Alabama Shakes to promote sophomore album at Virginia Theatre

By Frances Welch

Brittany Howard, frontwoman of Alabama Shakes, knows how to shake up a crowd. The passionate, soulful vulnerability in her vocals and the garage-rock blues of the four-piece band is what helped the group earn three Grammy nominations. 

Growing up in Athens, Alabama, a small city located between Birmingham and Nashville, the band had modest expectations of fame and success. Its full-length debut album, “Boys & Girls,” released in 2012, showcased the guttural yet smooth tone of Howard’s voice, a force that has been compared to the likes of Janis Joplin and Aretha Franklin by The New York Times. 

Howard is her own force with her natural grittiness. The howling queen of soul-rock has created an image of spunk, from her bright turquoise Gibson SG to a proudly worn arm tattoo, which outlines her home state with a star pinpointing Athens.

Ending its hiatus, the Shakes kicked off their tour in New York City on Thursday and will stop at The Virginia Theater in downtown Champaign on Wednesday in promotion of its sophomore album, “Sound & Color.” It will be one of seven cities on the band’s U.S. leg of the tour until its return in mid-April.  

To shed some light on the new album and Southern living, Brittany Howard spoke with The Daily Illini about her experiences thus far with Alabama Shakes. 

The Daily Illini: How similar would you say all of your music tastes were growing up? What influences were there growing up in the South?

Brittany Howard: I think we all have different tastes, but there is definitely common ground. The one thing about all of us is we listen to so many different genres of music. When we listen to music together, it can be all over the place stylistically. There is no doubt we listen to some music from the South, but we never really focused on one region of the country or world.  We like it all! There were artists from the South, such as Eddie Hinton, Drive-By Truckers and My Morning Jacket, that influenced us, but then there were artists like David Axelrod, The Meters, The Rolling Stones, AC/DC and many more that we listened to a lot too.

DI: How would you describe the music scene in Athens, Alabama?

BH: Athens is a very small town and doesn’t have the biggest music scene. I don’t know if there is a way to easily describe it. There are some cover bands and others making original music.

DI: In an interview with Austin City Limits, you said that your expectations have been far exceeded in terms of success. What about your success so far has been particularly unexpected in contrast to what you all were hoping for?

BH: Most of it has been unexpected. We never looked at music as a possible full-time career. We had hopes of being able to continue writing songs and making albums. We never really thought we would be able to tour internationally and get to do most of what we have been able to do over the last few years. … I think one of craziest experiences was playing at the White House. That was surreal. One of our favorite places has been in Brazil. That was a wild tour!

DI: As a guitar playing frontwoman, why do you think it’s important to have women in the music industry?

BH: There have been so many incredible women making contributions to music over the years: Tina Turner, Billie Holiday, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Bjork, St, Vincent and so many others. I don’t normally think of music in terms of male vs. female, but as you can see, some of the most important artists in the history of music have been women. 

DI: Between releasing “Boys & Girls” and the sophomore album, which is scheduled to be released April 21, did the band take a mental break from writing and recording due to the rise of popularity?  

BH: Yes, we took mental vacations. We had been on the road for several years and just needed some time to regroup, collect our thoughts and just live normal lives. When we got back together, we were chomping at the bit to write new songs and record a new record. 

DI: “Gimme All Your Love” and “Don’t Wanna Fight” seem to have a slight hint of a new sound for Alabama Shakes. Can you describe what new angles we can expect to hear on this next album?

BH: “Boys & Girls” was recorded so fast and on such a limited budget that we just didn’t have a lot of time to experiment with different sounds. Fortunately, this time we had the time to explore new sounds and directions. We didn’t want to just recreate “Boys & Girls.” We have grown so much as musicians and songwriters, and hopefully this album will be a good reflection of that. … There is a lot of touring ahead of us throughout the world. We are really excited to play these songs for our fans.

DI: During the writing and recording process, what were the inspirations, music or otherwise, that influenced the sophomore album?

BH: I think we had been listening to artists like David Axelrod, Gil Scott-Heron, Curtis Mayfield, The Meters and Prince.

DI: What are some albums the band is listening to right now?

BH: D’angelo’s “Black Messiah” and the “Super Fly” soundtrack.

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