Alabama Shakes' journey from backwater to blues stage 

Blues-metal: AC/DC was among the influences on Alabama Shakes’ debut album. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy photo
  • Blues-metal: AC/DC was among the influences on Alabama Shakes’ debut album.

Where Brittany Howard lives, on 18 secluded acres in rural Athens, Ala., there are certain skills you inevitably acquire — like how to deal with coyotes, water moccasins and other unusual dangers.

“It floods a lot here, and when it floods it’ll wash out a giant snapping turtle, so you’ll see him chilling on top of our hill or just trying to make his way back into our creek,” she says, adding that once their iron jaws clamp down on something, they won’t let go.

“So we used to take a shovel and put it in his mouth and just drag him back to the water. And he kept that shovel, for sure — every time, it was his.”

Howard was just as inventive — and tenacious — when she home-schooled herself in singing, guitar playing and recording. “One way to train your voice is to do a harmony on top of your own vocal, and if you notice that it sounds really bad, that means that you’re not singing in key, that one of your vocals is off,” says the hurricane-velocity vocalist, who fronts the serpentine R&B combo Alabama Shakes, who hit The City on Thursday.

“After you do that for hours and hours, you figure out how to control your voice, how to keep it steady. I didn’t start out as a belter,” she says.

To arrive at last year’s eponymous EP (with its Etta-James-sultry “You Ain’t Alone,” already used in a Zales commercial) and the upcoming album “Boys and Girls,” with rave-ups like “Goin’ To a Party” — Howard didn’t follow any traditional path.

Her first vocal idol was late AC/DC growler Bon Scott, and the Shakes often covered that group’s thundering “Let There Be Rock” in early concerts, along with deep-catalog obscurities from Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. Her favorite composers were equally offbeat: Queen, Bowie and Tom Waits.

Howard cites AC/DC’s roomy blues-metal as a template for the Shakes’ self-produced debut.

“All I kept talking about during recording was, ‘There needs to be more space!’” says Howard. “There’s an amazing piano part in one song, and everybody kept saying ‘turn it up.’ But I said to leave it in the background, because that’s where it belongs.

That’s what makes our music so interesting — there are still parts you’ll have to pick out of it.”

Howard — championed by stars like Arctic Monkeys mainman Alex Turner — never planned on being discovered. So she gladly accepted work with the U.S. Postal Service.

“Six months ago, I was actually delivering mail,” she says. “Running from dogs, getting stung by hornets, rained on. And now? My life is just ... just crazy!”


Alabama Shakes

Where: The Independent, 628 Divisadero St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m Thursday
Tickets: $12; show is sold out
Contact: (415) 771-1421,

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Tom Lanham

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