It should be said from the start that Valerie June is a firecracker. Some musicians may hide behind their music, but June is a force all her own, a personality that has been missing from the scene since the demise of the superstar. Luckily, she’s also an incredible songwriter and vocalist, having recorded one of the year’s best records, Pushing Against A Stone, which is at once a breath of fresh air to roots music and a perfect touchstone on how to pay tribute to the blues and Americana of old without imitating it.
Paste: Pushing Against A Stone is this amazing record that came out of nowhere. It’s different. So, you know, great job there.
Valerie June: Ha! Thank you!
Paste: I was just talking with your tourmate, Jake Bugg. And what a perfect pairing. I see the both of you steeped in this history of music, but adding these nuances and flourishes to a heritage type of music. It almost seems like you’ve become a conduit and aggregator to introduce people to this older style.
June: I think time will tell how the music affects people and what it does and if it goes that deeply. We’re moving so fast in this viral world, but we’ll see.
Paste: There’s this time where we got away from roots-based music, blues, and with this record out there, it seems you can re-introduce people to a style that had been under the radar. And I assume, especially on tour, you yourself are still being introduced to these older musics.
June: Oh my god, I was at Amoeba music in L.A. doing an in-store, and everybody had been warning me of the trouble I would get in, that I would play my in-store and then get lost in the records. So I’m going through the country section and nothing really pops out and it’s kind of sad. I want Jimmy Rodgers on vinyl, I want the Carter Family. It was disappointing. But then I went to the blues section! I got Charlie Patton on vinyl, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and what‽ Blind Blake on vinyl. That don’t ever happen no more. I’m constantly learning. I’m constantly being inspired by the old days and taking things from the past and allowing them to lift me up where I am now.
Paste: Yeah, there’s very few of the younger class that are promoting that style and you’ve been able to do it. I mean, it’s hard to peg you in a genre, and I know you’ve had to deal with that, but that’s one of your strong points. Not only do you put out a great record, but you introduce some folks to these styles that may not have had a clue otherwise.
June: Probably not. Most people don’t dig into the past too much.
Paste: Getting into the spiritual side, and maybe this isn’t really one of those answerable questions, but why is it they feel so good to sing? I mean, I can sing a rock song and it’s great, but there is something about spirituals.
June: The spirituals, they’re forever alive. I don’t care if you’re Muslim or Christian or Buddhist or whatever your religion is, when you listen to a spiritual song and you really open your heart, you can feel it. You can feel the message of it. Just a simple story. Just break it down to a simple story and take all the religion out of it and the lessons that it leaves you is just like an Aesop’s Fable. When I read those fables I get a lesson out of it and how I want to live my life and the moral values and things of that sort, so when I listen to the spirituals and the stories, and a good song for me comes down to the story. Some are about music, and I believe that, but I’m more of a storyteller and a songwriter and so I listen to the stories all the time. When I listen to a spiritual, like this week the one that’s got me is “Prepare To Meet Thy God.” I haven’t heard “Prepare To Meet Thy God” in years, but I was in my house the other day and I needed to lean on something and I heard some beautiful voice from the past that was singing, “Careless Soul, oh heed thy warning for your life will soon be gone.” Okay, well, we’re all gonna leave here, you know what I mean? And when you hear that in a song with such passion and such spirit and such energy, I mean it still means so much to me even though, you know, I don’t go to church every Sunday and Wednesday like when I was growing up. But the spirit is there, you know what I mean? And it’s alive. It’s just as alive now as it was then. It’s changed form, but it’s alive.
Paste: You use all of those characters in your songs. When you’re singing those, do you have to embody those characters? Do you have to get in that headspace where you have to live that, because there’s a lot of dark stories in your songs, as much as promising ones, but it seems to me you would have to invoke those…
June: In a lot of ways. Sometimes. But sometimes, I can’t say when I’m singing a song that I’m in it in that way that you just described versus I’m just singing the song. I tried to do it and be in it in the way that you described, but it’s not something that I can turn on and off. It’s something that comes into my body and I feel it according to whatever, I don’t know. Today with the set that I performed, I really, really felt “Twine and Twisted,” which is on the record. I felt that song very deeply. “That everything you thought you knew was a lie twined and twisted true. Got no place in this old world, shackle bound but still I roam.” And I also felt “Workin’ Woman Blues” today. I’ve been busy and need to slow my little tail down and sit and meditate somewhere. I do my walking meditations every day, but just to sit still. Just to be in one place and just to be quiet. That’s important, too. So I got the “Workin’ Woman Blues”! Got no place in this old world. So I can personalize the songs that I sing. I write a lot of songs, but I only like to sing the ones that I can feel. Cause I got to sing them night after night.
Paste: A little bit of your backstory…so you got married at 19?
June: I did.
Paste: To a bandmate at the time, or did he become a bandmate after?
June: No, we were lovers first. I don’t marry bandmates just to go marrying bandmates.
Paste: Well, I didn’t mean it like that!
June: Yeah. I didn’t work my way through the van or anything. So, like, what happened was, we were in a band together and that came after we got married.
Paste: But when you’re working in that close of an environment with your lover, or husband as he ended up being, there is that tension, but I have to assume that all of that led to this voice, to you finding this voice of yours.
June: I think it did when I left that band, and like, the songs were still coming. I could not stop hearing voices, lyrics, but I couldn’t be playing anything. It’s kind of like being unable to speak but having a lot to say. It was like [makes a painful noise], you know? So I just did that for 10 years until it just started to come out.
Paste: How did you learn to play guitar? Did you have to go for instructions or did you just sit down and beat at it until it happened?
June: Yes. That’s what it was like.
Paste: Because you have some great guitar-playing ,and it’s really unique I guess because it’s not coming from anywhere. I’ve heard a lot of people say “when you can’t emulate someone, you’ve got to come up with it on your own.”
June: I just play to my voice, and that’s what it came down to because I tried to play, like to be structured and focused and pick up from other musicians that were in Memphis and watch their fingers and try to learn everything I could from that, but ultimately I was like, I don’t have perfect rhythm; I’m not a musician, but I hear voices and I can sing and, why don’t I just do this with my voice? This sounds good with my voices, that sounds good with my voice and just go from there. And eventually, I got 10 songs that sound good with my voice. I don’t have to be Jimi Hendrix. I just have to fit what it is to my voice.
Paste: But it’s not bad to be Jimi Hendrix.
June: I love it! I just got to work at Electric Lady!
Paste: So when you left the south for Brooklyn, you got up there during this folk resurgence. Everybody decided they were going to pick up an acoustic. You come from this actual rooted base. And there are a lot of these people, and I’m not calling all of them disingenuous, but at the same time they’re coming from a different world. They’re hearing those sounds without ever having lived it. Was there any competition or resentment in the area?
June: Not at all. I read a lot of stuff that Lomax has put out, and I’m a huge fan of Pete Seeger, and he’s a northerner! And he does excellent American, I would even say Southern-American, music. So what are we talking about here? Lomax was getting upset because all the new youngsters when we came back from Europe were coming in, and they were making this music their own. I don’t do that with the music. I listen to the old music and I let it inspire me and I let it move me and I let it be a foundation or a root to where I’m going to go. And I think the beauty of roots music and folk music is that anybody can do it. In the church that I went to, we had no choir. Everybody sang. Everybody had to do it because it was against God’s law for you to not lift your voice and sing. You had to join. You had to find your own voice and your own instrument in your voice. There were no instruments played, just your own voice. And that’s where I learned that, “hey that dude on the back row sounds good. That women up there sounds good. This one sitting right beside me sounds good.” Who am I to say that the one over there doesn’t sound good, because he probably sounds good to somebody else. It’s all relative to who it is that’s listening. I know not everybody’s going to like what I do. And some people are going to look at it in that way where it’s like, “who is this person to come and take something that’s old and try to call it new?” I don’t try to do that. I’m influenced by the old. And I think the same thing’s happening in Brooklyn with the people that are playing roots music and in LA where people are playing roots music. It’s American music. It’s our music, and it doesn’t matter who it is.