Music Interviews
2:00 pm
Wed April 11, 2012

Alabama Shakes Full Of 'Southern Soul'

Alabama Shakes' members were playing sports bars and country dives when their music first got noticed. Then, last summer, their song "You Ain't Alone" turned up on a popular music blog, and it wasn't long before rock critics and record companies swarmed. With the release of Alabama Shakes' debut album, Boys & Girls, singer Brittany Howard and drummer Steve Johnson could finally bail on their day jobs as a postal worker and nuclear power-plant worker, respectively.

"I feel thankful for the fact that I don't have to ... detect radiation," Johnson says. "Yes, I worked at a nuclear power plant, but that's behind me now."

The band hails from the small town of Athens, Ala. Johnson says they had to win over those rowdy bar crowds with cover songs in nearly every genre you can think of.

"It was kind of unique that we could all find a common ground together, given that we all had different tastes in music. There was a lot of similarities, but differences, as well," Johnson says. "So there was a lot of compromise when it came to songwriting or choosing covers. That's how you get, you know, the variety from Black Sabbath to Sam & Dave."

Alabama Shakes' music exudes a 1960s soul vibe — which, when coupled with Howard's vocals, has gotten the band compared to some heavy-hitting musicians, including Janis Joplin, Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin.

"You know, some comparisons are really flattering. At the same time, it's just the way I sound — and this is the only way I know how to sound, really," Howard says. "I think, mainly, my voice is just something that formed over the years, and I can't sing very quietly. If anything, if I could compare my voice with someone, not necessarily the way it sounds but the way it feels to sing, it'd be like Bon Scott from AC/DC."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

While One Direction, the boy band version, launched with the help of reality TV, our next group took a slightly different path.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU AIN'T ALONE")

ALABAMA SHAKES: (Singing) Are you scared of me? Because I'm scared the bomb's going to take me away. Oh, but I really don't know what I got to say.

CORNISH: The Alabama Shakes were playing sports bars and country dives when their music first got noticed. Then last summer, this song, "You Ain't Alone," turned up on a popular music blog. It wasn't long before rock critics and record companies swarmed. And with the release of their debut album "Boys & Girls," singer Brittany Howard and drummer Steve Johnson could finally bail on their day jobs.

BRITTANY HOWARD: I used to deliver the mail. And if there are any postal workers listening right now, I know your pain and God bless you.

STEVE JOHNSON: I feel thankful for the fact that I don't have to...

HOWARD: Detect radiation.

JOHNSON: Detect radiation.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON: Go back to my day job. Yes, I worked at a nuclear power plant, but that's behind me now.

CORNISH: The band hails from the small town of Athens, Alabama. And drummer Steve Johnson said they had to win over those rowdy bar crowds with cover songs in nearly every genre you can think of.

JOHNSON: Oh, we played everything. We played Chuck Berry, James Brown to...

HOWARD: Black Sabbath.

JOHNSON: ...Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Credence, all kinds of stuff.

HOWARD: Yeah. We did some Loretta Lynn songs. We did Otis Redding songs.

JOHNSON: Sam & Dave.

HOWARD: Yeah.

CORNISH: This is a really good mix. As soon as you went from Black Sabbath to Otis Redding...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: ...you kind of had me there.

HOWARD: You know, we're all really different like that.

JOHNSON: It was kind of unique that we could all find a common ground together given that we all had different tastes in music. There was a lot of similarities but differences as well. So there was a lot of compromise when it came to songwriting or choosing covers. That's how you get, you know, the variety from Black Sabbath to Sam & Dave because we're somebody who likes to get amped and rocked, you know, play some heavy metal or something, you know, somebody else.

CORNISH: As I can imagine a drummer would want to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON: Exactly, exactly. Somebody else like, hey, I won't mention their names, wants to keep that slow steady groove going, just bob their head, you know? So that's where the variety sort of came from.

CORNISH: So when you all sit down and you first start writing, is there a song on the album that is a good example of that compromise that was, you know, part of that early effort to really come together?

HOWARD: I would maybe say "I Found You."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I FOUND YOU")

SHAKES: (Singing) This isn't sometimes. Yeah, it's for always. If I'm going to love you with all of my heart and if there is no more time, this always remains, even as the world spins itself apart because I remember them days I waited so patiently for God to bring someone who's going to good to me, and then he blessed my soul.

CORNISH: This is the song I hear the influences that people talk about when they talk about your music in terms of a kind of '60s soul feel. And definitely, Brittany, with your vocal stylings, I have moments where I'm like - I have an old Aretha CD - I'm like, oh, man, this is definitely like giving me that same feeling. What do you think about all those comparisons that people make?

HOWARD: You know, some comparisons are really flattering. You know, at the same time, it's just the way I sound. And this is the only way I know how to sound, really. I mean...

CORNISH: And I don't mean to pick on just that voice. I mean, I've heard Janice Joplin...

HOWARD: Oh, no.

CORNISH: ...and I've Otis Redding. I mean, do you think part of that comes from all those years singing covers?

HOWARD: Maybe. I think, mainly, my voice is just something that formed over the years, and I can't sing very quietly. If anything, if I could compare my voice with someone, not necessarily the way it sounds but the way it feels to sing, it'd be like Bon Scott from AC/DC.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOYS & GIRLS")

HOWARD: You know, I love playing this song live, and it's really because it's just an explosion of energy. This is one of the hardest working songs, I think, that I sing.

JOHNSON: I think for all of us.

HOWARD: Yeah.

JOHNSON: Majority on Brittany's part, though. I mean, you have a tendency to growl at the crowd with your lyrics sometimes.

(Singing) I ain't the same.

And you just kind of like - you're like looking at them right in the eyes and just singing it to them like...

HOWARD: Oh, yeah.

JOHNSON: ...you better be moving or something. I'm going to punch you with this song and make you dance.

HOWARD: I'll look at you real hard.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOYS & GIRLS")

CORNISH: What has it been like with this rise from dive bars in the South and, you know, record store performances to industry shows and all these weird showcases where people are judging you, you know, where people have described your music and your rise as meteoric?

JOHNSON: It can be stressful at times, but you just kind of tune it out and remember what you're here to do and just do a good job.

HOWARD: We know how to put on a good show, and we know how to write our songs. And everything else is very new to us as far as music business goes.

JOHNSON: We're more or less getting help with all the digital...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON: ...Internet, Facebooking, tweeting, that kind of stuff. That's...

HOWARD: Yeah.

JOHNSON: ...it's a new ball game. Yeah. We need somebody to take the reins for that...

HOWARD: Internet is definitely a new ball game.

JOHNSON: ...because I still don't know how to tweet. I'm like 1,100 emails behind or something, so...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HOWARD: Don't worry about it, sweetie.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOYS & GIRLS")

CORNISH: Brittany Howard and Steve Johnson of the Alabama Shakes, thank you so much for talking with us.

HOWARD: Thank you so much for having us.

CORNISH: The Alabama Shakes, their new debut album, "Boys & Girls," is out now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOYS & GIRLS")

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.