Before her alt-rock act Alabama Shakes became an overnight sensation with their 2012 debut Boys & Girls, lead vocalist and guitarist Brittany Howard was a mail carrier in the band’s namesake state.
Now riding the success of sophomore full-length Sound & Color – which is up for four Grammys, including Album of the Year, at next month’s show – Howard opens up to PEOPLE about their journey from eclectic Athens, Alabama, band to globetrotting rockers.
“It’s funny, I never wanted to be a singer – but I always wanted to be in a band,” Howard tells PEOPLE.
Now 28, Howard was inspired to get into music when she saw one of her future bandmates rocking out when she was younger.
“When I was 11, [our guitarist Heath Fogg] was in a band. One night they had a concert in the school’s gym, and all these kids were cheering them on and dancing, and I was like, ‘I could totally do that,'” Howard recalls.
As she got older and learned to play music, Howard started recording with Shakes bassist Zac Cockrell, but she always wanted Fogg to join their crew. Serendipitously, “He actually got a hold of one of our demos through a friend, and he was like, ‘Oh, I should help this band out.’ And he came to us.”
For more on Brittany Howard’s journey with Alabama Shakes, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now.
Fast-forward to 2016, and the band – rounded out by keyboardist Ben Tanner and drummer Steve Johnson – has seven Grammy nominations to their name, having scored three nods with their debut set.
As for the type of art Howard wants to produce? Despite the Janis Joplin comparisons – likely drawn because of Howard’s killer wail and electric stage presence – the Shakes’ leading lady hopes to leave an impact similar to other icons, Prince and David Bowie.
“When I think of my heroes, they live to create. The only thing that I want to do is keep that wonder within myself,” says Howard.
And while she hasn’t met her personal icons, she has shared the stage with one Paul McCartney, joining him onstage to perform “Get Back” at Chicago’s Lollapalooza music festival in August. She kept her cool, but she sure impressed her grandmother with the story.
“When my grandma asked me about it, I was just like, ‘He’s just a really nice guy,’ and me being so nonchalant really freaked her out! But he’s really good at disarming you and making you forget that he’s a Beatle. It was surreal.”
The Grammys air Monday, Feb. 15 at 8 p.m. ET on CBS.