In case you don’t know the story of the 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.
But, then, Justin Gage posted a 57-word entry on his 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 had been alerted to the band — then called only “the Shakes” — after a friend of his saw them play a small-crowd gig in Nashville and posted something about it on Facebook. Though they hail from Alabama, they had come to Music City to record at the Bomb Shelter with Andrija Tokic. 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 the band’s co-founder Patterson Hood, and an invitation to open for a DBT run through the Southeast.
Someone else who got tipped off by Gage’s post was Bruce Warren, program director at WXPN radio in Philadelphia, PA. “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 the Current in Minneapolis. 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.”
Having become the Alabama Shakes due to another band being the Shakes, the group released four songs as an EP in early September of 2011 and hit the road with the Truckers. NPR Music’s Ann Powers had also been hearing the buzz on the band coming from both Alabama and Tennessee, but had missed their 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 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, they did everything but end there.
In October, they were showcasing at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City during the 2011 CMJ Music Marathon and, the month after that, they were back at the Bomb Shelter finishing what would become their debut album for ATO Records. Looking back to those first sessions at the Bomb Shelter, Fogg says, “Going into the first record, 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, 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.” No one could have foreseen any of it; but expand their horizons, they certainly did.
Somewhere in that fever-pitched Fall, the Alabama Shakes embarked on their first national tour — which also happened to be 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,” Howard 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. Howard says, “Everyone was really enthusiastic, 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.”
After touring the world, earning three Grammy nominations, and selling more than 500,000 records, the Alabama Shakes had officially arrived. A lot of the adoration — and credit — was heaped onto Howard’s shoulders. WXPN’s Bruce 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 he swoons for her charisma, Warren 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 Ann 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,” Powers says. Of course, she, too, is quick to credit Fogg, Cockrell, and Johnson (along with touring keyboardist Ben Tanner) for their integral roles. “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, the Alabama Shakes steeled themselves to go back into the studio to make what would become Sound & Color. This go ’round, though, they recruited guitarist/producer Blake Mills to co-produce. They also booked more time in the studio in order let things develop more organically, more experimentally. “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 and mainly built Midi instruments on her computer and things like that. 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.” To do that, she let her muse run free. She says, “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, and challenging… those are pretty fair descriptors for the new album. Powers hears all of that in the intricate, yet broad 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 the 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 the 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 mis-state the situation — particularly from Howard’s perspective. “This record means a lot to me. I really get to express myself and who I am and what I can do… what I’m capable of,” she offers. Howard contends that this broader sonic scope was what they were always after. “If we’d had more time on the first record,” she says, “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.” And she’s not the only one. If the 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 the Alabama Shakes are about as real as it gets, especially when Howard lets loose her incredible wail of a voice onsongs 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 they head into yet another whirlwind touring schedule, the Alabama Shakes do so with a “whatever will be will be” attitude. “Whatever happens, happens,” Howard offers. “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 or not 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.”
This article originally appeared on No Depression.