For better or worse, the Alabama Shakes are well past the bar-band stage. Even before the Athens, Alabama, group’s 2012 debut CD, Boys and Girls, blasted their raw soul-drenched rock worldwide, one mp3—the yearning “You Ain’t Alone”—had gotten them attention outside their Southern circuit, going viral after being posted on a music blog.
Still, the original quartet—singer/guitarist Brittany Howard, bassist Zac Cockrell, drummer Steve Johnson and guitarist Heath Fogg, who have been together since 2009 before adding keyboardist Ben Tanner in 2011—valued their time in small clubs. Those formative experiences let them hone both their songwriting and primal, bluesy sound.
“We got to play those songs for three years and really get them down,” says Howard, she of the elemental caterwaul, who first started jamming with Cockrell when they were both in high school. “It used to be, we’d write songs and we’d go try them out,” she remembers. “Now, when we go play a show, there’s a lot of people paying a lot of attention. We really have to have ’em down before we play them.”
After an extended global tour that included festivals from Glastonbury to Lollapalooza Brazil as well as sold-out, headlining shows from Vancouver to London, the band is now taking a bit of a break. Both Cockrell and Johnson have new babies to bond with and the band is also gestating a new album—their second full-length recording for ATO. What that will sound like, however, is a mystery.
“I really want to surprise people,” Howard says. “What we like is always evolving. As musicians, we’re always finding new ways to express ourselves.”
While the band has earned the obvious comparisons to other contemporary roots rockers like Drive-By Truckers, the Black Keys, and Detroit Cobras, Howard talks about reaching beyond Muscle Shoals, or even those bar-band roots, referencing favorites from My Morning Jacket to Radiohead. That makes the recording process, as she explains it, organic. And slow.
“Its like it’s always been,” she says of the Alabama Shakes’ songwriting process. “Somebody will have a little idea and if anyone of us sees any potential in it, we’ll work on it for a while. And if we hit a wall, we’ll put it away for a while.” Beyond that, Howard is mum, even keeping the name of the new disc’s producer secret. Partly, she admits, that’s because of the band’s meteoric rise.
“I’m not going to be ignorant to the fact that we put out [Girls and Boys],” Howard continues. “And no one could have known what would have happened.” She pauses before adding, “What a strange place to be. Now I have the tools; now I have the opportunity to do what I always wanted to do.”
Those opportunities included an invitation to contribute to the soundtrack of 12 Years a Slave, a film Howard calls “one of the best movies I’ve ever seen.”
“John Legend was putting that project together and he brought the film to Athens” for a hometown screening, she explains. Llegend told the Alabama Shakes “watch this movie and take away what you will from it.”
“All of us were really moved,” she says. “We thought about writing a song, but we felt there was something that had already been said that fits.” The question of what that was exactly was answered by an iPod incident. At some point, T Bone Burnett had suggested she listen to Max Roach’s “Driva Man,” and while Howard had downloaded the song, she’d forgotten about it. By luck, she recalls, it came up: “And it started playing, and I was like, ‘Holy shit, this is the song! This is the song!’ It was something we hadn’t played before, so we went to this little studio in Muscle Shoals that overlooks the river and we did it in about four hours.” The recording is stark, powerful. Howard digs deep right from the a cappella opening, laying out the vocals like a hard-won work song before the rest of the band—plus a jazzy sax!—kick in. “I’d never worked with a horn section before,” says Howard. “I’m super proud that we’re a part of this.”
Such projects only pique curiosity about the Shakes’ new album, but Howard says the band won’t be rushed. “We’re going to take as much time as we need,” she says. “I really want this to be the best thing I’ve ever done, and I’m not afraid to take a long time to do it.”
Perhaps inspired by her bandmates’ new families, she comes up with a metaphor. “I feel like I’m bringing this little baby into the world, and I want it to stay in the oven until it’s done.” She hears herself and starts laughing. “Oh, that’s a weird way to say it.”
With that in mind, Howard won’t say if the album will be finished by Jazz Fest. She does, however, promise something special for the band’s debut appearance at the Fair Grounds—maybe even some of the new songs.
“We try not to play them,” she says. “I want to keep it fresh and keep it new and keep it exciting, but I think for Jazz Fest we’re going to make a special exception.”