photo by Jacob Blickenstaff
Valerie June grew up in Tennessee, now lives in New York, and for a while split her time between NYC and Hungary, when she was married to a Hungarian. Those extravagant dreadlocks have seen a lot of the world beyond the state line.
However, it’s fair to say the folk/soul/country/blues/rock – or let’s just cut it down and say Americana – singer and banjo player is still not a fan of the cold.
“My body is like, what is going on, I can’t do with this,” she laughs as she recalls New York winters.
While she says her body has adjusted now – but not her accent, which remains proudly deep Tennessee - did it take a while for her mind to adjust to being a New Yorker?
“Not really,” June says after a long pause. “I travel a lot so I try to have practical things that keep me at home wherever I am. One of the routines for me is as soon as I get off the plane, a bus, or out of a van or train, I try to take a walk, get my feet on the ground and usually I look for nature.”
Better yet, for our purposes at least, once she’s back at her accommodation June likes to really get moving. “I try to dance, even if I dance for 10 or 20 minutes, or a few songs, to get my body moving in the space I’m in.”
This isn’t just about acclimatising though: movement is at the core of June’s creativity.
“Whenever I’m in motion my music doesn’t stop,” she says. “I write in motion and I’ve always been like that – whether I was cleaning bricks, or taking care of houses. These songs come while I am doing other things … usually I am not just sitting in one place when a song comes, and I’m not even thinking about a song; they just come.”
As with movement, the topic of location isn’t mere chit chat with June, who will be part of the Old Crow Medicine Show tour in the next week, which will take on Blonde On Blonde, the 1966 album by another transplanted New Yorker, Bob Dylan.
She has ascribed the variety of American musics in her songs to her upbringing – just down the road from where Tina Turner was raised, in Nutbush, incidentally. But how much is it the state of Valerie and how much is it the state of Tennessee in these songs?
“I was raised in Jackson, Tennessee, which is about an hour and ½ from Memphis and two hours from Nashville, and I think being raised in a place where genres of so many artists were like rock ‘n’ roll, rockabilly, to country to gospel to blues exist [meant] they were all happening around me,” she says.
“I feel if I was raised in Nashville maybe it would have been leaning towards country or if I had been raised in Memphis maybe it would have been leaning more towards blues and soul. But because I was raised almost in the middle of those two cities I just embraced whatever comes.”
Absorbing musical influences is one thing, absorbing the zeitgeist is something more problematic. In the past year there has been some criticism of the absence of direct political commentary in the songs on this year’s album, The Order Of Time. Whether it’s taking the knee at football games, accepting an award at the Emmys or just being black, the spectre of politics seems woven into current American life.
When pressed on this recently June said “can we not just have beautiful music? Can we not just create something that is happy and fun? It's an easy thing for people to take the way you look on the outside and try to shape things”.
However, June makes the perfectly fair point that it’s a bit unfair to criticise her current songs, which were written in some cases five to seven years ago, for perceived lack of political commentary.
“I wasn’t thinking about politics when I wrote them,” in those comparatively blissful years when not every utterance of the president required a response from artists. Or thinking humans generally. “The only life lesson in those songs is the heart lessons. It’s not a political lesson, it’s a human lesson.”
That said, the songs she is working on at the moment are not likely to escape the Trumpian times. But really, existing and thriving can be a political act in itself in some places right now.
“I was walking down the street today singer Bob Marley song – she breaks into One Love - and I was laughing at myself cause I was like, ‘well I guess that’s political, right?’,” she laughs. “Or Imagine by John Lennon: ‘you may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one’, and that got you thinking about Dr King and his dreams. So you know, they are intertwined.
“I feel like some artists today have sat down and said I’m going to write a protest record or a political record, and they should be recognised for that. I didn’t sit down and say that with this particular record. When I do have a political record, you’re going to know. You won’t have to ask me any question, you’ll go ‘I know what this one is talking about’. You know what I’m saying?”
Maybe the most political thing she and Old Crow Medicine Show do is in their own way show how they draw from a deep American well that crosses roads, state lines, race and any other divisions.
“It’s so true and I feel like Tennessee, where we are both from, is in the heart of the country and it has that heartbeat musically,” says June. “Like a soundtrack for all of the music that’s happening in America.”
Valerie June and Old Crow Medicine Show play The Tivoli, Brisbane, September 28; Forum Theatre, Melbourne, October 1; Enmore Theatre, Sydney, October 3.