Singer Brittany Howard on Creative Rebirth and Spirituality

Musician Brittany-Howard poses in a field of flowers Her second solo album, “What Now,” is available now.
( Bobbi Rich )

[00:00:00] Brittany Howard: It was a lot so fast, so hard, and I didn't want to crumble, and I didn't want to self destruct, honestly. Like, I didn't want to get into drugs or alcohol, something that has to give. My health was foremost, and I had learned that it's okay to select that. Even if you would be walking away from something that's massively and critically successful, it was just like, but how long is this going to be successful if I can't be?

[00:00:31] I can't survive here either.

[00:00:39] Helga: My guest today is the singer songwriter Brittany Howard, former lead singer and guitarist of the Grammy Award winning Alabama Shakes. Now a spectacular and charismatic solo artist, Brittany joins me in the studio following the release of her second solo album, What Now? We spoke just before her shows at New York's Webster Hall.

[00:01:04] In our conversation, we discuss her early experiences with grief and its impact on her creative awakening, her stages of self discovery, the importance of therapy as a critical aspect of mental health, and how she balances her many musical forms with her understanding of authenticity, spirituality, and passion.

[00:01:33] This way. 

[00:01:35] Brittany Howard: Say it again. 

[00:01:35] Helga: This way. Yes, right here. This way. I'm assuming. This way. Come this way. Hey, this is a great little studio. What do you got here? We make it cozy for the people. Yeah, I like the colors. We make it cozy. If it were mine, I wouldn't have all these colors. 

[00:01:50] Brittany Howard: You wouldn't? 

[00:01:51] Helga: No. But do you find it calming?

[00:01:54] Brittany Howard: Yeah, I do. Well, I have to check in a second. 

[00:02:00] Helga: See? But what's great is that the sound is great. Yeah. And what else matters other than that? 

[00:02:07] Brittany Howard: The most calming thing about it is I like all the wood. Uh huh. I like the sunlight that you guys get. It's very beautiful. And, uh, it's quiet in here. Yeah. 

[00:02:13] Helga: Yeah. It's quiet. I'm so excited.

[00:02:21] Brittany Howard: Your excitement's contagious. 

[00:02:23] Helga: Sometimes, you know, it gets very intense. Young. Yeah. This energy when you don't feel little but you feel young. 

[00:02:33] Brittany Howard: Yes. 

[00:02:34] Helga: And that kind of young enthusiasm and joy and playfulness and it's not necessarily grounded in the moment. Yeah. But it's, it's out. Yeah. It's there. It's radiating.

Brittany Howard: It is radiating.

Helga: So I'm glad you're here. 

[00:02:57] Brittany Howard: I'm happy to be here. Thanks for having me. On this most auspicious Valentine's Day. We got an auspicious day. Okay. And we just had a Chinese New Year, so there's just like a lot of auspiciousness going around. So, 

[00:03:04] Helga: what is it for you? How's it showing up in your life?

[00:03:07] Brittany Howard: How is it showing up in my life? Uh, just released a new album on Chinese New Year's Eve. Mm hmm. So I felt very lucky. For this whole album to roll out. I do, I feel like it was very auspicious that it came out during that time. I like to choose good timings. Yeah. Where are you coming from? I came from Boston. And from Boston I came from Canada. And from Canada I came from Chicago. 

[00:03:32] Helga: Is there wear and tear on the body and on the voice and on the psyche and the spirit, or you do okay with it? 

[00:03:41] Brittany Howard: No all them things. It's like Every day you're rebuilding yourself. Yeah. Because as a performer, you are transmuting, you're giving all this energy.

[00:03:51] To the crowd, and they take it and they give it back to you. When you walk off stage, you're like, so pumped up, and the energy's so high, but now you gotta go to sleep. You know what I'm saying? Or not. Yeah, and it's up to you to decide how you're gonna bring it back down. And over the years, I've been doing this for about 13 years now, I've had to learn how to do that in a positive sense.

[00:04:11] Helga: Oh, say more about how you did and how you do now.

[00:04:15] Brittany Howard: How I did was drinking, and all that stuff, because that's what you see people do. And it kind of works, you know, because alcohol is a depressant, so it will kind of bring you back down, so you can go to sleep and everything. Yeah, I don't do all that mess now.

[00:04:30] No, I'm too old for that. No. Now it's baths and Epsom salts and lidocaine and all them things. 

[00:04:40] Helga: I'm just thinking again about this thing of giving and receiving and then the going out and the coming back and the up and then the down and then this city and then that city. I know I love being on tour. It's one of my favorite places.

[00:04:58] One of my big, big happy places is being on tour. And I love, as you said, to give that. love to have that sharing with an audience, to get it back from them. And then I always have a little bit of stuff when I leave, and that you have to gather yourself up again and let that go. And in that way, it is a kind of active relationship.

[00:05:25] It is a way of being active and how we flow with it or against it. And I wonder if you would speak a little bit about what that looks like for you. So what are the things you do to keep drawing that energy to you, moving through you, moving out? 

[00:05:47] Brittany Howard: I find the thing that helps the best with summoning it again, laughter.

[00:05:54] It's one thing I love about my band and my crew. We're all comedians. We're all back there making each other laugh. And the vibe is high when you're laughing, you know? So it gives you all this energy and all this excitement. Even if you don't know why, by the time you walk onto the stage, you're just feeling good.

[00:06:08] And that gets you there to the stage, and it's time to perform, and I take performing very seriously. So all I'm doing up to that point is getting ready to perform. You walk onto the stage, and people are really excited to see you, and at first, there's a part of you that's really Old, that doesn't really belong in you anymore, that's, oh, you guys shouldn't be clapping for me.

[00:06:32] Uh. Very small. So old, old voices. Old, old voices, yeah. Oh, you know, look at all these people, they just don't know, they don't know you, don't, don't take it so seriously. All that stuff is immediately there. But then you're like, these people want to be here. I want to be here. I want to have a moment, and that's beautiful.

[00:06:50] And then you get on there, and you command your presence, and you go about your work. 

[00:06:57] Helga: You started making music a long time ago, relative to your age, and I wonder if you would speak a little bit about the why. 

[00:07:11] Brittany Howard: Mmm, that's a good question. Because I feel like the why comes up every few years. See, I'd actually like to interview you about what you like about touring.

[00:07:21] I could turn this around. 

[00:07:24] Helga: You can ask me, after you answer this. You can ask me. 

[00:07:27] Brittany Howard: What was the question again? I'm like, how do I be like you? The why. The why. The way I grew up, so I grew up in a junkyard. So there was that around. I also grew up on a farm, so lots of animals and lots of caretaking going on, and I really loved it as a kid, but it was chaotic.

[00:07:48] That was life, so you don't question things when you're new in life, and it started off that way, and Being young, I loved being outside, playing with animals, playing in the water, and playing in the woods, and I was outside all day long. I had sticks in my hair, and, uh, I was covering ticks. I needed to be checked.

[00:08:07] Where were you? I was in Alabama. Okay. I was in North Alabama, Athens, Alabama. Born and raised. And got a little bit older, and I had a sister who passed away from a rare form of cancer. She passed away when she was 13. Wow. And I was eight

[00:08:23] And that's when everything changed. I got rid of the animals, the junkyard was still there, but it was just different now. Everything was colorless. That's how it felt, because everybody was grieving in their own way. I was so young, I just kind of sucked up into my own little world. Because at least here, it was 

[00:08:42] Understandable. And that's when I started to fall in love with music, because it was my escape, and then I started creating from that place, and that was my bright spot. And I feel like music and my grandmother, Ruby, were the brightest spots in my life for a really long time, because Ruby saw me. She paid attention to me.

[00:09:02] And, um, That's just how I felt. And I always use music to create my own reality, in a way. In some places I understood, in some places I had control over. And, um, why I do it really stems from that place. It's like, I think creation is really divine. I think it's amazing. that I'm able to have the gifts and tools to create it in any way I see fit.

[00:09:28] It's an amazing thing and I'm obsessed with it and I want to keep learning about it and keep creating different palettes. So the why is really a large part of curiosity. And I think a large part of having some sort of a control over chaos. 

[00:09:45] Helga: And you said the why changes every few years. So when was the next time it changed?

[00:09:51] You had this really big and dramatic event in your life, and then you started making music and then when did you have to examine the why again? 

[00:10:05] Brittany Howard: I think when it came to the music business side of it, I was really tired. Touring can take it out of you, for sure. Especially if you don't got all the right tools.

[00:10:14] And if you're not curious and nobody's showing you what to do, you're just kind of trying to put everything together real time. Like, maybe it's this I need. Oh, it wasn't that. And after a while, after, what was it, like, ten years or so, You're kinda looking around, all I'm hearing about is why I need to do this and why I need to do that.

[00:10:34] But where is my joy? Hmm. And where is my passion for this? Mm-Hmm. . Because I'm, I'm just very, very tired. And once it becomes a business thing, I feel like that's when I had to ask my question of why am I still here doing this? 

[00:10:47] Helga: What were the tools you think you needed when you say you didn't have the tools that you felt you should have had?

[00:10:54] What, what was missing? 

[00:10:56] Brittany Howard: Well, what's interesting is I got. into professional touring when I think I was like 23 years old. I was very young. Did you have a band already? 

[00:11:06] Mm hmm, yeah. 

[00:11:07] Brittany Howard: It was the Alabama Shakes. And everything really changed so quickly. Within a year, I went from living at the poverty line to being able to buy a house.

[00:11:16] And now all of a sudden I had money. And it was incredible. I've been so long without it. And you know how it is. I'd always been wanting it for so long, and now I have it. And now I have this whole other host of problems. It's like the mental and emotional stuff. Now that I have space, because I wasn't having to survive for a living, now I had space to revisit all of those things from my childhood and from growing up with low cash and growing up without hot water and Having trouble securing food and medical care, all those things, and now I'm here.

[00:11:48] I'm like, now I have, I have now, and I have space to see all these things that were always there. And I go, oh no. Because that's when the work really started, I feel like, for me. There's so much to take care of as far as it went. Trauma and the mental health. Then it was learning the tools. To deal with that helped everything else.

[00:12:13] Helga: What were those tools that you learned? 

[00:12:16] Brittany Howard: Let's see, back then it was just identifying emotions. I did not feel emotions for a while because where I came from they were not useful. Feeling sad for yourself was useless. Complaining how tired you are was useless. It doesn't matter. Gotta get up and get the money.

[00:12:33] And that's where I had come from. So then it was like tapping into, well, how do I feel? I don't have to keep pushing myself through things. And if you can identify how you feel, you can identify boundaries in what you don't want to do. So that was important, because saying no in this industry is, is really important.

[00:12:47] is your superpower. You got to say no to protect yourself because longevity is important, especially when you actually do love what you do. 

[00:12:56] Helga: What were the things that people were saying, you ought to be doing this, you ought to be doing that? What's the this and what's the that?  

[00:13:02] Brittany Howard: After a life of so much stress, getting to the point of, um, I didn't have any capacity for any requests.

[00:13:10] All they wanted me to do was to be On. Because I was very lucky during those early days, people were very interested in me, interested in the music my band was making, and everybody wanted to ask questions, and everybody wanted access. And I just was like, now hold on a second, how do I turn this off? You know, it doesn't go off.

[00:13:31] And so I think people just wanting access to me was too much.

[00:13:34] Helga: Talk about your band. And the music that you were making in the beginning, what role then and now did race play in the makeup of your band? 

[00:13:48] Brittany Howard: So, I was in this band Alabama Shakes, and the guitarist and the bass player, Heath Fogg respectively, we all went to high school together, and they're all older than me, and I knew that they played music, and they were good.

[00:14:04] And I was always trying to hunt them down to play music with them. So eventually, I gave Zach a little CD of music that I had created, and we went to his little Honda Accord, and we listened to it, and he was like, this is cool. And I was like, thanks, you really think so? He's like, yeah, we could play music together, we could get something together.

[00:14:20] And I was like, cool. So then me and Zach, I think I was 15 years old, me and Zach started making music together. And then Heath, the guitar player of Alabama Shakes, heard what we were making, and then he was like, oh, you guys should open up for us. And I was like, I'll open up for you if you, like, help us play some songs.

[00:14:37] Because I had always been wanting to play with you. So he's like, yeah, I'll help you out. I'm from a small town, Athens, Alabama, and we have one music store. So, Steve worked at the music store, and he was a drummer, and I thought he was the best drummer in town. So, once I had some music on the CD, I said, hey man, he was like, yeah, I'd like to come play with y'all.

[00:14:55] Boom. I got a band now. I've been working on this since I was 11 years old. So, I've been working on it. Finally got us a band. We learned some material. We go on open for Heath's then band, and it was a knockout. We played for 30 minutes. Everybody was shook. They put some money in my hand, and it was 200. And 200 to me.

[00:15:17] It was my light bill. It was everything. I was like, are you kidding me? And I was just simply wanting to be in a band and to create music. And then I realized I could actually kind of make a living off of this. Okay, okay, okay. So after that performance, it was so electric and we decided to keep playing music together.

[00:15:36] And then we got together in my house and we started writing music together. And we were all from different types of music. Zach at the time was doing like progressive rock and Steve was into punk and metal and Heath was into like country music, singer songwriter, rock and roll. And I'm Kind of into all those things, so I'm like, well, how do we work together?

[00:15:55] And one thing we could agree on, as far as the sound goes, was soul music. Like, garage soul music. We all liked that. We all grew up on that. Our parents listened to that, our grandparents listened to that. We knew about it. We knew how it was supposed to be made, and we enjoyed the sounds of it, and the singing, and the songwriting.

[00:16:09] So we started there. We could only work through the lenses we had, so it came out kind of different. And I think the way it came out kind of differently was what intrigued people. And as far as it goes, like, me being a black woman, Leading a group of white men, maybe that looked intriguing too, but within the band that wasn't something we ever talked about or considered, none of that mattered really.

[00:16:33] It was just we were trying to make great music that we liked, and I think that's why I translated it in the first place. There was really no airs about us, we weren't trying to be cool, we weren't trying to have hits, we just really liked making music, it was something to do. 

[00:16:47] Helga: And then what about in your audiences?

[00:16:49] Who were your audiences, and did that make a difference to you, or did you just want to play music? 

[00:16:56] Brittany Howard: I definitely just wanted to play music. In a way, I was kind of like, two people in one, because I'm quieter. I don't know if I'd totally say shy, but I'm just an observant person. I'm just kind of quiet when I walk in a room, just checking it out.

[00:17:10] Um, when I'm on stage, just a different person. So, when it comes to the audience, I don't know, it was intimidating. I was just like, oh yeah, they don't even like you, they're probably making fun of you. I was just thinking these things in the early days, people who were just coming to see us out of curiosity, and it would make me angry.

[00:17:27] I would make myself angry, and then I would perform from the anger. So in a way, I was releasing anger. It was really strange how that worked. But now I don't feel that way at all. Back then it was like a lot of older, you White people, I'd say, were an audience. That's curious. And then it became everybody.

[00:17:47] Helga: Mm hmm. 

[00:17:48] Brittany Howard: Became everybody, which is so cool. All walks of life. I feel so fortunate to be an artist that can have an audience like that, because I appreciate putting all different types of people together. All different backgrounds, colors, creeds, belief systems, in the same room, all agreeing on one thing, which is going to appreciate my music.

[00:18:07] Helga: I feel like that about this show also. If I had one wish and one place that I work from in this work is that There be something in every conversation for someone, regardless of who they are and where they come from and all the other things we use to measure worthiness and accessibility and assumptions about where we should be and who our work should be available to.

So it's really good to hear you say that. What happened with Alabama Shakes? 

[00:18:44] Brittany Howard: I learned along the way how I feel is important, who I am is important. It was just like I lost my passion. And it wasn't anybody's fault really. It was just situational. It was like, I'd been working so hard, and there was so much touring, and there was so much grinding.

[00:19:03] My life was beautiful. It was great. And I loved the guys. But there was this one problem, which was just like, if I keep creating here, within this group, it's not authentic. I'm trying to access things I cannot access. What were those things? Myself. I was so tired, so depleted. And I also had this probably self imagined weight on my shoulders that I'm not just responsible for my own life.

[00:19:31] I'm responsible for their lives. If I keep doing this, then nobody should feel like that. And I know they never meant for me to feel like that. Like I said, it's nobody's fault. It's just the situation of it. It was a lot so fast, so hard, and I didn't want to crumble, and I didn't want to self destruct, honestly.

[00:19:50] Like, I didn't want to get into drugs or alcohol or anything like that. Something has to give. My health was foremost, and I had learned along the way that it's okay to select that. It's okay to choose that, even if you would be walking away from something that's massively and critically successful. It was just like, but for what?

[00:20:09] How long is this going to be successful if I can't survive here either? It was a hard decision, obviously. It was probably the hardest decision I've ever made in my life, but it was one I really tried to do with respect, and we sat down in chairs in a circle and we talked about it, and The rest is 


[00:20:25] Helga: What did taking care of yourself look like after that? What did you do with Brittany? 

[00:20:34] Brittany Howard: I felt, it was like giving up, because I really struggled with that, that I was giving up. But all of a sudden I became free. It hit me instantly. I was free for the first time in, oof, a long time. I'm getting emotional thinking about it because I didn't know I could feel like that.

[00:20:54] And I remember getting in the car and just driving until I saw the ocean. And I drove all the way across America. I saw the East Coast, the West Coast, all of it. And it was just for fun, for curiosity's sake. I didn't have to work, I didn't have to show up as anybody, I didn't have to put on a smile, didn't have to take photos, didn't have to charm anybody.

[00:21:16] I was just me, and I was just traveling around, and I got to see the country for the first time through my own eyes. And that freedom led to a lot of rediscoveries. The rediscovery of my passion for music, but also just for life. Things became colorful again. 

[00:21:33] Helga: Which things started to excite you again? 

[00:21:41] Brittany Howard: Oh, travel for one thing.

[00:21:42] I was like, oh, this is fun. Taking little adventures for myself, like going to a hot spring, almost stepping on rattlesnakes, going to the desert. Watching the sunset. All these little small things that I forgot, they're important. I was so busy just wanting to make this band so successful, and I forgot all the little things.

[00:22:05] It's nobody's fault. I just forgot. And then here they were. Just like, seasons changing. Like, period. Watching the seasons change was so beautiful. 

[00:22:15] Mm hmm. 

[00:22:16] Brittany Howard: And the birds chirping in the morning. And the way the sun feels on your skin when it's finally all the way up, it's just all these small moments that make me feel alive again.

[00:22:27] Helga: So you're driving across the United States and having all of these experiences. How long were you out? 

[00:22:37] Brittany Howard: I don't even know. Months? Yeah. Months I found out I moved to a whole new state. I had moved to New Mexico, made new friends. Like, I just kind of started life over again in a way. And then maybe it was, gosh, I don't even know how long it was before I made another record.

[00:22:55] And then what did your life become? My life became my responsibility. I feel like that's when I became a grown up, for real, for real. I realized that Nobody was doing anything to me. I was participating, and I was giving away all of my decisions. I was just letting people just tell me what to do, because how would I know what to do?

[00:23:21] I've never done this before, and that was okay back then. I feel like I grew up a lot, and the boundaries thing was like a huge thing. Because I was just kind of disempowering myself over and over again for the sake of what, really. And I think when I took my power back and started saying no, started saying this is how I want things to be, this is what I want my life to look like, that was hugely powerful.

[00:23:44] And I'm steering my ship in that direction. And there's nobody I can blame anything on from this point on. I mean, it's just like, I have the awareness that this is a choose your own adventure, you know. You learn to love life in a different way, and to appreciate the small gifts of love in a day.

[00:23:53] Helga:  And then when you started rebuilding your life, you had these small but critical places where you found love.

[00:24:15] And then how did that also affect your music and your personal life? 

[00:24:23] Brittany Howard: Yeah, there was um, a release, of a lot of things. There was no need to have walls up and to be so protective, musically, creatively, personally. I had to trust myself. I could protect myself. So it's like I let these walls down. It wasn't just me being vulnerable now and mushy and afraid.

[00:24:43] All these things had access to me that were good things. And that's really affected my life and music in multiple ways. It's a whole new life. I feel like I've been through the gauntlet. And I never thought that I would be the type of person that could be. So compassionate and open, because it was always very scary.

[00:25:02] And so my music reflected that, and it became more intimate and more truthful, more authentic, and I definitely cared less what someone had to say about my life, or how I'm living it. Which, for a while, I did care, because I didn't want to mess up my opportunity. A lot of freedom entered the picture, and a lot of acceptance entered the picture, and that just makes you create even more incredible things you didn't know you could do, because now you're having all these new experiences that you never could have experienced otherwise.

[00:25:37] Yeah. 

[00:25:38] Helga: Did you have another relationship? Did you have a relationship inside of all the other relationships you were having with yourself, with your band? with life. You mean a romantic relationship? 

[00:25:50] Brittany Howard: Mm hmm. Yeah, I did. During that time, yeah, I got married out in New Mexico. What? Mm hmm. Yeah, I did. I was married for 18 months.

[00:26:01] It was the best of times or the worst of times, what can I say? 

[00:26:04] Helga: And then that's another place of departure for you to have shared your life with someone for 18 months. 

[00:26:14] Brittany Howard: Yes, yeah. You know, we were together a while before then. The relationship, I think, was like almost three years. And it was a lot of fun.

[00:26:24] It was reckless. It was exciting. We did everything. We went everywhere. We did everything. Because they were a writer, and their whole thing was, I need to experience everything. And I was like, cool, let's go, let's go. And it was so fun, and I don't have any regrets about that part. It was awesome. And then the dissolution of it was terrible.

[00:26:44] It was terrible. Because at the time, that was the love of my life. I thought my life was heading in this direction, and then it wasn't. A lot of people know what that feels like. It's disorienting. And you start feeling like, I have to gather myself back up and rebuild again, which that's what it was.

[00:27:00] There's been a lot of rebuilding. Sometimes I wonder if that's just what life is. Yeah. But that was then. This is now. I forgive it all. It's under the bridge.

[00:27:14] Helga: Brittany, did you have to come out? Was there a community of people you had to come out to? Or that you felt you owed an explanation to about your sexuality? 

[00:27:28] Brittany Howard: No, because I didn't really fully understand it until I was older. And I think that had a lot to do, too, with having space to think, getting out of the survival.

[00:27:39] And getting into the place of thinking about what I want for myself, and so I was 27, 26 when I come out, and I'm 35 now, so. Not that long ago.

[00:27:51] Brittany Howard: Not that long ago when you think about it, but I told a couple friends first, and they were like, are you sure?

[00:28:01] I don't know, maybe? No, no, no. And then, you know, I told my managers and stuff, and, because I'm close to them, and that was more just like I wanted to share my life with them, and I didn't, I didn't feel like I owed anybody anything, really. 

[00:28:14] Helga: But no one thought it was going to make a difference in your career, or in your ability to keep making music.

[00:28:21] Brittany Howard: Nobody worried. The way my manager told me, uh, He was like, that's nobody's business, doesn't matter anyway. He was like, all the people are gonna love you for the right reasons. And he's right. 

[00:28:33] Helga: Yeah, he was fully supportive. And your parents, are your parents alive? Yes, I do have both my parents, yeah. 

[00:28:40] Brittany Howard: Yeah, my dad, I'm definitely daddy's girl.

[00:28:43] Me and my dad have this kind of relationship where we can actually telepathically speak to each other. So, nothing needs to be said. It's being said. Action over words, 100%. All of his actions said, I'll accept you no matter what. And that's where he's at. And that's how he's always been. And my mother had a little hard time with it.

[00:29:01] My mother was raised like really religiously, so she was scared when I come out to her. And she was afraid. 

[00:29:07] Helga: Of what? 

[00:29:08] Brittany Howard: I don't know. I think she had her own little wrestle with religion and what she's been told. And she thought it was just the worst thing I could do. Now, three weeks later, I didn't panic because I know my mother.

[00:29:22] My mother loves me through and through. She'll be back. That's what I said. And she did. She came back three weeks later. She's like, I'm so sorry. And we're cool now. And she wants to know who's in my life and what's going on. So we've definitely repaired that. But it was just a little bump in the road. 

[00:29:39] Helga: I'm very fascinated by what you said about your dad.

[00:29:43] Mm hmm. and how you talk to each other. Say, say some more about that. 

[00:29:49] Brittany Howard: I don't know, it's just like an energy thing. When we were younger, our relationship was a little bit more difficult. But everybody was having a difficult time because the loss of my sister. 

[00:29:58] Right. 

[00:29:58] Brittany Howard: Yeah, and everybody was grieving in their own way.

[00:30:00] So my parents divorced shortly after that. And so it was just a lot of sadness, and I remember those times as being very gloomy, very depressive times. I definitely remember growing up in a house where we couldn't open the window shades. It was just, like, really sad. And then, my dad, being the kind of guy he is, he, he dealt with it on his own, like, privately.

[00:30:23] But whenever I saw him, he always tried to be joyous and bubbly around me, even if that wasn't the situation. He'd always try to make me laugh, even if I was in a bad mood and I was being a terrible teenager. He just still tried to be goofy. And I appreciate that about him, I really do. I know that some people might see somebody like that and be like, well, they're naive.

[00:30:46] But I think he had that figured out as far as it goes with me. And so I respect that. And I also respect just the kind of man he is. From a very young age, I witnessed him treat everybody the same. No matter your background, anything. He was always bringing stuff to people who didn't have it. Because he grew up a really poor child in Alabama.

[00:31:08] And I watched that. I wanted to emulate that kindness. So we kind of just have this connection. We just understand each other in a lot of ways, you know? Nobody needs to be perfect to be loved. And he taught me that. 

[00:31:22] Helga: Your mother is grieving in her way. Your father is grieving in his way. They have a grief that they share because it's their child.

[00:31:35] Who is taking care of you and your grief? 

[00:31:39] Brittany Howard: Well, when my mom lost my sister, I think she might have been 32 years old. I'm older than her now. I can't imagine having to navigate something like that. She did the best she could, and I accept that. And at the time, my grandmother, Ruby, was someone who would try to check in on me, talk about how I was feeling.

[00:32:00] But I kept it from her. I kept it from everybody, how I was really feeling. Because I didn't want to rock the boat. Honestly, I just want somebody to tell me what's going on. I just want to go home, and I want my animals back. That's really how I felt. That's all I could really understand. And for a long time, it was just me.

[00:32:18] Like, well into my 20s. It took a long time. That's a long time. Yeah, it took a long time. 

[00:32:23] Helga: For sure, yeah. It is. And a lot for such a young person to have to unpack alone. 

[00:32:30] Brittany Howard: Yeah, I didn't have to. You're right. It was a lot to deal with alone. And the way that it was affecting me and my personal relationships was I could just very easily disappear.

[00:32:42] You know, it was me and me, and it had been me and me for so long. I was comfortable that way. And I wouldn't let people in. I would give them a version of myself. and they would know that version of me and then I would tuck away and do whatever I was doing until I saw that person again and then maybe I would show up differently because I'm I don't remember what version I gave.

[00:33:04] It was like, honestly, 100 percent survival.

[00:33:10] Helga: You're listening to Helga. We'll rejoin the conversation in just a moment.

[00:33:20] Avery Willis-Hoffman: The Brown Arts Institute at Brown University is a university wide research enterprise and catalyst for the arts at Brown that creates new work and supports, amplifies, and adds new dimensions to the creative practices of Brown's arts departments, faculty, students, and surrounding communities. Visit to learn more about our upcoming programming and to sign up for our mailing list.

[00:33:55] Helga: And now, let's rejoin my conversation with the singer songwriter, Brittany Howard. Will you talk a little bit about your relationship with the business part of the music business? 

[00:34:11] Brittany Howard: Hmm, it's interesting because when you talk about creativity and business, You get a very interesting thing that happens from that, because on one hand you have something that's so precious, so divine, so vulnerable, so guided, so necessary.

[00:34:35] We've always enjoyed music as human beings, it's always been there. These frequencies, and these sounds, and these emotions that people relate to, and it helps transmute their feelings, it's like this very sacred thing, and then you have money. I feel like these two things, how could they go together? 

[00:34:53] Mm hmm.

[00:34:54] Brittany Howard: But it makes sense. In the world we live in, especially in America, capitalism is king. If there's something that people need and enjoy and want to have, it's gonna cost you. At the very base layer of it, I think it's already kind of corrupt. But listen, this is how I make my living, so I'm not gonna complain.

[00:35:15] It is what it is. I definitely choose my battles here. But um, For me, I let the music business people do the music business things. I'mma be straight up with you. There's very rarely let me in them business calls. Like, very rarely am I in them business calls. I don't wanna be a part of it. I wanna stay away from it.

[00:35:34] Cause this thing threatens this thing, as far as I'm concerned. So, let me choose the best people to do the music business parts. I'mma let y'all do it. And I'm going to, uh, cooperate to the best of my ability. And most of the time, just leave me alone, let me do this. Yeah. I'm speaking about this delicately.

[00:35:55] They're listening. 

[00:35:57] Helga: They're always listening, Brittany. Yes. I don't go to church anymore. He loves me. He don't judge me. 

[00:36:07] Brittany Howard: You wrote that. Yes, I wrote that. When I was a kid, I grew up going to church every Sunday. Which church were you in? So I went to two. So on my mother's side, it was Church of Christ, which is just singing, no instruments.

[00:36:18] No clapping. No clapping? No clapping. No, just lifting your voice. And then on the other side, I went to Black Baptist Church. Complete opposite. It was amazing. Greatest show in town. It was incredible. I loved it. I did. I loved going to that church, but I had to switch back and forth every Sunday. 

[00:36:40] Helga: You went to two services on a Sunday? Or every other week? Every other, okay. 

[00:36:45] Brittany Howard: Yeah, I had to spend time with both. I respect those churches for the aid that they give families, because they definitely helped out my family. And the community aspect of it, I respect that very much. The religious aspect was a problem I had. I couldn't fit in with it.

[00:36:59] I was like, this isn't quite making sense. But I don't think that has anything to do with God or anything. I think it has to do with a human who's just making choices on behalf of God and then thereby listening to that for generations and generations. So I don't have the hardest feelings, but I do think that it's important for human beings in general.

[00:37:21] to think for themselves, you know, in all aspects. I think it's important to examine yourself and ask yourself, why do I believe this thing that I believe? And from an early age, I asked myself that. And I was angry with God for a very long time. And when I say God, I'm not talking about, like, an old white man in a chair in the clouds.

[00:37:41] I don't know what God is. It's just the source energy. Let's just call it that. But I was raised this way, so I say God. So I'm not connected to any religious affiliation, but. I believe in something like that, and once I found my spirituality again, after so long of being so angry, then I realized, not everything's really as it seems.

[00:38:04] Someone's gone, but they're not gone. Things aren't so black and white. They're a little more nuanced than we think they are. And I believe that. That resonates very deep within me.

[00:38:13] Helga: What's the nuance in that? They're not really gone. 

[00:38:19] Brittany Howard: Well, just because you can't see something doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

[00:38:22] Just because you feel something and you don't see it doesn't mean it's not there and you're crazy. There's these nuances with energy, with consciousness. Some people believe that, some people don't. I'm just one of those people that happen to be more open minded about that, because I don't know everything.

[00:38:39] And I think science every day is trying to explain things that spirituality has been talking about for maybe thousands of years. So there's that, you know. Everything with a grain of salt, of course, because why not? Why not throw that in there?

[00:38:57] But no, I had to reclaim and find my spirituality. It was a journey. My life is better for it. My life is richer for it. When I was a young child, after my sister passed away, I went to live with my mother in an apartment. So imagine, I go from running wild across many acres of wild land, now I'm living in an apartment.

[00:39:19] Concrete asphalt, small little square buildings. Wasn't really no kids running around either, it was just like me and a couple other kids. So my mom had these books on spirituality. Cause you know, obviously, when you're grieving, you have a lot of questions. And so I was picking up different religious books and spiritual books, books about psychics, heaven, near death experiences, so I probably started reading them books when I was like 10, 11 years old.

[00:39:45] And I had questions and my mom was trying to answer them the best she could, but I started to develop this idea that there's more than just Church of Christ. There's more than just Jesus going on out there. I started to open my mind And some of the things that they're saying are very beautiful. Some of the things in the Bible that they say too is very beautiful.

[00:40:08] It's just about how you're going to take that and actually use it, right? So a lot of this was like, there is no organization. It's just your relationship with that. And that appealed to me even at a young age, because I don't have to be afraid all the time. I don't have to be ashamed all the time. When I started real, I was really young.

[00:40:26] And the seeds of it were planted there. And then of course I turned into a teenager and I got very angsty and was trying to find a reason for all this anger and that lasted until I was around 25 or 26. And then that's when I, uh, I actually had like a kind of supernatural experience with the psychic lady that I found.

[00:40:45] Yeah, yeah, I know it's kind of a crazy story, but call it what you want. But I had this kind of conversation with her, which was like, I won't go too deep into it because it's not my own, just my own information, it also has to do with my mother. But it was things that my mother, um, had said to me about my sister, about some dreams that she had had.

[00:41:05] No one could really know that information. And she was telling me, and she was trying to give us some information to help heal our family. And it was so real, and it was so point on, that I said, okay. There's definitely something more going on here. It impressed me that deeply. And I'm a pretty logical person before I just believe in supernatural things, but it moved me.

[00:41:29] I couldn't deny it. So that, that opened up my relationship with spirituality and believing in something that connects us. 

[00:41:37] Helga: During this process of healing, did you have a friend, a mentor, a therapist, somebody who helped steer that ship with you? No, no. 

[00:41:52] Brittany Howard: I had friends that kind of believed very closely to how I believed too, but they came a little later in life.

[00:41:58] During that whole journey, It was a lot of me reckoning with me. And I didn't start going to therapy until I was probably 28 years old. 

[00:42:10] Helga: How has that helped you? How does that process help? Hugely. 

[00:42:18] Brittany Howard: Changed my life. Probably saved my life. Therapy. I believe in it. I believe in it. We don't have to do everything alone.

[00:42:25] I definitely learned that and that's definitely true. 100 percent true. I couldn't recommend therapy enough, honestly. Yea Changed my life, you know. In what ways?

[00:42:38] Man, it was like wearing a cloak made out of lead, and then someone just kind of helps you carry it, and then they kind of start helping you peel it off, and then they Kind of take off the lead helmet, and then it kind of helps, like, oh, look around, this is what it's like here, you know, it kind of feels like this, like, alleviation, all this weight after all this time, and you have somebody on your side that's advocating for you and wants you to succeed, and that's really what it's like.

[00:43:08] Yeah, sometimes you gotta talk about hard things, but sometimes it's not always so depressing. Me and my therapist be laughing. I'm the world's greatest comedian to my therapist, you know? 

[00:43:17] Helga: Yeah. I want to read you this quote, because I was thinking about it a lot when I knew we were going to have this conversation, and I always look for the way in, in a conversation with someone.

[00:43:35] Here's what I found. When I sing, trouble can sit right on my shoulder and I don't even notice. Sarah Vaughan said that. That’s beautiful. Talk about what you're able to hold and carry and ignore. What's in your voice? What's the world when you sing? 

[00:43:56] Brittany Howard: When I think about singing, I think of it being this tapestry. And it's not just me who added to it.

[00:44:02] A lot of people before added to it. My ancestors added to it. Stevie Wonder had added to it. Amen. And Prince had added to it. Nina Simone had added to it. Led Zeppelin added to it. So it's all these things. It's not just me. It's all of my, um, I guess I call it teachers, people before me. Maybe I don't think about it, I feel it.

[00:44:27] All the people in my family line that nobody ever gave a damn about. Nobody ever saw them. They lived and they died, and nobody celebrated them. I think about that, and here I am. So that's all this power. And all I get to do is open my mouth and just be a channel for it, in a way. Yes, I wrote the music, yeah, yeah, but I didn't mean singing, just like singing.

[00:44:51] That's my freedom. Nobody can touch me. That's my freedom. When I get to dress up, I feel like I'm putting on like a little superman outfit. I feel like a superhero. And I get to walk on the stage. The people in the audience, we're all people. I really do think of it that way. And they're just encouraging you.

[00:45:12] Yeah! Sing it! 

[00:45:13] Mm hmm. 

[00:45:14] Brittany Howard: Yeah. 

[00:45:16] Helga: So that's what that makes me think of. What's a thing that you do every day that every person can do? Tools. That's what I'm really speaking about. 

[00:45:26] Brittany Howard: Affirmations. Every day. 

[00:45:30] Helga: Do you write your own? 

[00:45:31] Brittany Howard: I got my own. Mm 

[00:45:33] Helga: hmm. Can you share one? 

[00:45:35] Brittany Howard: People are nice to me for no reason. I always seem to know what to say.

[00:45:40] That's one of them. I'm magnetic. I'm magnificent. I work with God and I create with God and I can call upon that creation at any time. That's one of my affirmations. 

[00:45:52] Helga: One of my big ones is everything is perfect. 

[00:45:56] Brittany Howard: I like that. I like that. 

[00:45:58] Helga: That's a hard one. That's a hard one, 

[00:46:00] Brittany Howard: yeah, but you believe that. Go on now.

[00:46:02] I love that. That's a good one. I'm gonna do that, too. That's a hard one. Because the universe will try to get you there, you know. Every day. In every way. Ah, yeah. Another one of my favorites is, I experience joy every day. I experience something joyful every day, which I think is true. I think affirmations really work.

[00:46:22] I really do. 

[00:46:23] Helga: Is there anything you want to ask me? 

[00:46:25] Brittany Howard: Yes, so why do you love tour? Tell me what you love about tour. 

[00:46:31] Helga: I think of touring as a ritual. 

[00:46:33] Brittany Howard: Yeah. 

[00:46:35] Helga: I love packing my suitcase. I love waking up and knowing that I'm going somewhere. I love the trip to the airport. If it's in the States, I take the bus to the airport, and the bus is a place of transition.

[00:46:51] Mm hmm. 

[00:46:52] Helga: I love when I get to the airport to be robbed for a bottle of water. and mascara. I think I get what's going on here. You ask.

[00:47:08] And then I love the moment of getting on the plane and putting on my seat belt. I put in my earplugs and then the plane starts to go and it's very slow at first on the runway and then the sound changes so the pitch goes from a low hum that i literally feel in my body through the seat a nice bass place and then as it goes faster and faster and faster it becomes more of a whistle and then there's that moment when the wheels come up and you know you are in flight 

[00:47:55] Yeah, 

[00:47:56] Helga: I live for feeling and having the experience in my body of being in flight.

[00:48:04] It is the same feeling I take with me on stage. I am in flight and everything is possible here, and to get to feel that in every performance. In every city, in every country, is why I'm here. Wow. 

[00:48:29] Brittany Howard: I feel like I got some more work to do.

[00:48:40] Helga: But it goes back to what you were saying about little things. You talked about birds, you talked about the desert, and about the sunset. And that's where I feel those things. 

[00:48:54] Brittany Howard: Yeah, yeah. 

[00:48:55] Helga: And so, yes, there is the grind. of touring. I mean, there's exactly the opposite, too, where I'm in this line again. I'm in this cab trying to get to the airport.

[00:49:08] There is all of that 

[00:49:09] as 

[00:49:09] Helga: well. And as you were saying before, can I choose this? 

[00:49:15] Brittany Howard: Yeah, I was hearing you. 

[00:49:18] Helga: And then when you get up in the sky, and you can't see anything below you and you get to just be in the clouds and think and dream. I can't sleep on the plane so that's how I spend my time. And then it's night time on the plane and you have the first three seasons of Atlanta that you already got through.

[00:49:55] And then you wait. You wait again to have gone far enough into the night for the sunrise. 

[00:50:03] Mm hmm. 

[00:50:05] Helga: I know that sounds corny as fuck. It's not, it's worth it. I've seen that. It's worth it. It's beautiful. 

[00:50:11] Yeah. 

[00:50:12] Helga: And then to take that off the plane and into a performance space is really, for me, one of the most beautiful things.

[00:50:23] Brittany Howard: Okay, I'm learning something here. Mm hmm. I am, I am. It sounds to me like you're saying like, take all these beautiful things with you, you're absorbing them for what they are, and that's giving this energy and there's a lot of awareness that you have and a lot of appreciation you have. And I'm like, okay, maybe my mind's a little too busy and I haven't been absorbing this stuff, but I hear what you're saying.

[00:50:49] I'm taking that in. So thank you for answering my question. 

[00:50:51] Helga: Thank you for asking it. Last thing I want to ask you, tell me about the tattoo. On your This? Yeah. So first describe what it is. 

[00:51:03] Brittany Howard: Well, There's just two lines I have tattooed next to my eye, my left eye. I wanted to get it. It's kind of a commemoration.

[00:51:11] In my DNA, there is a cancer called retinoblastoma, and what it does is it's a cancer that grows in the retina. It took my sister's life. I took my father's eye, and it goes down my family line. And this was kind of like a, fuck you. You know? That's kind of what it is. There's a scar on the side of my face, and you can't really see it because of the tattoo.

[00:51:36] Like a radiation burn from when I was a baby. And I'm half blind in that eye. And it's just a, fuck you. You know? That's really what it is. 

[00:51:47] Helga: Brittany Howard, thank you. Thank you. So much. 

[00:51:52] Brittany Howard: Wow, what a way to start the day. 

[00:51:54] Helga: For me too. You 

[00:51:58] Brittany Howard: know, thank you so much for having me. This has been a very enlightening, uh, deep conversation and I really appreciate that.

[00:52:04] Helga: And I appreciate you for taking time out because I know you got shit to do, sis. Got a lot of wonderful things to do. A lot of wonderful things to do. Beautiful. We love it. Can I give you a hug? Get out of my head. Get out. You have your own, you have your own head. Get out of mine.

[00:52:36] That was my conversation with Brittany Howard. I'm Helga Davis. Join me next week for my conversation with a dynamic theater director, singer, and actress, Whitney White. 

[00:52:49] Whitney White: I think when you dare to live in your full self, relationships change. So whether that's about loving the art making more than anything else, which I do,

[00:52:58] or changing your identity and asking people to see you a different way. I find, not just for myself, but for Black women around me, when we dare to be like, hey, here's a new thing about me now. Can you accept it? I was surprised. At the friends that were like, yes, or colleagues or mentors and other people were like, I don't know.

[00:53:27] Helga: To connect with the show, drop us a line at helga at wnyc. org. We'll send you a link to our show page with every episode of this and past seasons, and resources for all the artists, authors, and musicians who have come up in conversation. And if you want to support the show, please leave us a comment and rating on any of your favorite podcast platforms.

[00:53:57] And now for the coda. Head first, Don't think, listen what I'm feeling first. I came I saw, unconscious The best time that I ever had That's been the best time I ever had. That's when the worst times started

[00:54:58] I followed you and didn't look back. I didn’t know love could

[00:55:05] Feel like that, I ran right through them red flags, I ran right through them. I thought of trying 

[00:55:20] harder. To keep the feeling from breaking, To get more of your love Dreamin A way to keep from wakin Don't let it die,

[00:55:51] don't say that it's only love. Don't let it die Don't say that it's only love. Head first, Don't think, listen what I’m feeling first. ​​Do you feel it too? I came, I saw, unconscious. Do you know what? We're supposed to, to do? The best time that I ever had That's when the worst time started. I followed you and didn’t look back. Do you feel it too? Do you know what we’re suposed to do?  I didn't know love could feel like that.

[00:56:48] I ran right through them red flames. I ran right through them. Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh.

[00:57:33] Don't let it die, don't say that it's only love.

[00:57:51] Don't let it die, don't say that it’s only love

[00:57:55] Helga: that it's over now.

[00:58:15] Season 6 of Helga is a co production of WNYC Studios and the Brown Arts Institute at Brown University. The show is produced by Alex Ambrose and David Norville. Our technical director is Sapir Rosenblatt. Our executive producer is Elizabeth Nanemaker. Original music by Michel Ndegeocello and Jason Moran.

[00:58:40] Avery Willis Hoffman is our executive producer at the Brown Arts Institute, along with producing director Jessica Wasilewski. WQXR's chief content officer is Ed Yim.



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Produced by Alex Ambrose and David Norville