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Shaking All Over
As they prep for an Electric Picnic headline slot Alabama Shakes talk life, death and being the year's biggest buzz band.
Ed Power, 28 Aug 2012
For Brittany Howard it’s all about the sister who isn’t there any more. When the Alabama Shakes singer was seven, her older sibling died of a brain tumour. She left behind a guitar. The week after she passed on, Brittany went into her sister’s bedroom, took the instrument off the bed and strummed a note. She’s been strumming ever since.
“I’d watched her play, “ she says, licking her lips to ward off the dryness. “It was cool. I thought, ‘Hey, I can do that too!’” She falls silent, running a hand through her hair. “Yup,” she starts up again, almost to herself. “That’s how it started.”
You expect Howard to be all sass and diva-tude. That’s certainly the persona she presents on record. As frontwoman of Alabama Shakes, she rollicks and sways, singing from the bottom of her boots, the murky tidepools of her soul. She is Amy Winehouse fronting The White Stripes, a young Aretha Franklin in a blizzard of blue-collar rock.
In a cramped pre-show dressing-room, however, Howard couldn’t be further removed from her onstage caricature. Slumped against the wall, lost in a vast under-grad hoodie, she is demure, almost painfully shy. Eye-contact is a chore. When a question isn’t directed specifically to her, she lets guitarist Zac Cockrell do the lifting. Were it possible, you suspect she’d slip behind the couch and wait until Hot Press had left.
“The attention has been kind of a distraction from time to time,” she admits. “We’ve been trying to finish our record and holding down day jobs. Until recently I had to work weekends [she’s just quit her position as a mailwoman]. And suddenly we’re getting offered all these little tours, across America. It’s fantastic and exciting. At the same time, we wanted to get home, to finish the album.”
If at the start of the year someone had told you the most thrilling new rock act of 2012 was going to be an awkward garage blues band from the butt-end of Alabama you’d probably have choked on your Doritos. But it’s true: from properly humble origins – up until last November the lead guitarist had never flown on a plane – Alabama Shakes have seized the blues and indie scene by the scruff and held on for dear life.