Valerie June is a striking proposition.
Those long dreads are tied up Medusa-style, a humble yet confident persona that builds towards that voice, that unmistakeable voice.
Breakthrough album 'Pushin' Against A Stone' was an international success, with Valerie seeming to sit at a junction between bluegrass and soul, between something modern and something timeless.
A hectic period of touring followed, before the Memphis artist settled down to work on fresh material.
New album 'The Order Of Time' is out now, and it's a fresh, sparkling return from an artist whose honesty is something to be cherished.
Clash sat down with Valerie June for a quick back and forth during her recent visit to London.
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So Valerie… how have you been?
Same, same! The record came out in 2013, and I was on the road for two years – so 2013, 2014, I did 200 dates a year. And then I decided I was going to make a record, and then I did that, and now I’m putting this record out.
200 shows a year is an incredible amount.
Yeah. So two years is 400. It’s crazy!
What leads to you doing that much? That’s like something Johnny Cash would do, go out and play shows every single night!
Well, they just kept coming and I just kept saying ‘yes’! So finally I was like: I’ve got to go home! I’ve been gone too long! So I went back home and I started to grow plants and record and then it was time to go again. I don’t know if I’ll do that much this time, as far as 200, but I really enjoyed the travelling and seeing the world and being around so many cultures.
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I wrote a lot of these songs on the road because I was gone so much.
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You grew plants? Do you have a garden you tend to?
Well, I live in New York so it’s all got to be in containers, but I’ve grown peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, all kinds of herbs and then I have the house plants, which is really crazy… I have about 25 or 30 house plants inside. Just like a jungle – a little jungle in there!
How do you maintain these plants when you’re on the road?
Well the neighbours check in on ‘em and I have a watering system that I started out with. There are these awesome terracotta things that you turn over a wine bottle – so I had to drink a lot of wine! You put the wine bottle in there and they drink it as they want to and it’s so cool!
So is that where you write? Surrounded by nature?
Sometimes! I usually write while I’m doing other things, so I wrote a lot of these songs on the road because I was gone so much. And I write when I’m in action. I wrote some of ‘em about 10, 12 years ago, so that was long before I released ‘Pushin’’. Then I wrote some when I did get off the road in my own space before I recorded. So all of ‘em took place over a long period of time, just different points in my life. And I collected ‘em all, and said: OK, these are the ones I want to record.
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Are you the sort of person who has to focus on an idea when it comes to you?
Kind of! Whatever it is… Last night I went out for dinner and this melody came to me that has been coming to me off and on for five or six years. It’ll just pop up in my head, and I’ll start humming along to it, and I don’t hear any words, I don’t hear anything but this musical part, so last night when I came home from dinner I got out my guitar and said: OK, five years of this thing coming to me, I got to sit down and try to do something with it. So I sat down with it last night, and I was able to pick it out on the guitar but that’s as far as it’s gone. I don’t hear the next part!
So I have to wait until I can see more information, y’know? I can only do what I’m getting. What I’m hearing in my head, I can only translate that, and if I don’t get any more it might be years before the rest come. So it is quite a process. I do have to wait sometimes. Sometimes it all comes at once, sometimes I only hear a little small piece for years and then it’s like torture… because it’s like: where’s the rest?!
That must be how the plants feel when the water is gradually dripping down…
If these songs were written at different points in your life then how do you bring them together as a coherent album?
Well, y’know, that’s always the hard part for me. It was the same with ‘Pushin’ Against The Stone’ where I had all of these songs from different places, some were older, and some were ones I wrote then, and some were ones I wrote right before I recorded in the studio. So it’s always hard for me to figure out how do I bring all of these songs together given that they were written in so many different places and there really is nothing cohesive about that. The only thing that they have in common is that I’m a songwriter, I write every song that comes to me no matter what genre it is, and that it’s my voice… my voice is the only consistent thing on the record.
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The process of writing songs takes time…
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So when I was trying to think of a title all I could do was think about, well, this is a process of time. It’s something that didn’t come together overnight, it’s something that takes time, the process of writing songs takes time. Yesterday this guy told me that Lucinda Williams said it’s a lot like sculpting – you get the basic form and then you go back in like a sculptor and then you start to shape it. And then I’ve heard Leonard Cohen say that the process of writing a song can be painstaking and take years. And I’m like: yeah…
The whole process does take quite a lot of time, and I just decided to name it after time, because of the fact that all of the songs were written over a long period of time, and every single song is dealing with something regarding time – whether it’s something that’s happened slow or something that’s happened fast. A reference that personifies the sense of time – like, time’s hands is written in one song. Or whatever. I just felt like we are here on this Earth and we’re moving to the rhythm of the cycles of the Earth’s motion, and all of that is about time.
Music is about time. It’s about rhythm, it’s about keeping time. It’s just the best thing that I can name it. There’s no other common thread, there’s nothing else besides my voice.
How long did the album take to put together?
Some of the songs were recorded six months before the others… so I guess it took about a year. But it wasn’t a year of working everyday.
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Music is about time. It’s about rhythm, it’s about keeping time.
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Does the piecemeal nature of the writing place extra pressure on you as a vocalist to communicate these ideas effectively?
Not pressure… that’s kind of my craft, and my skill. Being able to take a song and sing it to you the way that I hear it being sung to me, so if I hear a song in a deep and heavy and raspy way then I sing it in a deep and heavy and raspy way. If I hear it in a way that’s playful and childish then I sing it in a way like that. And so I have to basically sing the song the way it’s being sung to me from wherever out there in the ether. So my voice goes with whatever I’m hearing. It’s what I do.
It’s an interesting thing, too, to think about the voice, because the voice… everybody has a different voice for different parts of the day. In the morning when you wake up your voice is deeper, and towards the end of the day your voice might get a little higher. And when you’re on the phone to the bill collector your voice is different than when you’re on the phone with your mom. So everybody has these different voices, and as a singer instead of me feeling like I always need to sound one way, and I need to sing one way because people are used to hearing me in this present way I need to explore the many voices that I have, because I have so many voices – some that are pleasant, some that aren’t.
But the main thing is: how does it make me feel? Does it make me feel something, is it raw emotion, is it true? So if I feel something from it then that matters too. So all of that plays into the voice and the vocal parts of the record. It’s truly an exploration of where my voice can go and what it can do.
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'The Order Of Time' is out now.