I have a habit of getting low key obsessed with certain artists, especially producers and engineers. For months I just can't stop listening to records they've touched. Earlier this year I had a few months of being really deep in that fascination-hole with Shawn Everett [Tape Op #115] and all the recent records he's engineered or mixed for artists like Lucius, The War On Drugs, Kacey Musgraves, and Margeret Glaspy. The list goes on and on, but would be criminally incomplete without mentioning the masterpiece that is Alabama Shakes' Sound & Color, one of many records he's made with producer Blake Mills [Tape Op #115]. Just imagine the excitement I felt when I got a phone call asking if was available to meet Shawn and the Shake's Brittany Howard to discuss their work together on her upcoming solo record, Jamie. Needless to say I was on the next flight to L.A.
How did you originally meet?
Shawn Everett: Probably through Blake Mills. You'd heard Blake's solo record, right?
Brittany Howard: I heard Break Mirrors, and I was like, "Whoa, there's a lot of attention to detail here. I think that's the guy I want to work with, because he sounds like he put a lot of work into this." Then Blake was like, "My dude is Shawn. You gotta work with Shawn." That's when we first met. Shawn is super detail-oriented, and so am I. We got along famously.
SE: I was lucky to have worked on Break Mirrors, so I ended up meeting you [Brittany].
BH: Everything happens for a reason.
What was it that made you decide to work together again?
BH: With Shawn, not only do we get along personably, but Shawn also speaks my language. I did not study music, and when I want something I'm literally like, "Shawn, this sounds a little bright. We need to bring it back down to magenta territory. It needs to be darker." Shawn is like, "Yeah, I got you. I know exactly what you're saying," which is crazy.
SE: Sometimes the analogies are even more colorful than that. More than just magenta. You go deep.
What's an example?
SE: I can't even remember, but I remember you saying some left-field stuff, and I was super into that. It was some beautiful poetry, and I loved trying to find the sonic color in the poetry that you'd sing.
Why did you decide to release this as a solo record?
BH: The reason I put it under my own name is because I'm telling my own stories. To me, it's kind of a reflective record. There's not really one main purpose. It's not very mysterious. It's like, "I want to do a record and tell my story." It was cathartic. It was scary to go out on my own, but that's something I've always wanted to do.
What's behind the name of the album? [Jaime]
BH: That's my sister's name. She passed away when I was 8 years old. When she was 13, she had brain cancer. She taught me everything about being creative, drawing, being artistic, making music, and being in love with that realm of creativity. That affected me for the rest of my life. I feel like that was the right title for it. I can't really take all the credit for myself. She was my teacher.
How has the process of making a solo record been different from making a band record?
BH: Well, less chefs in the kitchen! It's a little bit scary when you don't have nobody else's opinion, you know what I mean? It's up to you. If you do something stupid, you did something stupid. It wasn't a group decision. You don't have anybody to bounce it off of. I always respected my boys' opinions, and they always had great ideas, but it's also really exhilarating, really exciting to be like, "If I mess it up, then I messed it up." It's exploratory. That was really exciting and really liberating.
Were there ever moments of disagreement where you had to put your foot down and say, "Wait a minute, fellas, this is my record!"? Or was it always wonderfully peaceful?
BH: Wonderfully peaceful. Even better than peaceful, they inspired me by being excited to be there. Nate Smith is a great drummer. As soon as Nate Smith shows up, I start having more confidence in myself, because I realize, "Oh, these songs sound really great once you have a real drummer." Then Zac Cockrell shows up, and he's on time with the actual feel of a bass player. Then I'm getting excited, and then we have someone like Robert Glasper or Billy Buchanan come in, and I'm like, "These songs are actually happening!" I did all the songs on my little laptop, just using a little Universal Audio box with one microphone. Once they came in, I was like, "Whoa, this is actually going to be a record!"
Did you guys make an intentional effort to sound different than >Sound & Color, being that that was a band record and this was a solo record?
BH: I feel like we tried to sound like the demos, like the idea of the demos.
SE: Yeah, on her demos, the first time she played them for me, it blew my mind. The only thing I felt about Sound & Color is that people seemed to like the sound of it, so I needed to make sure that this sounded as good or better. That was my only concern. I was really being hard on myself about some of it.
BH: We tried some crazy stuff to get some sounds. At one point, I was playing with the faders on a mixing board like notes on a keyboard, so here comes the A, and making chords with my hands. It's like an analog tape loop keyboard?
SE: I found this company... it's not even a company, just one guy who makes this special contact microphone that's not even a contact microphone. It's almost like a laser that you have to really crank, and it picks up electromagnetic interference. So, we were picking up the air conditioning unit in the studio. We were moving it around the room, because it picked up different electromagnetic interference. We found a place where it really hit with this air conditioning unit, and it had this crazy electromagnetic frequency that sounded really cool. We put it on a piece of tape that was looping around the studio, and then we would speed up and slow down the tape machine to get different pitches from the electromagnetic interference from the air conditioning unit. We basically generated a synthesizer on a tape loop from speeding up and slowing down the tape machine. Then we put all of that together and put it on a tape machine so she could play it like a synth.
BH: Then I don't think we even used it!
SE: No, we didn't use it. [laughs] It was fun.
BH: It was very cool. That was like half a day?
SE: Yeah, it took a while. It sounds sick though. It didn't work for the song, but you could make a record with that synth.
Going back to the demo process, did you use Apple's Logic?
BH: Yeah, I used Logic X.
SE: It's super fun the way that she built it. She would build these demos in Logic, but to try to create a real-world sound that was the same version of that was so fun.
BH: It was really fun because obviously I have some really great key players on the record, but on some of the pieces, because of the touch of how I wanted the performance to be, I had to perform it. I don't really play keys, so we had a really interesting solution to that which was like taping the notes, color-coordinating the chords on this real instrument and then performing them. I kind of became an instant keyboard player based on colors and numbers. It looks insane.
Were the demos just you alone, or were these people brought in after, the other musicians who came in?
BH: I did the demos alone at different times. I definitely knew that I had to get actual musicians to perform it. I always prefer the sound of a real musician. Especially with Shawn. The way he's mic'ing it, the attention to detail and care he takes, like putting contact mics on the Celesta on a song like "Stay High." It has this super-woody feel. As a listener, if I didn't know what was happening, I'd never be able to figure out how it sounds like that. I did the demos by myself and wanted the best of the best to play it.
Shawn, I'd like you to talk again about the process. When she bought the demos to you, what was your reaction? How much of the original demos did you keep, or did you replace everything?
SE: The demos legitimately blew my mind. I was crazily stoked to be working on the record when I heard the demos. She could have released the demos and it would be a sick record. When you already know that you have crazy material to be working on, it's kind of nice in some ways, because sometimes I feel like there are different roles that I take when I'm working on a record. By hearing the demos, I knew that the role I could take was to fully concentrate on how to make it sound good. I'm not spread thin. I'm just working on one aspect of it, which is nice because you can concentrate. Every aspect of the record you can get infinitely deep on, be it a lyric or anything. You can go down a wormhole of infinity on everything. If my one role is to try to bring more sonic something to the demos that she had already created, then that's fun. I can concentrate on one infinity, one aspect of infinity.
BH: One infinity is enough!
SE: I'd go through the studio and see all the different equipment and the instruments and try to find the thing that would most represent the thing she'd already done in the best way possible.
BH: The hardest thing was the hi-hats on "Tomorrow." I had to use a keyboard, so I put some crazy hi-hats on there, like a typewriter, which is easy to perform with your hands and cut-and-paste and make a rhythm. But then it came time to actually track those hi-hats...
SE: I went down a wormhole with the hi-hats. I wanted to figure out exactly rhythmically what she was doing. I don't know what it was, I was just being a nerd.
BH: He was counting it.
SE: I was nerding out musically about the rhythmic information of how you count that hi-hat part.
BH: It was pointless.
SE: It was wild. But I got really deep with it.
BH: What we ended up doing was recording it section by section. I'd listen to it and be like okay, tickety-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick. I would do that and then we'd move forth to get that sound. It was really hard. I wasn't so sure about it at the time, but I always trust Shawn. The drums on "Tomorrow" make it sound like I'm a sick drummer.
SE: The same section that has those hi-hats there's crotales. We drove two hours to get crotales for four bars of crotales.
What are crotales?
SE: Very thick, tuned cymbals.
BH: Like a xylophone, except cymbals. We drove to the dusty, dusty mountains...
SE: [laughs] Yeah, we went on a real journey just to get a four bar crotale part.
BH: Then we brought them back, and it was like [singing notes]. Done! Worth it. Worth it.
How did you form the cast of musicians?
BH: I started with the drummer first. I knew I was going to work with Zac again, because Zac's my boy. We go way back to childhood. I really didn't feel like forming a new relationship like that with another bass player, because in my opinion I've already got the bass player I want to play with. That was pretty simple. Then as far as drummers go, I wanted a drummer who had his own unique voice who could play with soul and personality and purpose. I had been following Nate Smith on Instagram and Facebook for a couple of years. To me, he's like the baddest of the bad dudes right now. I like the personality, the voice and the expression he has. When he plays, I'm entertained. I don't need any more music. Lloyd Buchanan played with the Shakes. I wanted him to play with me, and don't nobody know this, but Lloyd is like the sickest organ player. He has so much emotion and so much good taste when he plays. He knows where to place certain things. I needed him on the project. I played all the guitar parts. I needed to do that, you know what I'm saying? I'm going to be doing all this goofy stuff, because I don't actually know how to play guitar. I don't take lessons. I don't even know all the chords, dog. "Can I make a D7? I don't know!" But if you play it for me, I'll be like "Oh yeah, that!" I know what that sound is but I don't know the names of stuff. It's kind of cool not knowing and figuring it out. I'm laying on the guitar and then Robert Glasper came in, and I'm so glad he did. Because Robert Glasper came in and Nate Smith was in the studio, we got the song "13th Century Metal" which was just Robert going in and doing a quick sound check. What was that thing called?
SE: An Orchestron.
BH: Yeah, Orchestron. He was like "Let me go check this thing." He starts doing this bad stuff. Nate was already in the drum booth, and they started doing it and playing it. We were in the studio and were like, "Don't stop them!" I was like, "Whatever we do, I've got to do something with that because it's crazy." Later on, me and Shawn edited it to where I could put a melody and some lyrics on it. I already had the lyrics in my phone. I was like, "All right, let me go in there and see what I got." Shawn was in there thinking I was doing it off the top of my head, which would have been amazing.
Did you have the timing worked out though? It lines up not completely, but it lines up a lot.
SE: I think that was take one.
BH: It was take one.
SE: She just did it.
BH: I knew what I wanted to do, and because we had edited everything together, I knew where every moment was. At the end, I knew I kind of wanted it to be like a vamp-out, because I love vamp-outs. They're my favorite. I sat down here one day and layered on some crazy guitars, and that is pretty much the song.
So, you've got this crew of musicians, what was the approach? Was it very much everyone playing together, like sit in a circle and figure stuff out? Or was it kind of piece by piece?
BH: The thing that took the most time was the drums. We spent hours on them drums.
SE: I feel like it was my fault sometimes, because I would hear her demo, and then I would want a different drum set.
BH: There's no fault in it. That's why I worked with Shawn. Shawn's got the detail-oriented mindset. So, a song like "Stay High," I did the drums on the guitar, so he sets up Nate with some chopsticks!
SE: We'd basically set up a drum set for him. He's a ripping drummer who has a sick drum set, and he kills it. So, I always felt a little bit self-conscious, because I was setting up this goofy contraption for one of the world's best drummers. I was like well, "I've set up this horrible drum set for you, and I think it might be sonically cool for this album, but I'm sorry because it's extremely difficult to play and hell on earth." He'd be like, "What the hell is this crazy shit?"
BH: And then play the shit out of it.
SE: He'd be like, "What is this?!"
BH: Every day.
SE: I don't even remember how the demo sounded, but it was something that triggered my mind.
BH: It was bopping on a guitar, an acoustic guitar.
SE: For whatever reason that made me think that it should be all snare drums. The studio we were working at is called Vox. They had a wall of snare drums, and we got out all the snare drums and set up a drum kit with just snare drums. The kick drum was a snare drum, the toms were snare drums, the snare drum was a snare drum. Everything was a snare drum. We built a drum set out of snare drums, and then he comes in and was like, "What the hell is this drum kit?"
BH: Then Shawn's like, "Here's some chopsticks to play it with."
SE: Chopsticks! [laughing]
BH: He played it with chopsticks.
SE: Yeah. That actually goes back to Sound & Color, because when we were doing it, Blake had this thing with Steve where he goes, "You've got to be quiet." I always remember dialing in drum sounds and Blake was super into getting this quiet drum sound. I thought how interesting the drums were sounding because of how quiet he was playing. And so I've taken that with me since then. You can make them sound like the biggest stadium drummer in the world, or you can make them sound like this tiny thing. But there's so much tonality to someone who's playing quietly. Sometimes by giving somebody a pair of drumsticks that are chopsticks, they are naturally going to play really quietly, even if they're slamming it in a way that they'd have no control over. Sometimes giving someone chopsticks brings out an interesting quality in the drums.
BH: It adds a lot of breath. You can have so many more details because you're not squashing it.
SE: Yeah. The room isn't choking. It's got a cool sound, you know? Kind of the only way to get it is to just either play hyper-quiet or to have a stick that is so delicate that as hard as you hit it, it's always going to give you that quality. It brings out something that wouldn't work live, but in a studio, you can play with it and screw with it. I think it did bring out something interesting, even though he wasn't stoked.
BH: He wasn't stoked, but I think he was excited to come into the studio after a while.
SE: To say he wasn't stoked is the wrong thing. I think he was intrigued, but he's a joker, you know. He's like, "Are you playing with me, or is this going to be cool?"
BH: The first day Nate came in, he had five bass drums hooked up to one bass drum. He had walked in and ordered a certain kind of kick, because he thought he was walking into a certain kind of thing. He had five bass drums going out like this and about 65 microphones all over the place, you know what I'm saying, but it works! You get the coolest drum sounds that way.
What was the five bass drum sound like?
BH: It was getting a really long decay on the bass drum.
SE: Yeah. I wanted to capture him in a lot of ways, and I thought that a lot of modern day hip-hop albums have a lot of 808 and things like that. I'm intrigued about how that sounds sonically, about how it sits on a record. There are not a lot of things that can have this extended low end and sit really deep and cool. How do you do that in the real world? Well, what if you add a bunch of kick drums in front of each other? It's obviously been done a million times, but what if you keep adding kick drums? Then you mic all of them. You always have the option of turning on different microphones, and you have a longer decay. You have a longer resonance. You can kind of recreate the idea of what an 808 does in modern-day music by adding different microphones with a very extended kick drum.
BH: It's very analog.
SE: Yeah. It's an analog way of doing something that's hyper-modern. I'm always interested in that, because you hear people pushing the limits of something sonically that's on a hip-hop record or something like that and it sounds sick obviously, because it's something that's happening in the computer.
BH: Tried and true, yeah.
SE: It's extending the frequency range in ways you never thought were imaginable. What are the ways to do that in reality and make it sound sick? I was having a fun time with that. I thought I would keep adding kick drums. When we were mixing, we could fuck with it and see at what point it's too much, you know?
BH: One of my favorite days was when we were doing "Goat Head," and Nate comes in. He's like, "What do you all got for me today?" It was just a table of cups and like a five gallon bin as the kick drum.
SE: Yeah. I think it was a suitcase?
BH: Suitcase for a kick drum with a kick pedal, and then just a tray. It was like a triangle, a cow bell turned over on its side, and then some cups. We're like, "This is going to be your drum set today."
SE: We set him up like he was a drummer in a French silent film.
BH: He rocked it though! He came in and played it like a drum set. It was crazy, and it sounds cool. That's the thing; it worked out. It sounds great. I'm always going in and thinking maybe Shawn went too far. But naw, it sounds really good. Then "History Repeats" is crazy, because all of the drums you hear Nate Smith is doing live, right?
BH: He's playing a big, giant concert bass drum. He's playing a whole beat, doing the cymbals, doing all that stuff.
SE: Everything that was in her demo, I wanted him to be playing. If it was a percussion overdub, I would set up a thing so that his part would have to be based on everything that she had done.
BH: It was an orchestrated part.
SE: I'd set up a different element for everything that was in her demo. It created these crazy drum kits. I was like, "See, this thing right here? That is dedicated to this thing in her demo." So, when he was playing, he could build the part and have all these tones that were built already into her demo. I would think it was impossible for him to play it, and he would just do it.
BH: He kept saying it was impossible, and you kept telling him to just do it!
SE: He'd go in there and he would just do it. One take, and that's what's on the record.
BH: That's a lot of work. It's a lot of work.
That song in particular, I listened to it and thought, "Okay, I've got to know what happened. They're using samples. There's no way a person played that."
BH: No. That's one take. Nate Smith is the baddest.
SE: I honestly don't think there's one sample on the record.
BH: You asked me why I worked with Shawn earlier. Attention to detail! It's also fun. We have so much fun. "Goat Head" sounds like samples, but it's not samples. No samples. No effects.
SE: It's a performance.
BH: We're speaking about "History Repeats." All those guitar parts were guitar parts that I did a couple years ago, a few years ago. I was trying to show a friend how I wrote a song, like how it worked. I was like, "Oh, you just make a track," and I made a guitar track, and then you add another track under it [singing notes]. Then you put some harmonies on it, and I kept going until it was done. Then later I was like, "I'm gonna put some vocals on it, because this is kinda funky." It has this bossa nova-like feel. I have this super cool RCA mic that I found on eBay. It's a pressure mic of some sort. It's a super weird mic. I put some vocals on it real quick, vamped out the end, and "History Repeats." That's the song.
SE: Most of that recording is your demo.
BH: All the guitar parts and the vocals too.
SE: Just the drums are redone.
BH: Drums are redone and bass is redone. That's it. That's how that one happened. "Tomorrow" was crazy though. The song "Tomorrow" was something I had that I recorded after the fact, because all the musicians had gone home. We didn't have Zac or Nate. It was me and Shawn. I was like, "Oh my god, Shawn, we forgot to track this song!" Shawn's like, "It's cool! We're going to set up some drums, and you go in there and play them a piece at a time, and we're going to get it done." As for the keys, Paul Horton, my keyboard player who played with us in the Shakes had done the original key part. I needed him to do it again but it was too late to get him out. We got Larry on it.
SE: Larry Goldings.
BH: Larry had to study it a little bit.
SE: It was a very complicated part. I had to print out some MIDI. Larry is one of the best keyboard players. If you're going to hire a session player in Los Angeles, he's the guy. He didn't have a lot of time, but we brought him around the first day and he came in, and we were like, "Here's the part!" It's so deep and so dense and so crazy.
BH: So many chords.
SE: He was like, you know what, this is not enough time. I'm going to need to come back. I was legitimately thinking that maybe this is an impossible keyboard part.
BH: It was insane, because Paul had taken a workshop from Larry Goldings!
SE: Yeah, he learned from him, so Larry Goldings is circling back. He fucking practiced this shit, printed it all out, got all of the fucking score down, the whole thing, and then he came in here and performed it like it was an orchestral session.
BH: It was insane.
SE: Hard-ass part.
BH: That song was crazy to do! It was like a dream. The Logic session was insane. I had no musicians except for Larry Goldings and I was in here trying to do the drum part. I played all the drums and we figured out how to do that. All the organ parts and stuff we kept, and then we had Larry Goldings do all the keyboard parts. Then I think I redid a bunch of the vocals. It was not normal. It's not how somebody should track a song at all.
SE: But we did it.
BH: It was so much fun doing this record. The musicians were so good. I had planned on being on this for weeks, and they showed up to do it in one or two takes. I was having to send people home. "You're done. You're done!"
SE: I was kind of feeling weird sometimes, because in sessions I'm used to asking people, "Okay, you want to do one more take?" They'd be like, "Why?" [laughs]
Did that give you a freedom to spend more time building up these strange contraption drum sets since you knew you wouldn't spend as much time actually getting the performance?
SE: I don't know if it was necessarily freedom, but I knew that [Nate] was the kind of guy who is going to play it in one take. I better have my shit together sonically before he even plays it. It was like, "Okay, what do I love out of this demo, and how do you mic it and create a contraption that represents everything that she'd already done?" When he sits down and he does it, it's going to be that. It was kind of a one-shot deal. I only have one chance to capture this. I've got to have all my ducks in a row. When he sits down and does it, I've got it.
Can we talk about the tiny greenhouse?
BH: I was like, "Okay, let me get out of Nashville, because I'm not inspired anymore by this place." I did write some stuff while I was there, like "History Repeats" and "Tomorrow." But I went to Topanga, California, to get somewhere beautiful and inspiring, and then, "Maybe I can write some more songs." I was more nervous about where am I at. What kind of music do I want to do? I'm in this little greenhouse, because that was the only space we had that I could use as a private space. I bought an air conditioner for it and stuff off of Amazon and installed it. Then this heatwave happened; this really intense heatwave. It was like 109 degrees, and I'm out in Topanga. I'm up in there and this little air conditioner is trying to cool me down. It's 104 inside this greenhouse. I'm not stupid or anything. I know it's going to be hot in a greenhouse, but I also don't care. Just remove clothing or something. What else am I supposed to do? That's what I came here for. Just do it.
At what point do you feel like the big picture of the record finally came together? Was there one?
BH: There was no big picture. I was just trying to write songs, like "Georgia." I was walking through the house and I started singing it. I was like, "Shit, that's a song!" I would run out to my little greenhouse and put it down. I'd come up with this cool, repeating keyboard thing. I'd get in that headspace real quick and had to run out there. "Stay High" was one of those songs. I had smoked a little bit of weed, and I don't really smoke weed. I don't like it, but I had, because it was legal in California, so I ordered some on the internet, you know what I mean? I got it, and I was like "Well, it's here! I gotta try some!" I go out to the little greenhouse, and I wrote "Stay High." The intention of this song is not to be like "go smoke weed." "Stay High" was more about being positive and looking for the positive things in life and stuff like that.
I feel like "He Loves Me" is a song about feeling accepted. Right? Is it?
BH: No. It's kind of like knowing you're accepted. I can answer your question like this. "He Loves Me" is a song about when I was growing up. I grew up in a religious household, and suddenly we stopped going to church. I had a lot of struggles with believing in God and religion and stuff at a really young age, like 8 years old, being like, "I don't know if God's real!" As a child. I had all these questions, and I was like, "Well, if I do this I'm bad. If I do that I'm bad. If I do all this stuff I'm bad. I don't know. Let me ask my grandma." She's like, "You need to ask the preacher." I asked the preacher, and he's like, "You've just gotta have faith!" That's the ultimate answer. After that I was like, "I don't know if this is for me," you know what I mean? I'm a tiny child. Then I went through this period where it's like, "I don't know if I need that stuff." It came around to "I do believe in some higher being, and I do have this kind of spirituality." It was about having this really long road where religion can really control you and can really shame you, or you can take the great message out of religions and make it powerful and empower you and make you a good, solid person who believes in themselves. That's what I chose to do, and that's what that song is about. He loves me even though I'm smoking blunts. He loves me even though I'm doing what I want. He loves me, yes he loves me. That's what that song's about. When I was going to Bible school and stuff as a little kid, it was [singing] "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so." That was my spin on it. He loves me no matter what I do. I don't need forgiving. That's what the song's about. "Georgia" was this declaration of being a kid, and it's kind of different nowadays. When I was growing up, being different was really bad. It sucked. We're all creative people. I'm sure we've all been through it. Just wanting to be yourself, having that yearning so bad. This is how I feel in the day to day, and I can't tell anybody how I feel, and then Georgia walks down the street, fictionally; our character Georgia. It was like, I want to tell Georgia how I feel, but I can't because I'm hanging out with all of my friends. What am I supposed to say anyways, because Georgia likes boys and all this stuff. It's kind of getting in the head of that kid character who's trying to figure out their feelings, but it's also so innocent and pure, which I think it actually feels. It's never evil, no matter what age you are. It doesn't matter who you love or what shape they were born into. It was kind of like, I want to write a song about that.
Wow! Well, you flipped how I was interpreting the song, but that's incredible. I hadn't even realized that it was a song about spirituality.
BH: That's okay. It's crazy that somebody's going to ask me why I made this record. I don't fucking know! I make records. That's what I do. That's a simple answer. I just make records. Also behind it all is just like "That's me." I don't want to be misunderstood. I don't want to be pigeonholed into being this big caricature of a reinvented soul, necessarily. I want to be me, and it's complex. It's not just one thing or another. That's why this record is so all over the place. This is all the stuff I like.
Every time I hear "Stay High," I think the same thing. It's such a beautiful message. I think over and over again that it's so important for the world to hear. Over and over and over again. I think people need to be rammed over the head with it.
BH: Yeah. It's a lesson I had to learn too. Even songs like "Presence," or a song like "Stay High." I can get so caught up in where I should be, what I should be doing, and I really miss out on the stuff that I really, really care about, like my family. Dude, just being in the moment. I forget to, because everybody's always trying to go someplace. Especially me. I'm always trying to get somewhere that I think I need to be. Or I want to take care of my family, my mom, my dad. I want to make them proud. I'm always on my way somewhere. I'm not the kind of person who stops to look around very much. So, when I wrote those songs, it was important for me to learn how to stay present, especially in my relationship. I was kind of like treating everything like they were plants. A little water here, a little water there. Everything's going to be fine. I was missing out on the really important stuff.
Can you talk a bit about the song "Baby?"
BH: Man, I got out of this breakup, and I'm going to be real with ya'll. I was trying to be as quality as possible. "I'm going to do everything I need to do and be everything that I need to be. I'm going to have emotional backbone and do all this stuff, and it's going to work out." It did not work out, okay? It wasn't my fault. It just didn't work out. I'm not really bitter about it or anything, but I am glad I wrote that song, because when I wrote that song, I realized a lot of things. If you listen to the lyrics, I tried to do everything you asked me to, be everything you asked me to be, but I wasn't actually taking care of myself. I realized a lot when I was writing that song. It was important for me to put on a record. It's not about bashing anybody. It's literally about, "I'm never going to do that again, and I can't call nobody my baby if I'm not somebody's baby, and can't nobody be my baby." How about we just be taking care of ourselves together, you know what I'm saying? That feels healthier. I'm glad I put that song on the record. "Goat Head" was crazy to do, because I had this little beat on Logic. You remember that Shawn?
BH: I showed up with this beat, like, "I don't know what to do here, but I think it's a cool beat." The actual musicians got in there and played it and thought it sounded cool. I had these thoughts about what it was like to grow up in the South. When I think about the South, I always think of the colors and the smells and the way that the air feels, because it's always humid, even in the winter. Just the way that felt. I grew up in a community that's very tight-knit, because it's a small town. We do take care of each other, but then there's a story my momma used to tell me about how when she was first dating my dad, she experienced a lot of racism from both sides. My pop too. They never talked to me about that. I think they wanted me to have my own experience. They didn't want to go ahead and be like, "Oh yeah, sometimes it's not going to be safe. People are going to look at us funny or treat you funny." They didn't. That wasn't really my experience. Now that I look back on it there were a lot of weird moments. When I was growing up as a kid, some people were assholes, you know what I mean? That's the way I thought of it. I never thought of it as racism until I heard the n-word for the first time when I was like 11. I was like "Whoa, I didn't know people still said that." I feel really grateful to my parents that they didn't set me up to automatically assume that where I lived was a racist place. Everybody thinks about Alabama as being this place that's backwards and this racist place, but that wasn't my experience. I grew up with a white family and a black family, but my experience was that of a black child. I had curly hair, and I got brown skin, and there's no way I could be confused with a white child, even though I am mixed. My experience was black. It was like a really interesting perspective that I think I had the opportunity to have. I thought it was a blessing to have the opportunity. I'm over here looking at the beautiful white side of my family, and there's nothing in their hearts that is against anybody of color. They're just people. Then the black side of my family is just people. I never thought of it as being so different, but then my mom told me the story when I was a little bit older, about 13 or 14, about how much she was up against. My father never talked to me about it. I think he was trying to protect me, me being his little girl and everything. But my mom told me the story about how one night my pops came to stay over, and he woke up the next morning, and somebody had cut off a goat's head, put it in the back of his car, and bashed all of his windshields, cut his tires and everything, just for being in the neighborhood. Just for visiting my mom. I was like, "I didn't think our town was like that." She was like, "Yeah, I went through a lot. I couldn't get no jobs because I had brown children. And anytime I'd take ya'll somewhere, people would look at me so crazy and judge me and scowl at me, say whatever they wanted to me." That was her experience. It was hard tracking that song. I instantly felt really vulnerable and embarrassed after I got through singing the words. At the very end of the song, I went in the booth and was like, "I don't know about this Shawn. I don't know if I feel right about doing this." I felt so exposed. It wasn't really my story, but that's the way it always affected me. That's what I wanted to sing about on this track, and that was what it was about. It was like, when you're a kid, you grow up and learn all your colors. Green, red, you know, whatever. Basic colors. You learn about all the foods. You're a little child, but then you're introduced to stuff that you shouldn't really know about, and that's kind of what set up that song. I know tomatoes are green, I know cotton is white. I know mama's white. I know daddy's black, but I didn't know that there should be a goat head in the back of my fucking dad's car. Learning about that at an early age and kind of skewing things a little bit...
I don't even know how to respond to that other than I'm moved. I am curious, are you saying that you didn't have lyrics written when you were working out the demo with the band and the arrangement? Did that come after?
BH: Yeah, it was just music. I write down a lot of stuff on my phone and stuff. I was scrolling, like, "What can I put on here?" We tried a few different things. I think it was on the third take I was like, "Okay... I want to vamp out on this, because I want to leave people with the image that I was left with, which is like, goat head in the back of the car." Just kind of being kind of traumatized that somebody would do that to my family. It's crazy, because my dad is so sweet, you know what I'm saying?
How about the harp on that track?
BH: I met Lavinia [Meijer] when I got to perform with one of my favorite composers, Philip Glass. I've always been obsessed with the harp. It's a classically beautiful instrument, and it has the ability to take people in and make them feel something. It has a lot of vibrations that can move somebody. I've always wanted to play harp, but harps are like $40,000, so I never got the opportunity to have a harp. I did get the opportunity to meet Lavinia. I knew ever since I met her that I would love to have her play on a record. When I was in that little garden shack in Topanga, California, I wrote a harp piece in hopes it would one day be performed by a harpist, but I didn't stop there. I was like, "Let me layer on some metal guitars and hip-hop drum beat," and that's what I did.
Can we talk about "Run to Me"?
BH: "Run To Me" is a song I wrote a really long time ago. I was cleaning my bathroom and I wasn't feeling so good. I was not in a great relationship at the time. I felt lonely. I was really singing this song to myself in a way. It was kind of a self-comfort. I was like, "Oh, let me get my laptop real quick, because I think this is good." I did the chords real quick with a little keyboard. It was terrible, but that's how I did it. Then I did vocals real quick, and I would go back and clean a little bit, and then "Oh, I have another idea for a verse." Just going back and forth. That's how it was. We pretty much kept it. We redid the synths and obviously the drums, but the vocal take is from that. I wanted to keep the vocal take. It was literally like raw laptop microphone. I turned the volume down, and I was like "Run to me," and I would go back and clean some more. "Ooh, I've got another verse." I'd go back, clean the bathroom, and come back and do a verse. It had so much passion though, because that's how I was feeling at the time. I wanted to keep those, because I can't re-sing those the way that I was feeling. That's when Shawn came in.
SE: It was tricky, because that song, just the demo, was perfect almost the way it was, except the only problem that I had was sonically. Because the way that it was recorded was so off-the-cuff, that it was like, if you put it out it might sonically hurt your ears. Just try re-singing it. Of course, she was in the moment when she did it, so it was a whole sonic journey to figure out how to make it be the performance that she had and retain all of that but not feel like it was coming off of a laptop, you know?
BH: Yeah. It was really staticky, really electronic, mechanical sounding. You can always tell when someone records directly into GarageBand.
SE: It was clearly a beautiful performance but what do I need to do to make this sound like it's as beautiful as the performance she is giving, you know? I don't care about an expensive microphone or anything like that. I want it to be grand, so that when you listen to it, it feels like it envelops and wraps around you and you feel the emotion that the person is feeling. I wanted to pull out all the emotion that she was singing.
BH: From the static, which I think is a miracle. I can't believe he did it to be honest to you, because it sounded terrible.
SE: I don't know exactly the whole situation, but it did sound like it was coming from a Napster download!
BH: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
SE: I got her to sing it again, but it was not from the moment that she sang it, so I would always rather go with something that's a performance from someone who's feeling it emotionally. A lot of times you end up with a situation where sometimes you could take something that's sonically incorrect, and you could fuck with it, and because the emotion is embedded in the DNA of the performance, you can pull that out, and it's more interesting.
BH: This album's not about being perfect. This album's actually about being imperfect and embracing it and letting it be. That's it. You made it and you move on. That's it.
SE: Yeah. That's what "Stay High" is about. That is what so many songs are about.
BH: Being imperfect and being cool with it. Seeing the beauty in it.
To me, things that are perfect are as they should be. It's not flawless, so in a way, maybe it is perfect.
SE: Yeah. Sometimes I imagine there's a sonic rainbow and you fill up the whole frequency spectrum. When you hear it, you hear the whole rainbow, and you go, "Ah, I understand! It's the whole rainbow." As a human being, you experience the whole rainbow as far as our perception goes. As far as our perception goes, it's from this color to this color, you know? There's another species that might experience 18 other colors, but for us, it's this amount of colors. When you hear an album, you listen to it and want to hear a rainbow of colors that's as far as we understand emotionally as this species. You want to hear it from this color to this color.
BH: That's why I worked with Shawn. This motherfucker's locked in. Not only to the human species, but all species. That's my boy. I don't need to be technically perfect. I don't need to know music theory. I don't need to necessarily know everything about instruments. Shawn likes to play, I like to play, and we get together and have fun. It's like when we were kids. We get together and we mess around in the studio and create.
SE: Honestly the world is like a sandbox. When you find your best friend when you're a kid, and you find your friend who knows how to play in the sandbox, and the two of you sit there and go, "This is a beautiful castle we made together," that is one of the most important things that you can possibly find. I think that finding those people in your life is the most important thing. I think that for me, Brittany is one of those people. You want to tell the rest of the world like, "Look at this castle we made!"
Was it a challenging album to mix? When you went in to mix, what were some of your goals? Did you guys talk about ultimately how you wanted things to sound, the overall aesthetic?
SE: I think that there are certain records that are easy to mix. I don't think that that's a good thing.
BH: This was not easy to mix. When we were mixing this record, I think it was really important to us to keep it true to the kind of vision of the demos and use whatever means necessary to do that. There was really no cutting corners. Nothing was really easy, but I think the thing about me and Shawn is we enjoy working really hard to get back to basics and trying to get some cool sounds. It was kind of hard, because I was bringing it in from, "I'm not a professional engineer," but I was doing stuff on Logic that I can't really recreate. It was an in-the-moment thing. I'd try to bring those in, and Shawn would doctor it and make it all fit together and then also have an aesthetic that we liked, so it was difficult doing that because it's coming from a medium of being amateur and unprofessional when recording. I think mixing the record was challenging, but it was definitely worth it, and it's definitely not going to sound like anything anybody else has.
SE: Every time I feel like it's difficult, I feel like that's when I'm working on something special. If you're working on something and feel like it's easy, no problem, then you're not pushing anything. It's like if everyone involved is searching for something that they feel emotionally and that they feel connected to, it's representing something that is beyond base level copying or something like that then you're going to have to push harder. I think that in every aspect of everything, every time I felt more connected to an album, or it's reached further, it's because you push further. I think the whole world is about that, honestly.
BH: Even creating this record, it was like, "Let me see what this does! Click on that. Ugh. Click on the next thing. Oh, that's cool. Let me start messing with these knobs. Okay, okay, cool. I found a thing. that's nice." It's all exploration and then bringing those demos into Shawn's world. You're doing the whole process over again, but it's more tangible. It's not so fake. You can connect to it more. It was super exciting doing that because everything was coming alive. It was like that thing I had when we did "Sound & Color" and I had done this whole string arrangement at the end of "Sound & Color," and it was so fake and digital-sounding. Then Rob Moose got in there and played it for real, and I literally wept. "I can't believe it's real!" That's the kind of feeling I had on this. It's a lot of work because you've got to redo everything you've already done, but it's so worth it.
SE: I mixed the drums a million times, wanting to get them a certain way. You're trying to be true to the base point, but you're trying to make it a little bit better.
BH: You really couldn't fuck with it, because even when I did the demo, it was such a tightrope. If you moved a single little anything you ruin the whole mix.
SE: Yeah, you ruin everything! It's like a recipe. "Okay, this is the amount of tomato sauce, and this is the amount of Worcestershire sauce." I'm all bringing it back to Bloody Marys. But that's the recipe. How do you make the fucking Bloody Mary better? You can't, because a Bloody Mary's already sick! You're weaving through this maze, and it's like The Shining. Jack Nicholson's chasing you and all this shit, and you want to get the last fucking perfect thing. It's really hard. I'm really glad that we went through the torture of it. Not only is it an internal torture, because personally I'm trying to match what she had already created and make it one percent more.