Five-time Grammy winner Brittney Howard

Brittany Howard Discusses New Album Ahead of Coachella Performance

The five-time Grammy Award winner visits the desert this month for the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.

Emily Chavous Foster Arts & Entertainment

Five-time Grammy winner Brittney Howard

Brittany Howard poses in the landscape outside Joshua Tree. 

“I feel like space is the place,” says five-time Grammy winner Brittany Howard. “That kind of goes against everything you’re told in this industry, which is always keeping momentum, keeping momentum, keeping momentum. But what’s it worth if at the end of your life you’re just so tired, and you don’t like music anymore?”

Howard rocketed to fame as the powerhouse frontwoman of Alabama Shakes. Her vocal command and ability to shape sound as both songwriter and producer have drawn critical comparison to Radiohead and The Beatles. But the sensory overload of a life in the spotlight wore Howard down. When the world pressed pause in early 2020, she used the forced solitude to mend her relationship with music. The resulting album, What Now, released in February, toys with genre and keeps the listener guessing with a soulful psych-rock timbre that could only come from Brittany Howard.

She performs this year at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival on Friday, April 12 and 19. Then, she’ll fête the release of Netflix’s Thelma the Unicorn. The animated family flick, also starring Will Forte and Jermaine Clement, hits screens May 7.

Here, Howard discusses creative strain, being a unicorn, and what she loves about Twentynine Palms.

You’ve said the album title What Now stems from the questions we all seemed to contend with in the wake of the pandemic: What now? Where do we go from here?

The pandemic was really the first time I stopped. My relationship with music was getting strained, and when the pandemic came along, I was able to get space and find my way back to it. I started [songwriting] in March 2020, and I think I was in the studio until the end of 2022. I wasn’t trying to make an album — I was just making music for the fun of it again. I had told myself that nobody would ever hear it. And well, I lied.

Armando’s Bar

Howard poses in the desert.

How do you deal with creative strain?

I think there’s a great protection that I have to put into place to protect loving my art. This is going to sound cliché, but it’s honestly being appreciative of what you have and how far you’ve come, making work based off your life and not trying to make music to win something. It keeps it authentic, it keeps it interesting, and it keeps it challenging — that’s the most important thing. Any successes that come along just strengthen my belief in how I do things.

What’s your favorite lyric from the album?

Maybe, “Here comes that feeling we don’t talk about” [from the track “Every Color in Blue”]. There’s lots of things we don’t talk about with each other. When we do, it creates connection. Growing up in general, especially as women, there are so many things we’re told not to talk about and not to bring up and to just stomach and hold in. It affects us generation after generation after generation. I think that line is powerful.

What’s the best part about singing?

The best part about singing is that moment — singers know what I’m talking about — when you are free and nothing can touch you, and you’re empowered, and you’re in the flow, and you’re not thinking about anything.

You use your voice as an instrument. It’s sometimes soft and droning and sometimes so powerful, it rattles the listener’s soul. Whose voice rattles your soul?

Oh my goodness, so many. I like Nina Simone’s voice a lot; of course, she’s legendary. But Nina never meant to be a singer. She was just trying to be expressive, and she was taking other people’s music and other people’s words and expressing it through her experience. And when it comes out, it’s clear that she’s more than a singer. You can connect with that. It doesn’t have to be perfect, and her voice will break, or she’ll forget lyrics and say whatever she wants. I just think that’s the best.

If forced to choose between singing, playing instruments, or songwriting, and you can only do one thing for the rest of your life, which would you pick?

Songwriting. Because when I think about what I do, I don’t think of myself as a singer or as a musician. I think of those things as tools to create something. Songs to me are moods, or they’re nostalgic, they’re memories, they’re little movies. They can be all kinds of things. They can be silly and dumb, or they can be really serious

Howard is set to perform at Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival on April 12 and 19.

See Howard's performance at Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival on Friday, April 12 and 19.

How long does it take you to write a song?

Oh, sometimes it’s five minutes, and sometimes it’s years.

Thelma the Unicorn premieres on Netflix next month. You’ve made cameos on screen before as yourself but never as a character. You’re voicing the lead, Thelma. Why’d you want to explore something new like this?

Well, I feel like life should be experienced. This opportunity came along, and it was so different from anything I’ve ever done. It was fascinating to me — the world of animation, voice acting, working with actors of this caliber, and the comedy being in it. Jared Hess was the director of Napoleon Dynamite, which I loved when I was growing up. And honestly, the movie is super funny. I was impressed by everybody I was working with. I was like, “If I’m going to do this, I want this crew, this group, this director, these actors to be my first time doing this.” It felt right, and I had a blast.

Are you going to continue down the TV/film path?

I’m definitely going to explore opportunities that pique my interest. I enjoyed acting, and acting is hard. I took a crash course getting into it, and it has really taught me how to feel my emotions because not only do you have to feel them on the spot, you have to exert them and make someone believe it. I thought voice acting was going to be easier. It is not easier. You’re still acting. You know what I’m saying?

The synopsis describes “a rare, pink and glitter-filled moment of fate that transforms Thelma, the small-time pony into a unicorn.” Is Brittany Howard a unicorn?

Am I a unicorn? [She pauses to consider her answer.] I am a unicorn. I am a unicorn on this earth. Yes, there’s very little of us.

In your musical career, what has been that rare, pink and glitter-filled moment for you?

I have had so many moments in this music career happen to me that I thought would never happen to someone like me coming from where I come from. I could not even talk about one. It was one after the other, after the other, after the other. And the fact that I can put out an album like this in 2024 and still have people sitting down and discussing musical choices and why this tonality is like that, what this lyric means, why is the album cover like this? Why is the album named this? It’s kind of incredible to me in and of itself. I can look around me with awareness and see everything’s changing, and it just means a lot to me to still be here and to still be appreciated as an artist.

Can you describe in a few words the overall message or feeling that you want listeners to take away from the album?

I would say blue, bedsheets, surrealism.

You’ve performed at Coachella once before with Alabama Shakes, and this year you’ll take the stage as a solo artist. What was the Coachella experience like for you?

Coachella is crazy because everybody comes to it. So as performers, we all do our best to present ourselves to not only to the audience, but to the world. That’s one of the festivals everybody in the world wants to see. Everybody can stream it, everybody can see it. So I feel like everybody’s, so to speak, putting on their best clothes and wanting to give their best performance and really represent themselves. That’s what I’ve always enjoyed about Coachella.

 You’re from Alabama originally and live in Nashville now. What do you enjoy about being out in this area?

The desert attracts a lot of different types of people, and I’m a very curious person. I come out there, and the desert always has something new to offer. I was just there for a while, staying outside Joshua Tree in Twentynine Palms. I go there because I enjoy seeing the stars. It gets really dark out there at night. There’s actually some good food out in the desert, and there’s cool jewelry, and I like off-roading out there. It’s fun. I really enjoy that.

Let’s end it with your question — the album title. I’m sure everybody wants to know: What is the answer? What now?

What is the answer to the question, “What now?” No one’s ever asked me that. I would like to give the answer. [She pauses.] Stay tuned.