A decade of struggle is behind Valerie June’s recent meteoric rise. By Brian Wise.
“It almost makes me want to cry because there’s so much magic in the path that I’m on.” – Valerie June
It is a long way from busking on the streets of Clarksdale, Mississippi to supporting the Rolling Stones at Hyde Park, London but Tennessee-born musician Valerie June has made that journey. But the recent success and acclaim for her album Pushin’ Against A Stone arrives after a journey that was longer and harder than it might at first appear.
It was almost exactly five years ago, in April 2009, that I first saw Valerie June playing under a small plastic gazebo on Yazoo Avenue during the annual Juke Joint Festival. It was a riveting hour of country blues. The dreadlocked June wore a simple black dress and red cowboy boots and clutched a red silk scarf as she played – and the audience around her grew larger until she had attracted the biggest crowd in the street.
My friends had glanced briefly but had been drawn to other attractions. Apart from musicians on every corner of the famous blues town, the racing pigs were in town and on one empty building block there were monkeys dressed as cowboys riding sheep dogs. (Hard to pass that up!). Had I turned right instead of left at the intersection of Yazoo and 6th my memories of that festival might have been completely different.
But it was the voice that hit me first and pinned me to the spot. Later, I likened it to Billie Holiday singing the blues and in the intervening years I have not been able to think of a better description. There is an almost simple childlike quality to the timbre and yet when she soars near soul or gospel refrains you can hear that she has lived.
This was one of those hallelujah moments that occasionally you are lucky enough to experience – like seeing Jeff Buckley, Wilco, The Old Crow Medicine Show, Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings or Trixie Whitley for the very first time. The spine-tingles and you know that you are experiencing something special.
I reckon everyone else who saw June that day felt the same thing because most people milled around afterwards to buy one of her several indie CDS that she was selling from a little suitcase or to talk to her.
She told me that she was travelling north to New York to meet and record with the Old Crow Medicine Show. A year or so later the EP Valerie June & The Tennessee Express arrived. Then she released another indie album and worked with Luther Dickinson’s project, The Wandering (which also included Shannon McNally and Amy LaVere). (In the past few years June also found time to perform with producer John Forté on a collaboration called Water Suites (on the song ‘Give Me Water’) and record with Meshell Ndegeocello on a wonderful version of the song ‘Be My Husband’ on Ndgeocello’s marvellous Nina Simone tribute).
When we catch up by phone to talk about her latest album and the forthcoming Australian tour I tell her that I was at the Juke Joint Festival in 2009.
“Guess who I saw?”
“Me, me, me!” she shouts.
When I tell her that I bought her albums there she is even more enthusiastic.
“So cool,” she says. “I just want to give you a big ol’ hug.” (Have to take a rain check on that).
Though it is only five years since that day in Clarksdale it seems a lifetime away now yet it still lives in June’s memory.
“I would say that I do remember that,” she says, “and it almost makes me want to cry because there’s so much magic in the path that I’m on. Sometimes people that don’t know what I’ve been through and what I’ve been doing all these years they think, oh Pushin’ Against A Stone, Dan Auerbach, The Black Keys, and all that.”
“And that’s great,” she continues, “but they don’t know my music in the way that somebody like you would know it – that just happened upon it, in the heat of the weather in the South, and just heard it, and got caught by the spirit of it. That’s a beautiful way to fall in love with what I’m doing. You really can get the feeling of what roots music is when you fall in love with it that way. I’m really grateful for those early days and being able to do gigs like that. You know what I mean?” (I know exactly what she means).
Valerie June Hockett was born in Jackson, Tennessee on January 10, 1982 and grew up in Humboldt, twenty miles north. It’s just about a third of the way from Memphis to Nashville. The oldest of five children she sang in her local church and learned about music from her father who was a promoter. She listened to a lot of gospel music but she also heard Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, Johnny Taylor and the Staple Singers.
“I started singing when I was a little girl,” she recalls. “At our church you cannot use instruments because they’re against God’s law, so you have to use your voice like it’s an instrument. You can’t have a choir, everybody has to sing equally and lift their voice to God. You don’t have anybody up in front of the group, being a lead singer or anything fabulous happening like what you see in films. It’s not like that at all. It is just everybody singing. They’re singing at the top of their lungs and they’re doing it the best that they can. Some people can sing and some people can’t sing.
“I learned how to sing in a very raw kind of environment, where I wasn’t ever told how to sing, I just sang. You get in where you fit in. That’s how I was raised, like 18 years of my life, every Sunday morning, every Sunday night, every Wednesday night, that’s what I went and did – I just sang.”
June moved to Memphis in 2000 and began performing in a duo with her then husband, then played in a band and later went solo after the marriage broke up, learning guitar, banjo and lap-steel, learning and developing what she calls her ‘organic moonshine roots music.’
“When I started to leave my parents’ home and move to Memphis and I started hearing some of those roots musicians and country blues artists playing some of those songs that I sang as a girl growing up. I was like, ‘Wow, they’re playing them on the guitar and it sounds so good.’ It was a really magical time for me, to fall in love with people like Mississippi John Hurt and all of the country blues artists that come out of there. I just fell in love with all of them.
“Then I also fell in love with the Appalachian folk artists who were doing those same kinds of songs that the country blues artists were doing, but they were doing them in a different light. They were singing more from the head and they were very high with their singing, while the Delta Blues would be more low … but they were all playing the same songs and sharing the same songs. I fell in love with that and I just decided that I wanted to learn more and I went to teach myself how to play guitar and different instruments and accompany myself doing roots music. I took up the guitar after I was singing. I sang in a band for about 4 or 5 years. Then the band broke up and I took up the guitar when I was in my early twenties.”
June recorded two albums in 2006 and 2008: The Way Of The Weeping Willow (recorded in an 1800s farmhouse) and Mountain of Rose & Quartz.
“Those are my bedroom recordings that I did,” she says of her early efforts. “I worked for 7 years at many jobs and I put out those records as I had time and just played at little places in the South, festivals, bars, and coffee shops, all kinds of little events.”
Then June saved her money and headed north straight after that Juke Joint Festival then back to Nashville in late 2009 to record the EP Valerie June and the Tennessee Express with The Old Crow Medicine Show.
“It’s a really sweet little record,” says June of Tennessee Express. “I only had $600 and they believed in me and wanted to help me so they recorded five songs with me. It’s just a really beautiful country record and it’s just sweet. They helped me quite a bit because I’ve sold a lot of those and that helped me to live for several years. All $600 that I put in to make a record, a little EP. After that I sold so many copies of the Tennessee Express out of the back of my trunk, and on the street, and at bars, and coffee houses, and little festivals. I still sell those. A lot of people like ‘Raindance’ and ‘Keep the Bar Open’.”
That just might be the best $600 will ever spend in her life.
“I think it was, I really do,” she agrees. “I don’t regret one penny of that. If I could get back in the studio with them I would. They’re amazing. They’re just always busy like I am nowadays.”
The work with Old Crow led to a meeting with producer Kevin Augunus who introduced her to Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, who has been developing a substantial reputation as a producer.
“I met Kevin and he asked me who I wanted to write songs with,” explains June, “and I said Gillian Welch or Dan Auerbach or M. Ward, because I like the way that they write songs in an old way but it’s in this modern world and it captures the modern times. They do a good job of taking the past and bringing it into today in a new, modern, beautiful light. He said, ‘Well, I know Dan, so let me give him a call and see if he’d be willing to work with you.’ So that’s what he did.
The new album, which was eventually to become Pushin’ Against A Stone, was paid for by a Kickstarter campaign that raised US$15,000.
“It was really interesting, I mean, it was what it was,” says June of working with Auerbach. “He has all this old vintage equipment. That was the biggest thing that he brought to the table – being able to take the old sound and record everything where it had that feeling of being from the old times, because I like listening to 1920s and ’30s music. It was very important to me that the record have this old feeling. That’s definitely there. I hear that on Black Keys records as well. I’m excited and glad that I got to working with him in that way.
“The funny thing is Dan and Kevin are both alike in that sense. If there’s any kind of old vintage microphone, or speakers, or tape machines, they will travel the world to purchase these things. They know what it means in the recording world and what it means when they’re doing what they’re doing as producers. I couldn’t have found two better people to capture the old sound that the record has.”
The resultant recording is one of the most mesmerising albums of recent years with June’s gospel, Appalachian, R&B, soul and blues influences explored beautifully. One of the special guests is Booker T Jones who plays Hammond B3 and sings on the song ‘On My Way.’ (They will be on a double bill for the Sydney and Melbourne Bluesfest sideshows).
Most important is that voice that is one of the most striking in contemporary music. But perhaps the most exciting thing about Pushin’ Against A Stone is the potential it reveals. The next few albums might harbour truly wonderful thing. One also suspects that June is on the same career trajectory as Austin blues guitarist Gary Clark Jr and that she will enjoy future huge success, including a few Grammys along the way.
Finally, in 2013 Valerie June found herself in London as one of the opening acts for the Rolling Stones’ extravaganza at Hyde Park, celebrating 50 years in the business. It was the first time they had played there since 1969, just after Brian Jones died. It’s about as far away from Clarksdale as you could get.
“At the same time there’s such a huge connection there,” notes June. “I was watching the Rolling Stones – after I performed I stuck around and watched them. On the projection screen they had people from my area – from Clarksdale and from Memphis – and they had Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters and Blind Lemon Jefferson. They had all of them projected up as they were performing.
“There you have super awesome Mick Jagger running down the catwalk with Blind Lemon Jefferson popping up behind him or Robert Johnson. I love how they honour the music of the South. They said, ‘It’s because of these guys like Robert Johnson that we do what we do. We were inspired by this music, that’s what makes us who we are today.’ That’s what he said at the show and I was just like ‘Yeah, who could say anything better than that?’ You know what I mean? It’s Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and they were just like, ‘Yeah, we love this old music and we’ve made it our own and do our version of it and this is where our inspiration comes from.’
“A lot of people don’t know Robert Johnson’s music or Blind Lemon Jefferson’s music, but they know The Rolling Stones. I think that’s really cool, how people of today, the modern artists, can make that old music they’re own and be inspired by it.”
I mention to June that if I had told her back when I saw her in Clarksdale that in just a few years time she’d be playing with The Rolling Stones she would have said that I was completely of my mind.
“Yeah, I would have,” she laughs. “I really would have. I never would have believed it. I didn’t believe it when it came in. I didn’t believe it the day of the show. I did not believe it! People can’t believe it and it’s already done. I’m like, ‘Oh my God, did I really do that? It’s crazy.”
Pushin’ Against A Stone is available through Concord Records. Valerie June is playing at Bluesfest and also doing shows in Melbourne (The Corner on April 25) and Sydney (The Factory on April 26) with Booker T Jones.