Memphis-bred singer-songwriter Valerie June is having a long-gestating, hard-earned moment. June's debut album, Pushin' Against a Stone, was released overseas in May but was introduced to U.S. audiences last week in a "First Listen" feature on the website for National Public Radio, with an accompanying rave from NPR and former Los Angeles Times and New York Times pop critic Ann Powers, who labeled the album an "instantly arresting debut" from an "elemental talent."
Pushin' Against a Stone, co-produced by Kevin Augunas and reigning Grammy Producer of the Year Dan Auerbach and recorded primarily at Auerbach's Nashville Easy Eye Sound studio, features writing and performing contributions from Memphis legend Booker T. Jones. It finally got its U.S. release on August 13th on the Concord Records label. In addition to the big rollout from NPR, the album's release was preceded by the inclusion of June's current single, "You Can't Be Told," as a "Pick of the Week" at Starbucks. But this emergence comes more than a decade after June first began performing at Memphis coffee shops and more than two years after work began on an album that was funded by the then-unsigned June primarily via a 2010 Kickstarter campaign.
The Valerie June now being introduced to the wider music world is a more polished and more ready version of the artist many Memphians have known for years. June's high cheekbones and Gorgon-like tumble of dreadlocked hair make for a striking presence even before you hear her. Then there's that voice: a raw, twangy soprano that evokes early folk/blues icons such as Elizabeth Cotten or Maybelle Carter — or late Delta blues great Jessie Mae Hemphill when June gets more guttural. For many, June's voice suggests such disparate artists as a young Dolly Parton or — though June bristles at the implied cultural limits of the comparison — contemporary soul singer Erykah Badu. It's a voice that captivates many but is found to be too idiosyncratic and unconventional for others.
Musically, like many Memphis artists among her cohorts, June's style finds the sweet-spot where country, folk, blues, and gospel intersect and distinctions begin to dissolve. Pushin' Against a Stone brings all of those threads together and adds even more to the mix.
The first two singles are forceful. "Workin' Woman Blues" was recorded in Budapest and melds June's sound with elements of gypsy folk and Afropop. "You Can't Be Told" rides on a heavy Auerbach blues-rock riff that suggests his band, the Black Keys. Elsewhere, June's voice and songwriting are less adorned. The gorgeous, solo "Twined & Twisted" is a stunner, a testament, a career rumination. ("Runnin' from my family/Driftin' from my home/Thinking not of who I am/Thinking only of where I'm going.") "The Hour," co-written with Auerbach, triumphantly brings new elements of girl-group and early-'60s soul to June's sound. The two songs with Booker T. are standouts: "Somebody To Love" is a salve where Jones' organ blends with June's ukulele, and his backup vocals give reassuring underpinning to her lead refrain. "On My Way," co-written with Jones, brings the album home with a sense of contentment. It's a deeply rooted album that's also utterly contemporary and alluringly pop-friendly — one with a real chance at finding a significant audience.
The Roots of June's Roots ✴
June's story begins in rural West Tennessee, where she was raised in the area between Humboldt and Jackson as the eldest daughter of five children. Growing up, June had some conventional music tastes but was also fond of singer-songwriters such as James Taylor, Carole King, and Tracy Chapman. Closer to home, she was exposed to the around-the-house singing of an African-American nanny who was an aspiring country songwriter, but June herself first sang in church.
"My momma took me to church from the moment she could walk after having me, so it started there," says June, speaking by phone from Washington, D.C.
"There was no choir," June says of her introduction to communal singing as a Church of Christ member. "Everybody was sitting together. There were no instruments in the service. You had to use your voice as the instrument. Everybody just opens the songbook and you start singing. So every Sunday morning and Sunday night and Wednesday night for 18 years of my life I was going and singing for two hours. That was how I started."
June learned to hear and blend in with a variety of voices: Old and young. Men and women. On-key and off. And, perhaps crucially, black and white.
"I was about 10 or 12 when we left the black church to move to the other side of town," June remembers. "My parents didn't want to drive to the black church just because they were black when there was a church right down the street that had maybe one black person going to it and maybe 500 white people. They were like, forget it, we're not going there, we're going here."
When June arrived at the new church, she heard the same songs but in a different context.
"When I first walked in I was surprised," June says. "They were singing the same songs, but it was more heady where the black church was really deep and low. Bass-y. I learned to sing first at the black church and then at the white church. Because it was so different, I had to learn to blend my voice in with the people I was sitting beside."
But if the roots of June's vocal style lie in those West Tennessee churches, it was Memphis that helped her find her voice.
June remembers moving to Memphis in the summer of 2000, still a teenager, and performing in local coffee shops a year or two later. She first emerged as part of the duo Bella Sun, which was labeled "neo-soul" but was probably closer to folkish alt-rock.
"I knew people wanted me to do the neo-soul thing, but, like always, it was just about the color of my skin," June says. "That was a time when that style was blowing up and everyone was into Jill Scott and Erykah Badu, and that's what everyone wanted me to sound like."
June began to find herself musically around that time, when the Midtown scene gave her an American music education and brought her back to her own roots.
"When I first heard Maybelle Carter's voice coming through a speaker at some [Midtown Memphis] coffee shop, it reminded me of my church," June says. "I wasn't going to church anymore and it was a time when I wasn't talking to my parents too much and I really missed home. I bonded with Mississippi John Hurt singing 'Farther Along,' because that was a song I used to sing in church. Or the Carter Family singing 'Walk That Lonesome Valley.' Hurt did that song too. His style was different, which backs up [what I knew] about [the connection between] the black church and the white church. But it's the same song and it's the same emotion and it didn't matter to me that he was black and they were white. Memphis taught me that."
Would June's sound have developed in the same way if she had relocated from Humboldt to some other city?
"I don't think so," she says. "Memphis was huge for me in terms of learning about the different types of music I like to listen to now. [Local blues artist] Jason Freeman? Having someone like that who has a massive record collection, equal to Dan Auerbach's, and sitting with him and having him say, 'Have you heard this? Have you heard this?' And then working with Luther [Dickinson] and being opened up to so many types of music that he grew up around. There's been a lot of nurturing from Memphis and the musicians I know there."
The Turn ✴
Even as June was honing her sound, she was a minor if visible member of the local Memphis music scene. She mostly played coffee shops and other small venues. She appeared in Craig Brewer's MTV series $5 Cover, but in a supporting role. Meanwhile, June worked: At Midtown stores such as the Deliberate Literate and Maggie's Pharm. For the local housecleaning operation Two Chicks & a Broom. And as a self-employed housekeeper, vegetarian cook, and caretaker. "What happened was, all the jobs I was working, I was saving money and I was trying to save enough to make a record," June says. Health problems finally prompted June to rethink the relationship between work and art:
"I was always scared to take the leap and quit my job and just play music. I was really terrified of that. But when my body shut down, I was forced to quit everything and just focus on music. I could play for 30 minutes or an hour. It was the only thing I could do that was light on me and made me money. It didn't push my body, but I was able to pay rent and eat."
It was around this time that the exposure from $5 Cover brought June into the path of critics Dream Hampton and Greg Tate, the latter of whom convinced June to move to Brooklyn, where she met producer Craig Street, who had produced Norah Jones' Come Away With Me.
With Street on board to produce a potential June album, the singer started a fund-raising campaign in the fall of 2010 to pay for production. By the time June reached her $15,000 goal, she had lots of people interested in working with her. She met Augunas in late 2010 via her manager and then Auerbach soon after, when June was asked about artists with whom she would be interested in writing. June had songwriting sessions with Auerbach in December 2010 and again in March 2011, finally going into Auerbach's Nashville studio to record. By the time June arrived at Austin's South By Southwest Music Festival in March 2012, she had a mostly completed album in hand and lots of interest from a wide variety of labels.
Getting to that point was a journey. In Nashville, June recorded with Auerbach and a sharp studio band that included Mississippi guitarist Jimbo Mathus and a rhythm section of drummer Richard Swift and bassist Eric Deaton. But June had been used to playing and performing solo, accompanying herself with only an acoustic guitar or some other string instrument. She was worried about losing track of her sound and losing her voice in the mix and also worried about duplicating the album onstage.
"I had spent all this Kickstarter money on a record, and I couldn't play the songs," June says. "I had been working so hard for years to save up and make a record. Finally, I make a record, and I can't play half the songs on it. It was a depressing kind of thing."
While June worried over what she'd produced in Nashville, she also did some recording elsewhere. While in Brooklyn, she met and married Farkas Fülöp, a Hungarian video artist. It was Fülöp who introduced June to Budapest bassist and producer Peter Sabak during a trip to Hungary. June went into the studio with Sabak not expecting much but ended up with the version of "Workin' Woman Blues" — a June staple that she wasn't satisfied with in its Nashville version — that would become her debut single in Europe. And June was set up with Booker T. Jones for a songwriting session in Los Angeles that yielded two recordings under Augunas' direction (with Sabak adding bass on "On My Way").
These new recordings, along with the mix of stripped-down and full-band recordings from Nashville, gave June what would become Pushin' Against a Stone, but she still had doubts. "I had to decide that I really wanted to put it out," June says. "The production on it was going in a different direction from what I would normally do, so I needed to sit with it for a little while. What I decided to do was go straight to the source about it. So I called [Auerbach] and said, I'm coming to Nashville."
June met Auerbach for coffee and told him she wasn't sure if she could put out the record. "Why?" she remembers him asking.
"Because I can't play the songs," she told him. "My journey has been learning how to play. I used to be in a band where I didn't play. I just wrote and did vocals. My journey was learning to play and learning to nurture the songs I'm writing. I'll never be able to play them like you. You're the rock star."
"See, that's where you're wrong," Auerbach argued. "Learn them the way you learned a Jessie Mae Hemphill or Carter Family song. I've been to your shows, and I've never seen you play a cover exactly like the people who did it originally. Don't worry about re-creating the record. If people want to hear the record, they can listen to it at home. It's your live show, do what you want to do."
After getting a similar just-get-on-with-it nudge from Jones, June finally grew comfortable with putting the album out.
"Having those guys mentor me was really important to getting where I am," June says.
Still, in early 2012, with a mostly finished record in hand but still unsigned, June was apprehensive about the considerable courtship she was getting from American labels. She didn't think the deals were quite right financially and was also worried about how her music would be marketed.
"I think it's hard for people to understand what I do because of the skin I'm in," June told the Flyer in Austin that spring. "Bands like the Civil Wars and Alabama Shakes — the music matches the image. Labels want to make money, and to do that they want to be able to relate it to something else. People haven't been able to do that with me. They don't know if it will work. But I know it."
June was more comfortable with offers overseas and decided to release the album in Europe first, cutting a deal with the London-based Sunday Best label, which put out "Workin' Woman Blues" as a seven-inch single late last year and released Pushin' Against a Stone in the United Kingdom and Europe this May. In the meantime, after touring in the U.S. with the Memphis-based roots-group the Wandering last spring, June focused most of her touring in the past year overseas as well, with extensive time in the U.K., France, and the Netherlands, in particular.
Success overseas gave June the confidence to come back. "At first I wasn't sure if I even wanted to get involved in anything in the States with [the record]," June says. "I wanted to see how it does in Europe and see if I like having people all up in my life, you know. It's one thing to play music. It's another thing to have, like, a little fame."
June had had conversations with a number of American labels between 2010 and 2012. What would eventually become a deal with Concord — which also counts Booker T. Jones among its recent signees — first got serious in Memphis in October 2012, after June's deal with Sunday Best but before any of her material had been released overseas.
"I came home to rehearse before I was going to do my first tour opening for Ryan Bingham in Europe," June says. "In New York, I didn't have a rehearsal space, and my apartment's really small. So I always come home to my parents' in the country, and I put the amp out in the yard. October's a great time to do that. So for the whole month of October I was out there with the amp turned up."
Concord A&R executive Matt Marshall, wanting to sell June on the label before she left for Europe, flew to Memphis, where the pair talked it over. The meeting went well, but June didn't sign until this March, on the eve of another South By Southwest, where June met with Marshall to celebrate the partnership. "I'm a hard one, I guess," June says.
Tennessee Time ✴
With Pushin' Against a Stone releasing this week, June is back in the States, but only briefly, with a week's worth of appearances before she heads back to Europe for some tour dates. She'll be back in the fall for a Southern tour built around a couple of appearances on Austin City Limits. Though the date hasn't been announced, June says she's likely to play a local ArtsMemphis event in October. It'll be June's first trip home since early in the summer. June's primary residence is in Brooklyn these days, but with so much of her touring in the past year in the U.K. and Europe, her husband's family apartment in Budapest has served as her overseas Tennessee. "Farkas can fly over, and he can work from anywhere," June says. "He can stay in Budapest and I can fly in on a domestic airline and meet him and rejuvenate my batteries, like I do in Memphis when I'm [in the U.S.]."
When in the U.S., June tries to get back to the Memphis area every couple of months. Her parents still live in Humboldt, in the house where she grew up. One of her brothers is in Cordova. Many of her closest friends are in Memphis. "I've got a lot of family in Memphis," June says, "so I just kind of couch-surf."