The story of the Alabama Shakes begins in a high school psychology class in Athens, Alabama. Brittany Howard, who had started playing guitar a few years earlier, approached Zac Cockrell and asked if he wanted to try making music together.
They started to meet up after school and write songs sitting on Brittany's floor. “It had that rootsy feel, but there was some out-there stuff,” says Zac. “David Bowie-style things, prog-rock, lots of different stuff. We started to come across our own sound a little bit, though it’s evolved a lot since then.”
Steve Johnson worked at the only music store in town, and Brittany knew he played the drums. The three young musicians began working together, further expanding their style and approach. “Steve is kind of a punk-metal drummer,” says Brittany, “so we embraced that edge he brings to everything he does.”
The trio soon went into a studio in Decatur to record some of the songs they were working up, and this proto-demo found its way into the hands of Heath Fogg, whom Brittany knew as the lead guitarist in “the best band in high school.” Heath, who by now had graduated from college, asked them to open a show for his band on the condition that he play with them.
Attempting to record their songs with the honest sonic qualities they cherished, the Shakes bought a few microphones and a vintage Teac mixing board and set up in Brittany's house. They eventually found their way to a Nashville studio in early 2011, where the songs they cut included “You Ain’t Alone” and “I Found You.”
When they appeared at a Nashville record store, people started to take notice of the group’s relentless, hard-charging live attack, and Brittany's magnetic stage presence. One especially ardent fan raved about the band to his friends, which included Justin Gage, the founder of the Aquarium Drunkard blog. Justin wrote to Brittany, asking if he could post one of the Shakes’ songs. She sent back the yearning, intense “You Ain’t Alone,” which he put up in late July, calling it “a slice of the real.” And, literally overnight, all hell broke loose.
“I woke up the next day to emails from record labels, managers, publishing companies,” says Brittany. “At first I thought, everybody’s making a mistake!”
Yet even as the attention and the pressure were mounting, the band—who by now had changed their name to the Alabama Shakes—continued to break new ground musically. Their first single, the hypnotic, show-stopping plea “Hold On,” grew out of an onstage improvisation. “We threw out that riff,” says Zac, “and Brittany started singing along, and the crowd started singing with her like it was a song they already knew.”
As word of mouth spread, more offers to tour came in, and the band members were finally able to quit their day jobs; until this point, all the writing, recording, and touring had to be done around such responsibilities as Brittany's work as a mail carrier and Johnson’s hours toiling as a night watchman at a nuclear power plant.
Now, with expectations at fever pitch, the Alabama Shakes have delivered Boys & Girls—six of the songs from that initial Nashville session, and another five recorded during the rest of the year. From the heart-rending title song to such stomps as “Rise to the Sun,” the album demonstrates the sense of groove and space the band learned from their idols, along with a blistering force and emotion that simply can’t be learned.
"Songwriting is like talking to yourself when there is no one to talk to."