Interview: Valerie June

John Morthland

By John Morthland

on 09.03.13 in Interviews

Pushin' Against A Stone

Valerie June

[To celebrate his receiving the Outstanding Contribution to Music Award from the Association of Independent Music, we invited Billy Bragg to take control of eMusic's editorial for a week. He nominated the soulful Tennessee singer/songwriter Valerie June — maker of his favorite album of 2013 — for an interview and shared his favorite albums on eMusic. Read our exclusive interview with Bragg here. — Ed.]

Youthful Tennessee native Valerie June plays a crude, but oh so endearing, guitar and banjo and sings in a one-of-a-kind voice with phrasing and intonation that embraces the wrath of Nina Simone, the cheeriness of Dolly Parton and almost everything in between. Her songs sound traditional but with a contemporary twist, and she’s the best thing to happen to Americana and roots music in quite a while. So far she’s better established in Europe than in the USA, but with the release of Pushin’ Against a Stone, her first album to receive national distribution at home, that’s about to change. You’re going to be hearing a lot about Valerie June.

What’s the first music you can remember being really moved by?

Oh, Walt Disney, I had on my Mickey Mouse ears and was going over each lyric. The one that really got me was “Bare Necessities” from The Jungle Book; that was incredible. I was about five.

When did you begin writing songs yourself?

When I moved to Memphis. My first husband was a guitar player; he played all around the house and I just made up words to the music he was playing. We split up because we were too young, straight out of high school, 18 years old, graduated and then got in the van and moved the next day. We got about six or seven songs early on in Memphis and then I said I was gonna book a show at the coffee shop where I worked. I knew at least my friends that worked there with me would show up. They’d say, “She’s crazy so at least it’ll be interesting,” and I am crazy to go into music. I did it the same way when I first starting performing alone. I got some songs so I said, “Now you’re gonna go out and play them for your friends.” So I’ve been doing it eight years now, though I never quit my day jobs until now.

For all the talk of your roots leanings, there’s such a strong, and personal, singer-songwriter element in your music.

I love singer-songwriters: Tracy Chapman, Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison…If you’ve got a story to tell I want to hear it. So it’s nice to be in the singer-songwriter world. I consider myself someone who plays an instrument but is not a musician; I’m a songwriter and singer who plays her own songs. I didn’t even realize about the singer-songwriter thing until I got older and thought I should look into it, and that’s what got me moving towards folk music. Old songbooks are a big thing to me; I have endless amounts of folksong books now. And I spent a lot of time at the Library of Congress, just listening to the old songs and all the different ways different people performed them; I really studied those songs. I also learned a lot from older musicians, like Robert Balfour in Memphis. I don’t even have much time for that now, but I love studying, and learning.

But what in particular do you think drew you in that direction?

Through music you get an idea about how it was for people who lived on plantations, or whatever was going on in their time. You hear the voices, listen to the songs and hear their energy; the songs carry the energy of the people at that time. Then you move on into your time. My album is an amalgamation of folk, blues, gospel and country and I really feel like I can sing those songs night after night. But the genre thing just kinda happens when you record them with a producer, and certain instrumentation. I think some of my songs could be done as hip hop songs, but they aren’t. At the same time, the songs are always changing. Like, on “Working Woman Blues” I worked with Hungarian musicians and when I hear it I say, “Wow, how did that happen?” I’ve never done the song anything like that before. I have no idea where this version came from, but I wouldn’t change a thing about it. Stories grow and change, and you can see how; same with my songs. When you record them, they’re like snapshots, and it’s always different no matter who I’m working with. Every time I get in a room with different musicians the songs go different ways. It’s really great.

Of all those traditional songs you studied, which is your absolute favorite?

“The Crawdad Song.” I love it. There’s so many different versions of it. It changes from one part of the world to another. People make it their own, and that’s the way it should be; they sing it their way and make it their song.