Alabama Shakes' Boys & Girls was among the most soulful and celebrated debuts of 2012, yet few anticipated the degree to which frontwoman Brittany Howard and her Southern cohorts would up the ante on Sound & Color. The band's evolution earned four 58th GRAMMY nominations, including Album Of The Year and Best Alternative Music Album.
With a spacious and evocative sound that defies genre barriers, Alabama Shakes' Sound & Color was written and recorded over the course of a year, during which time Howard would hole up in her basement with a stash of granola bars for 12-hour songwriting marathons. Most of the songs were recorded during four two-week sessions at Sound Emporium in Nashville, Tenn., followed by a final recording and mixing session at Ocean Way Recording in Los Angeles. The process included recording furnace vibrations, therapeutic coloring books and escaping into a world of one's own creativity.
Following, Howard and other key participants behind the chart-topping collection give the inside story of Alabama Shakes' Sound & Color.
Brittany Howard (artist/co-producer): Instead of saying this record is really, really different, I would just say it's more evolved. Recording a Boys & Girls Part 2 would have been really boring for me. We'd had plenty of time to learn more, to learn different types of music, and of course our tastes are always growing. So this record was half looking forward and half looking back. It was like, "I've always wanted to do this. I've always wanted a vibraphone, I've always wanted to arrange a string section." But I can only play a few instruments, so when I was doing a demo for a song like "Gemini," everything was on keyboards. And then we'd go into the studio and have to figure out how to map that across the band.
Shawn Everett (engineer/mixer): I always loved "Gemini" a lot. In the initial demo Brittany had this insane digital harmony on her voice and it made her sound like a god. She already sounds like a god, so it was like a god times two. We tried to approximate that effect in our version as well. I also love the crazy guitar that keeps appearing out of nowhere on that song.
Blake Mills (co-producer): Generally the band felt that their wide range of influences weren’t necessarily making their way into their own music. Their sound previous to this record felt like an attempt to capture the live sound of the band, like you might approach recording an orchestra. Many of the records they love don't sound like a recording of an artist's rehearsal, but rather an attempt to transport their listeners to a world of their own making.
Howard: I was definitely making it up as I went along. I was like, "OK, there's four days before we go into the studio. How many songs do I have ready?" Sometimes it'd be two and sometimes it'd be none. And that's when I'd go down to my basement and just keep writing songs without taking a break. I've worked on [my basement] a lot, but there's still a bat that lives in there, and there's a little mouse family. So I wasn't lonely.
Rob Moose (string arranger): The main challenge we faced was to not make [the album] feel like "Alabama Shakes plus strings." The idea was certainly not to have bells and whistles, or something that just sounds expensive, or even to play a huge role in the emotional expression of the record, as strings can do. It was really "detail work" that we wanted to do, and I'm proud of some of the touches, especially the ones that most listeners wouldn't know are strings.
Everett: In addition to Rob Moose's incredible string parts, there are several moments in which you think you're hearing strings but it's actually furnace vibrations or other strange acoustic sounds rattling. The individual frequencies have been melted and distorted into sounding like a string section or some other otherworldly texture.
Howard: When you're in the studio, you might be listening to someone hit a snare drum for about an hour and a half. So while that's going on, we're doing coloring books — you know, adult coloring books, not children's coloring, not The Lion King — and we're doing art, and we'll sit in the lounge writing country songs. And sometimes, before the session would start, we'd go in there and record country songs. Then Blake would come in and we'd be, "OK, back to work!"
Mario Hugo (art designer/video producer): The label had me come in and listen to the new music, and I was taken by it right away. It was very visual, enigmatic and spacey, but also honest and raw. And challenging as well. I listened to the final mixes through the entire design process, which is exceedingly rare. I can say that Sound & Color was, musically, one of my favorite albums to work on.
Mills: I think it's very unusual these days to find a majorly successful band who can be this fearless in challenging their audience. We dumbed nothing down, no one seemed to second guess their convictions and their fans have really stepped up to the plate and supported that bravery.
Moose: The band had some friends visiting the studio and they cooked a southern feast, which was actually amazing. I've never seen home-cooked food in the studio, and the vibe that day kind of summed up the soulful, down-to-earth qualities of the band for me.
Howard: We're just a normal group of people who believe in writing and making something. And honestly, it was truly from a point of having fun. It wasn't to get famous or anything like that. We wanted to play gigs, that was our goal, but we didn't have anywhere to gig. So it's crazy now that we're nominated for [an Album Of The Year] GRAMMY. It's remarkable and really divine, I think. But we also worked really, really hard to get here. And I won't let something like this make me relax.
Bill Forman is a writer and music editor for the Colorado Springs Independent and the former publications director for The Recording Academy.
Tune in to the 58th Annual GRAMMY Awards live from Staples Center in Los Angeles on Monday, Feb. 15 at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on CBS.