Words: Chelsea Haith
“I’m singing a little blues, I’m singing a little folk, I’m singing a little country, I’m singing a little of whatever comes of out me.”
Sometimes record labels get it right. Chess Records got it very right with Muddy Waters and Etta James. Third Man Records gets it right by honouring the music rather than commercial demands (thanks to Jack White’s love for vinyl).
And now, in a world where Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off debuted at No.1 on the Billboard Hot 100, Sunday Best, a small British label founded by BBC Radio 1 presenter Rob da Bank, is putting the blues and soul talent of Valerie June into the world. Thank God someone’s still got some sense.
Valerie June, born Valerie June Hockett, is a 32-year-old blues, soul and gospel singer and songwriter from Tennessee and she sounds just like heaven should. Described as Organic Moonshine Roots music, June’s sound harks back to the growling guitar of Muddy Waters, the acoustic country tones of June Carter with a little soul and gospel thrown in to complete a sound that evokes late nights, convertible Chevy’s, heartbreak and open stretches of road across the Nevada desert.
Pushin’ Against a Stone is the titular single off her new album, released in 2013. The song starts out with an ominous blues riff off-set by distorted guitar licks over her bare vocals and the background vocalists’ church choir sound building to the frustration, with life, love and the music industry. The frustration and tension is eventually released in the guitar solo and the power of June’s voice, perhaps referencing her break into the big time, what some are calling an over-night success.
The song may seem to reference frustration with life or love, but June’s rise to the top has been slow. She calls Pushin’ Against a Stone her “first hit record” but in reality she’s been pushing for years, pushing that has included touring with Jake Bugg and appearing on Later … with Jools Holland. However, it was only last year that she started making waves with this incredible record, supported by the producing talent of Peter Sabak and Kevin Augunas, a composer and producer who has worked with The Lumineers, Lostprophets and perhaps most tellingly, The Black Keys.
The Black Keys and June are connected personally too. Dan Auerbach, The Black Keys’ guitarist and vocalist, met June through Augunas and she then recorded a some of the album at his Easy Eye Studio in Nashville. The stand out track on the album is Wanna Be On Your Mind, selected as part of the The Black Keys and Friends album released by Mojo Magazine in June 2014. Wanna Be On Your Mind is sex in four minutes of aural pleasure. Sensual, sexy and subtle, this song is good for winding down after a night out or slow dancing in the darkened kitchen after a glass of wine or two.
Not exactly a feminist tract, Workin’ Woman Blues suggests something of that frustration of the long hard push June has gone through to get the recognition she so deserves. “I ain’t fit to be a mother, I ain’t fit to be no wife, I been working like a man, I been working all my life,” June states matter-of-factly on the track, the rolling sound supported by a sassy brass section. The album is not shy on orchestral arrangement, and the brass is supported elsewhere by violins, particularly on Somebody To Love. This heart-breaking track is haunting and the violins, ukulele and organ (played by the famous Booker T Jones) combination deviates from the rollicking, guitar-heavy You Can’t Be Told. This diversity on the album emphasises not only her vocal range and musical subtlety, but also her versatility.
In the teaser video ahead of the album’s release June talks about her experience of making the album, her first major recording. However, she’s no stranger to the process and has put together little indie pieces before Pushin’, including ‘Valerie June and the Tennessee Express’ in 2010 and using a kick-starter to raise funds to record another album. She explains in the video that she loves spirituals, owing her sound to her church in her hometown Memphis.
With Medusa-like dreadlocks framing her wide smile, she’s not your cookie-cutter breakout artist and she doesn’t seem to have bowed to industry pressures like so many new artists, staying true to the sound and styles she knows and loves. “I’m singing a little blues, I’m singing a little folk, I’m singing a little country, I’m singing a little of whatever comes of out me.”