Brittany Howard plays consecutive nights at The Orange Peel

UNCHARTED TERRITORY: For her debut solo album, 'Jaime,' Alabama Shakes frontwoman Brittany Howard took numerous risks while crafting highly personal songs. Photo by Danny Clinch

Brittany Howard has enjoyed playing in Asheville multiple time as the frontwoman for the Grammy-winning soul rockers Alabama Shakes. But it’s her most recent musical stop, a 2017 performance with her all-female side project Bermuda Triangle, that vividly sticks with her.

“I remember we rented this incredible cabin in the woods slightly out of town. We had a day off the day before [the show] and hung at the cabin and cooked and had such an amazing time,” Howard says. “It was beautiful where we were, and in the morning we sat on the porch drinking coffee and watched the fog roll through the hills — it was so beautiful. Asheville has always been great to me, and I couldn’t think of a better place to kick off this tour.”

One of the few select venues to host Howard in support of her debut solo album, Jaime, The Orange Peel features consecutive shows by the talented vocalist/guitarist and songwriter on Saturday, Aug. 17, and Sunday, Aug. 18. The record is named in honor of her older sister, who died in 1998, at the age of 13, from retinoblastoma — but not before significantly influencing Howard’s musicianship and passion for her craft.

“We listened to everything: Prince, Elvis, Michael Jackson, Presidents of the United States, Tina Turner, The Supremes, James Brown, Backstreet Boys, Patsy Cline, TLC, Funkadelic, Snoop Dogg, Janet Jackson, Dion, The Kinks, The Animals, The Zombies, The Rolling Stones, [Jimi] Hendrix, etc.,” Howard says. “She just gave me a really great education, early on, of so many different types of music. We loved singing and dancing and creating our own, too.”

Channeling her sibling relationship and other personal narratives into song, however, eluded Howard before working on Jaime. After turning 30 in October, and with Alabama Shakes’ next project not yet determined, Howard deeply contemplated her future and how she could grow as an individual and an artist.

“I wanted to write a more personal record and be more open about who I was. Alabama Shakes is four people [with] four opinions, and the songs I was writing were more personal about me, my family and my life growing up,” Howard says.

“I knew I had to do something that made me uncomfortable and pushed me beyond my comfort zone. I’ve always been part of a group, and there is safety in that as you can hide and rely on others to help guide you. Doing this record took me out of all comfort zones as, for the first time, I was writing, producing and making all the decisions.”

Building on the exciting balance of guitars and electronic instruments with which the Shakes dabbled on the group’s 2015 album, Sound & Color, Howard says she took sonic risks that she “honestly wasn’t sure would work.” She adds that the process of crafting Jaime also allowed her “to open up more in [her] writing” and creatively explore her past.

“I had to trust my instincts and take chances, which can be scary at times,” she says. “I have no doubt this experience will influence the decisions I make in the future.”

Bringing these songs to life onstage is an eight-piece band that includes Alabama Shakes bassist Zac Cockrell, plus two guitarists — “They shred,” Howard says — keys, organ and a trio of background vocalists.

“It’s insane,” Howard says. “I still can’t believe all these people agreed to take a chance with me on this, but I’m so thankful they did. You will be, too.”

The Orange Peel shows will also mark the first Asheville gigs Howard has played since her deleted scene from the Dick Cheney biopic Vice was released on the internet. The filmmakers contacted her about portraying a congresswoman who, in order to explain Washington, D.C.’s political power dynamics, breaks into song and dance. As a fan of writer/director Adam McKay’s 2015 film, The Big Short, she was excited to accept the role.

“The whole experience was incredible, and Adam couldn’t have been nicer to work with. I was bummed to hear the scene got cut. I think the hardest part was explaining it to my dad. He was excited to see me on the big screen, but I get it and I know it was a hard decision for Adam as well,” Howard says. “The scene was pretty special — I’m just glad they put it up online and it still got its moment. The dancers and choreography for that scene are pretty mind-blowing.”

WHO: Brittany Howard with Becca Mancari
WHERE: The Orange Peel, 101 Biltmore Ave., theorangepeel.net
WHEN: Saturday, Aug. 17 (sold out), and Sunday, Aug. 18. 8 p.m. $40, includes a copy of Jaime

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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for ashevillemovies.com and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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