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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Brittany Howard’s new album mixes genres, ethereal sounds and plenty of soul bearing

When the pandemic hit, Brittany Howard found herself hunkering down in Nashville with two dogs, two cats and one album on repeat — “Songs in the Key of Life” by Stevie Wonder.

“Every day. Every single day,” she says, laughing.

Making her own music naturally followed, and the result is the Alabama Shakes frontwoman’s second solo album, the 12-track “What Now,” out Friday. Not unlike Wonder’s epic album, it’s also a guided tour through a wide range of musical styles and feelings.

“At the time, I didn’t know I was writing an album. I just needed an outlet and I just needed a way to get all these feelings out,” she says. “So it wasn’t as if I was like chasing one central idea. It was just like journal keeping.”

“What Now” is a thrilling mix of songs that lean into jazz, R&B, soul, house and metal. There’s “Power to Undo” that seems to be a gleeful nod to Prince and “Every Color in Blue” that has a Radiohead vibe. As a whole, it’s more experimental than her 2019 debut, “Jaime.” There’s even an interlude with a poem read by the late Dr. Maya Angelou.

“It was just like what I was going through at the time,” she says. “What’s the best way to get this emotion out? What is the bedrock of how I’m feeling? And then I’ll build it from there.”

Take “Red Flags,” for which Howard mixed the doo-wop styling of groups like The Ink Spots with a metal guitar riff. “Those things shouldn’t go together, right? And maybe it doesn’t. But to me, it makes sense because it’s this feeling of deep sadness, but also that’s just the way it goes. And that’s pretty metal — heartbreak.”

Shawn Everett, a producer, engineer and mixer who has worked with SZA, Hozier and Miley Cyrus, says working on “What Now” was a blast because Howard was so collaborative.

“I genuinely cherish all the time that I’ve been able to spend with her because I think she’s just such an open book as far as her creativity goes,” he says. “She’ll explore any avenue that excites her, and she has no blockage whatsoever or no fear. This is the best person to do anything creative with.”

Howard fans may be intrigued that she made a full-on dance song, “Prove It to You,” born of messing around with the music software Reason and marrying house music with dark lyrics like “I’ve never been any good at falling in love/I fall so I hard I never get up.”

“I just started making a beat. And it was this like fun club beat. And I was having fun. So I just rolled with it, and I started singing about starting a new relationship and being really fearful about messing it up and going down the same road,” she says. “And I was like, ‘Oh, this is kind of like buoyant and happy and dancey. But the lyrics are so scared and kind of dark.”

If each of the songs is different — “They all come out of left field,” Howard says — then there’s a connective tissue: The soulful sound of crystal singing bowls between songs, a calming beauty between the waves.

“They always bring you down to the ground so that I could take off again somewhere else somewhat different. Kind of like palate cleansers in that way,” she says.

“I just wanted to experiment and see what happens if you put that on an album and let people kind of relax into your music and listen to the whole thing as one.”

Howard discovered the healing power of sound bowls and crystal healing drums at the Nashville Center for Alternative Therapies, where she has enjoyed immersive sound baths.

“I just thought like, ‘Man, I feel so good afterwards. I would love to incorporate this in my next project.’ And that’s kind of where I got the idea from,” she says.

Brittany Howard performs in Mexico City in 2023.
Brittany Howard performs in Mexico City in 2023. Medios y Media / Getty Images

The crystal bowls help calm when the personal and the political get mixed, as in the complex tune “Another Day,” with a skittering beat as Howard sings “I am in love while the world is on fire.”

She explains that the song was inspired by the chaos going on in the world while so many were trapped inside, watching the Black Lives Matter movement and the pushback it inspired

“I was horrified at the things I was seeing and feeling. And at the same time, I was falling in love. And I was like, ‘How can I feel all of these things at once?’” she said.

“And so a song like that sounds like an explosion and chaos because that’s what it was,” she adds. “I just wanted to put that in one song, a song like I’ve never heard the likes of before.”

The album closes with the ambitious “Every Color In Blue,” a tune that’s open-ended and has the lyric “I’m all out of rainbows.” It ends with a trumpet note that feels like a question mark.

“It doesn’t end on a happy note. It doesn’t end like everything’s OK. It doesn’t wrap up. That’s not how life works. It leaves you questioning. And I feel like this whole album was me questioning myself.”

When asked what she wants to do next, Howard is very sure: “I feel like starting a metal band next,” she says. “Something where I don’t have to sing pretty. I just want to scream. That’s what I feel like.”

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