Brittany Howard Taps Into the Ancestors on ‘What Now’

“It’s from the first gay club in Nashville,” Howard said. “I’m just borrowing it because the person who owns it doesn’t have tall enough ceilings.”

Howard bought the home from the singer-songwriter Vanessa Carlton and her husband, John McCauley, of the band Deer Tick. Behind the house, between an old fishing boat Howard rebuilt and an archery target shaped like a deer head — “I have strange hobbies,” she noted, walking through the backyard — was a garage that had been converted into a home studio. Howard finished recording the “What Now” demos in this comfortably disheveled space with guitars adorning the walls, a movie screen hanging from the ceiling and a sauna beside the door.

“You’ve got to have a sauna in your studio,” she said. “To sweat it out.”

A small control room was dominated by a large vintage mixing board once used to record Prince’s debut album. Howard is a huge fan, and apparently the feeling was mutual. In 2015, he invited her and the Shakes to play at Paisley Park, and joined them on guitar for “Gimme All Your Love.” One of the new songs, the dynamic, tempo-shifting “Power to Undo,” feels animated by his spirit.

“When I was making it, I was like, ‘Prince would’ve liked this,’” Howard said. The song, she explained, is about trying to leave someone who keeps coming back. “There’s a part of you that’s like, ‘I kind of do want to go back,’ and then the older, wiser part that’s like, ‘Don’t you dare.’”

“What Now” feels like a breakup album, albeit one tinged less with bitterness for her exes and more with a harsh lens turned on herself. “Out there, there’s a love waiting for me,” Howard sings on the opener, “Earth Sign,” her voice floating over spare, ethereal piano chords. “I can feel, I can’t see/But will I know when I feel it?”

Howard produced the album alongside Shawn Everett, who engineered “Jaime” and the second Shakes album, “Sound & Color.” He recalled that “Earth Sign” was a spare 30-second demo when Howard brought it into the studio.

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