Memphis born singer-songwriter Valerie June spent years toiling in the underground roots music scene. But 2013 was her breakout year, the year her album Pushin' Against a Stone (co-produced Black Keys' Dan Aurbach) brought her interpretation of traditional American roots music to a national audience.
June will be opening for Sharon Jones Tuesday March 4th at the Vogue.
NUVO: I wanted to ask about your songwriting method. I've heard you describe the songs coming to you as a radio station only you can hear. That sounds almost mystical.
Valerie June: Writing songs is pretty mystical. It's a magical and spiritual experience in a lot of ways. The best way I can describe it is that I hear a voice. I listen to it and stop what I'm doing and write it down. If I'm in the middle of something and I can't stop I'll keep singing it over and over so I don't forget and pray that it gets stuck in my brain.
NUVO: Do you remember the first time you heard the voice?
June: When I was a little girl, that's when it started. It was mostly silly stuff about rainbows, flowers and trees. When I got older I started thinking maybe I'm supposed to be some kind of writer.
NUVO: I was just listening to your interpretation of the Kitty Wells' song "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels." Am I correct in saying that country music seems to be a foundation of your vocal style?
June: I love old country music. Kitty Wells' voice is beautiful. You can't get any better than Patsy Cline's voice. Those voices are just beautiful and the stories are so real. I like to hear the stories in country music. Kitty Wells' songs can break your heart, because she's telling real stories.
But a lot of things form the my foundation of my style. That's why I call what I do organic moonshine roots music. Growing up in Tennessee, I was two hours from Nashville where I was surrounded by country music, and an hour and a half from Memphis where I got the feel of the blues, rockabilly and rock and roll. And I lived down the street from Carl Perkins who is the rockabilly king of the world.
NUVO: You're style is greatly informed by American roots music. How deeply do you dig into that history?
June: I spent years going through materials at the Library of Congress and hanging out at the American Folklife Center. I was learning about the history of the banjo and minstrel groups and I would read through songbooks. It's so funny to read through an English or Irish ballad book and then read an Appalachian folk song book or an old blues songbook. You realize all these lyrics and the stories are the same, just the details change.
NUVO: When I read interviews with you, it seems a lot of journalists are hung up on your image. Does it bother you when writers imply your image is at odds with your music?
June: When people ask those questions I'm like "are you serious? It's 2014." People can do what they want to do. Why don't they talk about that with Eminem. I feel like what they're asking me is about the color of my skin. There's so many black women who've done what I'm doing. Look at Elizabeth Cotten. There's not a damn thing new.
It's so fun being on this tour and meeting so many new fans. You'd be surprised how many black folks love roots music and country music. They tell me stories that they used to listen to country music with their grandparents as kids and my music reminds them of those experiences. It's really rewarding to be here where I am at in the world and not let anyone tell me what I can and can't do.
This week's Cultural Manifesto podcast features audio clips of my interview with Valerie June.
1. Valerie June interview "the mystical process of songwriting"
2. Valerie June - Workin' Woman Blues
3. Valerie June interview "first time hearing the voice"
4. Valerie June - You Can't be Told
5. Valerie June interview "country influence"
6. Kitty Wells - Your Wild Life's Gonna Get You Down
7. Valerie June - It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels
8. Valerie June interview "musical foundations"
9. Wanda Jackson - Honey Bop
10. Patsy Cline - Strange
11. Valerie June - Pushin' Against a Stone
12. Valerie June interview "early influence"
13. Jessie Mae Hemphill - She Wolf
14. Meshell Ndegeocello w/ Valerie June - Be My Husband
15. Valerie June interview "researching folk music"
16. The Wandering w/ Valerie June - In the Pines
17. Valerie June interview "vision of a murder ballad"
18. Valerie June - Shotgun
19. Sandy Denny - Pretty Polly
20. Valerie June & the Tennessee Express - Shackle Bound
21. Valerie June interview "image and music"
22. Valerie June - Somebody to Love
23. Valerie June interview "not the only one"
24. Elizabeth Cotten - Freight Train
25. Memphis Minnie - Me and My Chauffeur Blues
26. Valerie June - Trials, Troubles, Tribulations
27. Valerie June interview "black country music fans"
28. Dolly Parton - My Blue Tears
29. Valerie June - Tennessee Time
30. Valerie June interview "farewell"
31. Valerie June - The Hour