AUSTIN, Texas — Brittany Howard already had her life planned out by the time she hit her 20s, and it didn’t include any of this.
The lead singer and force of nature in Alabama Shakes, rock ’n’ roll’s newest phenomenon, already had a good job delivering mail and hoped to hold onto it. Like many folks reared in the rural South, she didn’t expect much more. Maybe she could carve out a little happiness with a husband and some kids.
“Where we’re from, playing music and just playing music is not an avenue to take,” Howard said. “It’s not an option. Because like, where we’re from, most of the people, they’ve tried their best to get the best job they can and then they stay with that job until they can retire. So music was just kind of like our hobby. It was something we would do to like release at the end of the day or still feel like human beings.”
In less than a year, all that has changed and her quartet from Athens, Ala., has become a success story so unlikely even the band’s manager calls it “an anomaly.” Maximum buzz has preceded the Shakes’ debut album “Boys & Girls” with sold-out tours of the United States and Europe, fawning media coverage and an endless string of surprises.
Howard, 23, sat down for a morning interview early in the band’s overstuffed run through the South By Southwest Music Festival last month. The band rented a house in a tony section of town and was loose and celebrating over breakfast tacos after a successful “Austin City Limits” taping and in anticipation of a heavy schedule of live showcases at the music conference.
They’d just learned they’d be joining Jack White for part of his tour and big opportunities seemed to be coming up every day. Howard admitted it all still felt a bit miraculous, even in the age of instantaneous Internet buzz. Until the band started to tour she’d never been farther away from Athens “than somewhere in Tennessee.”
Warm and open, but a little shy and hesitant to make eye contact, Howard hardly resembled the larger-than-life figure she is on stage. With only an EP, a handful of professionally produced videos and a legion of YouTube fan postings, there’s been little for the curious to go on since the band first started gaining attention last summer. But every time Howard and her bandmates — bassist Zac Cockrell, drummer Steve Johnson and guitarist Heath Fogg — play out live, they gain more true believers who turn and pass on the word.
The Shakes’ musical approach is laid back — simple riffs that sway and build laid down over fertile grooves. There’s nothing elaborate and no need to be because within a few bars, Howard comes in with a voice that rattles the room and shakes the soul. Already visually arresting — it’s not often you see a bespectacled, full-figured black woman with red electric guitar strapped over her shoulder fronting a rock ’n’ roll band — when Howard opens her mouth and sings, it’s like completing a circuit.
Patterson Hood, The Drive-By Truckers frontman who spread the gospel as an early adopter and took the group on the road, compared her ability to mesmerize a crowd to Bruce Springsteen’s audience-winning ways. He says she has “the undescribable thing — the thing that separates people who are really good from those that have that extra something.”
“To me that applies there,” Hood said. “There are people who technically have as good a voice as she does; I’m sure better. She doesn’t do anything fancy. It’s not a new way of doing anything. But it’s the way that she connects with the people in the audience that, so far everywhere I’ve seen them, it’s been pretty amazing. It seems like the bigger the room, the greater the connection seems to be.”
Kevin Morris remembers being a part of that connection for the first time as a transcendent experience. The band invited the prospective manager to a show in Tuscaloosa, home of the University of Alabama. Morris boarded a “dilapidated cruise thing” with 150 college kids crammed aboard and found the Shakes jammed into a corner.
“And they go into ‘Hold On’ and within 30 seconds I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” Morris said. “I started texting every single person, ‘Oh, my God! Oh, my God! Oh, my God!’ And so we sort of started working with them right then.”
“Boys & Girls” — a self-funded album of raw, jubilant rock ’n’ roll that’s very much of the northern Alabama soil it was recorded on — sold 25,000 albums during an iTunes exclusive release last week, good for No. 16 on the Billboard 200 list, and was released wide last week. No one knows what to expect next because everything so far has been, well, unexpected. Morris hasn’t experienced anything like it.
“I’ve never seen something spread word of mouth like this,” said Morris, who manages the band with Christine Stauder. “It doesn’t usually happen like this. Usually the record comes out and there’s a build after the record comes out. This, so much of this happened for them pre-record. It’s an anomaly.”
One that lets Howard imagine a very different future for herself these days.
“I know the thing I want to do is sit in my own studio,” Howard said. “Not something elaborate. Just something where I can sit in the corner and write songs. Because that’s where it all started: I was just sitting in a corner writing songs.”