Valerie June’s long, thick dreadlocks lead some people to expect the Jamaican accent of a reggae singer. With just a few words in her thick Tennesseean accent, however, June makes assumptions evaporate, and opens the door to questions about what kind of music she plays.
As she explains it, she’s a songwriter, first and foremost. Her songs journey through folk, blues, soul, country and R&B, so she could broadly be called an American roots artist. But her particular sound—a soulful, acoustic, porch-jam style—is like nothing else. One reviewer remarked that June has the “most strikingly individual delivery [he’d] heard in ages.”
But June sees it as simply writing songs in whatever form they come through.
“I let the song be what it is,” she says. “I don’t say, ‘OK, this has got to be a blues song because I’m a blues singer.’ That’s boring. If I write a rock ’n’ roll song, it’s a rock ’n’ roll song. If I write a gospel song, it’s a gospel song.”
Born in Jackson, Tennessee, June grew up surrounded by music. She’s always loved it and she “just soaked up every single type.” At 21, she picked up a guitar and started writing and performing. At 35, she now plays the banjo and lap steel guitar, as well.
In 2013, the Brooklyn-based June became a global sensation with the release of her major label debut album, Pushin’ Against a Stone. She had previously self-released two albums, but Pushin’ was an overnight sensation 10 years in the making. June found herself the focus of tastemaking publications and shows, including the New York Times, the New Yorker, Rolling Stone, NPR, The Tonight Show and Austin City Limits. She even performed at the White House at the invitation of former First Lady Michelle Obama.
June found herself very busy, very quickly—and for good reason. Pushin’ is a masterclass in artistry, originality and authenticity. The album remains utterly fresh.
This year, June dropped her sophomore release, The Order of Time. Where some artists who make big splashes fail to deliver on their sophomore release, June went deeper into the magic that makes her unique, and emerged with a record that leaves listeners wondering where her talents end.
The Order of Time sees June sharing stories of her family and life. The opening tune, “Long Lonely Road,” is a sparse and quiet song about the sacrifices her ancestors made and the journey through hard times to better days. It sets the tone for an album that’s been called her best work yet.
Recording the new album was a chance for June to step into her own vision and courage. On Pushin’, she was new to the big business of recording and producing. On The Order of Time, she was in familiar territory.
“Pushin’ was my training ground,” she says. “It was me going into the room and learning how musicians talk to each other, how to speak to an engineer, what the language is that producers use with artists.”
On The Order of Time, June was more confident making decisions and directing the sound. She told the musicians what she wanted—and if it failed, they tried something else.
“I was more fearless,” she says.
An open-hearted fearlessness runs through June’s music. She’s acutely aware of the transience of life and the beauty of everyday moments. The Order of Time is an exploration into the big picture questions of life: existence, loss, family, joy and spirit—themes she’s drawn to in the music she loves.
“When I listen to my favorite songs, that’s what I hear,” she says. “Every single moment of this life is special. When you’re in love or when you’re in sadness; when you’ve got the blues, when you don’t have the blues. All these things are really special.”
For June, music is part of the animating and connecting force between all of us humans just trying to figure things out.
“It all seems to be a spiritual thing to me,” she says. “If I get out of my body and just listen to the songs, it’s a spirit talking to another spirit …These songs come from the spirit world—they just exist out there in the ether. Bringing them into this body and sharing the messages that they have is kind of my job.”
Valerie June will perform at 8 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 3 at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. $27/gen, $40/gold. 423-8209.