Prince: The Story of 1999 bonus feature: Brittany Howard, 'Prince always stayed true to himself'

Brittany Howard performs on 'The Late Late Show with James Corden'
Brittany Howard performing on 'The Late Late Show with James Corden' on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019. (Ella DeGea/CBS)
Play/Pause
Listen:
Brittany Howard: 'Prince always stayed true to himself'
Download MP3
| 00:09:39

While making Prince: the Story of 1999, I got a chance to talk to Brittany Howard; she's a solo artist, and she's also the frontwoman of the band Alabama Shakes. I got a chance to see Brittany play with the Alabama Shakes at Paisley Park in a moment that will go down in history because Prince walked out and played a guitar solo with them — it was incredible, so I knew I had to talk to her about that, and I also just wanted to know more about her relationship with Prince's music.

You can listen to our complete conversation using the audio player above, and read a transcript below.

Interview Transcript

BRITTANY HOWARD: Hey, Andrea! How are you doing?

ANDREA SWENSSON: I'm doing well, how are you?

Yeah, I'm good, thanks.

I actually was at Paisley Park the night that you guys played and Prince came out and soloed with you, which was such an incredible moment. I'm just really excited to talk to you.

Thank you. I'm so glad that you were there to witness that, because when I tell people that, I feel like they don't believe me!

It was one of those moments where it was so fleeting. Prince just kind of appeared, and then he just kind of disappeared.

I know. And it was such a big moment for all of us, you know?

Oh, I'm sure, yeah.

Well, cool. Let's do this. This sounds great.

So, let's start with — I'd love to hear about your memories of either hearing 1999 for the first time, or whether it was one of the singles, "Little Red Corvette" or "1999," or the album. What memories does that bring back for you?

You know, I remember being really little, and my dad — he owned a tow truck service — so he would take me in the tow truck, and we would go tow these cars. And every time Prince would come on the radio, he would turn it up and be like, "What you know about this?," and he would turn it up, and it would be "1999," or it would be "Delirious" or it would be "Little Red Corvette," something like that. And I just remember being like, "Prince is the baddest!"

I learned from a very young age that nobody can do it like Prince, and my memories are just like being a little girl and riding around with my pop and listening to the songs, and we both shared that moment of just falling in love with this artist, and knowing that he was special, and how important he was.

Oh, I love that. I love that too, because this was kind of the first time Prince was on mainstream radio, so I think a lot of people had that experience of maybe it was this album that was that window for them into Prince's world.

Yeah, and it was kind of mythical, because it was one of those things where a lot of people had problems with what he was saying, or had problems with his image or what he stood for, or, you know, — like his album — he was controversial, you know what I mean? And so it was kind of extra exciting that he was like, dangerous to listen to — or that's what we were told.

As you became a musician yourself, can you trace ways that he has influenced your career or your creativity?

Definitely. I mean, I think that he's in every part of creation that I do, just because when I look at the album credits, and look at Prince's work, it's like: Prince is playing the drums; Prince is doing the arrangements; Prince is playing the guitar. And he does all of it, and he's sharing his vision with all of us, and so when I'm making music, I always know that I can do the same thing, because he's done it. I can sit here and play all these instruments and make my vision come to life.

And I think only he could've put it together how he put it, and I feel the same way about my work, and just being uncompromising about what I want to hear and why I want to hear it. Because I think the best of the best just come in, lay on whatever they want to do — but it's kind of a different feeling when you're trying to share something so personal that you are playing all the instruments yourself, and writing and arranging all these parts. So, I mean, that's definitely an inspiration to me.

I would love you have you talk a little bit about the experience of going to Paisley Park, and what was it like meeting him after all these years of listening to his music?

I will never forget that day; it was such a last-minute thing: "Hey, can you stop by Paisley Park and do a show?" And we're like, "Uh … yes."

And I remember all the excitement and the buzz among our crew when we pulled up to Paisley Park and parked our buses. There were some rules: don't eat no meat, no cussing, no smoking, no drinking. There were some rules around. And we all had this anticipation of, "Well, are we going to meet Prince? Is that going to happen?" Because we didn't know. The kind of guy he was, he just did things whenever he felt like it. We weren't even sure if we would see him.

And then his assistant came and got us and was like, "Prince would like to meet you." And of course, we brought everybody — we had like 15 people with us — and we went through his little compound, past this purple '90s style piano that I've never seen before, and the ceiling was painted with clouds and blue sky, and we walked into the studio, and it was like these wooden halls, and we go in there, and there's Prince, and he's wearing like, all beige, and he's smaller than I thought. But he was also really cool and funny. He was quiet, but it wasn't like that kind of quiet where he was full of anxiety or bashfulness; he was just literally just like observing and listening to us speak. And he was like a funny dude. We'd have some laughs in the studio, and he was like "Yo, I want to play on this song, 'Give Me All Your Love.' I like this song. I want to come out and play on it." And I was like, "Oh my god, oh yeah! Please do that."

So he's like, "I'm going to learn it real quick — what key is it in?" I told him the key. He was like, "All right, I'm going to come out there right when y'all hit this part." OK.

And so we're going through our set, and the set was great and everything, but we had the secret: We knew that Prince was going to pop out. So we started the song, and I'm kind of panicking because I'm like, "I don't see Prince. Is he going to miss this? Is he not going to come out?" And we're like almost through the song. We get to the bridge section and I was like "Oh no, I think he missed it." And then out of nowhere, he just pops on stage, plugs in the guitar, and just starts the most epic solo — just so full of feeling — and we were jamming with him. There it was, just like that.

And then he was gone in the blink of an eye. You know, he kissed me on the cheek, and he just literally jumped off stage and just disappeared. And that was the last time I saw him, you know.

Brittany Howard performing in Minneapolis in 2015
Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes performing in Minneapolis on May 30, 2015, two days before she and her band performed at Paisley Park. (Nate Ryan | MPR)

And he called me later, before we left, just to say, "Hey, I'm going to email you, I'm going to talk to you, I hope you had a good time. I had such a good time." And I literally was like, "Prince is going to email me??"

So every day until he unfortunately passed away, I checked my email. I checked my trash folder, I checked the junk folder. I was looking for that email.

What did he want to talk to you about?

I don't know! That's the thing! I just wish I could find out, like, how he was feeling about what I do. And I wish so much that — there's so much to learn from him still. He was one of those artists [who], when he passed away, it was so shocking that it still affects me. Like, I can't believe it.

I thought it was so poignant that you chose to do a Prince cover when you were here in the Twin Cities last, and that you didn't go for one of the classics. You went for one of the new songs — and I love that song — "The Breakdown." Can you tell me about choosing that as a cover?

Yeah, I felt like that was, to me, him writing a song like that I felt told the story about how he changed from being someone that seemingly was into that party life and into the free love and all that expression, into going into, "OK, no, this is what I'm about. This is what connects me to my spiritual side and fills me, and this is where I'm at nowadays." And it was him looking back at his younger self and saying, "Yeah, I used to want to party. I used to think this is where it was at." Because I think in a lot of interviews, he doesn't really talk about that. You know, when he was an older guy, he never really talked about him partaking in all that indulgence. It was like he didn't want to talk about it. So when that song came out, that was him kind of communicating, "That's not what matters to me."

And so I related to that, too. I think everybody can relate to that because everybody changes. And so when I heard that song, that was the one that really stuck with me, and so I wanted to perform that one just because I felt so connected to that. And of course, nobody else was playing it.

Brittany Howard performing at the Palace Theatre in St Paul in 2019
Brittany Howard performing at the Palace Theatre in St. Paul, Minn., on Sept. 19, 2019. (MPR)

Right. Well, you absolutely made it your own. I thought it was just gorgeous, so I appreciate that a lot.

I have just one more question for you, and this is kind of a big general question; you can take it in any direction you want. But looking back on 1999, it came out 37 years ago. What do you think the legacy is of this album?

The legacy — I feel like it's a part of musical history now. It's a starting point to get an education about what you can do to be your most individual self, and to share that with the world by being uncompromising. Have your art be all encompassing. Have your art be your life. Have your image. Have your design. Have your music. Have your message. And [the album serves] to inspire other people not to bend when it comes to your own work.

And that's the thing I love about Prince, is he always stayed true to himself, always. And that, even 37 years later, you know, him creating a record like 1999, and him performing all of the musical instruments, and him creating that vision for us, that's always stuck with me — that you still do that in this world even today, because it still matters. It's not always about hits. It's not always about making so much money and being so famous. It was one of those things where he could do that, but it was coming from the most genuine place, which was himself. And I feel like that's the legacy that he's leaving all of us, is to stay true to why you do what you do.

I love that. Thank you. I, again, just so appreciate your taking the time, and I'm just so happy we can include you in the podcast.

Amazing! Well, thank you so much, Andrea.

Yeah, no problem. It was really nice to talk to you.

Good to talk to you too.

External Links

Brittany Howard - official site

Alabama Shakes - official site

Prince - official site

Related Stories

  • Album of the Week: Prince, '1999' Your Album of the Week is the Super Deluxe reissue of Prince's 1999. In addition to remastering Prince's original double album, 1999, the new Super Deluxe reissue of his iconic, breakthrough album includes 35 tracks from Prince's vault, making it the biggest posthumous release of his work to date.
  • Prince: The Story of 1999, Episode 3: The Idolmaker Prince: The Story of 1999 is a four-part audio documentary series brought to you by The Current in collaboration with the Prince Estate, Paisley Park, and Warner Records.
  • Prince: The Story of 1999, Episode 2: Rearrange Prince: The Story of 1999 is a four-part audio documentary series brought to you by The Current in collaboration with the Prince Estate, Paisley Park, and Warner Records.
  • Prince: The Story of 1999, Episode 1: My Mind Says Prepare to Fight Prince: The Story of 1999 is a four-part audio documentary series brought to you by The Current in collaboration with the Prince Estate, Paisley Park, and Warner Records.