The situation is “a bittersweet thing,” said Zac Cockrell, Alabama Shakes’s bassist. “But there are no hard feelings anywhere. She’s always done her thing. I feel like with this, she just took it one step further.”
Howard had already started making music outside Alabama Shakes. In 2015, she fronted a hard-rock band called Thunderbitch; she would ride through club audiences on a roaring motorcycle and perform in a tight leather jacket with white greasepaint on her face. By then she had moved to Nashville, where Alabama Shakes recorded its debut album, and in 2017 she joined two other songwriters — Becca Mancari and Jesse Lafser — to form Bermuda Triangle, sharing one another’s songs and doing a small-scale tour by van. Howard and Lafser, who had lived in Taos, grew closer; they married in 2018.
They live together now in the house Howard bought on the outskirts of Taos, with their cats and dogs — “five animals that all hate each other,” Howard said — on 16 mountainside acres with a few low-slung buildings, including a recording studio in progress. Their neighbors are elks, coyotes and black bears. Loud crickets punctuated an interview on Howard’s porch, as she shared a bottle of Barbera d’Asti.
Before deciding to make the solo album, Howard said, she began writing a memoir, reaching back to the events and sensations of her childhood. She got as far as the founding of Alabama Shakes before pivoting back to songwriting — delving through her hard drives and completing songs that hadn’t been right for the band, coming up with new ones. She wrote lyrics and blueprinted parts — drums, guitars, keyboards, bass lines — before booking studio time and calling in trusted musicians: Cockrell, the drummer Nate Smith, and the keyboardists Robert Glasper and Paul Horton, while supplying all the layers of guitar herself.
Howard and her engineer, Shawn Everett, deliberately recorded with eccentric setups. For the blissful song “Stay High,” Smith arrived to find a drum kit that was all snare drums; at another session he was asked to play with chopsticks. For much of the album, Everett placed contact microphones — picking up small impacts — on the keys of electronic keyboards, giving physical heft to synthetic tones. Testing a new keyboard turned into a spontaneous studio jam that Howard edited into “13th Century Metal,” a roller-coaster of a spoken-word rant that’s part self-help exhortation, part sermon.