Alabama Shakes Give It All Away
In case you don’t know the story of Alabama Shakes’ meteoric rise to glory, it all started when Brittany Howard approached Zac Cockrell in an East Limestone High School psychology class about jamming together. She played guitar and sang; he played bass. Soon enough, they added drummer Steve Johnson and, later, guitarist Heath Fogg. It was all pretty small potatoes, at first, as they crafted a sound that pulled equally from Otis Redding and Ozzy Osbourne.
Though they hail from Alabama, the band — then called only “the Shakes” — drove up to Nashville a few years later to record at the Bomb Shelter with Andrija Tokic, known for his work with envelope-pushing roots acts like Benjamin Booker, Hurray for the Riff Raff, and others. While in Music City, they played a small-crowd gig. A friend of Los Angeles-based music blogger Justin Gage’s saw that show and posted about it on Facebook. An intrigued Gage, in turn, posted a 57-word entry on his popular Aquarium Drunkard blog on July 25, 2011, along with an MP3 demo of “You Ain’t Alone”:
The Shakes, from the small town of Athens, AL, are a slice of the real; an unhinged, and as of yet unsigned, blues-based soul outfit fronted by a woman armed with a whole lotta voice and a Gibson SG. And as for what I’m looking for, “You Ain’t Alone” is about as real as you can get.
Gage also emailed the track to the Drive-By Truckers team. That, along with a record store performance back home, got the Shakes a manager in Kevin Morris, who worked with the Truckers; a fan in DBT’s co-founder Patterson Hood; and an invitation to open for them on a run through the Southeast.
Someone else who got tipped off by Gage’s post was Bruce Warren, program director at WXPN radio in Philadelphia. “I remember reading it and going, ‘Oh my God. This song is amazing,’” Warren says. Within a week or two of that first online encounter, Warren was at a public radio conference in Minneapolis, MN, having dinner with Morris and another radio colleague, Jim McGuinn from Minneapolis Public Radio’s The Current. As Warren tells it, “We’re talking about music… blah blah blah blah blah. And I was like, ‘I just heard this unbelievable song by this band I found on Aquarium Drunkard called the Shakes.’ Kevin looked at me and goes, ‘You’re kidding me.’ I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘I just signed them.’ … At dinner, within seconds, he forwarded me what would be their first album. I came back to Philadelphia a day or two later and we started playing it.”
The group — now called Alabama Shakes, after they learned of another band called the Shakes — released four songs as an EP in early September 2011 and hit the road with the Truckers. NPR Music’s Ann Powers had also heard the buzz coming from both Alabama and Tennessee, but had missed a recent performance on the Brews Cruise in her hometown of Tuscaloosa. So, when they came through opening for the Truckers at the Bama Theatre, she didn’t dare miss out twice.
“I have never seen an opening band ever — in my two-plus decades of writing about music — win the audience so profoundly in the way that the Shakes did that night. It was incredible,” Powers says. “They played an amazing set and virtually no one in the room knew anything about them. After they played their set, the line at their merch table was stretching up the staircase at the Bama Theatre. They sold every last piece of merchandise they had and people were still clamoring to talk to Brittany and the guys. That was when I knew, regardless of my personal opinion, which was very high — I thought they were amazing — I knew that this was a band to be reckoned with, because they instantly won the hearts of everyone in the room.”
As guitarist Fogg remembers it, the band just tried to hold on for the ride — and hold on to themselves. “There was a lot happening,” he recounts. “I think there was a threat of ‘How realistic is this? You can’t hang your hat on this. This isn’t real. This is just people talking.’ We tried to not get too excited about anything. Some of the opportunities that we had come along — like opening for the Truckers, that was a dream come true — I could’ve ended there and been pretty happy.”
Instead, Alabama Shakes did everything but end there.
That October, they showcased at New York City’s Bowery Ballroom during the 2011 CMJ Music Marathon. The month after that, they were back at the Bomb Shelter finishing what became their debut album for ATO Records. “Going into the first record,” Fogg remembers, “I mean it sounds simple, but we really just wanted to make a record. We had a small batch of songs and we just wanted them recorded — [that] was the initial goal. … And I guess the second goal we had — and this was definitely secondary, but it was still a goal — is we had the hope that, if we get these songs recorded in a way that we’re really proud of, maybe we could get on some sort of little record label or get a tour going where we could open for a band, just expand our horizons a little bit. We definitely didn’t foresee any of the things that were to come afterward.”
Somewhere in that fever-pitched autumn, Alabama Shakes embarked on their first national tour, which also happened to be frontwoman Howard’s first time out of the Yellowhammer State. “People always ask me, ‘What are the highlights of your career so far?’ And that’s usually the second thing I say — our first tour that we ever took across America,” she says.
Then, Boys & Girls came out on April 20, 2012, and the world continued to explode around them. The band members were in their mid-20s and were caught somewhat off-guard by the response. “Everyone was really enthusiastic,” Howard says, “which is always surprising to me. Why was it surprising to me? I don’t know. Because probably we were just doing our thing. And it seemed like everybody else was doing their thing, too, so why were people reacting like they were to our thing? It wasn’t formula. It was just happening. We were watching it happen and feeling it happen. And the reactions people were having was pretty shocking, really.”
Fogg adds, “We never really saw ourselves as a band that the masses would love. And so many people really did start to love that album and the music and the shows. Even though we’re really thankful for it, it seems surreal. And it seems like people got the wrong memo or something.” He laughs, then continues, “I don’t know how to explain it. Like, sooner or later, they’re going to see us for what we really are and then it’ll be more realistic.”
Running Deep and Wide
After touring the world, earning three Grammy nominations, and selling more than 500,000 records, Alabama Shakes had officially arrived. A lot of the adoration — and credit — was heaped onto Howard’s shoulders. WXPN’s Warren thinks that is spot on, to a certain degree. “Brittany’s an unbelievable front person. She’s got it,” he says. “Most bands just go up, they play their songs. They’re not engaging. They’re not entertaining. You don’t feel like they want it, like they mean it. She just delivers.”
But, as much as Warren swoons over Howard’s charisma, he crushes just as hard on the music. “The band is a great rock and roll band. I think Brittany is a big part of it, but the other thing is, you listen to their music and you can’t help but think of great Southern rock, and Led Zeppelin, and the Allman Brothers, and the Stones … stuff like that. I have no idea what their influences are, but they put this rock and soul thing together in a really fresh way. It’s nothing I haven’t heard before, but they’re just doing it in a unique way.”
NPR Music’s Powers agrees. “First of all, obviously, they have an incredibly dynamic front woman. … She’s someone who tapped into roots music, but who was obviously informed by punk, who was theatrical but also heartfelt, who had control over her instrument but also was able to lose control, if that’s what she felt like the situation needed.”
Indeed, musical roots in Alabama run deep and wide, and the Shakes’ music is certainly informed by it, even if subconsciously. Southern rock, soul, folk, and blues all ring out in the music of this young band. While Howard grew up listening to the “golden oldies” station with her grandmother, Fogg cites home-state artists as far-ranging as Hank Williams, Drive-By Truckers, and the Dexateens among his influences, while also nodding to the sounds of Muscle Shoals. “Trying to mix all those influences together and, at the same time, mask them all … you’re trying to create something that just sounds like you,” he says. “I try to have a love for my region and try to have a knowledge of the art that’s made there. You can’t help but be influenced by that.” When those early inspirations are viewed as a whole, Alabama Shakes’ sound starts to come into focus.
That’s why Powers is quick to credit not just Howard, but also Fogg, Cockrell, and Johnson (along with touring keyboardist Ben Tanner) for their integral roles in crafting the band’s broad-spectrum roots sound. “With a front person like Brittany, plenty of young bands wouldn’t have lasted for the second album. She’s someone that people focus on and it would’ve been tempting for her, maybe, to go off on her own way. Who knows what would’ve happened. But, the fact is, those players — together — are what make the Shakes important and special.”
With all of that pressure and praise, Alabama Shakes steeled themselves to go back into the studio to make what would become Sound & Color. This go-round, though, they recruited guitarist and producer Blake Mills (Conor Oberst, The Avett Brothers, Carlene Carter) to co-produce. They also booked more time in the studio in order to let things develop more organically, more experimentally than was possible last time.
“The main goal was just to compile as many songs as we could and craft those songs into things that we loved,” Fogg says. “There was really no focus on a concept, no focus on which genre should these songs fit in or anything like that. Or, ‘Is this too far out?’ Or, ‘Is this too similar to the last record?’ It was just trying to focus on being creative and not worrying about anything else.”
He continues, “This record was a little different from the last, in the sense that Brittany had more demos almost constructed in their entirety and she would bring them to us. Not all the songs, but a good bunch of them on this album started that way. Some of the more far-out ones, like ‘Gemini’ and ‘Sound & Color’ and ‘Over My Head,’ things like that were songs that she had demoed at home … so we just tried to translate those to our instruments and put our dynamic and our spin on her songs.”
For her part, Howard went into the making of Sound & Color with one real goal: “My mindset was just to keep it interesting for myself. I feel like that is always going to be what this band is. We have to keep ourselves interested and do something like we’ve never really heard before. The one thing I would do was, I wouldn’t say to myself, ‘Okay, I want to write this kind of song.’ As soon as I did that, it wouldn’t be any fun anymore because then I’m not exploring anything, I’m just making that kind of song. As soon as I stopped doing that, it became fun and exciting. … This time I wasn’t so worried about how to play with each other. It was just more about ‘How can we make playing with each other a little more interesting, a little more far-out and challenging?’”
Interesting, far-out, challenging — those are pretty fair descriptors for the new album. Powers hears all of that in the intricate, yet expansive vision of the set. “To me, it’s just very dynamic,” she says. “At the same time, it feels focused — like they know what they’re doing and aren’t just flailing around. They’re developing their sound, which is unique. Unique is a word that’s overused, but I challenge anyone to come up with a band right now that sounds like Alabama Shakes. … These songs aren’t tight little songs. They’re very layered. They’re very subtle. They’re very expansive. Every player on this record, including the keyboard players who tour with them, everybody on this record kicks it to the max. Brittany is a singular force, but I really think this record shows how every element of Alabama Shakes matters. And the growth that they’ve shown — all of them — on this new record, I think, is just astounding.”
Indeed, where Boys & Girls was rough and tumble, down and dirty, Sound & Color is thoughtful and patient, brave and bold. But to say the Shakes’ artistic leap forward is surprising, somehow unexpected, would be to misunderstand the situation — particularly from Howard’s perspective. “This record means a lot to me,” she says. “I really get to express myself and who I am and what I can do, what I’m capable of.”
This broader sonic scope, she contends, was what they were always after: “If we’d had more time on the first record, I do believe it would sound more like this record. But we just went in there and laid it out. We literally had a day. We never got a chance to do something like this, so I’m really excited about what we got to do.”
She’s not the only one. If Alabama Shakes’ buzz had quieted at all, the first single out of the gate, “Don’t Wanna Fight,” and their recent performances at Coachella, raised it back to a roar.
“I feel like we’re pretty lucky,” Fogg says. “It seems like everywhere we go, all over the world, people have responded pretty well to the music we make. That goes for festivals, where maybe people are coming and just checking it out, to our own shows, where people are coming just for us. It’s surreal. It really doesn’t seem like it’s real sometimes.”
But, as Gage wrote four years ago, Alabama Shakes are about as real as it gets, especially when Howard lets loose her incredible wail of a voice on songs like “Gimme All Your Love,” “Miss You,” and “Dunes.” As fun and cathartic as that is for everyone in the room — Howard included — she has had to learn to hold back a little bit. “It’s exhausting because that’s what I do, that’s me, to give it all away like that,” she confides. “As far as conserving my voice, it’s something I have to be conscious of while I’m on stage because it’s so easy to get lost and just give it all away every night. You have to watch yourself and that’s something I’ve had to do more recently now because of all the different ranges that I sing in on this record.”
Still, it must feel good, right? “Oh, yeah. It feels great.”
As for what’s next, “Whatever happens, happens,” Howard says. “The whole point of it, to me anyway, is to have this experience and know that I lived a life that was fulfilling. So I’m trying to do that, trying to do things that matter to me. So far, it’s going great.” As to whether she’ll still be doing this 50 years from now like one of her idols, Mavis Staples, Howard says: “I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going to happen — that’s the fun part.”
Lead photo by Brantley Gutierrez, courtesy of The Funstar. Live shot by C. Elliott.