The sound is unmistakable. Her voice, a thing both soulful and charmingly warbly, accompanies perceptive songs that dig deep into the country, blues and soul roots of American music while remaining urgently in the present. The Tennessean's vibe is chill and her retro-forward fashion sense jaw dropping.
Valerie June had released powerful, self-recorded songs well before her breakout album "Pushin' Against a Stone" (Concord) blew minds in 2013, prompting a ridiculous amount of praise. The New York Times called her one of the "most intriguing, fully formed new talents" while NPR gushed that June was "born with the ability to rearrange the clouds themselves."
Needless to say, when it was time to crank out another album, expectations were sky-high. June, however, didn't freak out. In her words, "The Order of Time" just came to her. The songwriter often refers to herself as "a servant of the song." And until you spend a few moments with June, that seems impossible. Then it all makes perfect sense.
When Style chatted with June by phone, she was consumed by the beauty of Brooklyn in the spring. "It's soooo beautiful today," she says.
Much like her songs, she's otherworldly. It's almost difficult to pull her away from being in the moment to chat about songwriting. We eventually get there.
"Oh, I don't have any control over when those songs come to me. I can be shopping at the store for dinner or on the subway," she says with a thick, Memphis drawl. "When it happens, you have to drop everything and record it on the phone, and sometimes the stuff that comes is silly. Trust me, no one will ever hear it."
She sees the world as a poet does, noting every hue of her surroundings and smell in the air. Unlike many people who hurry through phone interviews with a lather-rinse-repeat approach, June takes her time and seems to reflect, if not savor each question. What gets her going is talk about her earliest musical memories with her family, specifically her father, who died in 2016. He once worked as a part-time as a concert promoter for legends such as Bobby Womack, K-Ci & JoJo, and even Prince.
"My brothers and sisters, we'd get up and sing for the family. Do little performances in the living room while we'd eat roasted peanuts — you know, that's a real Southern thing to do," she says with a laugh. Despite his involvement in the music business, the greatest advice she got from her father had nothing to do with navigating deals or booking gigs. Rather, it was how to steady the soul — something that ultimately shaped her career.
"He used to say, 'Keep God in your life.' One day, I had to tell him: Look, we don't believe the same exact thing, but you gotta trust that you raised me right and I'm gonna always do the best I can. Every time I come home — don't beat me up with that Bible," she recalls with a laugh. "I always saw him in a meditative state of sorts. He had hard times in his life, and he never drank or smoked, and that's hard. He always leaned on something greater, so that was a big lesson for me."
Surprisingly, June didn't find her voice until she was about 19.
"I mean, I wasn't sure I could do this until I signed a deal at about 30," she says, adding that touring with the great Sharon Jones reassured her. "She didn't start doing music until much later in life, after being a prison guard and everything," she says. "We are here to be living in joy, kindness and light. Our goal needs to be to remember how magical and amazing we are when we are here in our bodies and after we leave. Sharon Jones imparted that so much," she says. The singer still cites early influences as Mississippi John Hurt, the Carter Family and John Lennon but remains inspired by everything around her. "So many forms of art have helped me. I hope my songs remind folks of that, even in their darkest times."
And if the music thing doesn't work out? June's cool with that too.
"I survived without music for so long. I worked a lot of jobs. If I ever had to go back to that place, to feed myself, I've got a solid foundation," she says. "I know how to make $5 work, now," says with a laugh. S
Valerie June plays Friday Cheers on Browns Island on May 4. Tickets cost $10. 6:30-9:30 p.m. venturerichmond.com/events/venture/cheers.html.