She looks like a supermodel and sings like a 100-year-old blueswoman — Valerie June is the right mix of old and new to make a major splash on the music scene this year. Her strictly analogue songs are for fans of the vintage, the authentic, and definitely the classic. The combination of folksy fiddle, gospel organ, acoustic instruments and a truly wonderful voice on her album, out in May, will sit confidently beside any roots release of the past century.
Both Workin’ Woman Blues and Twined and Twisted, which she performed solo with her acoustic guitar on Later… with Jools Holland last October, sound as ancient as the Blue Ridge Mountains — simple chords coupled with bleak lyrics about life’s struggle. “I ain’t fit to be no mother/I ain’t fit to be no wife yet/I been workin’ like a man, y’all/I been workin’ all my life,” she sings on the former.
“If I have something inside me that I want to get out I’ll just beat it out on the banjo right then and there,” she tells me. “I’ve written so many songs. I don’t know if the world will ever hear all the songs I have written.”
The Hours Won’t Tell You No Lies zooms into the future, comparatively speaking, by featuring a gently swinging electric guitar and resembling a classic doo-wop number. Amy Winehouse might have done something like it. Then there’s the dirty electric blues of the new single, You Can’t be Told, and the dramatic title track, Pushin’ Against a Stone, which seems to encapsulate her worldview.
“Bad things are there, negative things. You wake up in the morning and there’s a clean sheet of paper but also the stone, always there in the room. It could roll back on you, or you could push it up. My goal is to keep pushing the weight off of me every day.”
You wouldn’t guess the kind of music she makes to look at her. With sunglasses the size of two tyres glued to her delicate face, sporting a frilly purple sweater, short skirt and bright blue tights, she looks far from out of place sitting beneath a multi-platinum disc belonging to Beyoncé in her publicist’s meeting room. She says her ambition is that of every glitzy American pop star: to sing in the halftime show at the Super Bowl.
A late starter after a long period of part-time jobs and tiny gigs, she isn’t quite there yet. “I was asked to sing the Star-Spangled Banner for the Memphis Grizzlies,” she tells me. “They’re a basketball team but I don’t think they win very much.”
Then there’s the flipside of her coin: the dreadlocked tendrils snaking upwards from her head, the fact that, if she has time, she’ll make her own soap to sell at the merchandise stand at her concerts (“My signature fragrance would be herbal — basil mixed with rosemary and coriander. Some big stars have got perfume lines that smell really bad. They’ve got it all wrong”), a much-loved former job working in a Memphis herb store called Maggie’s Pharm — June is quite the hippy.
I tell her she presents a fairly confusing picture. “That’s pretty normal for me. Amalgamation is a good word that I like to use — musically and in every way.”
Looking at her contradictions, it would be easy to think there’s a fair amount of fakery to what she calls her “organic moonshine roots music”. She’s also signed to Sunday Best, a British label run by the people behind Bestival, which is no stranger to novelty acts.
Yet she sings in an extraordinary light, twangy voice that is impossible to imagine featuring on a modern electronic recording. It’s as downhome authentic as grits ’n’ gravy. Hailing from near Jackson, Tennessee (like the Johnny Cash song), she’s Deep South all the way. Talking about the support tour she has just completed around the UK with Jake Bugg, even the way she pronounces “Yeovil” makes it sound like the sweatiest swamp on the Bayou.
She’s no genre tourist. She has immersed herself in this stuff for a long time. Three albums before this new one, the first from 2006, were self-recorded and sold at gigs and from her car. “I went through every phase with music. When I was really little I loved Whitney Houston. I thought she was the prettiest thing in the world. Then I fell for the Sixties people like Janis [Joplin] and Hendrix, John Lennon. Then I started listening to straight, raw, old country and blues music and I never got out of that. Other things came and went but that one was just so deep.”
She enthuses about the ancient field recordings of Alan Lomax and the folklore work of George Mitchell, who travelled around Mississippi documenting blues musicians in the Sixties. “American roots music is where it all came together, the songs that led to rock ’n’ roll, punk and everything after.”
Such passion led her to seek out as a co-writer and producer Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, the recent multiple Grammy winners who, along with Jack White, have done much to keep roots music alive and thrilling. She made a lot of her album at Auerbach’s new studio in Nashville. “It was crazy, it was like a candy store of instruments and tape machines. He must have been collecting this stuff for years, old microphones lined up like an army, all kinds of old banjos and mandolins.”
It’s an old trick but it’s done exceptionally well here. Her album is one of the best things I’ve heard all year. Bright things are ahead, though she can’t stop thinking about pushing that heavy stone.
She pulls me aside after we’ve already packed up and said our goodbyes to add one more thing. “I forgot to mention: the object is not to get rid of the stone. The object is to learn to live with it.” And with that, Valerie June and her invisible burden float off to a headline concert and a sunny future.
Valerie June’s single, You Can’t be Told, is out this week on Sunday Best, and the album, Pushin’ Against a Stone, follows on May 6, valeriejune.com.