“THE ROUTE I’M TAKING to being a farmer is ridiculous,” Brittany Howard says, sitting at the William Vale luxury hotel during her press trip to New York. She’s fantasizing about a potential future, one where she would maybe own a farm like the one she grew up on. It’s one of many ways she can see herself adding to the list of non-musical hobbies in her repertoire since 2020: fixing boats, fishing.
But don’t worry, music is still at the front of the former Alabama Shakes leader’s mind at 35. She has a new solo album, What Now, due out Feb. 2. She started working on it in 2020 while isolating in a rental home in Nashville. It’s her second solo album (after 2019’s acclaimed Jaime) and her first on Island Records, the label she signed with earlier this year. Creating it was a testament to newfound patience that translates into some of her most grounded and reflective music yet.
You wrote this album during a time when you were still waiting to tour your 2019 solo debut more widely. What was that like?
Honestly, I kind of put that to the side. I just wanted to stay alive. So much was going on in the world … Black Lives Matter, a tornado where I lived in Nashville, helping people pick the pieces back up. Everybody was worried about their job security. I was sad about that, but as time went on, I was like, “Oh, this is actually pretty nice to not be on the road… Look, seasons! Birds!” It was nice to see nature come alive. And because I got to take that break, I got to be more creative. I started writing all this new music with a different perception on things.
What were the biggest things you ended up learning about yourself during that time?
I changed so much, honestly, just because I couldn’t go anywhere. It was like me vs. me. I answered that call to be like, “What do I want my life to look like?” It was like a tiny midlife crisis. It was me making decisions to change things that don’t serve me, and also my perspective about life in general and not taking people for granted. I feel like in those three years, I grew up a lot.
Did that time make you rethink how you approached music?
I was renting a house, [so] I didn’t have a studio. There was a tiny little-kid’s room in the house and just a laptop. Very basic. I said, “I’m gonna go in here and record something I’m feeling every day. It doesn’t matter what genre it is. Just sit down and do it.” I told myself it doesn’t have to be good. That was new. I used to really torture myself.
I feel like that’s a bonus of getting older and realizing you don’t have to be in the worst possible circumstances to create something good.
I used to believe that that’s when it would show up. When I did Jaime, I was in a greenhouse and it was 103 degrees. I was like “Now I can write.” It was strange being so comfortable [for What Now]. There was no deadline.
When [Alabama Shakes] did Sound & Color, I locked myself in the basement, and there was a bat in there. Super stressed, only working at night, sleeping all day, pounding coffee at, like, 2 a.m., 3 a.m., 4 a.m. I was like, “This is how you make good work.”
What was that about? Were you superstitious?
I guess I thought that the looser I got mentally — the crazier I was — the less I would judge the work. Then I found out you could just not judge your work.
How was that mentality affecting your life outside of work?
There was almost no life outside of work. That was a problem.
Are you still seeking that balance?
I figured out the balance, for sure. This is a hard business. When you’re a creative person, so much of your identity is wrapped up into what you’re creating. There’s no boundaries for that. You’re like, “This is all of me.” And that’s all fine and good, but what if there’s more to life? That was something I was visiting because it was taken away from all of us. It was scary. I had to get a life.
What does that life look like for you?
I’m slowing down and appreciating the people I have around me more. Nature, just small things. Even the sun coming through the window is something that can make me really happy. I used to think it was success and awards and money — all these things that we think will make us happy. But in those few years, I was just like, “Man, I’m grateful that the oxygen I breathe is clean. I’m glad I can breathe.” There’s no prize at the end for working yourself to death.
You’ve said that the through line of this album is heartbreak and analyzing your own romantic patterns. Can you say more about the patterns you were analyzing?
How do I say something without saying too much? [Laughs.] I think there was a pattern of withdrawal on my end. Because of the way I grew up mostly an only child, I got used to my company. Anybody in my space would feel like too much. Ultimately, that’s not fun. It was something I analyzed, and I’d say fixed.
Have romantic relationships become easier since you figured that out?
I think that remains to be seen. I feel like I’m spending more time with myself, getting less enmeshed in a relationship — which I feel like a lot of us fall into. It’s only natural that love feels good.
What about your friendships?
I definitely don’t take things personally [anymore], and I ask my friends what they need from me — whereas before, I would just be trying to do what I would want. I guess I’m paying more attention.
You’ve been in a couple of bands, and now you have a couple of solo albums. What else are you interested in exploring in the future?
I just follow my creativity. It’s really that simple. If I get bored doing the solo stuff on my own, I’ll just do something else. But I’d like to get into metal next, probably. I’ve liked that since high school, but because the Shakes took off I never had a chance to get in there and do that.
What are some of the metal bands you like?
I liked American Nightmare, Lamb of God, Slipknot, Blood Brothers. People are gonna come for me in the comments: “That’s not metal! Those are screamo artists, that’s hardcore!” I just like loud rock music.