Three years ago, Brittany Howard would wake up just before sunrise five days a week, step into her uniform and work a "normal" job as a mail carrier for the United States Postal Service in Athens, Ala. In the hardscrabble days before the release of Alabama Shakes' debut album, "Boys and Girls," the singer and guitarist would finish delivering mail at sunset, change clothes, shower (if there was time) and join the band three hours away at Egan's Bar in Tuscaloosa.
"I had a day job — we all had day jobs — and being a mail carrier is not easy. It's not just hopping in a truck, going house to house, smiling faces and, 'Here you go, Mrs. Robinson. Here's your package,'" recalls Howard, 24, speaking from her home in Athens. "It was super frustrating. But then, we'd play record stores in Nashville, which was a big deal, because we left the state, because that's a place where people cared about original music."
And Nashville is a place that has welcomed the 1960s-indebted rock and soul of Alabama Shakes, which the band showcases on its Grammy-nominated album and in singles such as "Hold On," "Rise to the Sun" and "You Ain't Alone," all driven by Howard's powerhouse vocals. Howard, by contrast, does not know the pulse of South Florida and the venue where the band will perform on Dec. 4, the Fillmore Miami Beach, having been insulated for 18 months with a nonstop tour that recently paused in October.
"Art Basel? What's that?" Howard says, when asked about her plans during the largest contemporary-art gathering in the country. "I might have to quit music and make some artworks now for the rich people. I think Miami will be one of those shows where we don't know what to expect of people, and vice versa. Very push and pull."
A new album for the quintet is forthcoming ("half-finished and half-recorded, but it's like giving birth or something," Howard says). New material arrived this month in the soundtrack to "12 Years a Slave": the song "Driva Man," a cover of the 1960 jazz single by lyricist Oscar Brown and drummer Max Roach. The first 70 seconds are punched with Howard's deep vocals and sparse tambourine slapping, leading to smoldering parlor jazz.
"I'm not used to playing jazz. I've always admired it from afar," says Howard, who saw an early screening of the film. "I had just bought this record, Max Roach's 'Freedom Now Suite,' and it sounded perfect for the soundtrack. The song is about slavery, but it's really stripped down, and there's that tension in the song just like in the movie. Sounds are so loud you can hear the characters breathing, the camera's so close it's in their face. That's what this song does musically instead of visually. It was important to keep it classy."
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 4
Where: Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave.
Contact: 305-673-7300 or FillmoreMB.com