The Americana scene has steadily grown in prominence over the last decade, taking the banjo and fiddle from the fringes of popular culture and plopping it down right in the middle of the Top 40. As a genre, its influences and hallmarks have always been vast and varied. One of the brightest stars of today’s scene is 35 year-old Valerie June, a unique and captivating multi-instrumentalist making what she refers to as “organic moonshine roots music.” Her debut major label album, Pushin’ Against a Stone, was released on Concord in 2013 and she’s spent the last three years lovingly stitching together its followup, The Order of Time, which is set to be released next month. I had the chance to speak with her to discuss her musical beginnings, her unique songwriting process, and the power of musicians to blur and transcend the color line.
You were born and raised in Tennessee in what I would call a pretty musical family. How do you think those origins shaped the art that you’re making today?
Valerie June: They definitely did—especially my family, because everybody in my family sings. And I didn’t even realize how much they shaped me until my father passed away last November. When he passed, everyone was in the hospital room and we all sang until he left the earth. And it took about two hours, but we were just singing the whole time and then his spirit left. We all have been singing just around the house and in our personal lives, to the radio or in the car… whatever it might be. And growing up, we all had our own parts in the songs we’d sing when Mom and Dad took us to school or when we would go to Gram’s house or on long drives. We’d just be singing all the time. If we were all cleaning the kitchen after a dinner, we’d just be singing. So when he passed, everybody came home and we were all in the same room again and we remembered all the words to the songs we used to sing as we were growing up.
That’s such a beautiful moment to have been able to have with him.
Yeah, it was. And you know, before that moment, I wouldn’t have considered myself as someone ”from a musical family.” It was just the way we were—I didn’t even think about it. A musical family, to me, is one where everyone plays instruments and we didn’t play instruments. But now, I’ve realized that we’re quite musical!
It’s immediately clear upon hearing your work that the blues is a strong influence for you, but there are also really dominant threads of Appalachian folk and traditional country in there too. Was that variety something that was present in your home growing up, or did you seek it out as you grew as an artist?
They were all present, and it wasn’t even necessarily from my family; it was more from the community. Growing up as close to Memphis as I was to Nashville, even being in a grocery store or a restaurant or at school—wherever I was—there were so many different genres of music playing around me. And me being a sponge, of course I was curious about something if it hit me and touched me and moved my heart. I was like, “What is that?! I gotta know more about it!” And if the song had an excellent story, then I was even more curious, because the story is really what gets me about songs—I love stories and messages.
As a Black woman from the Deep South, did you find the musical communities you moved within as a young artist to be segregated at all? For example, many people classify country as a “white” genre. Did those assumptions bear themselves out while you were building your career? Or did you find that those divisions didn’t exist in reality?
I feel like those types of things exist more in the world of the listener. Musicians have always— even from the time of the Carter Family recording their first record—crossed the color line. A lot of those songs, they went into the Black community and got them. And vice-versa, you know? A good song translates across all colors and genres. You can sing it as a country song, you can sing it as a soul song, you can sing it as a blues song… but in the end, it’s just a good song. And that’s what matters. So in the South, I’ve always found that musicians have just jumped across that line. I mean, look at Elvis! In that way, I feel like musicians are very instrumental in the changing of the world and of society and their views. I feel like what you’re saying about the listener is true, though; there are those lines that I grew up with that said things like more Black people listen to R&B than country, but it’s not like they weren’t aware of the country songs, since they were played everywhere they went. And it’s the same with what you might call a “predominantly Black” song. Think about “Whoomp There It Is”—white kids knew that song! So I think in the end, we’re trying to create lines where there are none. And I feel like music has always transcended those lines and that’s something I find really beautiful and it’s a big part of why I love it. I consider myself to be a genre-jumper because I just follow my heart. If a song comes to me and it wants to be a country song, then I let it be a country song and I don’t change that because I’m Black. I just let the songs be as great as they can, and I feel like that’s what musicians have been doing forever. Now, when it gets out in the world and how it’s marketed is a different thing. When you think back to things like “hillbilly music” and “race records,” then you see that there was a line that was created by record companies to try and sell music, but it just wasn’t real. We like good music and we really don’t care where it comes from! It can come from Japan or India and if it’s a damn good song, we’re gonna love it.
Much of your early work has a very earthy texture, both instrumentally and vocally, that you don’t see much of in modern music. Is that an outgrowth of a particular philosophy about the industry? Or were you just doing what came naturally to you?
It’s just what I gravitated towards. I just do whatever the song is calling for. You know, it’s so funny to sing a song before an instrument is involved and receive just the melody and the lyrics. And then you pick up an instrument and start to play it, and then you go into a room with musicians and have them bring their role to it. Songs change so much depending on who is in the room playing on them. I learned that a lot on the last touring cycle I did for the Pushin’ [Against a Stone] record, because I’d have a European band and a New York band and I’d play “Workin’ Woman [Blues]” in Europe and intricate things about it were different from how I played it here in New York with these musicians. Neither one was better or worse than the other—it was just a new interpretation. You can never tell someone how to play their instrument and everybody on planet Earth is going to play it their own way. I don’t care if you try to mimic it perfectly; it’s the human quality that makes it different. Everyone has a unique style and that’s why it’s so cool to be allowed to be who you are… and not just be allowed really, but demand that the world allow you to be who you are as a creator. Songs are alive and they change; the only thing I can do is try to keep it true every step of the way.
Over the years you’ve had bandmates, but what’s the situation at the moment? Are you a firmly solo act just mostly using session musicians for albums and tours?
On the current tour for 2017, I have a basic core band that I’m traveling with, but for speciality items like pedal steel, horns, fiddle, and cello, those are things that I just have to work with the musicians’ schedule on. Whoever is available… and if no one is available, then we won’t have that element but we’ll still have the core folks. I mean, I wish I could play with a 10-piece band every night—that’s the goal! I found it so beautiful to watch Sharon Jones when I opened for her, because she did it. She pulled it off and had this huge band night after night. But it just costs so much to be on the road like that.
I’ve heard tales of your deep love for your instruments. Is it true they all have names?
Yes! But they don’t actually have “real” names. The Baby is my baby ukulele banjo. I had an electric guitar named Big Red, but I’m actually gonna give Big Red away to my kids—it’s a group of school kids in Milwaukee that I work with. And then I have The Mama, who is just a Gold Tone banjo that I travel with. She’s my workhorse. I have two other banjos that are from the 1930s that are really awesome, but they don’t have names yet. One of them, Ry Cooder gave me, but I would never put it on the road because it is so beautiful. The other I got for my birthday last year.
Is there one called The Stranger or am I making that up?
Oh yeah! The Stranger is an acoustic Martin guitar and actually, The Stranger was injured last year on a flight, so the one I’m playing now is a loaner that they sent me. I’m hoping that they’re gonna be able to somehow repair it for me. It was pretty tragic to open the case and find that; I was in tears!
You’ve got a new record, your second on a major label, dropping just a week after your New Orleans show. The single, “Astral Plane” is somewhat of a departure from what we saw on Pushin’ Against a Stone. With three years in between the records, I can only imagine what sorts of personal and professional transformations you’ve been through. Does this record feel to you like a major evolution or a turning point? Or is it more about what you said before—just letting the songs go in whatever direction they want to?
I’m just honoring the songs. It feels like no comparison to anything else I’ve done. Each individual thing that I do is separate within itself and the challenge for me is always how to bring it together in a thematic way that translates to the crowd. In the same way that back in the day, they had to figure out how to get the “Black” music or “white” music out into the world, so they created labels. I have to do that in some sense, as I’m looking at all these songs that came over the course of twelve years and they don’t really fit as one big package. They came in different times of my life when I was feeling different things and in different places. How do I take those songs and put a theme on them? So when I was going to arrange the songs by sequence and name this record, those things were real challenges for me! Because I don’t deal that way; I don’t write that way. I just get the song and I write it. And I don’t judge it or try to fit it anywhere… I’m a servant of the song. So when I have to sit down and figure out how songs will flow from track 1 to track 12, that’s really hard, when all I want to do is sit down and say to the world “well these are some songs that I have written that I wanna share with you and I’m gonna call it… something!” [laughs]
So I’m assuming we’re going to hear a healthy chunk of the new record at your New Orleans show?
Oh yeah! I’m so playing it and it’s exciting because it’ll happen before the record comes out so y’all get a sneak peek.
Songs are alive and they change; the only thing I can do is try to keep it true every step of the way.
You know, I’m sitting here trying to make a list of covers that I feel like I can do. It is so hard! I really wanna do some, but I find it difficult because any covers I would do are by someone I seriously respect and I respect the work so much that I think to myself, “Why am I even trying to touch this? It’s so good and it doesn’t need any of me on it!” [laughs]
Who would be your ideal artists to cover?
I really love Nico and if I were to cover something, I’d like to cover one of her songs. I love Stevie Nicks. I mean, I just love voices, so anything that has a very distinctive voice appeals to me. Of course Joanna Newsom—I mean, what a wild voice. But who could ever cover that when she’s so great and individualistic? This is why I can’t really cover anything modern and I just go back to the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s and find something there! But I do want to cover something a little more adventurous, so maybe on this tour.
We’ll look forward to it! One last fun question that I always ask musicians from the South (I’m doing a super unscientific poll). Sugar in cornbread—yes or no?
If it’s for someone else, then yes. If it’s for me, then no because I’m diabetic so I gotta watch it! Cornbread to me is such a treat. I had people over for New Year’s Day and made a big pot of black eyed peas and two different types of cornbread and, because it wasn’t for me, I put a shitload of sugar up in there!
Valerie June will be at Republic on Thursday, March 2nd with Australian duo Oh Pep! opening. For more info check out valeriejune.com