Brittany Howard on why the 2021 Grammy nominations for Jaime feel different
Before Brittany Howard learned she had been nominated for five Grammy awards, she was having a very bad day, in the midst of moving homes and stuck at the veterinarian's office for the second time in a week with a sick cat.
"I was pretty stressed out when my manager called me screaming on the phone," she says, laughing. "It definitely turned a bad day into a good day." (Her cat, thankfully, is fine.)
Howard is elated about the nominations for Jaime, her extraordinary 2019 solo debut and most personal work to date. Named after her late sister, the album not only delivers the vocal might and songwriting prowess fans grew to know through Howard's work as the frontwoman of Alabama Shakes, it brings a variety of experimental flourishes to the table, from R&B hooks to funky grooves to unabashed romantic soul.
Howard has experienced Grammy success before, with Alabama Shakes, but this year's nominations are of particular significance for the 32-year-old star, as Jaime is being recognized beyond the traditional rock categories. While "Stay High" is a contender for Best Rock Song and Best Rock Performance (and in historic company, as her fellow nominees in the latter group are all female), "Goat Head" — which details the racism her family experienced growing up — was slotted in the Best R&B Performance category. Meanwhile, "Short and Sweet" got a nod for Best American Roots Performance, and Jaime is up for Best Alternative Music Album.
Ahead, Howard explains why this year's recognition means so much to her, how she feels about the all-female Best Rock Performance category, and who she wants to perform with at the 2021 Grammy Awards.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You're no stranger to the Grammys, having won four with Alabama Shakes. What feels different about these nominations?
BRITTANY HOWARD: This [album] is something I did on my own, which for me took a lot of personal courage. Walking away from something that works to explore something with a lot more personal, deeper meaning is scary. Of course, I didn't really get to tour behind the record because of the pandemic, so it's been this really odd release, but I'm really proud of it. That's what makes it so special: a lot of people trusted me and believed in me, and that really means a lot. I'm really happy to share who I am and talk about my sister more. People have her name on their lips all over the world. That's just amazing to me.
Is there one nomination you're especially proud of, or that moved you the most?
The R&B one. That was one I've never gotten before, so that was really exciting. Also, to be nominated in Best Rock Performance and Best Rock Song. The thing I was most excited about, honestly, is one album being nominated for so many different genres. That's really unusual. That's exactly how I wanted it to go, because I like all kinds of music and I create my music just with whatever I've heard before.
"Goat Head," which is nominated for Best R&B Performance, is such a powerful, personal track, and speaks to the racism you and your family experienced growing up in Alabama. It isn't lost on me that we're discussing this important work at the end of a tumultuous year in which confronting racism — and the violence it breeds — became a national talking point. What does it mean to you to have "Goat Head" honored this way?
I wrote "Goat Head" before everything popped off, so I think it's really important to note that these issues have been going on the entire time, whether it's on the national news or not. I'm glad it was brought to light, and I'm glad the Black Lives Matter movement has garnered a lot of attention — both good and bad, but necessary for its very important message. I just feel like I'm more honored to even have a voice after such a harrowing year. I'm really proud. It's hard to put into words. This song had a place because it's a part of my history and therefore it's a part of American history and what's happening right now. There's lots of good music out there that's talking about this exact issue. I'm honored to get to tell my story, but also the conditions that are in place to make me have to tell a story like that is what I really want to have attention.
You've been a regular nominee in the Best Rock Performance category, more or less, since 2013. This is the first year in the history of the Grammys that every nominee in this category identifies as female. What was your reaction when you heard that?
I'll just say it's about time! As far as history tells it, the rock critics of the '60s kind of forgot that women have pioneered rock since the beginning, with Sister Rosetta Tharpe and all these fellas kind of jacking her style and the way she plays guitar. As far as I'm concerned, rock and roll belongs to women. It's about time.
Are there any songs from your fellow nominees in that category that really resonate with you?
I love Big Thief. I'm a huge fan of their entire catalogue, so I'm really, really excited about that. Fiona Apple, she's just a legend in her own right. Phoebe Bridgers is awesome. Everybody is awesome. But when it comes to Big Thief, lyrically and emotionally, the kind of music they make together has been inspiring to me, because it does make me lean in and listen close. It's not just for fun; it's like a different experience.
The Grammys have faced criticism for their own blindspots when it comes to inclusivity and diversity in the nominee pool. Is this year's group a sign of progress?
Yes, I think it's a sign of progress. I think over the past few years, the Grammys have taken to heart every time the artists [said], "We need to be included, there needs to be more of this, more of that. Why aren't there more women in these categories?" I think the [Recording Academy] has heard that. I think the Grammys are operating in a way where they want to keep including all the different groups of people and different types of music, the different ways we do things. I think they got their ear to the ground, and in the future, there will be more progress.
The world has changed many times over since you released Jaime, in 2019. How have your feelings about the album deepened or changed since then?
It's incredible how I wrote this record almost two years ago, and it has a sort of, unbeknownst to me, prophetic nature to it. There's a lot of songs on the album I can't believe, like "Presence," which is all about being in the present moment; a song like "Stay High," which is choosing to be positive and choose love; and then a song like "Goat Head," which is telling this story of being an interracial couple in America. It's crazy. What do they mean to me now? I'm kind of in awe of how much I needed those songs over the past year.
We don't yet know what to expect with the Grammys as far as the actual ceremony is concerned. Of your three nominated songs, are there any in particular you'd want to perform there?
I'd really like to perform "Goat Head." I think that would be an awesome moment. I might have a guest like Tyler, the Creator or something like that, maybe have Earth Gang jump in on it, make it a little jamboree.
The 63rd Grammy Awards will air Jan 31, 2021 on CBS