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Valerie June, A Folk Chameleon, Embraces Her Changing Voice On ‘The Order Of Time’

Valerie June. (Courtesy Danny Clinch)
Valerie June. (Courtesy Danny Clinch)
This article is more than 2 years old.

The first thing people tend to notice about Valerie June is her voice: a reedy warble, touched by a Tennessean twang. On June’s 2014 breakout album "Pushin’ Against A Stone," that voice carried her across varied terrain, from old-time country and blues to doo-wop and Afropop. Somehow it all hung together, probably because the singer never seemed in a hurry, happy to savor the scenery wherever she was.

June grew up in Tennessee, got her start in Memphis, and has lived in Brooklyn for the past seven years. The phrase she invented to describe her omnivorous style — "organic moonshine roots music" — is helpful for encapsulating her patchwork of influences. But it also evokes a certain folksy preciousness to which the singer rarely, if ever, falls prey.

June’s latest effort, "The Order of Time," which comes out March 10, contains all the same stylistic allusions as its predecessor. Now, thanks in large part to Matt Marinelli’s spacious production, June’s songs are otherworldly. The album’s first single, “Astral Plane,” is a gateway to her new musical universe: more pop than folk, gently philosophical in characteristic June fashion. “Follow the signs, slowly but steady/ Don’t rush,” she sings, voice gauzy with reverb. “The day will come when you are ready/ Just trust.”

Those lines could easily apply to June’s writing process. The songs on "The Order of Time" were collected over the course of many years, some sitting on the shelf since before “Pushin’ Against A Stone,” patiently awaiting their moment. June has a tendency to talk about her songs as autonomous beings, gifts to be received rather than created. “Leonard Cohen was saying that some songs can take years to come into the full circle,” she says. “It happens that way sometimes for me. I guess it's definitely proven true.”

June, who performs at The Wilbur Theatre in Boston on Tuesday, Feb. 7, spoke recently over the phone about the beauty of time, the difficulty of naming an album and the responsibility of art in trying times. (The following interview has been excerpted and lightly edited for clarity.)

Amelia Mason: You had this huge breakout with "Pushin' Against A Stone," and I think a lot of artists feel a lot of pressure to release something right away. But you really took your time. Was that something you did intentionally?

Valerie June: Not really. I released "Pushin'" in 2013 in the summer. And then I toured up til 2015, back to back, 200 days a year. I didn't stop. And then, after we were in 2016, I recorded the record, and now it's coming out. So, it really was just a natural flow to my life, you know? I can't make a record if I'm traveling from town to town. I have to be in one little area.

Can I ask, which one's the oldest song that's been sitting around for a while?

"Just In Time's" the oldest.

Had you forgotten about it? Were you saving it? How did you decide to go back to it?

No, I don't forget a song. It was kind of torture, you know, going through 10 years, and having it pop up in my head and bounce around, and sound so pretty in my mind's eye, and not be able to record it because I was doing other things. Or I didn't have a budget, or it wasn't in the right room with the right type of musicians, or whatever it might be, you know? I have to serve the song.

Did you notice any commonality with the songs [on "The Order of Time"]?

That's where I had the hardest part. Oh my god. I had just the hardest, hardest time with it. Because after I'd taken a list of my songs, of all these different genres and speeds and colors and styles, then I put it all together and listened to it again and again, and I was like, there is nothing common about this whole record. So from there, I started to like — you know, I had to name it! And it was so hard. And so sat and I started to — I'd be cooking and doing all these other things. And I'd be like, how about "Blue Bananas"? How about "Glass Windows"? All of these things. ... And then finally I was on the subway and I was like, "Well, it has been a journey. And some of the songs have taken such time, and what a beautiful process that whole thing is. So why don't I name it 'The Order of Time?' "

What's your relationship with time? Are you someone who's impatient? Do you look backwards a lot? Do you think about the future?

I'm all over the place. I bounce a lot. But what I do know is that the journey of moving towards a dream and manifesting this dream — which is my first real big kind of unattainable dream to manifest — that is the ever-present thing.

"What I do know is that the journey of moving towards a dream and manifesting this dream — which is my first real big kind of unattainable dream to manifest — that is the ever-present thing."

Valerie

I plant a little seed now, and I see the reward later, you know? And so that whole thing is a beautiful order of time. Just knowing, that if I pick up my guitar 10 minutes a day, by the time I turn 80, maybe I'll be able to play like Hendrix. … Sometimes struggles happen — that would be what “Pushin' Against A Stone” relates to. Relating to the times when you need to push. But then also understanding the season when you're in the flow, and the seeds you planted, you nurtured, and you begin to see the flowers and the fruits of the labor.

Listening to the album, I found it — I mean, yeah, there's melancholy on it, but there was something about it that felt healing, or relaxed. For me personally, time is terrifying. I'm an anxious person, so that's a different approach from what I think about when I think about time.

Well, there are times when I am, too. Like the song "Shakedown," that's the rush, you know? ... But I just really felt like, over the balance, from song to song, that it also showed how over the years of my life, I have been pushing really hard, I've taken moments to breath, then I've gotten frustrated and knocked down, and I've gotten up and moved on. Each of the songs is a world. Each of the songs is like a place that I go to when I write. And that world comes up at different times in my life, and I can't control it. I want to go back so bad to some of these worlds, but they have to come to me. I have to be invited.

That's such an interesting tension. Pushing, and trying to achieve and get somewhere, and then this idea of receiving and not being able to force something, like a song.

It has to be a balance, it really does. ‘Cause I look at the plants that I'm growing. And some of them, I see a tiny bud pop up, and I'm trying to imagine what it's [like] — I'm so excited, but I’m so scared for it. Because it's tiny and it's delicate and I just don't know if it's going to make it in this world. ‘Cause a lot of them don't. So I wonder what it goes through and the struggles, the melancholy that it feels sometimes as it's trying to grow and push, push, push towards the light.

Did you learn anything about yourself being able to revisit songs that you hadn't been able to record before, that you'd started a long time ago?

One of the things that I learned was just about the difference in my voice. My earlier recordings of, say, “The Front Door” or “Just in Time,” are just a younger, softer voice. And time has its hands on even your voice, it has its hands on everything in life. Everything on earth is touched by the rhythm of time. So when I sing the song 10 years later, and I try to hit some of those notes I was hitting as a young woman, I was like, “Whoa, my voice has changed. I've got to actually work with my voice in order to get it there.”

But instead of doing that, I just embraced where it was. I didn't push it, I just said, “You know what, it's changed. It's changed. It's changed from being in bands or clubs or yelling as a cheerleader. It's changed. It's just time, and it's a beautiful thing.”

You've been in New York City a little while. What's your relationship with your identity as a Tennessean?

For almost seven years I've lived here, and this year was the first year I wasn't on the road, like touring heavy. I'd kind of used New York as a landing pad. I didn't make friends, I didn't do anything but roll in from the airport, order some takeout, fall face first on the bed. So this year, because I was recording, I [stayed in] New York and I explored the museums and I went to shows and I made friends.

"New York's teaching me the lesson of how, as a traveling person, to take that light that I'm getting from being here and sharing it with people in all kinds of countries. That's kind of my job now."

Valerie June

I've also fallen in love with the way that New York moves. I love how so many different cultures and beliefs and colors and kinds and genders come together and have respect for each other and live together. Even though we don’t all agree — we don’t even all have the same ideas on anything, really. Everybody has an individual life, and you can see that respect happening when you watch the city. If you just go down to the subway, or go to Union Square and just watch people. And I trust that that can translate to the entire world. If it can happen in New York, it can happen in all of the places where division is promoted. So New York's teaching me the lesson of how, as a traveling person, to take that light that I'm getting from being here and sharing it with people in all kinds of countries. That's kind of my job now, especially with the political climate. It's just to shine and be a light. And remind people of their power and their hope.

Amelia Mason Twitter Arts And Culture Reporter
Amelia Mason is an arts and culture reporter and critic for The ARTery, WBUR's arts and culture team. She covers everything from fine art to television to the inner workings of the Boston music scene.

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