The Okayplayer Interview: Stones Don't Stand A Chance Against Valerie June
If you have not yet encountered the music of Valerie June, we recommend you clean out your basement, stock up on candles and get yer waders on. Because--although she may not be popping up in your face every 5 minutes with snapchats, factoids and controversial soundbites, the way we've come to expect from our musical heroes and heroines--when she does come through, she comes through like a force of nature, possessed of a harmonic ferocity that could surely tear down levees and erode mountains. That fierce quality to her particular mix of neo-blues, soul & folk-rock is nicely summed up in the title of her recent album Pushin' Against A Stone, which is, on the one hand, a tour-de-force of traditional musicianship of a quality that's extremely rare in this day and age --and the introduction of a thoroughly distinctive new voice on the other. Okayplayer had the chance to connect with Ms. June recently, to get a little insight on the recording of Pushin' Against A Stone, her collaborations with John Forté and others, as well as a singer's-eye view of some of the powerful live performances (particularly on Late Night With David Letterman and NPR's Tiny Desk Concert) that have commanded our attention lately. In this interview as in her media persona generally, Valerie can be be a woman of few words--but those words carry weight. Read on to take the weight:
OKP: We first heard your voice through your John Forté collaboration "Give Me Water"--can you tell us a little bit about how that came about and what the collaboration was like?
VJ: John found my music through the writer dream hampton. dream found my music the way everyone who found my tunes did before my label signing; through looking for an underground and magical sound. John loved my tunes and invited me to NYC to write songs for his new record.
OKP: You seem to have roots in r&b and gospel but your voice draws on a very different tradition. Tell us a little bit about how the influence of blues, country and bluegrass was introduced to your style?
VJ: Tennessee has it all! Every genre of music has a star in Tennessee. Being from between Nashville and Memphis, is the best way I can answer this question. It's in the water.
OKP: Kickstarter has played a central role in the production of your new album Pushin' Against A Stone—is Kickstarter the indie label of the 21st century?
VJ: That is a cool thought!
OKP: Are you indie by choice or DIY philosophy--or of necessity?
VJ: All of the above.
OKP: Would you have preferred to have signed a more traditional record deal?
VJ: My deal is old school in a great many ways. It's kinda traditional if you compare it to what most artist are open to these days.
OKP: You've said that Pushin' Against A Stone describes the process of making the album and your life leading up to it—what's the hardest job you've ever loved?
VJ: I cleaned bricks as a child in the family business. Now, that's hard work.
OKP: What's the toughest musical gig you've ever played?
VJ: Any live gig that presents sound challenges is a tough gig. I know how I sound without machines in an acoustically excellent room. That's how I'd like to sound through a PA system. It's a tough one.
OKP:Your fellow Memphis native Booker T. Jones collaborated on 2 songs for the LP—how did that come about?
VJ: Kate Hyman at BMG put us together to write tunes.
OKP: Did you ever discuss the possibility of appearing on his Sound The Alarm project?
VJ: Nope. We were focused on writing.
OKP: Besides Booker T, Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, Kevin Agunas (of Florence and The Machine) and Peter Sabak—that’s a pretty eclectic list. Are there other contemporary artists you view as kindred spirits or find yourself drawn to?
VJ: Old Crow Medicine Show, Joanna Newsom, Jake Bugg, Tracy Chapman, Gillian Welch.
OKP: What was it like recording american roots music like "Workin' Woman Blues" (with Sabak) in Budapest? How did the environment shape or seep into the feeling of the music?
VJ: The Hungarian musicians are really into electronic and upbeat tunes. "Workin' Woman Blues" can be a heavy tune when I play it solo but they pick it up and make you want to move a bit when you hear us together.
OKP: Your recent appearance on David Letterman will undoubtedly be many people's introduction to your music—there is a moment about halfway through the guitar intro where your face shifts from laughter to an expression (at 0:40--see above) more like you are about to hurt somebody. Do you bring that level of intensity to every performance? Or did you feel that this was your moment to grab the world by the throat?
VJ: I'm not certain what I feel when I'm performing. From moment to moment, I can feel a massive array of emotions all at once. I try not to look to closely at it. I just let the emotions move through me...trying not to get too attached.
OKP: Where is the next place we can see you perform live?
VJ: NYC---Highline Ballroom on December 27th!