The past year or so has been a busy one for Memphis folk/country/blues singer Valerie June. Local music fans may not have seen quite as much as expected from June since being featured in Craig Brewer's $5 Cover last spring, but that's because June, long one of the local scene's most promising and most hidden artists, has spent much of the past year on the road, building fruitful new connections and polishing her sound.
Her own worst critic, reluctant to record and promote a full album until she felt the music was ready and the circumstances were right, June seems ready for a coming-out party. And with a name producer — Craig Street, who was one of the producers on Norah Jones' breakout Come Away With Me — enthusiastically on board, June is preparing to finally hit the studio for real.
Oddly, though June cites Brewer's series as a validating experience, it wasn't $5 Cover exposure that initiated a new phase in June's career. It was her hair.
"Every time I turn around, somebody is sending me a questionnaire for hair," June says. June's sprawling dreadlocks have made her a person of interest on various natural-hair websites and in articles on the subject. And British soul singer Corinne Bailey Rae posted an approving photo of June on her website.
"I tell them, well, I can do it, but only if you're going to mention my music. I'm not trying to be a model for hair," June says with a laugh. "The hair is huge — literally."
But it was the hair that led to one particularly fortuitous connection. Writer Dream Hampton, a former editor of hip-hop magazine The Source, came across June while researching an article on hair and fell for June's music as well as her mane. Hampton contacted June and ended up introducing the singer to Greg Tate as well as producer Street. It was Tate, a former Village Voice staff writer and one of the most important black music and cultural critics, who convinced June to try her hand at New York, which has become a second home over the past year.
"He said, 'You'll know in three months if you should be here or not. The city will let you know. And if it doesn't [work out for you] I will be very surprised,'" June says of Tate's urging her to come to the city. "He's a good friend and very supportive."
In New York, June has performed a residency at Greenwich Village club Terra Blues, found an important prospective partner in Street, developed a writing, recording, and performing partnership with hip-hop/roots artist John Forté, and made other promising connections.
"I'm back and forth from here and New York and Nashville — three music cities," June says of her current situation. "I've been that way for four or five months. Living out of a suitcase. Following the gigs. I try to stay as long as I can to make the traveling worth my time. I thought it was time to try to establish myself in a city like New York and to take advantage of the opportunities presented to me.
"Memphis is where I get my, well, I don't know if mojo would be the word, but support, family, inspiration," says June, who books gigs at some of her favored venues — Java Cabana, Fresh Slices, the Memphis Farmers Market — whenever she's in town.
In addition to her New York excursions, June found some meaningful collaborators in Nashville, recording an Internet and gig EP — Valerie June & the Tennessee Express — with members of the Nashville roots band Old Crow Medicine Show.
"We did it in one weekend at a cabin studio [north of Nashville] and we recorded [the songs] one after the other," June says. "They'd never heard the songs before. That was one of the greatest lessons I learned. If we had had a budget ..."
With a taste of recording in a studio alongside companionable supporting musicians, June now feels she's ready to finally produce a proper, full-length album. To fund the project, she's started a campaign on Kickstarter, a website that allows artists to seek funds for specific, independent projects. (You can find a link to June's Kickstarter page on her own website, valeriejune.com.)
June set a goal of $15,000 and is more than halfway there, with a deadline of October 12th. The way Kickstarter works, artists only receive funds if they meet their entire fund-raising goal. Otherwise, they get nothing.
"I decided to do it because I am solely an independent artist," June says. "I have a producer. I just need a budget. I'm not making enough to [fund] the recording, so I thought I'd take this leap and approach the fans, friends, and people watching my artistic growth."
Rewards for pledging range from free downloads to autographed posters to a house concert from June.
June feels she can capture her sound in the studio with Street, whom she hopes to bring to Memphis to record when she reaches her funding goal.
"He's really amazing at capturing the female voice," June says of Street, citing other artists he's worked with, such as Jones, Cassandra Wilson, K.D. Lang, and Madeleine Peyroux.
"I don't need to be playing with musicians who force me to get into a regular, steady groove," June says. "[Street] listens to a lot of old music and knows that a lot of old blues musicians might play a part fast and then slow it down the next time, and it works."
As June builds toward her goal on Kickstarter, she's hoping to get the rest of the way there with a local benefit show October 5th at the Trolley Stop Market. Admission is free, but June will pass around the hat for donations to her Kickstarter account. June will also be playing the Arkansas Blues & Heritage Festival in Helena on October 7th and 8th, first busking, then on the festival's emerging-artists stage.
Valerie June Trolley Stop Market, Tuesday, October 5th, 7 p.m.