Artist Feature: Valerie June
Much of our lives are spent in a musical bubble of our own making. We live in an era where our favorite playlists are procreating with our most beloved songs and spawning new, baby playlists at a rate that would make the most reverent Duggar blush. And while it may seem like streaming services are helping us to pave new musical trails, it’s more of an allusion than anything. Those trails aren’t going anywhere you haven’t been. They’re just being extended a mile or two with the asphalt of your past.
We all have our jams and we like what we like. The familiar is comforting and no one should have to apologize for their tastes. But being aurally incurious is a social offense for which you should apologize, as you’re doing yourself and those around you a tremendous disservice by staying in a lane that some algorithm wrote for you.
But there are certain genre-melding musicians that make venturing outside of those digitally prescribed paths extremely easy. One of those musicians is Memphis-based singer/songwriter Valerie June, who guides listeners through a unique blend of country, rock, soul, folk, and bluegrass. Contrasting such a gritty amalgamation of sounds is the Tennessean’s voice – a honey-sweet, sprite-like inflection – and when paired with each other, June’s instrumentals and accented vocals are perfect for kickstarting a new year with new music explorations.
Although her discography, something June calls “organic moonshine roots music,” poses as a beautifully twangy 2018 soundtrack for folks who want to step outside of their 2017 listening habits, the most brilliant thing about her work is that its lack of sonic specificity caters to even the finickiest ears.
This innovativeness is no recent feat, but rather one that June’s loudly possessed since 2013’s breakout record Pushin’ Against a Stone. The record’s biggest hits, “Wanna Be On Your Mind” and “Workin’ Woman Blues” were intrinsically southern, but also rooted in elements of jazz and funk. “Stay there all the time, dadadada,” June lilts over gently swirling, almost psychedelic guitars in the former track, while in the latter she sings over the bouncing pitches of trumpets and cymbals. And despite the obvious wash bucket-esque twang of the album’s sixth track, “Tennessee Time,” its follow-up title-track manages to abandon the countryside in favor of vibrating electric guitars.
On the 2013 project, each track proudly carried its own personality and juxtaposed the next. Indeed, it’s hard to casually brush June’s music off with the usual “I don’t listen to *insert genre here*”-type remark, simply because her artistry transcends the idea of categorization. And though her 4-year-old album gracefully rises above the variety of asshole-ish comments we’ve all caught ourselves saying, her most recent material is equally supreme. This year was a big deal for the vibrant, dreadlocked southern belle. June released both The Order of Time – a follow-up to Pushin’ Against a Stone – and a live album recorded at the KCRW studios, where she performed the album in full. On Live at KCRW, her talents as a vocalist especially sparkle with tracks like “With You” and “Astral Plane.” And it’s within these stripped moments laced with violin and gentle acoustic guitar that June, a queen of sound-shifting, once again invites her listeners to embrace something perhaps unfamiliar.