usually see someone who looks like me doing what I do. I think that’s cool. It’s something that I definitely would’ve appreciated, being younger, seeing something like that and being like, “Oh, that’s me! I have options for what I can do with my life. It’s not up to anything I see on television.” On the other hand, I’m just walking around like everybody else; it’s not like I behave or act according to what anybody made for me. I think I’m really just being the best self I can be for myself. If that inspires other people, then awesome. I really want them to do the same thing.

The new album was inspired by your late sister. Do you feel her presence on stage every night as you play these songs?

Yeah, I do — especially when I’m tired and I need a little extra strength. But then, also it’s a kind of everyday relationship when you lose somebody close to you. It doesn’t mean they’re gone. It’s not really how it works. It’s not like the movies, you know? That presence is always with you, always trying to get you through whatever you’re trying to get through. I live my life in my sister’s presence and memory, so of course when I made this record, it only made sense to just say “Thank you,” you know?

Your favorite song with her was “Don’t Worry Be Happy,” by Bobby McFerrin. Since she passed away, what new music have you heard that you think you would have bonded over?

I don’t know — probably anything I liked. She had really good taste. I’m not sure if she would’ve gone the pop way or more the avant-garde way. It’s hard to say.

So many people have heard you sing “Hold On," and sometimes during powerful, trying times in their lives. It’s an empowering statement, but it prompts the question, just how do you hold on?

I guess it’s different in every situation. I think a massive part of it is giving yourself a break, and feeling whatever it is you’re going through. Just experience that and sit with that, knowing it’s not going to kill you to feel sad, or to feel down for a moment, because happiness is always kinda coming around. It’s never permanent. You’re not alone in that, and it’s just a normal part of being a human being. Things can get easier. And also, I really believe things work out the way they’re meant to if we kinda stay out of the way, so to speak. Things sort themselves out eventually, no matter how painful the experience might be. I think you just gotta remember that and stand in awe of that, that we all have something to offer.

Brittany Howard, with Georgia Anne Muldrow, plays at 8 p.m. Thursday, November 14, at the Ogden Theatre. 935 East Colfax Avenue. For tickets and more information, go to ogdentheatre.com. Howard and Muldrow also play at 8:30 p.m. Friday, November 15, at the Boulder Theater, 14th Street, Boulder. For tickets and more information, go to bouldertheater.com.

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