Alabama rockers go from back woods to backing up Jack White
- Last Updated: 12:26 AM, June 24, 2012
- Posted: 10:01 PM, June 23, 2012
A hot tip for all would-be rock stars looking for inspiration: Try driving a street sweeper. That’s where Brittany Howard, singer and guitarist for the hot buzz band Alabama Shakes, got ideas for several songs on her band’s debut album, “Boys & Girls.” Driving the lumbering truck through the streets of her hometown, Athens, Ala., she daydreamed her way into rock success.
“I had a whole notebook. Because you get bored,” says Howard, 23, who performs with the Shakes at Central Park SummerStage this afternoon. “I was in the sweeper all by myself. So I would come up with ideas, and then we’d throw some ideas out, try different things and see what clicks.”
The Shakes have received rave reviews and built a fervent fan base over the past year, thanks largely to Howard’s deep and powerful vocals, which recall the impassioned wail of Janis Joplin, and bluesy guitar chops that would make her welcome in any juke joint in the South.
Howard grew up “back in the woods” of Athens. She remembers singing along with her great-uncle’s bluegrass band at their rehearsals at the age of four or five — noting that she was a “ham” — and developed her musicianship and songwriting while jamming with friend and bass player Zac Cockrell late into the night throughout high school.
“It was just a matter of always playing, listening to music, writing and just seeing things through, no matter if it’s terrible. Just work on it till it’s good,” she says. “It’s the same with my voice. I wasn’t always a good singer. I just sang all the time, playing until like 3 a.m.”
The band — also consisting of drummer Steve Johnson and guitarist Heath Fogg — played locally for a few years, starting with all covers, then slowly integrated originals into the set. (Back then, the group was simply known as the Shakes. The “Alabama” bit was added to avoid confusion with another band.)
A rave review last July on the music blog Aquarium Drunkard, which included a recording of their song “You Ain’t Alone,” brought an invitation to open for renowned roots-rockers the Drive-By Truckers. By the time they played in NYC’s CMJ Festival last fall, they had built huge buzz that led both NPR and MTV to call them one of the year’s best new bands.
It was at CMJ when Howard first noticed something was changing.
“There was a lot going on that I didn’t quite understand,” she says. “I had an inkling that people liked our music, which is very cool. But I didn’t realize how many industry people were in the room. By the time I left, I had a little pocket in my denim jacket full of business cards, and I was thinking, something might have happened in there.”
Indeed it did. The band quit their day jobs (Howard had then been working as a letter carrier), played sold-out shows in England that earned glowing tweets from actor Russell Crowe, performed on Letterman and Conan, and toured as the opener for Jack White.
Now the band is hailed as one of the next big things in rock, but Howard says she wants to enjoy the experience, and make sure she never gets too distracted by the accolades to appreciate the one thing that matters — playing music.
“It’s very strange. In my shoes, life goes on pretty much the same,” she says. “Every once in a while you do something fantastic, like meeting Booker T. [Jones] and Jack White, or playing with the Drive-By Truckers. But as far as how people see us, I don’t really know. I’m just trying to keep it real.”