Thanks to Bluesfest, the wonderful Valerie June is heading to Australia for the first time in April 2014 with sideshows in Melbourne and Sydney. Playing what she calls “organic moonshine roots”, her music is a breath of fresh air with elements of blues, country and soul. Since her appearance on Later with Jools Holland, she’s been winning fans all over the world and touring her Dan Auerbach produced album Pushin’ Against a Stone non-stop. Les Thomas asked her about the amazing ride so far, her approach to song writing and her impending visit to Australia.
I’ve been following your meteoric rise over the last year. You’ve been packing an awful lot into that time.
This time’s all we’ve got, so I’ve been making the most of it by working hard and doing stuff I love. In January we hit the road and did a tour and it’ll last for about…forever!
Bob Dylan’s been doing it forever, so I can’t see why you can’t. What part of the world are you in?
I’m in New York City! I’m in my own apartment organising, getting ready for the road. Pretty cool!
I understand your dad was a music promoter for people like Bobby Womack. Can you tell me what that was like being surrounded by all that music?
He did shows, but he had a construction company; he had a job. He just loved music, so whenever he had money he would try to bring in an act to our small town so people could hear cool music from all over to Jackson, Tennessee, in the South.
Your dad was on the r’n’b, soul, funk side of things, but you’ve got a more country, roots, blues approach. Where did your love of that start?
Do you like the same thing that your dad loved musically?
Not precisely, but I think the older I get the more I kinda listen to everything.
I kinda like that too where I listen to everything but I do one thing. And that’s roots and Southern music. But I think it’s really strange and rare that a child loves exactly the same music as their parents. Usually children want to get right away from what their parents are listening to, and they wanna listen to their own thang! I love great songs. Great songs come in so many different genres, not just soul or gospel. I like emotion, and I think a lot of music from the South has a lot of passion and emotion, and it’s really rough. And I like that. I think that’s the qualifying thing. Two things: a good story and raw emotion!
I had the pleasure of seeing you at the Austin City Limits Festival last October. The songs from the album performed with that great band of yours. Will the band be travelling to Australia with you?
Well, I’m going to be solo is Australia. I wish I had my awesome band with me, but that’s a lot of people to bring all the way across the world. I thought on my first trip to Australia, I should come solo and introduce you slowly because we don’t want you to be too afraid. (Laughs)
How do you find playing solo as compared to playing with the band?
It’s hard playing with the band because I’ve been playing for ten years as a solo artist, that’s how I started what I’m doing. So I had to learn how to communicate with others, and play with others when I’m with the band. That’s a really interesting lesson for me. Ever since this record came out I’ve been learning how to play well with others on the playground. They like me I guess; they kept me!
To most of us, your name is fairly new, but you’ve been pretty hard at it as an independent artist, haven’t you?
Most of it is just learning how to perfect my craft, and learning how to play my instruments. I started playing when I was in my early twenties and now I’m way further along at this time in my life than I thought I was gonna be! It’s just a journey and being patient with myself.
You don’t play just one instrument, you have a variety of stringed instruments to mix up the sounds a little.
Yeah, I love stringed instruments. So, I always try to play a little bit of banjo and a little bit of a guitar. I love ’em so much; they’re all my babies!
Is it a ukelele-banjo that you play? It’s got a really sweet tone.
Yeah! It sounds even better now too! I fixed it where I put a new microphone on it, so it picks up a little bit more of the whole body, and I love that.
You’ve been spending a fair amount of time traveling around Europe. Will this be your first trip to Australia?
It’s my first trip. I’m hoping I’m gonna meet my third husband while I’m down there.
There’ll be many people willing to put their hands up at this point in time! Your record was produced by Dan Auerbach. Can you tell us a bit about putting that record together with Dan?
Well, he’s one of the producers on it. We had a few songwriting sessions which we enjoyed. That’s what made us want to work together on recording some of those songs and some of my other songs that I had. And that’s what we did! We spent about a week in the studio working on it, and getting it the way we wanted it, and went from there. Pretty cool, though!
How do most of your songs take shape?
Usually it starts with the lyrics and voice at first. Then the music comes on after that. I just follow the voices. I think that’s the beautiful thing about the music from the whole country-blues vein where the music kind of follows the voice. And I think it’s so neat when musicians can follow a vocalist because usually it’s the other way around where the vocalist has to be on the beat, with the musicians. Everybody writes different. That’s why I like writing with other writers, because I learn how they write. Do they get the music first? Do they get the lyrics first? Do they hear voices? Do they never hear lyrics, never hear voices, only hear music? Everyone’s in touch with a different thing when it comes to writing.
Are there parts of the South that you’ve been particularly drawn to, like well springs of inspiration?
I feel like I’m inspired by the whole state of Tennessee. It has it all! Every single type of music you could think of, except I would say punk rock needs a little work in Tennessee, but it’s got everything else. Rock’n roll, gospel, soul, country, folk, blues: it all happens there. I really don’t need to go any further to say Tennessee is it for me musically! (laughs)