Editors’ Notes After years fronting the Grammy-winning rock band Alabama Shakes, Brittany Howard hit the road. In the summer of 2017, she and her partner road-tripped around America, stopping at “national parks, diners, truck stops, everywhere,” she tells Apple Music. “It was one of the best times in my life.” The trip wasn’t without its ugly moments. “Someone threw fireworks at us in Wyoming; we saw truck after truck with Confederate flags,” she recalls—but those encounters brought on their own moments of self-discovery. Howard, who grew up in Athens, Alabama, with a white mother and a black father, insists these moments didn’t change the way she feels about her country. “I'm American as a motherf**ker,” she said. “These people think they're American, but they're doing some pretty un-American s**t.” When she returned home, she finally got to work recording her own full-length album with Alabama Shakes producer and engineer Shawn Everett and named it after her sister, who passed away at age 13 from cancer. “This record isn’t necessarily about her, because it’s about me,” she says. “But so much of who I am is because of her. I made this record for her.” Here Howard goes through her solo debut track by track.
History Repeats “This is the oldest song on the album. I wrote it two or three years ago, finished it in a day, and totally forgot about it. I didn’t write it on purpose. I’d been showing my friend how I use my recording software, just piecing things together in a demo, and as I was doing that, I wrote ‘History Repeats.’ I found it a couple years later.”
He Loves Me “I’d just gotten a new compressor called a Distressor—it’s like a piece of rack gear—and put in drums, guitar, bass. But every time I’d write a verse, the song would just stop and I’d be like, ‘What am I going to put there? What do I want to say?’ Eventually I decided to follow the bassline and improvise. The first thing that came out of my mouth was ‘I don't go to church anymore. I know he still loves me.' That was it. I went on the internet to find a preacher talking about why I should go to church, and wound up watching a two-hour sermon by this guy Terry Anderson. I loved the timbre of his voice so much that I pulled out parts of the sermon and stuck them in the song.”
Georgia “People say songs on this record have a double meaning. To me, a lot of them have a triple meaning: There's the world, then there's me in the world, and then there's the little me inside me. It's like a Russian doll. I wrote ‘Georgia’ from the perspective of myself as a child. It's a love song to an older girl when you're a little girl and you don't understand what it means to be gay. It's just an innocent infatuation, the way crushes become your whole world when you’re young.”
Stay High “I went to Topanga, California, to write after my road trip—to be inspired, I guess. It wasn’t working. I was miserable. It was so beautiful, all gardens and mountains, but I was just sitting there like, ‘F**k, I hate this.’ I was there with my partner, who’s a writer and working on a book, and every night we’d get together and be like, ‘So, how’d you’d do?’ One day I finally showed up with something, but I wasn’t proud of it. I was like, ‘I think this is a step in the wrong direction, but here goes.’ When I hit play, she just looked at me and said, ‘Actually, I think this is going to be the hit.’”
Tomorrow “I consider this the advanced listeners’ track. It's the one people usually don't talk about, but man, I love it. To me, it feels like three songs in one. In the beginning it's kind of like, ‘I’m not feeling great about things, but I’ll deal with them eventually, not today.’ The second part is like, ‘Now it's tomorrow, what do I want?’ This is where the political, global edge comes in, asking things like, ‘How are we going to make this better and when are we going to do it?’ Then, the third part is where it gets all, ‘Let's hold hands and go to Disney World. Life is short.’ The idea is that I feel anxious but also hopeful about tomorrow, so let's make it as good as we can.”
Short and Sweet “This is about the beginning of a relationship when you’re kind of assuming it's not going to work out. You're saying, 'All right, let me just enjoy this and be present without putting too much pressure on anything.'”
13th Century Metal “This title is very literal: This song sounds like metal music but it also sounds like a Gregorian chant. Robert Glasper plays on this record, and the funny thing about that is that he was just trying to figure out how to use this weird keyboard. [Drummer] Nate Smith and I had said, ‘Rob, go play these keys and see if you can get a good sound out of them.’ So he goes into the booth and messes around, playing and playing, and finally I’m like, ‘Wait, this is good. Are you hitting record?’ Rob plays through the whole song. It’s all improvised. One take. At the end, I added in this poetry I had written one day when I really needed inspiration. President Trump had gotten elected and Prince had died—there was just a lot of bad s**t happening. I was like, ‘Wow, I don't know about this world…’ So I started writing.”
Baby “This was a last-minute add. I had this riff and it was driving me crazy because I knew I loved it and I knew I wanted to use it, I just didn’t know how. I was laying in bed one night, looking through my computer at lyrics, and came across an interesting idea that I’d written after I’d broken up with somebody. It’s about one of those relationships where you’re doing 80 percent of the work but they're all like, ‘Hey, baby…’ I'm just like, ‘No, I am not your baby. I see you.’”
Goat Head “This was the hardest song to write. I had these lyrics I’d written about what it was like growing up in the South, but they were weirdly cute: ‘Tomatoes are green/Cotton is white,’ and so on. They were from the point of view of a child making sense of the world, making sense of the South. Then it just hit me: ‘Goat head.’ I went straight into this memory of, who cut off a goat head and put it the back of my dad's car? It’s painful stuff, and it’s abrupt and shocking, but that’s the point. I did a few of these listening parties that artists do sometimes where they play their music, and every time it would come on, people would either laugh nervously or just gasp and cry. And even for me, right after I sang it for the first time, I instantly felt so vulnerable and uncomfortable. I went in the control room and was like, ‘I don't think we can use that.’ And Shawn was like, ‘Oh no. We're using it.’”
Presence “During the time that I was staying at that house in Topanga, we smoked a lot of weed. But the thing is, I don't really smoke weed. I don't really like the way it makes me feel. But you know, we’re in Topanga, and we’re like, when in Rome, right? So I found out there was an app where you could have weed delivered. That blew my mind. I’m from Alabama. You get caught with weed, you get thrown in jail. So I'm like, ‘Sign me up! Look! It says the guy's going to be here in 30 minutes. He's going to bring us a sack of weed!’ We got nervous I think because we bought $400 worth. Anyway, we wound up having a cool conversation about being more present and getting centered, and then I wrote this song. My feeling was: I really do love hanging out with my partner. What if she wasn’t around anymore? I should appreciate this and not take it for granted.”
Run to Me “This is a weird one. I was cleaning my house and had my laptop on the bed. Now, I never do this, but you can play keys using Logic and essentially play a fake digital piano. And on this day, on the fly, I wrote this entire synth track while grabbing bottles of Comet and cleaning my shower. I kept repeating the line ‘run to me’ in my head, probably because I was sad at the time since who I was with was pretty s**tty. I had these little Apple headphones that had a little mic, and I’d just sing into that as words popped into my head. Funny enough, those original vocals are the ones on the final track.”
He Loves Me
Short and Sweet
13th Century Metal
Run to Me
11 Songs, 35 Minutes
September 20, 2019
℗ 2019 Brittany Howard under exclusive license in North America to ATO Records, LLC.
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