Valerie June Wants to Be Set Free

Music Features Valerie June
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Valerie June Wants to Be Set Free

“Got Soul,” is the final track on The Order of Time, Valerie June’s long-awaited follow-up to her 2013 breakthrough album, Pushin’ Against a Stone. The song begins with a snappy R&B horn riff reinforced by a B3 organ, but then here comes that voice—that otherworldly, nasal soprano that sounds like no one else, that lies outside everything we’re familiar with and yet remains strangely compelling.

“I could sing you a country tune,” that voice announces. “I could play you the blues.” But she can’t be bound by either of those, because she’s “got soul, sweet soul,” and she has to follow it wherever it goes. This is not the usual artist grumbling about genres; June loves country music—and the blues too—and she has nailed both of them in the past. But right now, she’s pursuing her muse, and it’s leading her, her banjo, backing singer Norah Jones and some of the finest jazz musicians in New York down the path of one of the most genuinely joyful songs we’re likely to hear this year.

“I wrote that while we were out on the road with Pushin’ Against a Stone,” she recalls. “It came to me while I was playing the banjo, and I said, ‘Thank you,’ because the banjo needs freedom. It doesn’t have to be bluegrass; it wants to be free to go wherever it wants to get to. Horns don’t have to be jazz; they don’t have to be R&B. These instruments want to be set free, just like I want to be set free.”

June says she once got lost for hours in Oklahoma City’s American Banjo Museum, amazed that the banjo has taken so many forms and has been used in so many genres over the decades. She saw 10-string banjos, electric four-string banjos, even bass banjos. If an instrument so rooted in American history could shrug off all assumptions about how it looked and how it sounded, why not her?

June’s look is defined by the massive tangle of dreadlocks coiling like long snakes atop her head. With her high cheekbones and heavy eyelids, she can have an intimidating regal presence, but in conversation she can be as giggly, gabby and idealistic as a schoolgirl. Listening to her talk in that high, playful voice is almost as delightful as listening to her sing.

“The songs come in so many different ways,” she explains. “Often they start as a line of words that sound like my voice, and I build the music around that. Some songs I receive with the music already there. Some songs come like a chant, la-dee-dah-dee, and then they turn into words. The only requirement I have is that my music has to have soul, not soul that sounds like James Brown necessarily, but soul with a lot of spirit, a lot of bring-it-on-home, slap-me-with-it truth, no matter if it’s a country song or a blues song.”

The new album begins with “Long Lonely Road,” a song about the journey from her rural childhood in Humboldt, Tennessee, to her current life in Brooklyn. In the early verses of voice, kick drum, brushes and occasional guitar, that childhood is fondly remembered for the church services where she learned to sing and for the home-cooked biscuits she loved to eat.

“It was important to me that I grew up in the country,” she emphasizes. “I think about it all the time. It was crazy how much I was outside. You could see every single star. I’d look at the moon and talk to the stars. If I’m having trouble in my life, I still say, ‘I need to see a shooting star,’ so I’ll go home. I spent a lot of time outside, working with my family, getting rinsed off under the garden hose. But there weren’t that many creative options as there are in the city.”

As a result, “soon as I turned 18,” she “packed for grasses green,” and moved to Memphis, long before moving to New York. In the song, this transition is marked by the entrance of distorted guitar and snare-drum fills. The grasses that seemed greener on the other side of the fence often turned out to be an optical illusion. At the end of the song, however, a rural quiet returns and she confesses she’s still hoping for “brighter days.”

“After the two-year cycle of touring after Pushin’ Against a Stone,” the now 35-year-old singer recalls, “I sat in my living room and just sang, ‘It’s been a long, lonely road,’ over and over again. It was the first chance I had had to sit still and look back over my life, the first chance for it to all come out. All that cheesy stuff, when they say that life is all about the journey, how true that is. Whatever the dream looked like at the beginning, it doesn’t look like that now, because things change form as life goes by.

“You may keep the same spirit, the same intention, but you have to be okay with change and accepting of it. The road is very long, but it seems to go by so fast. That contradiction seems so strange to me. That question is a good way to start the record. When you’re on the path to a dream, if you don’t keep asking, ‘How’s the grass now?’ ‘How’s the grass now?’ you’re missing the journey.”

The journey so far has taken her to the bars and coffeehouses of Memphis, where she recorded the 2004 album, No Crystal Stair, with her then-husband Michael Joyner. They broke up; she taught herself acoustic guitar and released the 2006 solo album The Way of the Weeping Willow, the 2008 solo album Mountain of Rose Quartz and the 2010 EP Valerie June and the Tennessee Express with help from Old Crow Medicine Show. None of these self-released, poorly distributed albums found much of an audience.

All that changed, however, when The Lumineers’ engineer Kevin Augunas discovered her on the internet and connected her with The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach in 2010. June wrote some songs with Augunas and Auerbach that the two men produced; she wrote one with Booker T. Jones, and recorded another in Budapest. The whole thing made quite a splash when Pushin’ Against a Stone was finally released in 2013. She recorded the follow-up in 2015, but it’s only coming out now.

“By the time I finish one record,” she laments, “I’m ready to make another, because I’ve already written so many songs. Instead I have to sing the songs on the record, which is okay, because I choose the ones I want to sing night after night. But I see a pattern. It took three years to get Pushin’ Against a Stone out, and it took me a year and a half to get this one out. This is the process. I’m okay with it, but I hope one day I’ll be able to record a song and put it out immediately.”

June tried two different producers for this new record before she clicked with Matt Marinelli. They met at the Newport Folk Festival in 2014, where June was performing and Marinelli was working as Norah Jones’s road manager. After discovering that Marinelli was a former housemate of June’s fiddler Mazz Swift, June hired him as her own road manager (after the Jones tour was finished, of course), and he began joining her on stage as an accompanist.

“I’d ask, ‘Wait a minute, why is my road manager playing on this song?’” she remembers. “But when I started singing a song, he’d pick up an instrument and start playing a bass part or guitar part that was what I’d always heard for the song—not too much, not too little, just right. It sounded so good I got used to it. So we ended up in his studio, which has as much vintage gear as Dan did.

“We needed singing on some songs. I already had my brothers for the male voices, but we needed a woman. Matt said, ‘Why don’t we ask Norah to sing?’ She came in and did them all in one night. Later she asked me, ‘How would you like to open our West Coast dates?’ What an opportunity. Her voice meant so much to me when it came into my life in 2001, and I still loved hearing her sing live every night. She doesn’t really fit into any genre; she does them all. That’s what I do.”

But as for the final result of The Order of Time, the recent death of June’s father casts a shadow across the early part of the new album. On “Love You Once Made,” she recalls the “hot suppers on the table” and the “sunsets on the shoreline.” Over church-processional music, she bids him farewell, “You can leave knowing you did all you could.” Two songs later, over the Mississippi Hill Country blues vamp of “If And,” she notes that “Men are born strong /
Then broken down / Burdened at birth / ’Til six feet in the ground / One thing for sho’ / One thing that’s true / If and you trust and believe in your man, he’ll be good to you.”

“They’re living things, these songs,” she points out. “It’s emotional for me to sing about my father since he passed. I keep thinking about all the great times we had. I’ve been writing a lot of poems about it, but I’m never going to be able to fill that emptiness, because that space was for him. I think everyone can relate to that song, because everyone has had a love that they lost.”

The mood lifts quite dramatically on the second half of the album with a pair of incandescent love songs. On “Just in Time,” a lovely, simple folk song backed by violin and cello, June sings, “I never saw the light until you opened up the door.” Even more captivating is the jangly, Byrdsian guitar and gorgeous vocal melody of “With You,” which compares new love to a first dance. “It’s a do-si-do; it’s a toe-to-toe,” she sings. “If I should fall so deep, may it be with you.”

“That’s the prettiest song I’ve ever written,” she acknowledges. “I can’t even describe what writing it was like. I felt like I was in a new place. Unlike most of my songs, the music came first. I just started noodling with the D scale, and I began to hear the voice. It was opening a new portal of songwriting for me. The more I learn, the more doors open to songwriting. I can’t sing that song in the morning; it’s an evening song, because my voice gets higher as the day goes on.”

Playing an instrument and keeping rhythm have never come easy for her, she admits. There are people in Humboldt, she insists, who still can’t believe she’s a musician after watching her try to clap along with the other high school cheerleaders. But she’s worked hard to master these rudiments of music-making, because the two things that have always come easy for her have been singing and songwriting.

“I’ve been doing that since I was five years old,” she says. “I can’t stop. When I try to stop, it keeps coming out, like the mumbles you hear when someone puts a hand over your mouth while you’re singing. I never know where a song is going. I love that; as the words come out, I’m reading along wondering how it’s going to turn out. It’s an adventure, like, here comes another one; let’s see where this one goes.”