Alabama Shakes cut loose

Originally published with Smile Politely on March 17, 2015.

One album does not a band’s sound make. Debut albums may provide a strong indication of a band’s sound structure, but that’s not to say future albums will always play so nice within those boundaries. When Alabama Shakes released Boys & Girls in 2012, things happened quickly. Up-and-coming bands marked with that “something special” are often described as having burst onto the scene, but when it comes to Alabama Shakes’ timeline that burst took on a more literal meaning. Shortly after recording their demo, Patterson Hood invited the band to open for the Drive-By Truckers, and from there the critical and popular attention they received only magnified.

Three years later and on the verge of their sophomore album release, Sound & Color, Alabama Shakes has finally had some time to stop and process a few things. What defined their first album — that often gritty and at-times sultry Southern soul rock — was not necessarily what comprised their core. That sound remains in bits and pieces on their first two releases from Sound & Color, “Don’t Wanna Fight No More” and “Gimme All Your Love,” but it exists in the background more than the center stage it once occupied with earlier songs. Different styles like funk, classic R&B, and even garage rock encroach on that original style. Amid it all exists a loose quality. The band’s confidence in itself and its willingness to explore the talent that brought each member together in the first place makes Sound & Color something of a marvel.

Alabama Shakes recently set out on their spring tour, which includes a stop at the Virginia Theatre on Wednesday. Lead vocalist and guitarist Brittany Howard took some time from the road to answer a few questions via email.

Smile Politely:  I’m going to do it; I’m going to launch on a cheesy note. What’s shaking in Alabama? 

Brittany Howard: Your guess is as good as mine. I actually haven’t been home very much lately. And when I am home I keep it super chill and hang at home and watch a lot of Netflix.

SP: You once mentioned that you listened to the grittier golden oldies on your grandmother’s radio growing up. Why do you connect so deeply with that particular music? 

Howard: It just feels real to me. I connect to the rawness of it. It feels so live to me. I guess that’s what makes music so special. Sometimes you hear a song and you connect to it. Sometimes you don’t even know why.

SP: It feels like a cliché to call the new songs off Sound & Color more mature, but there’s definitely a greater confidence. The way you incorporate different styles into each song reveals an ease with who the band is, how you all work together, and the fun you’re capable of having when you play. How do you feel the band’s overall sound has grown since Boys & Girls

Howard: I think we have all grown as musicians. We spent a few years playing a lot of shows and with that I think we all improved on our instruments. We have a long way to go but we have progressed. We had a lot more time to make this record, so with that came the ability to experiment more. We were able to do a lot of the things we couldn’t do on Boys & Girls because we just didn’t have the time or resources. We appreciate so many different types of music. I think this album reflects those tastes.

SP: Where did the band draw inspiration for the album? 

Howard: It took us a while to make this record. We didn’t want to rush and after we were done touring, we needed some time to de-compress and just live our normal lives at home. We then spent four three-week sessions over a year-long period working on the songs in Nashville and a little in Los Angeles. I think once we had some downtime, we felt inspired to make a record that we could be really proud of. Songwriting and record making excite us. In terms of the songs, there are a lot of inspirations, real life and fiction.

SP: Did you feel any pressure when you were working on Sound & Color to exceed what the band had achieved with Boys & Girls, or did you approach the new album differently? 

Howard: We don’t really think of things in those terms. We just push ourselves to get better and better. At the end of the day, we just want to be able to say we are proud of the album. We weren’t going to put it out until we all felt great about it from top to bottom. We went back several times because we knew we had more in us. I feel really satisfied with the end result.

SP: I read that you were growing tired of touring Boys & Girls after three years on the road. Does setting out with a fresh batch of music breathe new verve into those original songs? 

Howard: Yeah, it is so refreshing to have new material. I think it is natural to get worn out on songs you played for three years straight. It’s exciting now because we have added another keyboard player and three backing singers who are helping bring new life into some of the older material. I think we now also have more songs than we can play in any given night which gives us flexibility to mix it up more.

SP: What does the band listen to when you’re on the road? Do you find inspiration from current music, or do you find you need to take a break and do something else entirely? 

Howard: We listen to all types of music, new and old. There are current bands that have really inspired us and helped us along the way, like Drive-by Truckers and My Morning Jacket. It is really inspiring to see bands like that who are all about the music and make great records and are incredible live. It pushes us to be a better band.

SP: Lastly, what’s been one of the most surreal moments of this journey thus far? 

Howard: I think playing at the White House would probably be the most surreal moment.

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