Valerie June Carves Her Tennessee Roots in Stone

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When Valerie June got her first big gigs and press in the U.K., journalists over there didn’t quite know what to make of her banjo playing, molasses-sweet drawl and coil of dreadlocks. To them, she seemed somehow both exotic and authentic.

Now that her album Pushin’ Against a Stone is finally out in the U.S., June’s turning heads here, too.

The sharpest marketing minds in the world couldn’t dream up the vividly varied, Southern roots-tapping, race-bridging sensibilities she’s gathered for herself. She traces her distinct sound back to the inspiration of her small-town upbringing, halfway between Memphis and Nashville, and no small amount of imagination.

CMT Edge: You’ve already worked with some of the most interesting figures in American roots music — Dan Auerbach, Ketch Secor, Luther Dickinson and others. How’d those doors open for you as an under-the-radar artist?

Valerie June: Well, when I first moved to Memphis years ago, I worked in a coffee shop, and Craig Brewer, he worked there on his movie — he was writin’ Hustle & Flow — and I served him his coffee. … He came in and sat at the same table every day, and he stayed there for six hours of my shift, sometimes even longer.

When I had my first show in Memphis, I invited him to come, and he did. He came to my second show, too. And then he did everything he could do to help me, from include me in $5 Cover to ask me to perform at different events.

When you say $5 Cover, you mean the MTV minidocumentary. Didn’t he win an Emmy for the segment on you?

Yeah, he did. So one day, when I was trying to decide if I wanted to go to art school or if I wanted to deal with music, I went over to him. I had done my first two shows and I knew that he’d been there and he was an artist, and I said, “What advice would you give me?” … He said, “You don’t have to worry about the opportunities and how to make things happen because things are gonna happen. What you’ve gotta worry about is getting your craft down.”

I feel like that was just what I needed to hear to get started on a very, very, very long journey. Because in this world where everything’s at our fingertips and everything’s immediate and “now, now, now,” there’s something to be said for having a dream and perfecting your craft.

The past [several] years of my live have been a really natural, organic kind of environment for my craft, just to be wood-shedding and to learn how to play the banjo and ukulele and guitar. And as I’ve done those things, people have started to come into my life. And they’ve been like, “Man, I really appreciate your music”– like Old Crow’s Ketch [Secor]. And Luther [Dickinson], I used to serve him coffee at the same coffee shop. I cleaned his house when I didn’t even know who he was. He was one of my cleaning clients.

The people who came to me first were the musicians, not the music business. I think that that says a lot about what I do, because when you can get musicians diggin’ it, that, to me, is a huge thing.

In the texture and timbre of your singing, I hear everything from Appalachian, old-time country sensibilities to Nina Simone or Erykah Badu-style jazz, pop and neo-soul. How’d you discover what your voice was capable of?

When I was younger, we went to church every Sunday morning and night and Wednesday. We went to Church of Christ.

I read an interview where you mentioned not having instruments in church, and I thought it must have been Church of Christ.

(laughs) Yeah, that’s where I went, for 18 years of my life, every Sunday and Wednesday.

You know how you can’t have instruments and they say, “Lift your voice to God”? Well, everybody’s singin’. People that can’t sing are singin’. … Every Sunday, 500 people just bellowing at the top of their lungs.

When I was little, I went to a predominately black Church of Christ. Then my parents moved to the country and they were like, “We’re not driving all the way across town just to go to church because we’re black, when there’s a Church of Christ right down the street.” Then we were one of the few black families.

So when I was little up to about 10 years old, I went to a church where it was more like 500 people singing from the lower part of their belly every Sunday. Then when I got older, from 10 ‘til 18, I went to a church that was mostly white people, that sing more from the top of their chest and the top of their diaphragm and more in the head.

So I just started sitting beside people and mimicking the way that they would sing and trying to see, “Where is this air coming from? How did they make that note?” I mean, I had 18 years of experience from going to church and just sitting beside different people and different races. You know, you hear children’s voices and you hear older men and young men and old women and young women and altos and tenors, bass, everything. So you learn how to use the voice as an instrument in that kind of environment.

So I think that, more than anything, helped to shape my voice into what it is.

You have lots of musical influences from before your time. Your album may be called Pushin’ Against a Stone, but it’s not like you grew up under a rock. You weren’t without access to contemporary music. I read that your dad promoted shows for Prince. How did you find your way to the old stuff?

He promoted stuff like — well, Prince was before I was born — but he did rap stuff with MC Luscious. He did [the R&B duo] K-Ci and Jojo.

So I was around that, then I was also around high school kids who liked the Dixie Chicks. I fell in love with Alison Krauss when I was in high school, because of her voice. … I was around so many different types of music. And then I fell in love with Van Morrison and John Lennon. I love, love, loved Tracy Chapman when I was really little. Tracy Chapman and Whitney Houston were my two favorites when I was growing up. I mean, I just wanted to be them so bad.

When I got older and I left the church, I was living in Memphis. If you live in Memphis, or Nashville — or pretty much anywhere, but especially one of those two cities — you’re gonna walk into a place eventually and hear some down-home, raw country-blues or some Carter Family-type singing, just straight-up old-time country music. It made me miss home. It made me miss the church. When I heard the way Sara and Maybelle Carter’s voices blended, I was just like, “Oh my god. I miss the music of the church.” I didn’t want to go back to church, but I did want to hear the music.

So I bought myself some Carter Family records. … But Mother Maybelle, [she was] playing guitar. So it just opened up a completely different side of the music that I had been listening to my whole life. From there I got into their other stuff, like with Mississippi John Hurt. It just kept spiraling. … Jimmie Rodgers, then I started listening to Hank Williams Sr. Then I started listening to Skip James and Robert Johnson. I just couldn’t stop digging into the well.

There was a time when you had to work low-paying jobs and play music on the side. Did you think you’d have to do that forever? Was that what life was like when you wrote the first song on your album, “Workin’ Woman Blues”?

I was working like John Henry, I’ll tell ya that. I was workin’ about three or four jobs, seven days a week, and playing music at night, and I was just exhausted all the time for years and years and years. Then my body went through a change and I became a diabetic. My body pretty much shut down. I could not go to work. I could not do anything. But I was still hearin’ songs. I was still hearin’ music. I heard this voice singing me [“Workin’ Woman Blues”].

First I wrote the music to that, which is very unusual for me, because I usually write lyrics first. But when the lyrics started to come, I was like, “That’s me right there.” I could totally relate to the lyrics as they fell onto the paper.

It came at a time when I could not do anything. The only thing I could do was look back at the hustle and grind that I was on, just look at everything and be like, “What was I doing that for? Why was I working so hard? Why didn’t I find more balance in my life and learn how to take care of myself better?”

There was a time when I was doing that work that I thought, “This is gonna be my life forever.” And probably I have to say “thank you” to my illness for coming into my life because otherwise, I would not have been able to tell myself that I could afford to not work. … I am very grateful that time and health and things took a turn, and they shifted me in another direction. I’m very grateful all the time.

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