When Valerie June was growing up in Tennessee, everyone in her family sang as a matter of course. Now that she’s a New York singer-songwriter with a burgeoning career, her brothers still sing backup on her albums. The contrast contained in being a down-home sophisticate in her lifestyle is mirrored in her musical output. And that’s a recipe for interesting and original indie songs.
June’s first album came out in 2006. The Way of the Weeping Willow features a number of Southern folk songs as well as a few originals. The production and arrangements are straightforward, with simple acoustic guitar patterns holding the songs together. What isn’t simple is June’s voice: it has layers of complexity that seem to represent an “old soul” and give her the emotional and technical potential to pull off a wide range of genres. Turns out this early indication was right on the money. Here’s the traditional “Crawdad Song,” which she enhances with some newly written verses:
None of the other tracks from this first album are on YouTube, but if you have an account you can hear the whole album on Spotify:
2008 saw the release of the album Mountain of Rose Quartz. Although it includes several bluegrass songs, this collection shows June coming into her own as a songwriter and as a conveyer of her songs. “Strong” is a good example. The power and confidence of her voice is like Dolly Parton in her prime. The tune and guitar chords stem from the bluegrass tradition, and the mountain harmonies are right out of Tennessee, but the rhythm and attitude lead someplace new.
Listen to how she repeats words to expand the short lines of her poem so they work with her melodic idea. (You know who else did that kind of thing? Schubert.) “I always thought that / that you and I would / would be together for / for eternity…”
“Love Told a Lie” is from this period too. The most striking thing about this song is the change in vocal style. June’s nasal intensity and keen sense of self-preservation in her delivery of the wounded-by-love lyrics pays tribute to African-America artists from the early 20th century such as Mildred Bailey.
I’m also reminded of another no-nonsense powerhouse from the ʼ20s and ʼ30s. Like Valerie June, Memphis Minnie was a self-taught Tennessee musician who accompanied herself on guitar and banjo. I would not be at all surprised if June was a fan. Here’s a sample:
There’s a different approach to production (by Dan Auerbach on the Sunday Best label) for the 2013 album Pushin’ Against a Stone. Now there are more instruments, several of them electric. The title song employs electric organ and a backup choir – you think you’re getting gospel-tinged Motown style. The arrangement hangs together oddly, though, cut through by a distorted weeping guitar. It’s as if this is intended to be a deconstruction of the classic “wall of sound”:
“The Hour” has its own kind of deconstruction. In any other R&B song, its opening riff would move through a harmonic progression. Instead it just repeats on the tonic chord, as if the needle’s stuck on an LP. When June finally comes in with her own back-up humming pattern, it defies the key. But after all that deception, the song itself sounds like a straight-up Supremes tribute.
“Shotgun” takes us back to June’s bluegrass roots. Lonesome steel guitar and spooky melismas color this quietly furious song of a jilted lover and her plan for revenge. But the loose rhythm has no traditional place in any of the musical roots June is pulling at. Again, her delivery is noteworthy; she’s lost in her thoughts, following them through the thread of her voice.
June’s latest release is 2017’s The Order of Time on the Concord Music label. Her brothers lend their voices, and it’s also the last time that her father, an R&B producer, was able to sing with her before his death. June has described the theme of the album as hoping that time is a circle, not a dead end.
As usual, June plays guitar and banjo, but her emphasis is on the latter this time. She wanted to remind people that banjo is not just a bluegrass (i.e., white) instrument; it has African origins. You can hear that in “Man Done Wrong,” a composition she characterizes as “tribal”:
Another surprise on this album is “If And.” It opens like a Varèse work with long, wailing synthesized notes, then vocal noises before a strident 6/8 verse starts. Distortions of grunge rock guitar overlay the bluegrass vibe. With this latest album, June moves from indie folk to indie rock.
The most celebrated song of June’s career so far is from Order of Time. In an interview with NPR she explained that the experience of writing “Astral Plane” was especially odd: “I do feel like I escaped and was in this very iridescent space.” The down-home girl shows that she can float in another dimension, looking down at and wondering about our existence (“Is there a way for you to shine without fear?):
And here’s one more oxymoron in June’s career: Technically speaking, she’s only sort of indie. The Concord Music label is now partnered with Universal Music Group, a situation I normally avoid in this column. Let’s just say I grandfathered her in, since she’s so new to the mass music world, and she’s hardly a household name. All best to her — she’s made that big, scary leap. May she pull off the ultimate study in contrasts and maintain her artistic freedom now that she’s signed with the big guys.