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Alabama Shakes' Brittany Howard On Small-Town Life, Big-Time Music

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today's guest, Brittany Howard, is the lead singer, songwriter, and a guitarist with the band Alabama Shakes. Their second album, ''Sound & Color," debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 chart in 2015 and ended up winning three Grammy awards, including best alternative music album. Brittany Howard received Billboard's 2015 Women in Music Powerhouse Award, and she is a powerhouse.

In early 2013, after the release of the first Alabama Shakes album, she was described in Rolling Stone as, quote, "a sort of soul-queen anti-diva, not afraid to sweat, howl... shred on her turquoise Gibson SG or bust geeky dance moves," unquote. The Shakes are from the small Alabama town of Athens where they played together in a local bar before they were discovered. Howard had a difficult childhood dealing with vision problems, the death of her older sister, her parents' divorce and the loss of the family home in a fire.

Terry spoke with Brittany Howard earlier this year. They started with the Grammy-nominated song from their album "Sound & Color," "Don't Wanna Fight."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T WANNA FIGHT")

ALABAMA SHAKES: (Singing) Your line, don't cross them lines. What you like, what I like, why can't we both be right? Attacking, defending until there's nothing left worth winning. Your pride and my pride - don't waste my time. I don't wanna fight no more. I don't wanna fight no more. I don't wanna fight no more. I don't wanna fight no more. I don't wanna fight no more.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Brittany Howard, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on all the success that you've been having. It's just great. So the track that we just heard, "Don't Wanna Fight," that's some squeal that you start with. Like, I don't know what to call it.

(LAUGHTER)

BRITTANY HOWARD: Yeah, that's...

GROSS: Do you have a name for it?

HOWARD: No, that's something I was just messing with in the studio. And Blake - you know, he was our co-producer - he said, oh, we'll keep it. We'll keep that. We'll keep that. So that was just something I was doing just to warm up, and it stayed in the song.

GROSS: So now do you have to do that every time you perform the song?

HOWARD: I do. I do.

GROSS: So "Sound & Color" is Alabama Shakes' second album. The first album was recorded, basically, in a local studio. I think you paid for a lot of it out of your own pockets. That was a hit. So you had considerably more money and more time for the second album. What are some of the things you wanted to try on the new album that money and time and experience gave you the opportunity to do?

HOWARD: Well, I wanted to try everything because we finally had the opportunity. And it was also an exciting prospect that people were going to hear it. For some people, that would be a lot of pressure, but I was really excited about it 'cause there's so many ideas I had and so many things I wanted to try not only musically, but also with my voice, with my instrument. And I knew I could do a lot more things. And the first record was recorded hastily but written really slowly because, you know, as they say, you have all the time in the world to write your first record, and we did. And we went in, recorded it in probably about a week or so.

And this time was different. This time, I could really think about what I wanted to say and how we wanted to express it. And also, you speak of experience. The more music I was listening to since the first record, the more I appreciated space and the ability to let the listener have time to think about what you're doing and not just being bombarded by all of the instruments.

GROSS: So you said you wanted to try new things with your voice for the second album. Is more falsetto or head voice one of the things you wanted to play around with more?

HOWARD: Well, when I'm writing songs, they're always different, you know? The voice is an instrument, and you can play your instrument any kind of way you want to. And I always think it's a shame that I'd have to stay stuck in one kind of personality when it's like a palette. There's so many colors you could choose. So many things don't need that, they need this. And I've always written songs like that. I've always - each one is different; each one has its own landscape. And I was really just singing for each song.

GROSS: I want to play another song of yours called "Over My Head." And this is the last track on the "Sound & Color" album, your second album. And it's very spare, but you've overdubbed your voice for the chorus. And it's kind of, like, cumulative in the way, like, the voices keep getting added to each other. And I was hoping you could talk about what your intentions are with this and how you heard the song in your head that convinced you that this was how you wanted to produce it.

HOWARD: The meaning of the song was, I guess, existential. I was just thinking how neat it would be to have this belief that, you know, you've lived before. And if energy isn't ever destroyed, then anyone you've ever loved, anyone that's ever loved you in a past life - none of the love goes away. It never disappears. It's always around you. And the meaning of the song was realizing it.

I'm over-my-head in love. And it's not necessarily romantic love. It is love, you know? And when I was singing those waves of vocals - and like you said, they were accumulating - I wanted it to feel like you were being buried but not buried in a bad way, buried in the best way possible. You're buried with love, buried with sensation, buried with memories that are never lost or forgotten. But you realize it, and that's what I was going for there in the production.

GROSS: Well, I love this track. Let's hear it. This is "Over My Head" from Alabama Shakes' second album, "Sound & Color." And my guest, Brittany Howard, is featured on guitar and singing lead.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OVER MY HEAD")

ALABAMA SHAKES: (Singing) I'm in over my head. I don't think of you as bits and pieces. I think of you only like a miracle. Lovin' so deeply, I feel it through all my past lives. It feels good. I'm never saying goodbye. It feels good. I'm never saying goodbye. I'm in over my head, over my head. I'm in over my head, over my head. Silence, they explain it to me. There's no joy I can take with no one worth waiting. Here for now but not for long.

Whether my mind slipped away, explain that to me. I'm in over my head. Loving so deeply, I'm in over my head. I'm in over my head. Loving so deeply, I'm in over my head. I'm in over my head. Loving so deeply, I'm in over my head. Loving so deeply, I'm in over my head. Loving so deeply, I'm in over my head.

GROSS: That's Alabama Shakes from their second and current album, "Sound & Color," which is nominated for a whole bunch of Grammy Awards. And my guest, Brittany Howard, is singing lead on that. When you were growing up, who had the record collections in your family?

HOWARD: My mom. My mom had it. She pretty much collected one artist's records, Elvis Presley. She had all of them.

GROSS: That was it, just Elvis?

HOWARD: Yeah, she had a whole closet just full of Elvis.

GROSS: (Laughter) So when you started listening to music that wasn't, like, your parents' music, what did you start listening to?

HOWARD: I remember, like, when and where I was when I first heard Pink Floyd. I was 14 years old, and I was getting a ride from school from a senior. And they started playing Pink Floyd. And I was like, what is this? And they explained to me, and I'd never heard any music like that. It wasn't one genre or another. It was just whatever they wanted to create. And I thought it was so interesting. And I started getting into music around that time like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath. I started getting into that kind of music, and I thought I've been missing everything. It's like having blinders on. And I started really diving into the history of music when I was around 14 years old.

GROSS: So describe where you grew up.

HOWARD: I grew up in a town called Athens. It's in the northern center of Alabama. When I was growing up, it was really slow, and there was still, like, a lot of farmers in the area. The houses were sparse. There was a lot of fields, a lot of horses, and people kept goats. And then, yeah - you know, about 15 minutes away from where I was growing up, which was kind of, like, in the woods, you know, in Limestone County - out in the county. About 15 minutes away, you got Madison, which is the city. And in the other direction, you have Athens city. And that's where, you know, you got Burger King and you can go get some McDonald's and go to Wal-Mart. And our town was a town where all the people who worked in the cities, they would come and that's where they lived. So it was, like, a really slow-paced place. And that's a good place to stay forever, you know what I mean? It's a good place to raise your kids, raise your grandkids, take care of your parents. It's just a really nice, peaceful town.

GROSS: And, correct me if I'm wrong, your father ran a junk yard and a used car lot?

HOWARD: Yeah, that's right.

GROSS: So did you have a lot of stuff from the junk yard around your home?

HOWARD: Oh, yeah, so...

GROSS: What's some of the coolest stuff that you had?

HOWARD: So the way our house was situated is we live down a long gravel driveway. And you're driving through these woods, and then you cross a bridge over a creek. And then you keep going up this hill. And on either side of you, it just starts filling in with junk cars, newer cars, boats, motorcycles, a shop. And, I mean, it's all around you. And then you get to the top of the hill and that's where - you know, we grew up in a little trailer, but it was really nice.

You know, my mom was really good at making our home - no matter what our situation was - always felt like a home, always felt really nice. And, you know, I just - I played with our animals. We had a lot of different kinds of animals. We had a - you know, I grew up on a farm, in a sense. But it was also a junk yard. So it was really interesting way to grow up because I would be playing on all these stacked up cars, which is super dangerous. But then I'd also go run around the woods with my dog and go play in the creek.

GROSS: So the junk yard was basically in your backyard, more or less?

HOWARD: Well, the way I think of it is you're surrounded by the junk yard. And you're...

GROSS: Right.

HOWARD: Think of it like a hurricane and you're in the eye of it - the little patch of grass that has the animals and the little trailer. And then the rest was just, like, to me, it was like a labyrinth. It was an amusement park.

GROSS: So you kind of lived in the junk yard is what you're saying.

HOWARD: Yeah, absolutely.

GROSS: Wow, so that must've been an interesting experience. Did you grow up with an appreciation for how things could be reused - about, like, how one person's junk was another person's treasure?

HOWARD: I don't even think I even thought about that. My dad, you know, he's a used-car salesman. And he's always making deals. So whatever I wanted, I got. But it was used, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Right.

HOWARD: It wasn't brand-new and shiny. It needed a little work. You know, if we got a - I'd say to my dad, like, Daddy, I want a pony. And he would get me a pony, except this pony bites. This pony's mean.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HOWARD: That's how it always was.

GROSS: Were there animals in the junk yard?

HOWARD: Yeah, but they had grass to graze and stuff. You know, it's, like, there was a nice part in the center and then all around was the junk yard. So they, you know - they had a good life.

BIANCULLI: Brittany Howard, speaking to Terry Gross earlier this year. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, our guest is Brittany Howard, the lead singer and guitarist of Alabama Shakes. Their second album came out last year and won three Grammys. Before we get back to Terry's conversation with Brittany Howard from earlier this year, here's the hit from the group's first album. It's called "Hold On."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLD ON")

ALABAMA SHAKES: (Singing) Bless my heart, bless my soul. Didn't think I'd make it to 22 years old. There must be someone up above saying come on, Brittany, you got to come on up. You got to hold on. Yeah, you got to hold on. So bless my heart and bless yours, too. I don't know where I'm going to go, don't know what I'm going to do. But must be somebody up above saying come on, Brittany, you got to come on up. You've got to hold on. Yeah, you got to hold on. Yeah, you got to wait. Yeah, you got to wait.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: So that's "Hold On" from Alabama Shakes's first album, "Boys & Girls," and we heard my guest Brittany Howard singing on that. She wrote the song. Brittany, in this song, you say that you didn't think you'd make it to 22 years old. Why not?

HOWARD: I think when I wrote that line, it was more about, look, I'm grown up now. Look at me. I have to make all these decisions for myself. I have to be responsible for myself. Here I am. I got to pay these bills. I never thought that my life would be like this. I thought I was going to be a little kid forever. And I think that's where I was coming from.

GROSS: Is there anything else you'd like to say about writing this song? I mean, this song helped put you on the map.

HOWARD: I used to try to write lyrics when I drove around in my work truck. I used to be a porter. So it's kind of like an outdoor janitor. So I'd be outside all by myself all the time, so I would keep a little book on me, and I would try to write for it because it was just so - it was such a vast landscape. I could have done anything with it.

And I was working every day, and I was tired of working. I wasn't getting ahead. I was trying to pay for school. I wasn't getting ahead. And I felt so downtrodden upon, you know. I felt like I couldn't get no help, and I wasn't going any place. I didn't know what I was going to do. And so I started writing based on that, based on how I was feeling every day - day in, day out, going in and out of work. And one night, we were going to have a show, and Heath said to me - he was like, guys, let's try to play that one track, you know, the one that doesn't have words. And I said, yeah, let's do it, and I'll just sing what I got so far and make the rest up.

And so we got on stage, and here comes the part of the set where we're going to do the song, and it starts going. I sang what I had and then after that, I didn't have a chorus and I just sang hold on. And people in the audience were immediately responding to it. And they thought it - because we were playing covers at the time, they thought it was a cover song, so they started singing it with us like, yeah, I know this song, too.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HOWARD: But they didn't know that we were writing it on the spot. And everybody just understood the structure kind of immediately, and we just remembered it from there on. And we thought, yeah, I like this song. Let's keep that song around, keep playing it. And that's really how the song came to be.

GROSS: That's great. So let's talk a little bit about your childhood. What I read was you've always worn eyeglasses. Did you have a problem with one of your eyes when you were born?

HOWARD: Yeah. I had what's called retinoblastoma, and...

GROSS: Which is - what is that?

HOWARD: It's like - I'm not a doctor. I'll do the best I can here. But it's like having little tiny tumors inside of your eye. And so what they have to do is freeze them with a laser, which can scar your retina, you know, depending on where those tumors are.

GROSS: And did you have any permanent damage?

HOWARD: Yeah. Which is - that's what happened to me. Because of the location of it, it scarred my retina. So my vision in my left eye isn't, you know, 100 percent. I'd say I could probably see about 10 percent out of it. And my sister had the same thing, and I was fortunate enough that the tumors didn't grow back. And I've been, you know - I go every year, but I'm absolutely 100 percent fine, you know?

GROSS: But your sister - you say she was born with the same thing.

HOWARD: Right.

GROSS: And when she was 12, she got it in her second eye, and it was cancerous, those tumors. And she died at the age of 13.

HOWARD: That's right.

GROSS: What was your understanding of death when she died?

HOWARD: I think I was so young I didn't understand the concept of what was happening. When she was really sick, I was around 7 or maybe 8 years old. And I was concerned with things like getting a new doll, or - why can't the animals live in the house anymore? You know, I was concerned about the way things were changing around me, but I never had the concept of someone being terminally ill. I guess as a 8-year-old, I thought everything was going to work out.

BIANCULLI: Brittany Howard, speaking to Terry Gross earlier this year. We'll continue their conversation after a short break. And we'll also have film critic David Edelstein's review of the new "Ghostbusters" film. I'm David Bianculli. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GEMINI")

ALABAMA SHAKES: (Singing) On a planet not so far away, we were born together. In the beginning there was just you and me, where we was washed up upon this river, suckled on the honey of the Tennessee where we would sleep in the soft sunshine. I'd smile at you and you to me. And in the dark, I see the moon shine in your eyes. We grew strong and tall as weeds - never lived forever, there was no such thing. I looked at you, and you looked into me. And we saw in each other everything. We knew no fear as we grew the years. That's the growing up we've come to love.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's interview from earlier this year with Brittany Howard, the lead singer, songwriter and guitarist of the band Alabama Shakes. Their latest album, "Sound & Color," won three Grammy awards, including alternative music album of the year. When we left off, Brittany Howard was talking about her childhood. When she was 8, her sister, who was five years older, died of cancer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Your first album, "Boys & Girls," starts with "Hold On," which we heard, and with you singing about how you didn't think you'd make it to 22 years old. And the album ends with a song called "On Your Way." And two of the lines in that song are, on your way to God, did you think of me? On your way to the promised land, did you say, she was such a friend? And in listening to that, I couldn't help but wonder if that song was at all about your sister.

HOWARD: Yeah, it was.

GROSS: It's a beautiful song. Would you say a little bit more about writing it?

HOWARD: Losing my sister was something I didn't deal with until recently because I just thought, you know, bad things happen sometimes, and bad things happen to everybody. You know what I mean? You carry on. And we're just normal people. You know, we didn't have exorbitant amounts of money. My dad worked really hard doing what he does. My mom tried really hard to make us into good people. And I think that song, writing that song, was my way of trying to console myself because everyone tried to carry on the best they could, you know what I mean? And that was my way of having someone to talk to, was writing this song, and saying, I acknowledge what happened. I need to make my peace with it.

GROSS: Well, let's hear it. This is Brittany Howard's song "On Your Way," and it's from Alabama Shakes' first album, "Boys & Girls."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "ON YOUR WAY")

ALABAMA SHAKES: (Singing) On your way to die, did you think of me? On your way to heaven, did you say, I'll see you again? It wasn't me, why wasn't it me? On your way to the promised land, did you say, oh, she was such a friend? Then they took you higher and I don't know if I can follow. You and me, why wasn't it me?

GROSS: That's Alabama Shakes from their first album, "Boys & Girls." The song "On Your Way" was written and sung by my guest, Brittany Howard, who also plays guitar. So, you know, that song is about your sister who died when she was 13. How has your life changed, being the only child after that?

HOWARD: It's weird - the concept of before and after because, to me, it's all one timeline. You know, I'd say after my sister passed and my parents - they - you know, it's hard to stay together when everybody's grieving. So they split, and I went to live with my mom. We moved to the city. In Madison, we lived in a little apartment.

And that's really where I started learning how to play guitar 'cause, you know, I was alone most of the time. She was working. And I was just like, here's something to do. I've still got this guitar. I'm going to learn how to play it. And trying to find some stuff do with my time - I drew. I wrote. I learned songs.

And that was - I think of the after - that's when I was really - I put importance in all of the things that my sister had taught me when I was little - how to draw, how to write poetry. And I took all those things I knew, all those skills I knew, and I started using them. So I think of it as a kind of nesting period for creativity because that was my thing that I had to do. I had one thing to do 'cause I was living in a tiny apartment. It was really boring, you know? There weren't a lot of kids to play with. So I spent a lot of time with myself, entertaining myself.

GROSS: So when you fell in love with music - both with listening to it and playing it - where could you go to hear it performed?

HOWARD: I think the first concert I went to - I was - I think I was 12 - 11 or 12. Ironically, it was actually our guitar player Heath - he had another band. It was his band. That was the first band I ever saw. And I thought it was amazing.

After seeing his band play - what they did was - you know, they had some bands that were going to our school. And what they did was - they went to the principal. And they said, hey, can we throw a concert in the old gym? We'll donate the money to build a new football stadium. And he was like, yeah, do it.

So, you know, probably about 45, 50 kids showed up that night. And we watched them play. And I was like, that is what I want to do. And, you know, as soon as I saw that I was like, I'm going to start a band. I'm going to be in a band. And I must have played with over, you know, a thousand kids trying to get a band together.

GROSS: What are the odds that in such a small town there was a group of musicians, you know, you and your band mates, who were that good and who were able to do what you've done?

HOWARD: Well, when I think back on it, I think it's miraculous, really, because I had been watching Heath. You know, I used to sneak out of my house and go see his band play. And they were playing songs by Bowie. You know, I was really into Bowie when I was coming up - songwriting. They were playing songs by Prince. I've always loved Prince.

Nobody else was playing music like that. A lot of the music was country or pop-country. You know, we had a lot of rappers. Nobody was playing rock 'n roll music, especially not this kind - especially not, like, Black Sabbath and things that I respected, I enjoyed. So I used to sneak out - this was about the time I was 15 years old - I'd sneak out and go see the band. And, you know, of course, everybody's underage drinking and all this stuff. But I wasn't interested.

I would always go with an express purpose of watching this band. Maybe I could talk to them. Maybe they'll listen to my music. Maybe I could start playing with them. And I feel like everything was divine - the way we got together - because the first time I met Zac, you know, we didn't really like each other. We didn't like each other's personalities. And that's OK. But, you know, we both liked to play music.

GROSS: So you mentioned you used to sneak out to hear music. Your mother, during one period, to prevent you from sneaking out, padlocked the door. Was it the door to your bedroom or the door to...

HOWARD: Oh, my God.

GROSS: ...The trailer?

HOWARD: So it was the - I had my own door that goes outside because we lived in this old house. You know, it was just an old-style house where you could split the house into a duplex. So my room had a door to outside. And let me tell you - she sprayed some GREAT - I don't know if you know it what GREAT STUFF is...

GROSS: No.

HOWARD: ...But it's like the hardening foam. I don't know, it's like a hardening adhesive foam. She sprayed the door shut. And she put a padlock on it. She was trying to keep me in there.

GROSS: Was that a good idea?

HOWARD: It didn't work.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: How did you get out?

HOWARD: Oh, when she was at work, I just chiseled the GREAT STUFF off...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HOWARD: ...And keep the padlock, making it look like it was closed. It wasn't closed. And then I would turn my TV all the way up. And I pushed the bed away from the door. She also put the bed in front of the door. I'd push the bed away from the door. And I'd just sneak out. Just go right out.

BIANCULLI: Brittany Howard, the frontperson of the band Alabama Shakes, speaking to Terry Gross earlier this year. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to our interview with Brittany Howard of the band Alabama Shakes. Their album "Sound & Color" won three Grammys this year, including best alternative music album.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: What was it like when you started performing? Were you comfortable being in front of people? You wanted to be that person in front of people, but when you really became that person in front of people, were you self-conscious at first?

HOWARD: Yeah. I've always had this duality about me where I want the attention, but then once I have it, I don't want it anymore. It's really bizarre. And I even can't figure it out myself, but I wanted to be onstage. And I remember the first night we played, you know, we only had about 30 minutes' worth of material. And at this moment, I have gotten Heath, the guitar player I always wanted. He is now in our band. He's helping our band. I have Zac, and I got Steve, which I always thought Steve was the best drummer that ever came to Athens, Ala. So I got these players - I really want to make it work. I really want to do a good job. And that's all I could think about. It's like if this is good, maybe we could do this some more. So we get onstage and people are looking at us, like, who, you know - who the hell is this? What band is this? They're looking at the way we look. This doesn't look like a band I've ever seen. And I can see it on their face. And I liked it, though. And I got up there, and we started singing the set. And it was over, you know, before we knew it. It went by so quickly. And people loved it. They were clapping. They were surprised. And it was the best feeling ever.

GROSS: So when you say everybody looked at you thinking, like, I've never seen a band that looked like this before, what did you think was different about how you looked as a band?

HOWARD: I mean, you've got, like, you know, you got this big black lady. You got this guy with a funny mustache over here playing base, wearing a golfer's hat. You got Steve in the background. Steve at the time, you know, he had, like, a buzz cut and like a little goatee. And you've got Heath, who's - you know, seems like a good guy, who's, you know, like a good, hard-working guy. We were a mixed bag, like, that's for sure. Nobody had ever seen this group of people get together, much less like onstage and working with each other like that.

GROSS: Had you been self-conscious about your size before and was being onstage - did that affect you one way or another?

HOWARD: Well, not really because in my family when we get together, whenever we celebrate good or, you know, if we're celebrating something good and we're mourning something bad, there's - we always eat. We eat to get together, and that's just normal. Like, a lot of people in my family are bigger people. They're beautiful. Everybody loves them. You know, to me, that was normal. And then, you know, I went to high school and started getting around all these skinny girls and everything like that. And I was like you all do you. I'm going to do me because I love Thanksgiving. I love Christmas, you know? (Laughter) I just knew I have my own thing going, and I feel like I have a lot of support for my family that I didn't worry too, too much about it. I'm still that way - you know, we're real people. We live in the real world, and that's just the way I saw it.

GROSS: Your father is African-American. Your mother is white. Growing up in a small town in Alabama, did being biracial affect you? Was that - did that make you an outsider or were there other people who you knew who were biracial growing up?

HOWARD: Well, you know, we lived in the woods. So growing up, I didn't have anybody to play with but little boys. And the little boys drove tractors. They drove dirt bikes. And because we lived way off the road, it's those kind of kids that I was hanging out with. And I feel like how much money your parents made also had to do with who you hung out with at the time because, you know, the richer parents didn't want those kids hanging out with us kids that live in the woods and play with snapping turtles, you know what I'm saying? Yeah. So I feel like that had more to do with it than the color of my skin. But I was a little kid. I didn't think about it at the time at all. My mom's white. My grandma's white. My dad's black. My grandma's black. You know, they're just people. I love them - never really had to experience that kind of prejudice growing up.

GROSS: So you've had the chance to perform with people who I'm sure you never thought you'd get to meet, let alone play with. And I'm thinking specifically of Paul McCartney and Prince. Did you talk to them before the performance? And, like, do you - in a situation like that, do you try not to be the fan but to just be the fellow musician or - you know what I mean (laughter)? How do you...

HOWARD: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

GROSS: ...How do you decide how to approach it when you're meeting somebody who is such - whose music was such a fundamental part of your childhood and who you look up to? And so does everybody else in the world.

HOWARD: It's interesting because I never know who I'm going to get star-struck by. You walk up to them. You could be nervous. But then once you start talking, sometimes the conversation just flows naturally, and it doesn't feel awkward or forced. You know, someone like that was Paul McCartney - meeting Paul McCartney. He's just a guy that was in a really good band. He's, like, super nice and down to earth and good at making you forget he's a Beatle. He's just a nice guy, and I like him a lot. And that was really cool. It was a really cool experience, but I didn't fangirl, you know? You know, I didn't - oh-my-God, oh-my-God.

Prince - I was barely hanging on with Prince.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HOWARD: I was just thinking, like, don't blow this.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HOWARD: Don't say anything stupid. Quit talking. You're talking too much. You know, in my head, I was really trying to keep it together, but - you know, at the same time, he started talking and I realized, you know, oh, we're actually - you know, we have a lot in common. He's just a dude, just a dude who wrote a lot of really good song. And you know, believe it or not, the person that I got star-struck by was Jeff Bridges.

GROSS: Really? How come?

HOWARD: The Dude. I don't know. He was just - he's just such a legend on the screen, you know, when we were growing up as teenagers (laughter). And now here's the Dude right in front of me, and I didn't know what to say. I think I just made a sound, like a squeaky sound (laughter) and then I left the room. Oh, man. So if you're listening to this, Jeff, let me try again, man. Let me try again.

GROSS: Let's close with the title track from "Sound & Color." And this is another original song of yours that has a kind of science fiction space story behind it. What's the story behind the song?

HOWARD: Basically, I had built a photo shoot set that looks like spaceship, and I had it down there in my studio in my basement. And while it was still set up, I went down there, and I was, you know, writing for the record. And I was inspired by this setup I had done there, and I wanted to write something different. And so I started writing about an astronaut that was sent on a mission to find a new Earth. And they put him to sleep, and everything's going as planned. They put him out there, and he wakes up and everything's wrong. Everything's chaotic. Everything's different, and he's getting these flashbacks, and his brain isn't functioning. And he realizes that he's been asleep for 500 years.

And once that sinks in, the music kind of goes through these - sorrow and anger and all this grief. And then finally, he just accepts it. You know, I'm out here alone. But at the end, there's a new beginning because the sun rises over this new planet that he had found. And even though he's alone, it's just so beautiful.

GROSS: Yeah, "Sound & Color" has strings. There's a vibraphone. Are these the kind of instruments you were able to do on the new album because you were able to be more ambitious? You had more money to make it.

HOWARD: Well, yeah, you know, I bought the vibraphone and, you know, we got a...

GROSS: Oh, it's yours? Are you playing?

HOWARD: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah. I love vibraphones.

GROSS: Oh, what made you fall in love with vibraphone?

HOWARD: It sounds so dreamy. That's what I think it is.

GROSS: It's usually jazz musicians who play it. What were you - what context did you hear it in?

HOWARD: I was hearing it, like, "Wizard Of Oz" or "Mr. Sandman," you know. (Singing) Do, do, do, do, do, do, do.

GROSS: Oh, yeah.

HOWARD: Things like that, those dreamier, nostalgic times where they set a mood, you know? It really sets a certain kind of mood, and I just wanted to work with one. I thought they were so neat.

GROSS: Well, Brittany Howard, it's just been great to talk with you. Thank you so much. Good luck at the Grammys.

HOWARD: Thank you so much for having me. I'm a huge fan of FRESH AIR.

GROSS: Oh, that makes me so happy (laughter).

HOWARD: Thank you so much.

BIANCULLI: Brittany Howard is the frontperson of the band Alabama Shakes. She spoke earlier this year with Terry Gross. Two weeks after this interview was recorded, Alabama Shakes won three Grammy Awards for their album "Sound & Color." Here's the title track.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOUND & COLOR")

ALABAMA SHAKES: (Singing) A new world hangs outside the window, beautiful exchange. It must be falling away. I must be sound and color with me for my mind. And the ship shows you where to go when I needn't speak. Not far now, not far now, not far now, far, far now, far, far now, far, far, far, far now, far, far, far, far out.

BIANCULLI: Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews the new "Ghostbusters" reboot, starring women in the leading roles. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.