Putting a contemporary twist on the sounds of the south

As Valerie June gets ready for gigs in Leap and Cork City, she tells Ed Power about the influences that have fed into her music

Valerie June has lined up concerts at Connolly's of Leap and St Luke's, in Cork.

WHEN singer Valerie June was a little girl, growing up just outside Jackson, Tennessee, her father would book out-of-towners to headline local venues. In 1984, he convinced Prince to play and, though Valerie, 35, is too young to remember the concert, she understood its importance to her dad.

“If he started talking about his music past and promotion, he always brought up that gig. With Prince dying, I guess he just didn’t want to be around.

“He absolutely adored him and was shocked that he would be taken at such a relatively young age.”

Emerson Hockett died in November, after a short illness. Just before his death, June arranged for him to contribute backing vocals on ‘Shakedown’, a celebratory gospel highlight of her latest LP, The Order Of Time.

For a gravely ill man to sing in such a defiant and upbeat fashion is a moment of singular power and grace. June, who plays Connolly’s of Leap on Friday, July 14, and Live at St Luke’s, in Cork, the following evening, experiences a tingle every time she performs it.

“If I get to be 80 or 90 years old, like my grandmother, I’ll still have this recording,” she says. “It’s the only recording I have of his voice. I do have a voice message in which he tells me he loves me.

“I can’t listen to that. I can listen to this song — it’s got a positive energy. The message is about shaking off your worries.”

June has become a big name in roots music, despite an unlikely career path. She is a favourite of Michelle Obama, has supported Jake Bugg, and worked with the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach.

She had a happy, if difficult childhood. Her father, who worked in construction by day, was not a man of means and the family lived in a cinder block converted garage. It burned to the ground when June was 14, forcing them to temporarily relocate to a hotel. After Jacksonville, she moved to Nashville, forming a band with her future husband. The group, Bella Sun, become big local draws and even garnered national coverage. But Bella Sun fell apart with June’s divorce and she had to start over.

She moved to New York (she remains happily resident in Brooklyn) and her writing took on a darker, more streetwise hue. Country rock, bluegrass, and Appalachian mountain music were still an influence, but to this June was adding a more contemporary, pop sheen.

“There is never a point at which you think ‘oh, yes, this is it… I’ve arrived now.’ To be able to wake up in my apartment and play some songs — for me, that is a dream come through. I don’t have specific goals — it’s all about the journey.”

June has never quite been the artist people want her to be. An African-American songwriter from the American south, there is an expectation that she will be vocally political and that her beliefs will filter into her music. That isn’t how she sees herself.

The pressure to be political was especially apparent as she toured 2013’s Pushin’ Against A Stone. US President Donald Trump was just a ghastly punchline, as the album began to build momentum.

Yet, with the political situation in the US turning increasingly ludicrous, June — merely by dint of her background — was co-opted into the ‘War On the Orange President’.

“When I wrote those songs, the environment was completely unrecognisable from what it is now,” she says. “We lived in a different world then and I was writing a different world.”

  • Valerie June plays Connolly’s of Leap, July 14; Live at St Luke’s, July 15

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