Photo by Danny Clinch
As the frontwoman and principal songwriter of Alabama Shakes, Brittany Howard’s songcraft and soulful voice are the driving forces behind one of the most revered bands of the last decade. The Shakes’ Blake Mills-produced 2015 release, Sound & Color, was a swirling, psychedelia-tinged slab of soul, blues, and primordial rock ’n’ roll, which debuted as a Billboard No. 1, netted the quartet a grip of Grammys, and heralded their arrival as one of the most vital groups of their generation.
The marathon of touring which followed the success of Sound & Color left Howard drained, afflicted by writer’s block, and in need of a break from the behemoth which Alabama Shakes had become. Making the decision to step away from the group, Howard went about the work of rediscovering herself as a person and a songwriter. Now, with the release of Jaime, the chanteuse has reemerged as a fully fledged solo artist.
Thematically, Jaime is a viscerally human affair. Howard says writing the record served as “a process of healing” and that certainly comes through. The album’s title pays tribute to Howard’s late sister—a musician herself who tragically passed away as a teenager after fighting a rare form of cancer—and its songs were each written in an attempt to confront emotional specters, demons, or situations beyond Howard’s control. It’s a starkly personal and revealing album.
However, despite the record’s formidable pathos, Howard’s playful energy often pokes through its clouds. After all, this is the work of a woman whose extracurriculars include fronting a campy garage-rock project called Thunderbitch, with whom she once performed donning whiteface, a black bob wig, and mounted atop a motorcycle which had been planted dead center on the comically small stage of a Brooklyn club.
To that end, Jaime’s heavy topics float upon buoyant melodies, drown in deep grooves (further accentuated by drummer Nate Smith’s mega performance), and are often juxtaposed against sweet sonics. Questions of faith are channeled into a greasy “anti-gospel” banger in “He Loves Me.” The trauma Howard experienced as an interracial kid growing up in the deep South are pumped into a head-bob-inducing, hip-hop bounce on “Goat Head.” The wide spectrum of feelings being in love can evoke are explored through the neo-soul grooves of “Presence” and sparse, intimate ballads like “Short and Sweet.” Yeah, for an ostensibly dark record, Jaime not only has range. It slaps!
Lurking at the core of Jaime’s songs lies Howard’s criminally overlooked guitarwork. She prefers to frame her relationship to the instrument as a means to an end for songwriting, remarking “it’s just the instrument that I know the most about.” But Howard’s distinctive voice as a guitarist played a major role in shaping Alabama Shakes’ sound and Jaime is no different. The record boasts miniature guitar orchestras that lock into funky, deceptively tricky rhythms, and outbursts of emotional, downright molten lead playing, and Howard’s guitar often provides a perfect dance partner for her vocals, with the two gracefully shadow-boxing throughout the album. While Howard might object to the fanfare, there are guitar moments sprinkled throughout Jaime’s effortlessly cool songs that point to the work of a masterfully expressive 6-string stylist, like the avant-garde guitar conversation that happens during the tail end of “Presence” or the burning solo that cuts through “He Loves Me.” And all of this is made even more impressive by the fact that most of the guitar tracks which appear on the album’s final mix were pulled directly from the home demos Howard recorded with a literally broken, unbranded, vintage Japan-made guitar into a laptop loaded with Logic.
Premier Guitar spoke with Howard by phone as she unwound at home following a short promo tour for the release of Jaime. While we were delighted to be granted some insight into Howard’s approach as a songwriter, the conversation delved much deeper into the mind of Brittany Howard the guitarist, a player who celebrates the influence of people like Queen’s Brian May and Dave Davies as much as rock ’n’ roll pioneers like Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Chuck Berry.
Jaime does a really remarkable job of tackling heavy topics through joyful-sounding tunes.
Yeah! I always like juxtaposition because it makes everything richer. Life is all about juxtaposition: You’ve got happiness, sadness, comedy, death—everything is always juxtaposed next to something. I find it enjoyable making beautiful music about sad topics and vice versa. It makes you listen a little differently, you know?
The rhythm guitar parts on “He Loves Me” are really cool and the track really shows off your strengths as a rhythm player. Could you break down the construction of that one?
There are like seven guitar parts on that one. I didn’t want to play anything totally straightforward on that one, and that’s where it started. I asked myself, “If I do this rhythm line as the backbone that all the chords follow, how do I end up in an unexpected place?” That’s basically the inspiration and intention behind all of my guitars parts; finding a way to make things a little bit off-kilter. I listen to a lot of classical music and I love those big rises and falls and dynamic shifts and I like to compose guitar that way. One of my favorite guitar players is Brian May of Queen. I always liked how he stacked up everything and could make something really rich and soaring sounding just through his note choices and an orchestral approach.
Brittany Howard named her solo debut after her older sister, Jaime, who died from retinoblastoma, a rare form of eye cancer, at the age of 13. Brittany was also born with the disease, which left her partially blind in one eye.
The solo on that track gives me some serious Mick Ronson or Prince vibes and manages to feel both off-the-cuff, but also perfectly composed for the tune.
That solo was actually something I did on the demo. I didn’t re-record it for the album. I just wanted something that was blazingly hot and in-your-face, and that just felt like the right thing for the song. It had the right kind of dirt and the right kind of attitude. I usually don’t put guitar solos in songs because it always comes down to asking myself, “What are they doing there?” But that song is a weird gospel/anti-gospel song and I asked myself what was something I’d never hear at church when I played that solo.
Do you recall what you were using for that fuzz sound?
I had a ton of fuzzes on that. I know I was using both a fuzz and an overdrive stacked on that solo, and I used this old Japanese-made, probably Teisco guitar. I can’t recall exactly which fuzz or overdrive, but I was using a very little speaker and I remember it was a stack.
Is the Teisco guitar that sunburst four-pickup model you’ve been using live lately?
Yeah, that’s the one. I played that guitar on everything on the record. I just kind of stuck to it for some reason. At the time I was recording, the neck was actually broken and seriously tilted, but for some reason I really enjoyed the way it made me play. It made me play in a different way and I was excited to hold the guitar because it was very imperfect. I can’t quite explain why, but it was very inspiring.
I think a lot of players secretly prefer what comes out of an instrument that’s fighting them. It forces you to feel more than you think.
Yeah, exactly! When I have a guitar that’s so slick, I just don’t play the same. It’s true that every guitar has its own songs in it and brings out different things. That particular Japanese guitar has so many tonal options with that many pickups and switches, and I’m not even sure if they’re all functioning correctly, but there are so many different sounds I can get out of it. I think that’s also why I stuck to it so much. I think it’s a Teisco even though it doesn’t have a name on it. I found it at a pawnshop and just thought it looked really cool.
I’ve read that you tracked a lot of the album at home in Logic. Did you rely on miked amps or were you using amp sims for much of it?
I was doing a bit of both. Like the solo on “He Loves Me” ended up getting reamped and thrown through some real pedals, but all of the ideas always came from software amps.
What were your go-to choices for real amps and reamping?
It was a little haphazard. I know we used a little Gibson combo amp a lot and we used an old Music Man a lot for clean stuff. That one had a really great, warm clean tone and I used it a lot on the track “Baby.”