As she gets ready for her Clonakilty gig, Valerie June tells Ed Power why her bluesy sound shouldn’t be pigeonholed
AS A BLACK woman raised south of the Mason-Dixon Line, singer Valerie June grew up with a unique perspective on life . When she goes abroad and people ask what it’s like to be African-American and spend your childhood surrounded by bible bashers and worshippers of the Confederate flag she tells them she liked it just fine.
“Folks can be conservative or racist everywhere,” says June, 33, raised in the two-horse town of Humboldt, Tennessee. “In the South we don’t hide our feelings. They are there on the front page. Maybe that’s better. Otherwise you’re pretending to be something you’re not.”
She recounts a recent incident, which generated headlines globally, in which several women were thrown off a train in California. June understand immediately what was happening. “They were black ladies at a book club party. They were kicked off for laughing and having too much fun. They were the only coloured people there — it seemed pretty racist to me. Because it’s California, maybe the authorities were hiding it a little bit more. In the south, if someone doesn’t like you, they are pretty upfront about it. There’s no beating around the bush. To me, that’s much better. At least you know they’re not lying to your face.”
June is speaking from her adopted base of Brooklyn. The New York borough has been her headquarters for the past four years. As a purveyor of vintage roots music she has been surprised to discover the ‘old timey’ sound she champions is arguably more cherished in hipster New York than in the heartland where she came of age. Who’d have imagined she’d have to travel all the way to New York to feel like she was coming home?
“In Brooklyn, so many cultures are mixed together — you can absorb other people’s sounds very freely. In some ways it is completely different to Tennessee in others not at all. What really surprised me is the fact that it’s a real Americana hotbed. They love that stuff up here. That was a real shock to discover.”
She was born in 1982, the oldest of five children. Her father was a sometime musician and promoter of concerts (he brought artists as diverse as Prince and Bobby Womack to Tennessee). She was thus introduced to music as a business as much as an art form and has cherished memories of helping her father hang gig posters around Tennessee.
Aged 19, she departed Humboldt for Nashville, a hotbed of black music. With then husband Michael Joyner she fronted the duo Bella Sun. But it wasn’t until Bella Sun broke up (along with the marriage) that she truly found her vocation as solo artist. Relocating to New York, she started movie in independent rock circles, this influence causing her to take her music in a grittier direction.
Genre is a thorny subject for June. She has through her career been variously pigeonholed as a country singer, old timey curator and blues vocalist. While there are elements of all of the above in what she does, she chafes when critics put her in a box. If you like what you hear, why try to categorise. These are songs — not butterflies to be mounted on a cork-board and dryly scrutinised.
— Valerie June (@TheValerieJune) September 1, 2015
“I call it ‘organic moonshine roots music’,” she says, half jesting. “I find it funny when people try to put names on what I do. I’ve released any thoughts I might have apart from amusement. Some people call it blues, others soul, others country. They call call it whatever they want. Like I said, I’m going with organic moonshine roots music. Other than that, I don’t give it any consideration. What would be the point?”
She has an affinity with Ireland, where she has performed on several occasions and to where she returns next weekend for the Clonakilty International Guitar Festival.
“American and Irish roots music have common origins,” she says. “And audiences in Europe are just so enthusiastic. I played the Electric Picnic festival in Ireland once and the family that owns the house on the grounds invited me to stay. They were so welcoming and lovely. We had the entire young of a huge mansion to ourselves. It was amazing. We were pinching ourselves the entire night.”
It’s two years since June’s last record, Pushin’ Against A Stone, produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys with contributions from Booker T Jones (of Booker T and the MGs). She writes and records constantly, though a firm release date for her next album has yet to be decided upon. Working with Auerbach was hugely educational she says. He was a wiz in the studio and introduced her to a more mainstream, alternative rock audience .
“I had a really good time. I was just absorbing and learning. And because I worked with names like that, other producers want to work with me to. I went to England and worked with [Kings Of Leon/Laura Marling] producer Ethan Johns. That was fantastic. I learn wherever I can.”
Valerie June plays DeBarra’s in Clonakilty on Thursday as part of the town’s International Guitar Festival
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