The album, Jaime, is available from 20th September. Pre-order here:
I will talk about Glastonbury later…
PHOTO CREDIT: Brantley Gutierrez
and, as part of that discussion, I wanted to look at the female artists who have played this year. It has been a busy and exciting festival and there have been so many highlights. In terms of the gender balance at the festival, yes, there is a little way to go but it seems Glastonbury is far ahead of most British festivals. I think a lot of the hesitation and holdback comes from the perception regarding women and whether they are headline-worthy. There is this feeling that women, for the most part, cannot play as hard and well as men and, with some big bands headlining Glastonbury this year, will policies change so that women are giving a better shot? There are some great female bands but, mostly, it is female solo artists that stand out. There is a lot to unpack regarding Glastonbury but I do think they have to make some big changes in the next couple of years. Whether we want to talk about roots and encourage more women to go into professions like engineering and producing – thus, female artists having fellow women in studios – or push the talented female artists emerging to the front, I am not too sure. I do think that there is this perception that women cannot perform as energetically and emphatically as men; maybe they are more Pop-based or less anthemic. This comes down to a subject that interests me: women who can shred it! We have the likes of St. Vincent and Anna Calvi and bands like Goat Girl but, if you look further, there are many more. Brittany Howard is an artist many of us might not know by name but, if you like Alabama Shakes, you will recognise her for sure! I will talk about other aspects of her music/personality - but I think her affinity for the guitar is key. Look at most photos of her online and you will see her holding a guitar! She is one of these role models who will help encourage more girls/women to pick up the instrument.
PHOTO CREDIT: Billboard
There is a lot more to Howard than the guitar but I do like the fact that, at a time when many assume women can’t/do not play, Howard shows otherwise. In fact, Howard is a skilled musician and exceptionally varied songwriter. One cannot easily label a gender and this idea of limitation in women is eroding. More great female artists are coming through which means, more and more, we will see steps towards equality. I am fascinated by the gender split regarding guitar and, how recently, there is a lot more equality. It seems that role models and certain artists are compelling young women to play and I hope, in years to come, this will help bring about some greater balance regarding festival line-ups. There are so many strong and original female artists in music right now and Brittany Howard ranks alongside the strongest. I have been following Alabama Shakes for a while and I do love the band aesthetic but, to me, it is the power and brilliance of Howard that allures me. Her voice is magnetic and sensational and her playing exceptional. She is a complete musician and hugely interesting writer who goes beyond the ordinary and sticks in the mind. I will talk more about Howard and other sides to her but, as a lead and figure in music, I know she will be inspiring so many other artists. I have written a lot about gender imbalance in the industry but, with artists like Howard shining and exploding, I know we will see correction and improvement very soon. Not only has this year been synonymous with women powering through but black artists have been right at the top of the tree. I do think that, still, music is too homogenised but 2019 has been a far more eclectic and broad year regarding gender and race. Maybe I am wrong but I do think there are movements in the right direction and music is far richer than it was a few years ago.
The reason I say this is because some of the very best albums of the year have been made by black artists. We have just seen Stormzy nail his Glastonbury headline set and, whilst he has not released an album this year, he is the first black British artist to headline Glastonbury. In terms of the albums, big releases from Lizzo, Jamila Woods; Little Simz, Dave and Solange have all won big critical love. I am not suggesting that there is equality regarding race in music – that is another issue to unpack too – but this year, to me, has been noticeable because of these strong black voice emerging. Maybe it is the fact that artists like Dave and Little Simz have been talking explicitly about the state of the country and the reality of where they live; a certain authenticity that is not often fostered by the industry. I do sense this determination from black artists to get the respect they deserve and, like women, stop being pigeon-holed and labelled. Maybe it will take a while longer for black artists to get equality on festival bills like women but I can sense change and a slight shift occurring. Brittany Howard, again, is an inspiring role model for women but especially for black women who might feel that their voice will not be taken seriously. I have bonded with some incredible artists this year in terms of their stories but, when it comes to Brittany Howard, her background is especially stirring. If you want to talk about a fascinating story and one that seems almost impossible, then study Brittany Howard. This article talks about Howard’s childhood and when she first picked up the guitar:
“Brittany’s dad, K.J. Howard, repaired and sold used cars. The family ran a junkyard, and their home, a little trailer, was set in the middle of it. “[M]y mom was really good at making our home—no matter what our situation was—always felt like a home, always felt really nice,” Brittany told NPR in 2016…
PHOTO CREDIT: Alysse Gafkjen
“We had a lot of different kinds of animals. . . . I grew up on a farm, in a sense.” It was a carefree time, but when Brittany was nine, things changed. Her older sister, Jaime, suffered from retinoblastoma, a rare cancer of the eye, and although Brittany adjusted—“Being a kid, it’s just how life is”—Jaime became blind and eventually died from the disease. (Brittany also was born with retinoblastoma, but as she explains, “They caught mine in time ’cause it was years later.” She’s lost most of the vision in one eye but wears glasses and is, she reports cheerfully, “fine.”) Shortly after Jaime’s death, K.J. and Brittany’s mom, Christi Carter Howard, split up. “[I]t’s hard to stay together when everybody’s grieving,” Brittany told NPR. “So they split, and I went to live with my mom. We moved to the city. In Madison [Alabama], we lived in a little apartment.”
That’s when Brittany really started playing guitar. Her mom was working, and music was something to figure out, something to do. Jaime had taught her little sister how to write poetry and play the piano, but Brittany had to figure out the rest on her own. She dug out Jaime’s old guitar: “I took it to my music teacher at school, she tuned it for me,” Brittany told CBS News. “And then I just took it home and wrote my own songs”.
I do think music has been missing these role models leading from the front who will inspire the next generation. Sure, we have the odd one popping up now and then but this year has been especially strong. From Howard to Stormzy; to Simz and Woods, some of the finest artists of this year are going beyond the familiar and actually writing music that matters. I have so much respect for artists like Brittany Howard because she is a pioneer and someone who will give strength to those similar to her; those who have a similar upbringing, that is.
PHOTO CREDIT: Alysse Gafkjen
Let us move on because there are a couple more subjects I want to bring in. I want to talk about artists who move from bands and step out alone. It is interesting because yesterday saw me review Liam Gallagher’s new track and, with an album out on 20th September (like Howard), both emerge from very successful bands. Granted, Gallagher’s Oasis broke up years ago and they were a bit bigger than Alabama Shakes but my point is about adapting and being taken seriously as a solo artist. When I was reviewing Liam Gallagher, I sort of wondered whether there is this chance Oasis will play together again and how critics, when they approach his music, always mention the band. The same happens with Howard and, whilst Alabama Shakes are not over, Howard is stepping out on her own. Alabama Shakes are a great band with their own sound but Howard’s single, History Repeats, is a different thing altogether. She has been keen to imprint her own voice into the mix and not repeat what she has done with Alabama Shakes. I guess there is always something scary about moving from a band and launching a solo career. Through the decades, countless artists have done it – some with more success than others. I do feel like Howard has brought a lot of lessons and elements from Alabama Shakes and injected that into her solo work. Rather than show any nerves and sound a bit out of her element, she is completely assured and wonderful. Everything is building up to the release of her album, Jaime. I have talked about the background of Murphy and her musical affinity but, when it comes to her solo album, there is a personal tragedy/relevance. If one looks at her official website then you can see why Howard wanted to put Jaime out into the world:
“I wrote this record as a process of healing.
Every song, I confront something within me or beyond me. Things that are hard or impossible to change, words and music to describe what I’m not good at conveying to those I love, or a name that hurts to be said: Jaime.
I dedicated the title of this record to my sister who passed away as a teenager. She was a musician too. I did this so her name would no longer bring me memories of sadness and as a way to thank her for passing on to me everything she loved: music, art, creativity.
But, the record is not about her. It’s about me.
It’s not as veiled as work I have done before.
I’m pretty candid about myself and who I am and what I believe. Which, is why I needed to do it on my own.
I wrote and arranged a lot of these songs on my laptop using Logic. Shawn Everett helped me make them worthy of listening to and players like Nate Smith, Robert Glasper, Zac Cockrell, Lloyd Buchanan, Lavinia Meijer, Paul Horton, Rob Moose and Larry Goldings provided the musicianship that was needed to share them with you.
Some songs on this record are years old that were just sitting on my laptop, forgotten, waiting to come to life. Some of them I wrote in a tiny green house in Topanga, CA during a heatwave.
I was inspired by traveling across the United States. I saw many beautiful things and many heartbreaking things: poverty, loneliness, discouraged people, empty and poor towns. And of course the great swathes of natural, untouched lands. Huge pink mountains, seemingly endless lakes, soaring redwoods and yellow plains that stretch for thousands of acres. There were these long moments of silence in the car when I could sit and reflect. I wondered what it was I wanted for myself next. I suppose all I want is to help others feel a bit better about being. All I can offer are my own stories in hopes of not only being seen and understood, but also to learn to love my own self as if it were an act of resistance”.
That is a lot to absorb but I do love the fact that there is this family connection with the title but, actually, Jaime is deeper than that. Self-love is very much what Howard is about and she has this great social conscience. 2019 has been a year where some very bold and aware albums have come out in terms of social poverty, politics and connection. Howard has travelled around the U.S. and seen so many varied sights. Her album is a testament to those visions and I cannot wait to hear it!
Before I move on, I want to bring in an article from Rolling Stone that talks about the album’s namesake, Jaime, and the relevance to Brittany Howard:
“One of those belongs to her older sister Jaime, the album’s namesake. “She taught me how to write a song, taught me how to draw, taught me about art,” Howard says of her sister, who died at 13 from a form of eye cancer. “I’ve always been connected to her spirit. This [album] was kind of my way of doing something together.” Howard thought about her sister’s tape collection, where Elvis stood next to the Supremes. Howard also listened to Brazilian artist Jorge Ben, who makes music “where there’s literally, like, 18 different things happening in the song.”
Throughout the album, Howard sounds relieved at the chance to speak her truth. “If people like the record, that’s amazing,” she says. “I’m just proud that I made the record.” She plans to tour with the people who helped her make it, including keyboardist Paul Horton (who has toured with the Shakes) and Shakes bassist Zac Cockrell, “because to me he’s, like, the best bass player.”
As for the band that made her famous, even Howard isn’t sure what its future is. “We’re a family,” she says. “Those are my bro-bros for life. But right now they’re just letting me do my thing. If I did the same songs and the same everything, I’d be so miserable. I’d be so bored. I wouldn’t care about heaps of cash, swimming in a cash swimming pool. It does not matter to me”.
I do think it is important to contextualise albums and learn a bit about the background. So many artists give very little away and it can lead to a very frustrating listening experience. Rather than give a few lines of information, Howard has told this story and it gives Jaime a much greater depth and weight, I feel. I think it is important to move on and get to the song in question. History Repeats is a fantastic track and one that will impress Alabama Shakes fans but also draw in those who are not aware of the band.
PHOTO CREDIT: Alysse Gafkjen
Anyone who worries whether Brittany Howard going solo would take away some of Alabama Shakes’ percussive strut and physicality should not worry. On her single, History Repeats, things get off to a pretty physical and bold start. The percussion slams and rolls and, before she has even sung a word, you get this real sense of impending mood and force. It is a wonderful introduction and already gets you standing to attention. There is a real sense of scurry and busyness when one hears the vocals. Rather than it being a single layer, Howard layers her voice and sort of creates this conversation. There is percussion and guitar and all of this adds to the mix. After a building introduction, the heroine talks about a certain place and not wanting to go back there. Rather than pack too many words in and build a huge story, there are a few lines that show great economy; there are mantras repeated and this feeling that, if the words are said enough, they will stick. Howard’s lead vocal has this odd effect where it seems a bit lower down the mix and has this great quality to it. It is hard to describe and explain but I love what Howard does. The guitars mix between Blues and Funk and you get this nice little kick and guide coming from the strings. Howard talks about this ‘place’ constantly and she has already been. She has washed her hands and does not want to return that. Whether this is an emotional state and not wanting to return there or something else, I am not sure to start. Keeping a sense of mystery means listeners can make their own decisions and tell their own story. I get the feeling there is this struggle and Howard is seeing her country change. Having been raised with a certain degree of struggle, she is seeing so much poverty and inequality around her. Rather than change happening and people getting back on their feet, they are being put down. She has seen a degree of poverty and you know she does not want to go back to that place.
History Repeats, in many ways, is like a prayer or sermon. Rather than it having a traditional structure and form, it seems more freestyle’ and spontaneous. I mentioned how certain lines are repeated and I think that is what gives the song its power. Rather than forgetting the lyrics, lines will stick in the mind and you will find yourself repeating them over and over. I guess that is the point of the song: Howard wants people to take her words to heart and learn from them. Howard talks about history repeating itself and how we are defeating ourselves. Maybe this is a shot at politicians who are making the same mistakes and not helping those in need but it might be a wider call to the world. It is an intriguing thought and one that remained with me for a while. Whereas some Alabama Shakes songs put the guitar right at the front, although it is still prominent in the mix, the percussive element is the driving force. Maybe it is that need to summon avalanche and describe something hard-hitting – the drumming throughout is extraordinary. Howard’s licks and guitar work is, as always, essential and the entire composition is beautifully weaved and detailed. I do think you will need to check out History Repeats a few times because it is a pretty big song that will take a while to digest. This year has been a mighty one for music and, with Brittany Howard putting new material into the world, it has got even better! I am not making predictions just yet but I do feel Jaime will be regarded as one of the best albums of 2019. I have always loved Howard’s work but I think she has added something new to her work as she has stepped out solo. History Repeats is one of the strongest singles of the year and it bodes really well for Jaime. I shall end the review there but I have been amazed by Howard’s new single and it is one I cannot stop listening to at the moment. Make sure you investigate the track and let it get into the brain because, after a single spin, it will do its work and will open your mind.
Brittany Howard is playing across the U.S. in the coming weeks and months and will be preparing to release her album on 20th September. It will be one of the most anticipated albums of the year and I cannot wait to hear what other songs are going to be included. I have mentioned how it is tricky stepping away from a popular band and going out alone. I do not think Howard has any problems because, not only are Alabama Shakes resting at the moment, but going solo allows her to try something new and put more of herself into the music. I think the rest of this year will be very busy for her and it must be exciting embarking on this big tour and having an album on the horizon. Ensure you get Jaime when it comes out in September because I think it will be among the best records of 2019. I shall wrap things up pretty soon but I wanted to return to my points regarding strong role models and why artists like Brittany Howard are to be investigated. She is an amazing talent who has already put so much great music into the world but there is plenty more to come. As a guitarist, Howard will compel so many young women (and men) to play and I think that is really important. She has this incredible history and rise that is motivating and really inspiring to see. The music she is putting out into the world is immensely powerful and I cannot compare her to anyone else. 2019 has already seen so many great role models put albums out and here comes another one. The sensational Brittany Howard is hitting the road and make sure you go and see her. I wonder whether she has plans regarding U.K. dates and will be back with her.
She recently spoke with BBC Radio 6 Music and Lauren Laverne and I do think Howard is coming this way soon enough. There are plenty of people here who will want to hear her perform and see those incredible songs come to life. I am a big fan of what she does and I cannot wait to see where she goes next. An amazing band leader has stepped into the solo realm and, as History Repeats shows, she is a natural! Effortlessly transitioning from Alabama Shakes into her own light, who knows how far she can go. I also talked about festival bills and imbalance and I do think Howard is a natural headliner-in-waiting. Let’s hope she does have that opportunity soon because, now more than ever, strong women are showing festival organisers what they are missing. Let’s leave it there because I feel I have covered all I can but, as to end, I want to urge people to check out History Repeats and make sure you put in your order for Jaime. It is a remarkable album and one that has so many different stories running through it. I have already, I think, decided what the best album of 2019 (so far) is but, with great artists like Brittany Howard still to come…one cannot predict the finest albums of 2019…
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PHOTO CREDIT: Alysse Gafkjen
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