Home » ‘Modern Love Podcast’: Brittany Howard Sings Through the Pangs of New Love

‘Modern Love Podcast’: Brittany Howard Sings Through the Pangs of New Love

by Marko Florentino
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This transcript was created using speech recognition software. While it has been reviewed by human transcribers, it may contain errors. Please review the episode audio before quoting from this transcript and email transcripts@nytimes.com with any questions.

archived recording 1

Love now and always.

archived recording 2

Did you fall in love?

archived recording 3

Tell her i love her.

archived recording 4

Love is stronger than anything.

archived recording 5

For the love.

archived recording 6


archived recording 7

And I love you more than anything.

archived recording 8

(SINGING) What is love?

archived recording 9

Here’s to love.

archived recording 10


anna martin

From “The New York Times,” I’m Anna Martin. This is “Modern Love,” and we’re continuing on with our anniversary series, celebrating 20 years of “Modern Love” with our favorite artists. Today, I’m talking to an artist I’ve followed for years — five-time Grammy Award-winning musician, Brittany Howard.

[alabama shakes, “don’t wanna fight”]

My life, your life

Don’t cross them lines

anna martin

I was first introduced to Brittany’s music right as I was graduating high school. I was driving around with my friends, and someone put on an Alabama Shakes song, and I remember grabbing their phone. I had to see who was singing. I couldn’t believe the voice I was hearing.

[alabama shakes, “hold on”]

You got to get back up

You’ve got to hold on

anna martin

The angst and the power and the grit and the range of her belt — it makes you feel something. And now, nearly 10 years later, Brittany has put out two solo albums. Her first was dedicated to her older sister, who passed away at a young age. It’s called “Jamie,” it came out in 2019, and it’s absolutely gorgeous. And her new album, “What Now,” came out earlier this year.

[brittany howard, “samson”]

I’m living in the future

I’m trying to avoid you

anna martin

When I listen to “What Now,” I get that same feeling I got in the car almost a decade ago — awe at her voice, her presence, and her ability to tell stories about heartbreak and healing. Today, Brittany reads a “Modern Love” essay about that journey, from fear and pain to love and real connection.

Brittany Howard, welcome to “Modern Love.”

brittany howard

Thank you so much. I’m so excited to be here.

anna martin

So I have seen quite a few interviews where you mention fishing. There are some interviews where you even go fishing. So I have to say straight off the bat, I apologize we’re not doing this interview in a boat. I feel like it would have been much more fun for you.

brittany howard

I would have been distracted. This is perfect.

anna martin

Yeah, you couldn’t have focused on the question, just on the fish. Can you tell me a little bit about how long you’ve been fishing for?

brittany howard

Oh, yeah. So I’ve been fishing since I was three years old. My family — that’s what we used to go and do, like as a family activity. It’s pretty much free, low-cost, and we’d go cat-fishing. Yeah.

anna martin

Do you remember the first time you caught a fish? Can you describe that feeling if you remember it?

brittany howard

Yeah. First fish I caught — I don’t know. I was little, maybe five. And we were just fishing off the Tennessee River, and I remember caught a brim. It was just like a little fish, you know. And I was terrified. Absolutely terrified. I didn’t like the worms. I had got a hook in my finger.

anna martin

So what did you do? Did you — did you throw it back in, or was that dinner?

brittany howard

Oh, I was screaming. I was crying. I gave it to my dad, and I was like, get rid of it.

anna martin

I don’t want to see that. I’m very proud, but I do not want to look at it. I get that. It sounds like, though, that you’ve moved on from that fear. You’re no longer afraid when you catch a fish?

brittany howard

It depends on the fish, but mostly no.

anna martin

[LAUGHS]: Can I ask you, do you see any connections between fishing and making music? Are those present for you?

brittany howard

Oh, for sure. I mean, I feel like an idea is a lot like a fish. You got to show up to the water like you got to show up to your instruments, show up to the table. Just like writing anything, you just got to show up.

First things first. And then you got to stay with it. You can’t just throw your line in the water, and you don’t catch anything for hours so you leave. You got to sit there and stay with it. And then sometimes you catch a good idea, and then you got to work on that idea and reel it in, so to speak.

anna martin

OK, I love that. The “Modern Love” essay you’re about to read is not about fishing. But now that I think about it, there are some resonances between what we’ve been talking about and the author’s story.

You spoke about overcoming a fear of catching a big fish. And the author of the essay also overcomes a fear, but a very different one. The essay is called “Was She Just Another Nicely Packaged Pain Delivery System?” And it’s by Judith Fetterley. Brittany, what stuck out to you about this essay?

brittany howard

With this essay, I think the thing that I could relate to the most is that feeling of having a crush and falling in love again and saying to yourself, oh, no, this is wonderful.

anna martin

Saying to yourself, oh, no, this is wonderful. That’s perfect, because it’s kind of dread, but it’s also, like, joy. It’s a combo. Oh, no, this is wonderful.

brittany howard

Exactly. Yeah. That got me. I can relate to that.

anna martin

Mm. Let’s have you read it whenever you’re ready.

brittany howard

This is “Was She Just Another Nicely Packaged Pain Delivery System,” by Judith Fetterley. “I was 67. She was 67. Knowing as much as she did about white wine, she had not joined the class until the talk turned to reds.

I had been there through the talk about whites and the sessions on bubbles. Now, I was ready for red. I had joined the class to help an ailing and mostly housebound friend who needed stimulation, thinking the outings would be good for her. But on this night, my friend was sick. So I went alone.

After entering the school building where the class was held, I became lost within seconds. I wandered, becoming more and more distressed at every false turn, looking for but not finding the room where the wine class was held. And then, I saw her, this gorgeous woman, beautifully dressed in a stylish raincoat and elegant boots, striding down the hallway, purposeful, sure of herself, her short white hair spiked with purple.

I felt certain she was headed to the wine class, so I stopped her to get directions. She told me which right, then left, then right to take. She said, you don’t remember me, do you? Sarah, I said, suddenly recognizing her as someone I had met years before at a party. She ducked into the restroom, and I followed her perfect directions to the classroom.

After the teachers talked, the class dispersed to a local wine shop for pallets on instruction. Sarah and I connected as we tasted, discovering our mutual love of red wine, of opera, of late-night movies and gardens. The class ended, but Sarah and I continued to meet for the occasional dinner and coffee.

We even talked about seeing an opera in New York when the Met opened in the season and fall. One afternoon, when we had agreed to meet, Sarah was late. I was in a coffee house, looking out the window eagerly.

I thought I saw her coming, and my heart rose. I realized it was not her, and my heart sank. Such excitement followed by such disappointment. What could it mean? Only one thing.

I woke up to the fact that I was falling in love. I was terrified. I did not consider myself to be a candidate for love. I was damaged goods, discarded some years earlier by my partner of 17 years who left me for a younger woman.

Judy, cried my friend when we heard of the betrayal. It’s as bad as a man. I had gotten a message. I wasn’t lovable and didn’t deserve to be treated well. From the carnage, I had also deciphered another message.

I had trusted her completely and been utterly mistaken. I thought I knew who would be faithful and true. Wrong. I thought I knew who would be good for me and to me. Wrong again. I thought I was a person capable of keeping a long-term relationship going. Again, wrong.

In the matter of intimate relationships, it was obvious that I couldn’t be trusted to choose wisely or well. My forays into the world of match.com and Lesbian Love Finder had only reinforced my sense that intimate relationships were no longer possible for me. If I felt even the slightest stirring of attraction, I flinched, convinced I had encountered yet another nicely packaged pain delivery system. I couldn’t trust others, and I couldn’t trust myself.

Since my first summer camp, I had been in love with someone. Now in my seventh decade, I look on love as a danger zone and felt safer being alone, prepared to live in the land of lost loves for the rest of my life. I had glimpsed this land some years before in a painting hanging in the dining room of a bed and breakfast in Stratford, Ontario.

As I sat eating breakfast, I looked up to see a painting of a large and gloomy scene of the Alberta prairie, field brown and sky gray. In the middle of the field was a tree stump with an ax embedded in it. At the edge of the painting stood a rooster, gazing at the stump. Does this painting have a title? I asked our host.

Lost loves, he said. The land of lost loves, no hands left, stretched before me as well.

But then I met Sarah, and Sarah was different. I never met a person of such integrity. This attracted me, as did the way she scrunched up her face when she laughed and the slight Southern accent I could hear when she talked about Ida Reds, the only apples she would use for making applesauce.

I wanted to propose that we move into a more intimate connection. But I feared acceptance almost as much as rejection, sure that my brittle body would break into hundreds of tiny pieces if I ever touched someone again as a lover. Besides, what if I were to propose a more intimate connection and she wasn’t interested? Would I lose her as a friend? I did not want to offend her.

I began to identify with the good man in Jane Austen’s novels, the one who would never put a lady in the awkward position of having to reject him if she did not want to return his affection. So he never approached anyone until he was certain his affection would be returned. Since ladies, however, were trained never to show their affections until approached by a man, courtship proved to be a difficult dance indeed.

My own dance was equally difficult. I searched for signs that Sarah might share my feelings so that I might speak of my growing affection for her.

We spent a delicious afternoon visiting a garden in Beacon, New York. Halfway through our tour, we found a tree house and climbed into it, then laid down on the benches to rest. In that intimate and somewhat romantic setting, I made a stab at relationship talk.

Sarah, who would you say has been the love of your life? Why, she said in a slight drawl, I guess I would have to say my cat Bo. She scrunched up her eyes, this time to stifle a laugh. I wanted to say, try me! But I didn’t dare.

Inwardly, I churned. Outwardly, I obsessed. I asked friends with whom we socialized if they thought Sarah might have a romantic interest in me. No one could find any sign of her feelings towards me, positive or negative. Of course. Sarah was also channeling Mr. Knightley.

We were at an impasse. Sharing my frustration with my very best friend, who had heard it all before many times, I provoked her into venting. One of you, she announced, is going to have to do something. It’s getting boring. Butch up, baby, and tell her how you feel.

I began to write a letter to Sarah. I told her of my admiration for her, of my attraction to her, of my interest in exploring a romantic relationship with her. I asked if she might share that interest. I wrote and rewrote, and friends read and reread. And then I wrote some more.

I wanted to be clear about my feelings, but I had to give her a graceful way to refuse my invitation. Finally, more than a year and a half after that evening in the red wine class, I put the letter in the mail, drove to the airport, and flew to Milwaukee to visit my brother.

Jangled did not begin to describe the state of my nerves, as I contemplated the possible consequences of having spoken.

Doing some simple yoga stretches the first morning of my visit in an effort to manage my stress, I heard a pop in my lower back. I was flooded with pain, and then realized I couldn’t get up without help. The local urgent care center provided oxycodone and the advice to get an MRI as soon as I got home.

When Sarah called that evening to say yes, I was delirious in more ways than one. I did not expect to find love again, and certainly not so late in life. Experts on aging trumpet falling as our greatest danger. But what about the danger of not falling?

Of course, my skin will go to bumps and scabs and brown spots, and of course, my hands will cramp with arthritis. But if they are clasped by Sarah’s own, I can face whatever comes.”

anna martin


brittany howard


anna martin

Such a cutie! Isn’t Judith is such a cutie?

brittany howard

Yeah. I love her. I don’t know who this is, but I love her.

anna martin

Even more love from Brittany Howard, after the break.

So Brittany, you just read Judith Fetterley’s very cute “Modern Love” essay. Did anything about Judith’s story resonate with you personally?

brittany howard

Well, like, for me, personally, I don’t know enough stories about older lesbian couples. Growing up, that wasn’t in the media. We didn’t have access to it.

And so immediately, hearing a 67-year-old woman experiencing the same feelings that we feel as young women, I was just like, wow. I guess I always imagined somebody who is 67 would have more wisdom than me about love. But at the end of the day, we’re all having the same experience.

anna martin

I love what you’re saying. And it’s like you never figure it out. I truly believe that no matter if you’re nine years old with your first crush or 67 looking to fall in love again with a cute woman in your wine class, we just don’t know how to do it. It’s so — it’s beautiful, and it’s frustrating.

brittany howard

Right. And that really makes me want to root for Judith. I am rooting for them, wherever they are right now. I hope you’re so happy.

anna martin

Oh, we hope you’re still happy, and we hope you’re still together. But if not, I hope you’ve made peace and feel great in your life.

brittany howard

Yeah, both is fine.

anna martin

[LAUGHS]: Both is totally fine, Judith, wherever you are. So Brittany, this essay opens up with the intense energy of a new crush. And on your new album, “What Now,” I feel like you kind of have the perfect song to match that frenetic, chaotic, “Do they like me? I don’t know” kind of energy. It’s a track called “Patience.” Let’s listen to it.

[brittany howard, “patience”]

How long am I supposed to wait before I tell you I love you?

How long before I’m a fool?

Walk, don’t run

That’s what they say

But I’m too excited to move slower

All I have to do is wait

But I don’t want to make the same mistakes

anna martin

Brittany, is it weird to play yourself back to you? Like, is that strange? I just realized, I’m loving it, but is it strange for you?

brittany howard

Nah, I’m over here jamming.

anna martin

Really? So am I. My god, it’s so good. This track in particular stuck out, because I feel like what you’re saying in the lyrics is this sort of more mature version of the new crush feeling.

I hear the lyrics as, like, I want to tell you I like you, but I’ve been through so much. I have so much history, and that experience makes me feel very scared. Is that what you were trying to convey in this song?

brittany howard

Yeah, it’s definitely fear-based. And it’s like, oh, my god, I’m feeling these feelings again. Doom, doom, doom, doom, doom. Terror.

anna martin

“Terror.” OK, wait. That is such a strong word that we don’t normally associate with a new crush. Tell me why you wanted to dig into that fear in this song.

brittany howard

Yeah. I think it’s something about being older, being more experienced in love, and finding yourself having this crush and falling in love with someone again, idealizing someone, and then fantasizing about what it will be like, and all of these emotions in your heart. And then, there’s also this fear.

It can be a little scary. Because you’re like, well, I’ve been here before. What’s going to be different this time? And so you’re trying to hang on to your senses. But then, the dopamine floods your brain, and you’re just down the river.

anna martin

Mm. And that’s actually exactly where we find Judith, the author of this essay. She is so far down the river. She’s crushing hard on the woman in her wine class. And then at the end of the essay — I love this — she actually sends that letter to her crush, telling her exactly how she feels. And it’s such a brave move, but it’s also so risky, right?

brittany howard

Absolutely. In fact, I think she flew to — what was it — Milwaukee? She flew to another state.

anna martin

It was so risky that she was like, I got to get out of town.

brittany howard

(LAUGHING) Yeah. So it was the ultimate risk. Yeah. She had to get out of there.

anna martin

Have you done that kind of, like, risky declaration of affection before, either in text form, in letter form, in song form? Have you done this kind of thing?

brittany howard

Absolutely. Yeah. So OK, so I don’t know if you believe in astrology or whatever. I don’t know. Maybe some of your listeners —

anna martin

I’m a cancer. I just — putting that out there, I’m a cancer, in case that has anything to do with what you’re saying.

brittany howard

OK, so I’m a Libra sun, Aries rising, Cancer moon. So I’m over here just absolutely dying if I don’t send it. So I got to send it.

anna martin


brittany howard

And also, the feeling of sending that text, and then running through your house like, eee!

anna martin

I mean, it’s such a fun feeling, and it’s also kind of like the scariest feeling in the world. You know, I’m curious, you have mentioned in other interviews that you started working on “What Now” after a big breakup. How long did it take for you to get to the point of being able to say, like, OK, I can do this again? Like, I can send a text to a new person. I can run around my house and get excited. How long did it take you?

brittany howard

I mean, for me, it took a year. It took a — it took a year of being by myself and hanging out with me and kind of growing and changing myself. Because I just knew I just didn’t want to be in the same predicaments over and over again.

And I could take responsibility for who I was now, how I felt now, and what kind of partnership I was ready for. It took a while to wrap my head around things and to understand how to move forward. I had got to a point where I was like, well, I think I’m OK not being in a relationship, actually. This is kind of nice. It’s nice just getting to know people and meet new people and do whatever I want. And I think that’s when it came knocking on my door again.

anna martin

And I feel like your album, “What Now,” actually kind of traces the journey of getting to that point of being ready for love again. There’s this one song that I especially love. It’s called “Red Flags.” And it’s about that crucial stage of healing and moving on, where you’re looking back at a previous relationship and you’re seeing all of the things that you were blinded to because you were so into someone. Let’s listen to that track.

[brittany howard, “red flags”]

Head first, don’t think

Listen, what I’m feeling first

I came, I saw, unconscious

The best time that I ever had

That’s when the worst times started

I followed you and didn’t look back

I didn’t know love could feel like that

I ran right through them red flags

I ran right through them

anna martin

I feel like the lyrics are so frustrated. You’re saying, “I ran right through those red flags.” But there’s also a kind of playfulness. There are a lot of feelings in this one song. And I want to know, how did you go about fitting all of those different emotions into a single track?

brittany howard

Well, sometimes that’s how my heart feels. It’s like so many things in there, you know? And that’s just — and that’s just, like, personally. We’re not even talking about the rest of the world and how the rest of the world makes me feel. It’s just inside, really wanting to labor over having a long-term relationship, and really wanting that.

And so revisiting something that didn’t work out and revisiting why was I choosing this type of relationship. “Red Flags” is also taking accountability for a place that I stayed in. What was comfortable about being surrounded by these red flags? What was comfortable about this chaos?

And yeah, like, there is a meditative aspect to “Red Flags,” and there’s also a silliness in it, too, you know. I’m bringing in elements in that song that are channeling, kind of, this ‘50s doo-wop group. And kind of like I thought of this song as, like, you’re having this small background vocal gang of cherubs, and they’re just singing with you. And it’s like, yeah, you didn’t get it right this time, you know? And we’re on your side. You’re going to get there. Yeah. And to me, that was part of the inspiration — is like this kind of cartoony feeling of running through these flags and having a cherub gang. And you’re trying to get there. You’re trying to get to the true love, you know, at the top of the hill, the top of the mountain.

anna martin

Mm. And you know, one thing you’ve talked about that helped you get to the top of the mountain is meditation. There are actually a lot of moments in your album that feel very meditative, because you play singing bowls in between each track. It’s really lovely. Can you speak about why spirituality has become so important to you as an artist, and also just as a person?

brittany howard

Oh, absolutely. I mean, I’ll just speak on my behalf. From where I’m coming from, the world feels like it’s moving faster and faster and faster. So our brains kind of get used to running on that speed.

But then, like, to have the self-awareness to want to grow into the type of person that wants to be in the type of relationship that you want — how are we creating any space for that movement? And I think that’s where meditation enters the picture. Just slowing down, right? Just slow down. Be present.

Because once you’re in that relationship or whatever thing it is that you want or person it is that you want to be with, what then? Are you still going to move at hour and blow it? You know, you’ve got to slow down. And you’ve got to be present in it, and you have to enjoy it for what it is.

anna martin

Is there anything you say to yourself, like a daily mantra that you could share? I’m curious what — it sounds like you are so practiced in this kind of slowing down now. I wonder if there’s a phrase that you carry with you.

brittany howard

You know, there is something that I say that deeply resonates with me, which is just being grateful that I get to love in peace. And what I mean by that is, I’m not living in a war zone. Things aren’t falling apart around me. Like, things aren’t on fire.

I’m not crossing a border. I’m not being ripped away from the person I love. And to me, just saying, I’m so grateful I get to love in peace, always brings me back just this deep gratefulness.

anna martin

I’m so grateful I get to love in peace. Yeah, it feels very apt, especially for now. My final question is actually about the title of your album. “What Now” is such a big, open-ended kind of query.

And interestingly, I feel like it’s also the question that I’m left with at the end of the essay. Because the author, Judith, gets the girl, as it were. Like, her crush reciprocates her feelings.

And then as readers, we’re kind of left with the question of, What’s next? What now? So I’m hoping I can end on the question of this essay and, really, the question of your album and ask you, What now for you, Brittany?

brittany howard

What now for me? I’m going to live into that answer.

anna martin

Mm. Tell me what that means for you.

brittany howard

I’m the type of person — I like a plan. Because I know that if I can make a plan and have an end goal, then I can get there. But also, that approach means that I think I’m in control.


And I got to release that control and go with the flow of life.

Things change. I need to be adaptable. I need to trust everything that I have ever been up until this point, until now, to make correct decisions. And I do trust myself. And so when I say “live in to the answer,” sure, we can make a plan. That’s fine. We can put a goal post. But, like, realistically, you kind of got to let go a little bit and just be aware of what’s around you.

You know, things come in and out of our lives, I believe, in perfect timing. And if you just have a little awareness of the things you’ve been asking for, they’re going to answer in a way that you probably never expected. So you just got to be aware and be ready to go with that.

anna martin

Brittany, I’m picturing you saying this to me as we’re, like, slowly bobbing on the surface of a lake with our fishing poles — (LAUGHING) you know, pointed into — I can’t — I’m so calmed and actually given a lot of hope by what you’re saying. And I just feel like it would be even better if we were fishing. So again, I’m sorry that we’re not.

brittany howard

You’re saying you want to go fishing. That’s what I’m hearing.

anna martin

I think I need — I think I need to go fishing. You’re right.

brittany howard

I mean, have you ever fished before?

anna martin

No, I haven’t. I’ve crabbed. Does that count? I feel like it’s a little bit more hectic than fishing.

brittany howard

Listen, I’ve never crabbed. I don’t know. I’ve seen the TV show.

anna martin

Well, maybe I can teach you something, Brittany. Maybe I can teach you a little something about crabbing. [LAUGHS]

brittany howard

I don’t know if I like crabs. I don’t know.

anna martin

Brittany, thank you so much for this conversation. I so appreciate it.

brittany howard

Hey, thank you so much. It’s been so great to have this convo with you.

anna martin

Next week, our anniversary series continues with everyone’s favorite chef and, I think, the person with the best laugh in the world — Samin Nosrat.

samin nosrat

The only thing we can’t get more of is time. And so there was just almost this, like, overnight change in me. You know, I always joke. I’m like, oh, now, I’m fully YOLO. Like — [LAUGHS]:

anna martin

“Modern Love” is produced by Julia Botero, Christina Djossa, Reva Goldberg, Davis Land, and Emily Lang, with help from Kate LoPresti. It’s edited by our executive producer, Jen Poyant, and Paula Szuchman. The “Modern Love” theme music is by Dan Powell. Original music by Dan Powell, Pat McCusker, and Marion Lozano.

This episode was mixed by Daniel Ramirez. Our show is recorded by Maddy Masiello. Digital production by Mahima Chablani and Nell Gallogly. The “Modern Love” column is edited by Daniel Jones. Miya Lee is the editor of “Modern Love Projects.” I’m Anna Martin. Thanks for listening.

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