Valerie June will be the first to tell you she hears voices. "They come from so many different places," says the singer-songwriter, punctuating each word with her molasses-thick West Tennessee drawl. "I do what I'm told. I have to be a listener." But worry not about the 35-year-old: She's talking about songs. Or, more precisely, how she receives them. "It's never about me," June, who today releases her genre-bending second LP, The Order of Time, continues. "Songs tell you what they want. They have minds. They have lives. They have feelings. And you know when it feels right."
June's music could be described as blues or country or Appalachia or Americana or even gospel. But traditional labels like these don't work for her. In interviews for her breakout album, 2013's Pushin' Against a Stone, the singer, who was promptly compared to icons like Dolly Parton and Wanda Jackson, referred to her music as "organic moonshine roots." "It's a little bit of Memphis," she said at the time, referencing the city she once called home.
How would she describe it this time around? "Cosmic ethereal heart music," she says: a custom category that likely has few other practitioners. "That's what it is!" she protests. "It's totally heart music. It's for the heart in all of its ways. It's otherworldly and it's spirit music...but it has a root to it. It's not any form that's really physical that we can put a word to and say. It's just a feeling and that's that."
It's difficult to not be captivated by June's engaging, aw-shucks demeanor. "I really don't know a thing about it!" she'll say of her growing popularity in the wake of Pushin' Against a Stone, and tours with Norah Jones and Sturgill Simpson. But there's been no shortage of struggle for the musician. She's been married twice, the first time at age 19, and bounced around from her native Jackson to Memphis and Brooklyn, where she now lives. "I never moved for music," she insists. "I only moved for love...You've got to follow your heart first and your dreams second." But her dreams were right around the corner; she'd released three bootlegs when, in 2010, she launched a Kickstarter so she could record a proper album and was subsequently introduced to Dan Auerbach, the guitarist-singer of the Black Keys, who produced her debut.
"Songs tell you what they want. They have minds. They have lives."
And now we have The Order of Time, undoubtedly June's most confident effort yet. It's stacked full of electric guitar, horns, and fiddle, but always anchored by June's unorthodox, howling tin-pan of a voice. Before recording the album with producer Matt Marinelli in locations ranging from Vermont to Oregon and New York City, she had to narrow down the songs from the near 100 she'd written to the 12 that appear on the album. "He'll tell you, 'She gave me a freaking encyclopedia,'" she says of Marinelli with a laugh.
When June was a child, songs would show up in her head with abandon, and they still come to her fast and furious: "I write all the time...I just have folders and books full of songs." The Order of Time is full of such visitors; one is the stunning "With You," a sprightly, lush meditation with orchestral flourishes and choirboy harmonies. Elsewhere on the album, June gets reflective on lost love ("Love You Once Made"), life's winding path ("Long Lonely Road"), and, in fiery blues jaunt "Shakedown," the power music can have on the soul.
"Shakedown" holds particular significance for June. She recorded a portion of it at her childhood home with her brothers and her father, all of whom contributed backing vocals and percussion. It was one of the last happy moments she spent with her father, who passed away last November: "All my life I'll be able to go back and listen to him singing." She stops to reminisce about her family gathering around her father's hospital bed in his last hours, holding hands and "singing songs we sang around the house as kids growing up."
Despite having delivered a brand new album that fully showcases her unclassifiable gifts, and despite the widespread critical acclaim, don't go telling June she's made it big. "I really never know what's going on in the popularity contest," she declares with a laugh. She's content, she says, to remain on the road: playing shows, making new fans, earning her keep. Yes, she admits touring makes for a taxing life: moving from one city to the next, without enough time to explore. "One day, a very slow tour would be nice," says June, who next month heads overseas to play a string of headlining gigs in Europe. But it's in her nature to stay hungry. "I still doubt this life every day!" she exclaims. "Doubt is the thing you live with when you're following an invisible path."
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