Brittany Howard on how her late sister Jaime inspired her powerful solo album: “I feel like we did it together”

The origin of Brittany Howard’s debut solo album, ‘Jaime’, was panic. She knew she wanted to make her own record, a separate thing from either Alabama Shakes or her rock’n’roll project Thunderbitch, but was struck down by a curse anyone who’s ever had to write anything beyond a certain length will likely be familiar with. Where should she begin?

The idea to make an album had come to her while on a road trip across the US with her partner, a little thought that arrived via the hours of time to think and reflect that travel brings. “I just thought, ‘What do I want? What do I want my career to look like?’” She explains in June, in the restaurant of Shoreditch’s Ace Hotel. “I’ve never tried making my own record but I always do my demos on my own. I was just wanting to do something for once where I am, so to speak, the conductor.”

Deciding to make something is a lot easier than the act of creating though. Among the obstacles in Howard’s way were what it should actually sound like – all she knew was that it shouldn’t sound “too much like anything”, so she shut off the music around her to prevent any subconscious influence seeping in.

She went to Topanga, California to try and find some inspiration for her words and sounds but, even in paradise, she hit a wall. “I’m surrounded by beauty, birds, bees, the sun, and flowers everywhere,” she says with a wry grin. “And it was just like, ‘Fuuuck, it’s not working.’”

Soon, a heatwave came that left the air-conditioning-free house at a sweltering 43 degrees. Just before this, she had started working on a memoir “for fun” and the combination of heat and nostalgia suddenly sparked something. “I’m just sitting there, pouring sweat,” she recalls. “And then all the songs started coming to me.”

‘Jaime’, released September 20, pulls together stories from across Howard’s life. In its title, it pays homage to her late sister who died from cancer as a teenager. Jaime is, really, who fans of the Alabama Shakes frontwoman have to thank for encouraging and teaching her about music. She is who taught Howard to play piano and it was on her guitar that her future Grammy-winning sister first strummed.

“She was the beginning of everything for me,” Howard says fondly, looking into a thimble-sized iced latte. “She definitely trained me up and taught me about songs. She’d be like, ‘Brittany, if we’re going to write a song, you’ve got to have a verse and you’ve got to have a chorus.’ We were little kids! Seeing our names together on the album is appropriate – I feel like we did it together.”

Despite its title, the album is not about her sister. It’s about “politics, sexuality, race – all the things you don’t talk about with your parents”. It’s packed with urgent, impassioned pleas to love, stories that will make you check your privilege or reflect on your own experiences with discrimination, and some of Howard’s most powerful musical work so far.

“‘Jamie’ is about politics, sexuality, race – all the things you don’t talk about with your parents”
– Brittany Howard

In places, it has Howard trying to tell stories she’s never heard before. On the hushed lilt of ‘Georgia’, she tries to evoke a similar feeling of sweeping love as the Ray Charles song of the same name, but with a twist. “I wanted it to be from the perspective of being a little girl and her finding out she has a crush on a much older girl and she doesn’t know how to digest those feelings,” she explains. “I wanted to make it feel very innocent and all-encompassing because when you’re that age and you ‘fall in love’, it’s huge.” She makes air quotes with her fingers and laughs.

The funk-laced ‘He Loves Me’ deals with her relationship with God, while the heartfelt ‘13th Century Metal’ finds her trying to turn anger into something more positive. “I feel so hopeless sometimes,” she explains. “You look around the world and you see all these horrible things happening. You’re so helpless to do anything.”

In Howard’s book, anyone can change the world, even if you don’t think you can. She quotes the famous Mahatma Gandhi line “Be the change you want to see in the world” and, eyes widened, insists that approach works. “It’s literally an action at a time and putting your money where your mouth is,” she says emphatically. “All the times in my life that really shaped me has been a person, not a thing. It’s been an action, not lip service.”

Howard has been taking action herself lately with specific regards to the recent bill introduced in Alabama that bans abortion in the state at any stage of pregnancy. She wrote a short piece for Al.com on the matter, in which she told those in power to “practice your religion in your life […] but leave these women out of it”.

“It’s just ancient, archaic bullshit,” she says of the law now, her posture changing to suit the seriousness of the conversation. “Everyone is acting off of their religious backgrounds and they have no concern for people who don’t see the world that way. It’s hard to grow up with a guidebook when the world doesn’t actually fit within the guidebook. Everyone’s taking it and translating it, I would say, horribly.”

She looks defiant now as her words continue to roll. “Alabama was just another case of these archaic old men who are out of touch with anybody else’s human experience making decisions for us. And I would have to say we’re not standing for it. We’re organising against it.”

The attitudes of some others in Alabama feature on ‘Jaime’. The jazz looseness of ‘Goat Head’ has her reflect on what it was like to grow up with a black father and a white mother. “When I first got made/Guess I made these folks mad,” she sings before recounting incidents where her dad’s tyres got slashed and a goat’s head appeared in the back of his car. Howard doesn’t remember these events first hand – she says she was only a baby at the time – but, when her mother told her about them when she was a teenager, they changed her perspective on her home. “It was a very rude awakening,” she says. “I always thought where I was from was the exception. I grew up with black family and white family. I thought that was just the way it was.”

Through mining her life’s stories on ‘Jaime’, Howard says she wants to correct a preconception she thinks people have of her based off of Alabama Shakes. “I must be loud, I must be really gregarious,” she lists. She sees herself as the opposite. “I’m very laidback. Very quiet. I enjoy making baskets and fishing and being with my family. I’m chill, man!”

What Howard will do next is uncertain right now but it feels like it could be anything, even appearing on movie screens. She filmed a small musical scene for the Dick Cheney film Vice, playing a congresswoman who explains the power dynamics of DC through song, but her part was deleted from the cinematic release. Director Adam McKay (The Big Short) reached out to her because he was a fan and gave her the opportunity to star alongside her favourite actor.

“I think Christian Bale is one of the best actors alive,” she gushes. “He was the sweetest. He’s got a bad reputation but it’s not true. He was a dream come true. I don’t know anything about acting or anything, but I learned about it [on set]. It was incredible. Now I’m on the DVD extras, which is fine by me!”

There’s also the possibility of more music from Alabama Shakes themselves. The band are all still in touch with each other and supportive of each other’s creative pursuits. Howard says she talked with her bandmates about making a solo record and they gave her the go-ahead. “My boys are my family,” she says happily. “They totally get it.” If there’s another Shakes album in the future she’s not sure – she just knows she had to go through making ‘Jaime’, and all its panic, sweat, and reminiscing, alone.