The Story Behind The Song: The improvisational process of Alabama Shakes’ ‘Hold On’

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“Bless my heart, bless my soul. Didn’t think I’d make it to 22 years old,” sings the soulful voice of Brittany Howard on ‘Hold On’. During the overbearingly stale landscape that threatened to kill eclecticism’s mainstream appeal once and for all, Alabama Shakes seemingly came out of nowhere with the ghost of an other-worldly reincarnation of 1960s rhythm and blues.

The paradox of ‘Hold On’ is that it adorns the dressing of old-soul sensibilities delivered through Howard’s young 20-something vocals. Some of the greatest vocalists of all time are the ones who yield timelessness. Still, Howard’s performance on this particular track is rich and sultry, almost like a more delectable reincarnation of all of our favourite folk and soul musicians combined.

The band’s debut album, Boys & Girls, was a significant revitaliser of Southern soul with the added appeal of modern rawness and authenticity. This wasn’t just an album that would resonate with soul lovers. It was an accessible affair that had mainstream appeal without reverting to tackiness. The explosiveness of Howard’s vocals holds such brevity that it’s difficult to imagine them not coming as a natural attachment to the instrumental arrangements.

In the case of ‘Hold On’, it actually unfolded a little differently. The night that the song first came together, all they had was the riff created by band members Heath Fogg and Zac Cockrell. Howard hadn’t crafted the lyrics yet until one night, she asked them to start playing the riff before performing a set at The Brick in Decatur.

That night, prior to their set, Howard told Fogg and Cockrell to “just start playing it, and I’ll make up words on the spot.” And so, the two began playing the riff, unsure how it was going to pan out when Howard suddenly came in with a handful of poignant lyrics, not too dissimilar from the ones that you hear on the recorded version. “That’s where the song came from,” she told American Songwriter.

During the set, Howard also recalled that the piece revealed it to be “a good night for dancing.” When they started playing it, “I just came up with some words,” she said, adding that she entertained “whatever was on my mind, and that came out.” The thought of going on stage without any prepared lyrics may seem frightening to most musicians, but that night, Brittany demonstrated world-class musical creativity.

The lyrics to ‘Hold On’ may appear bleak as Howard sings about the surprise of growth, but she once explained that this wasn’t the central meaning of her improvised musings at all. Discussing the track, she told NME that the first line represents “when you’re younger and you can’t imagine yourself ever being grown.”

She also didn’t like her job or where she was living, which made her realise, “I didn’t like the way my world was.” As a result, ‘Hold On’ may have come together during one fleeting moment in the spotlight, but it tapped into something a lot more enduring. “You’re holding on, but at the same time, you’re tired of waiting for things to get better. Why have you always got to want something better?” Howard said.

Boys & Girls held a lot of secrets to Howard’s intricate mind, but ‘Hold On’ was perhaps the pinnacle of her thunderous artistic expression and unwavering dedication to the art. Not only is the song simplistic in every aspect, but it came together in a remarkably humble and natural way, the kind that is indicative only of the greats.

Listen to ‘Hold On’ by Alabama Shakes below.

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