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Valerie June hails from Tennessee, and at times her music surveys a spectrum of the state's signature sounds — from the rural roots of the West to Nashville's country twang to foot-stomping Memphis blues. On the new album Pushin' Against a Stone, June embodies each of those voices with raw confidence and a voice that's as powerful as it is unusual.
June recently spoke with NPR's Audie Cornish about developing that voice as a child in church, a young woman in a band and an adult falling in love with archival blues recordings. Hear the radio version at the audio link and read more of their conversation below.
Pushin' Against a Stone begins with the song "Workin' Woman Blues" and the line, "I ain't fit to be no mother, I ain't fit to be no wife." Are you describing yourself?
"No, I don't think I am; I think I'm quite fit for both of those things. But I do relate to the song quite a bit because, as a woman growing up in the South — you know, I'm the oldest girl of five kids, and I always helped my parents around the house — there was always work to do. And then, when I became a woman, any job that I could think of that I wanted to do, I went for it: from a coffee shop to an herb shop, where I was working with natural healing and oils and stuff, and then vegetarian cooking and caretaking. A lot of different jobs that I've had in the past made me really, really feel that song in every joint, every day of my life. I was working seven to 10 hours, seven days a week at least."
And for those of us who have held down a couple jobs like that, when you reach the end of the song and you say, "I need a sugar daddy," you kind of get the joke. You're like, "I need a break."
"(Laughing) Just life, OK? I'll take a break if you have one."
You've been quoted describing your songs as "organic moonshine roots music." Clearly, a lot of the styles here are very much a part of the fabric of Tennessee, which is where you're from. You even have a song called "Tennessee Time" — a little ode to the place you love?
"Very much so. When I first moved to New York, I was still returning to Tennessee every few months to perform. So one day I was boarding a plane to head back to Memphis, and I heard this beautiful voice singing to me, and it just started singing, 'Running on Tennessee time ...' And I was just like, 'Man. That really is what I'm on.' Because New York City's moving so fast, and I'm just kind of taking my time with everything. I'm still on Southern time — or, they call it, colored people's time or CP time or Delta time. Whatever you wanna call it, it's a little bit slower than New York time."
You say you hear the music in your head. Is it your own voice? How does it work?
"It's usually many different voices. That's always a hard subject to talk about, because it kind of sounds crazy to say, 'Sometimes I hear an older black male voice. Sometimes I hear a younger woman's voice. Sometimes I hear a child's voice.' ... I try to write down every song that comes to me, even though I know that every song that comes to me isn't a song that I need to sing. Some of them are just songs that you write to get to the next song that is yours to sing because you relate to it."
That's fascinating, because your voice is so distinct, and yet it feels so different with each song. One song that maybe puts both of those ideas together is called "Shotgun," which is a murder ballad — but probably the sweetest murder I've ever heard. What's the voice that brought you this tune?
"Well, I met PJ Harvey when I was in England, and the first thing I want to do when I meet a songwriter I admire is to ask them how do they receive songs. And she told me, 'I don't really hear voices. I have once, but I really see images, and I write what I see.' So when I was writing 'Shotgun,' it's one of the first songs that's come to me as an image.
"I was seeing this field, this prairie in the middle of America, I guess. The wheat was over-my-head high, almost, and it was blowing back and forth. And there was this old house with white vinyl siding — almost falling off, like a haunted house — and a screen door, and it was flapping in the wind. There's a song [the blues standard 'Baby, Please Don't Go'] that goes, 'Baby, please don't go / Don't go down to New Orleans.' Well, this woman, she was like, 'No, don't go! Don't leave me! Don't go down to New Orleans!' And the man had other ideas for what he wanted to do. So she decided that she was upset about it, and she wanted to get her sawed-off shotgun and do something with the relationship that was gonna make him hers forever."
All of this came to you for that one song?
"I saw the images, yeah! And it was just too much to keep inside. So I was like, 'OK. I'm gonna get my slide out, and my guitar and a tambourine, and I'm gonna write it.' ... Many times in the older songs, the woman's the one to die. And I was like, no, no, no — it can't always be that. We have to balance out the murder-ballad situation." (Laughs)
I want to go back to your roots for a second. How old were you when you first started singing, and when you first started writing like this?
"When I first started singing, I was very young. My parents took us to church every Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday evening; that was for 18 years of my life. It was Church of Christ, so there weren't any instruments used, and you had to really learn to use your voice as an instrument. The congregations that we went to were maybe about 400 people every Sunday, and everybody was just lifting their voice. I found that if I sat beside different people, [I would] hear something totally different on the same song. ... I just started to mimic what they would do with their voices. It was just a silly, playful way to learn how to use my voice as an instrument."
These were unknowing teachers, basically — they didn't realize what you were doing there sitting next to them.
"Exactly. Sometimes all I had to do was sit there quietly and listen to the way they used their voice, to learn. But other times I would try to hit some of the same notes that they were hitting — sing as low as they were or as high as they were.
"[When I got older], I was in a band. There were musicians — like a drum, bass and a guitar — and the only thing I did was I wrote lyrics, and I sang, and I wrote melodies. When I started to play music on my own, I was still hearing melodies and lyrics, but I didn't know how to play any instrument. So I started teaching myself how to play guitar, because I thought, 'I never want to experience a time where ... I'm receiving these melodies and I have to be dependent on someone else to create the music around them.' Then somebody gave me a banjo, and then somebody gave me a ukulele, so I started learning even more instruments just based on them coming into my life."
How did people react when you first started performing? We should say that you've got these beautiful dreadlocks and all of this gorgeous jewelry, and you look very ethereal. I don't expect the voice that I hear here, coming out of your very young-looking face.
"My mom and my grandmother tell me that when I first started talking, I sounded like I had an old man's voice — they looked around and were like, 'Where's that old man coming from?' ... The kind of reaction that I would get depended on what venue I was in. If I was at a coffeehouse, generally people were more open to hearing something like what I was singing. But sometimes I would be at a more blues-related venue, and they would be like, 'What is that?! That's not blues as we know it around here!'
"I wanted people to come to the music with an open mind and be like, 'Hey, is it good music? Because if it's good music, then I'll listen to it.' And I noticed that every time I played at any venue, people would come up to me after the show, and they would all have a different thing to say. Like some would be like, 'That's hillbilly music!' Other people would be like, 'That's blues if I've ever heard it!' Other people would be like, 'Man, that was so spiritual and so gospel!'
I read that your father was actually a music promoter.
"He still is — he just had a show, gospel music, a couple weeks ago. And he also has a construction company. Those were his two passions, raising us five kids on those two companies that my mom helped him out with. We all had jobs working for them, and they would teach us how to survive, basically. But, yeah, music was a big part of his life and is still. He doesn't play or anything; he just wants to bring great music to my small town. Because not a lot of great acts come through Humboldt and Jackson, Tenn. — they usually hit Nashville, and they usually hit Memphis, but we have to travel in order to see good music. So I think it's always been a dream of his to help bring good music to our area."
Do you ever hear him in your ear? Is he ever telling you, "Are you sure you want to go with that for the single?"
"Well, my father is very, very, very supportive of my music. And when I would go home and talk to him about it ... he said to me, 'You know what you need to do? You just need to get one blues song. ... If you just get one good blues song, then that's gonna be all you need.' And I told him, I said, 'I don't know about that, Daddy.' I kind of feel more folky, or more country, or more, just, rootsy. The people I love, even Mississippi John Hurt, he plays country blues, finger-picking blues. Or Elizabeth Cotten, Piedmont-style blues. I can't really see myself busting out with a B.B. King blues song, really."
It feels like you gave him a little blues on this album.
"Yeah, I did, I did. Finally it ended up coming out."
So how did you come around to the music later in life?
"I started to be presented with people like Jessie Mae Hemphill, because I lived in Memphis, and when she passed, there was a fundraiser to help them bury her, basically. And I was like, Jessie Mae, huh? Who is that? So I started listening to it, and she didn't have the traditional voice that we expect to come out of a woman from the South, or a black woman from the South, in particular. And neither did Elizabeth Cotten, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith. All of these women just had beautiful voices that were perfectly imperfect; they had a lot of emotion and a lot of character. And I shouldn't feel bad that I don't sound like, you know, the No. 1 pop singer or the No. 1 soul singer. I should just feel good that I sound like me.
"[I performed] at the International Folk Alliance Conference for several years, and there was a booth there from The American Folklife Center in D.C. I was talking to the people behind the booth, and they were like, 'Hey, you can just come any time! We have endless catalogs of music that you can sit all day and listen to.' So I took the train from New York to D.C. and spent a couple days. My goals were to listen to as much banjo music and fiddle music of African-Americans as possible, and also to find as much Alan Lomax material as possible. And when I started doing that, it became so clear to me that American roots music is what I'm doing — because there's so much freedom in the voices and in what you're allowed to do. ... You know, some of the same songs that the Carter Family was singing up in the Appalachian area, there were blues versions of those songs closer to where I'm from in the Delta blues area. So it was just neat to experience that and to study that for a little while. And since then, anything I can get my hands on that's got Alan Lomax's name on it, I want to read it."
Do you think that in all of this study of all these different voices and people from the past, you've found your voice? An original voice?
"It did allow me to just feel confident in my voice. It's not for everybody, but it is a story, and it's magical, and there's sweetness, and there's grittiness. ... I think it's about the stories and about the emotion, and that gave me the confidence to be OK with my voice. Because I have a story of my own, but I'm also telling other people's stories, because they come to me. So as long as they come to me, I'm gonna tell the stories."