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The Weekly chat: Alabama Shakes frontwoman Brittany Howard

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Alabama Shakes plays the Pearl on Friday, July 19.
Photo: Pieter M. Van Hattem
Chris Bitonti

Things have really been happening for your band lately. Was there any specific moment where you started to feel it? Probably when we got to quit our jobs. I was delivering mail for the Postal Service.

Did they at least let you listen to music? Yeah, I could do whatever I wanted as long as I got the mail delivered … which didn’t leave much time for anything.

I’ve read in a few places that you don’t consider your sound “retro.” Why is that? Well, it’s not, really. Sure, I like ’50s, ’60s, ’70s R&B and soul. And I like stuff that comes out now that’s soul music, and it’s not retro if it comes out now but it never really went away. People have been doing this ever since Motown and Stax; nobody ever really stopped. So, it’s not really retro if everyone is still doing it.

But there’s other stuff we like, too. I’m a rock ’n’ roll fan first. Chuck Berry is one of my favorite guitar players, Brian May is one of my favorite guitar players. I wouldn’t call it retro, because it has a little bit of everything in it. You couldn’t listen to the entire record and say, “Well, it’s just a retro band.”

Even though you’re in the early stages of your career, you guys already have such a recognizable sound. Do you ever feel constrained by that? Like, people are going to expect you to play that style of music forever? They’d be really disappointing, because that’d be boring. We’re musicians; we’re not just, like, here to make money or anything. We just want to get better and better at what we do. We got lucky and people heard us on our first record and bought our first record, and that doesn’t happen to everyone. But at the same time, I’m not going to let that stunt my growth as a musician. I don’t want to stay in a box to sell records.

It’s clear that you’re consciously still developing your sound and evolving as a songwriter. Has the pressure of your popularity affected that? I am trying not to let it affect it at all. That’s the whole trick—you just don’t read the articles in the press. People love us, and I really do appreciate that, but that’s not really why I started doing it, and it won’t stop me from doing it, either, whether people like it or not. We’re working on our next record, and I don’t know that it will be like the first record, because those were songs that were three years old. That was just us pulling out songs we had and wanting to record them, and people liked it. I could care less if we make money or make a hit or make a gold record. So maybe that’s what’s keeping me hungry.

Emotion and feeling are the essence of your music. How do you capture that on record? It’s not really a capturing thing. I’m giving it off. That’s the whole point of music in the first place—it’s supposed to have feeling. It doesn’t have to be technical or hard. I appreciate those things, too. I like metal; metal is very technical and it’s also very angry, but at the same time, there’s so many other emotions, so many other things to think about and talk about and express that some people don’t say or some people just need to hear. And that’s what I feel like when we’re performing. Some people just need to hear it. They might need it, like I needed it when I was writing it.

Have you gotten to meet some of your musical heroes? Yeah, lots of them. Booker T., Robert Plant, Neil Young. Jim James is actually one of my musical heroes. I like the way he puts things together; I think he is a really good arranger and composer.

What is it like to meet them on a peer level instead of just as a fan? Well, you never feel like their peer, because you’re still running and they’re way ahead of you. I’m always feeling like I need to catch up, and I feel like it’s good to learn from them when I meet them. I was in the Super Jam this year at Bonnaroo, and it was really cool to watch everybody work together, because everybody has their own way of doing things. I just try to be myself, and I’m lucky enough that most people I meet, most of my heroes, are that way, too. They didn’t ask to be the greatest; they were just born good. So that’s pretty cool. I’ve been lucky enough that most of my heroes aren’t dicks. (laughs)

You said that you just try to be yourself, and that focus on authenticity has been a part of your band’s success. How important is authenticity in your music? Well, in any music it’s really important. Otherwise what are you doing? You’re trying to be pretentious and cool? Well, that comes and goes. You can be cool all day long. I mean, who was cool in the ’80s? Duran Duran was cool, and that wouldn’t really fly now.

Why did you choose Boys and Girls as the title track for the record? That’s one of the first songs we wrote. And that’s kind of what the record is about really, relationships. Not necessarily romantic relationships, just relationships between people. You only got two different kinds of people in the world (laughs)—men and women. Well, I take that back. There are hermaphrodites. I left them out, and I apologize.

Other than the show, any plans for Vegas? I’m gonna hit up my uncle. He’s in the military in Las Vegas, so I’ll be hanging around him. It’s gonna be nice.

Alabama Shakes With Fly Golden Eagle, Hooray for the Riff Raff. July 19, 8 p.m., $45-$54. Pearl, 942-7777.

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