Brittany Howard: ‘I think back and I can’t even recognise that kid now’

Continuing our series where stars recall their teenage obsessions, the Alabama Shakes frontwoman remembers fishing, home recording and leftfield spirituality

Being in a band

When I was 11 years old, I saw my first live band performance, in our old gym at school. Some kids who were four years older than me had a band and they played cover songs: Weezer, Pearl Jam, Nirvana – lots of grunge music. I remember thinking it was a superpower because they could make people dance. That’s when I knew that was what I wanted to do.

It’s so funny: I think back on myself being so driven to do this one thing and I’m like: wow, I can’t even recognise that kid now. I think it was a way of socialising with people without actually having to be sociable. People could know me like that so it didn’t matter if I was cool or not, because this was my thing and that thing was inherently cool.

I was in the marching band at school [in Athens, Alabama] and I would ask kids: “Do you know how to play any instruments besides trumpet?” Most of them said no, but there would be some that would play a little guitar, so I would say: “Great, come to my house after marching band practice and we’re going to learn how to play this song.”

Alabama Shakes
Brittany Howard, flanked by Zac Cockrell and Heath Fogg of Alabama Shakes. Photograph: Chelsea Lauren/Getty Images for Mercedes-Benz

Home recordings

When we got to the point of original music [in my band], I was writing all the parts. I was also teaching people at the same time how to play their instruments, so the easiest thing for me to do was to play everything myself. The best way I could remember the songs was to play them and then listen back. When we got a computer, I found this free software called Audacity where you could overdub; I started doing that and just ran with it.

I found a microphone at a yard sale. It was one of those from the first Macintosh laptops and they had this funny little round microphone you could clip to your shirt. That was what I was doing everything with because the new ones were expensive. I had this old Pentium R computer, just the oldest machine. I would record every single day; come home from school and just get to it.

It was less about production values and more about just the idea of what it could be. As an adult, when I look back on those recordings now, some were actually pretty good, although sometimes I didn’t quite know how to properly tune a guitar and there’d be these weird chord formations.

Drawing

I would spend hours drawing; I could lose a lot of time. I don’t know where I got it from. I think just being a kid, your parents try and keep you busy, so they hand you a piece of paper and some crayons. I just took to it and would mostly draw people. I never drew a lot of animals or landscapes. I would make up these characters and would lose eight hours sitting on the floor drawing.

My friends and I would draw together. Zac [Cockrell],my bass player, Zac [Cockrell], and I still draw together. It’s one of those pure, childlike things we just love to do. Sometimes when you’re on the bus on tour, you’re on that thing for 13 hours going across Texas or something. This is one of the activities. You can watch a movie or you can draw.

It was just about creating these insane characters that don’t exist. It makes us laugh, even today. I never even think about doing it to show to anyone or to monetise.

Fishing

I grew up in a place that was really rural so there wasn’t a lot to do. It was all about entertaining yourself or else you’ll get in trouble. Fishing was something I learned with my dad from the time I was probably three years old. [If we caught something] we would just throw it back, usually. [But] my father’s generation, they would eat the fish. My love for it just grew from there. I still fish today. It’s part of me.

When you’re sitting still and you’re not catching anything, that’s not very fun until you catch a fish, then something happens to your brain and you just can’t stop trying to catch more. There must be some sort of chemical release or something in the brain because once you catch that first fish, it’s worth the wait and the anticipation.

It’s the reward of also figuring it out, because the more technical you get with it, the pickier the fish are and the more it’s like a puzzle. You have to figure out how you’re going to trick the fish, because some fish are kind of dumb and some have more faculties.

Sylvia Browne

When I was probably around nine or 10 years old, I started noticing these books on our bookshelf. I lived with my mom at the time and it was this crazy looking lady on these book covers and they had these insane celestial pink clouds, giant pillars and mandalas with these ancient symbols on them. I’m looking at these books, like: what the hell is this?

Sylvia Browne
Sylvia Browne, pictured in 2010. Photograph: Steve Snowden/Getty Images

It was the psychic, Sylvia Browne. I would read these books cover to cover. She was talking about where we come from as human souls, where we go, about ghosts, Bigfoot … I’ve always just been interested in things that are unexplainable. In my teenage years, me and my mother, that was our thing that we liked to talk about. My mom was very much into it. I was kind of frightened by the idea of ghosts and we bonded over that.

I’m definitely a spiritual person now. It’s been a long time coming, too, because I was raised in church. Being in my teen years and not having that connection, I chose this idea that I kind of learned in Sylvia Browne’s books. I’m not saying that she is some sort of prophet; it was the idea of asking more questions.

Inline skating

I was really into Rollerblading, the kind where you jump and do flips and grind on rails and all that crazy stuff. I could do all the little tricks, that I obviously cannot do any more. There’d be a staircase, and it would be like, I don’t know, 12 steps. You would skate up to it and jump and then you do a 360 and land. I shouldn’t have been doing it. I was way too tall, but that’s what my friends and I liked to do.

I see younger people Rollerblading down the sidewalks now and I think I should get some, and then I’m like: no, you shouldn’t! I like my collarbones to be intact. But it is amazing. So freeing. You’re so fast on two legs. There’s nothing like it.

• Jaime Reimagined is released on 23 July on ATO Records

Contributor

As told to Stephanie Phillips

The GuardianTramp

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