Express yourself: Growing up in Tennessee, Valerie June sang a cappella in church. “It’s so cool when people … just start singing what they feel,” she says. Photo by Dean Chalkley
Singer-songwriter Valerie June has been paying her dues for a long time. So long, in fact, that she named her debut album, Pushin’ Against a Stone, a condition she’s just about ready to transcend. She brings her glorious voice and tight song craft to The Orange Peel on Friday, Feb. 14, when she’ll open for Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. June’s songs exhibit an idiosyncratic ear for melody and lyrical imagery, making her remarkable blend of folk, country, blues and gospel nearly universal in its reach.
June grew up in Jackson, Tenn. — about an hour east of Memphis — and cultivated that eclecticism without even realizing it. She learned to sing in the Church of Christ alongside 500 other vocalists. Folks in her church sang strictly a cappella. “We had to use our voices as instruments,” she remembers. Such large-scale, unadorned singing allowed the vocals to ring out in thick harmonies, creating a vast wall of melody. But it also left room for individual expression. “It’s so cool when people get off the groove and off the beat and the people just start singing what they feel,” she says. “It’s use your voice where you see fit, y’know?”
Although June had been singing all of her life, it wasn’t until she moved to Memphis after high school that she picked up guitar and ukulele. There, local musicians introduced her to wider styles from the Great American Songbook. Guitarist Andy Cohen turned her on to Mississippi John Hurt and Rev. Gary Davis — stalwart finger-pickers in country blues who would become some of the biggest influences on June’s playing.
Another important introduction was the Carter Family, country music royalty. “When I heard them doing their versions of these gospel songs with the instruments behind them, I was like, ‘Wow, that’s really beautiful,’” June says. “They play and sing the same songs that I was growing up singing, but with a guitar. And it’s very simple, but it’s complicated at the same time.”
Pushin’ Against a Stone captures June’s range. There are country waltzes, folk tunes and some beautiful, steamy mid-tempo soul numbers. Most striking is her murder ballad “Shotgun,” which turns the tables on the standard form. “So many of the murder ballads end with the woman being killed,” June says. She recalls thinking, “We need another version of this story.” The slow, solo slide guitar performance creates a haunting atmosphere, perfectly evoking the narrator’s conclusion that “If I can’t have you, nobody can.” Produced primarily by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, Pushin’ Against a Stone features a stellar cast of musicians, including former Squirrel Nut Zippers frontman Jimbo Mathus.
Remarkably, Booker T. Jones — the former leader of Booker T. & the M.G.’s — not only plays his famous Hammond B3 on June’s debut record, he co-wrote two tunes. Soon after they met, Jones told June that he had a song he’d been working on for years but never finished. He suggested that she might be the one to write it with. In her notebook, June found a skeleton of a song that she says fit perfectly with what he was playing, and the song “On My Way” was born. After completing it, June performed one of her new tunes for Jones, and he asked, “Can I play on that?”
June says she bonded with Jones because of their shared musical eclecticism, especially their love of country music, which, she says, sometimes seems weird when paired with soul or R&B. When they first met, June asked, “How did you go from doing Stax soul music to doing your country music thing?”
Jones told her, “Just put it out and go play music with whoever you want to play music with, and don’t let anybody tell you can’t put out a country song with a blues song right beside it.”
WHO: Valerie June, opening for Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings
WHERE: The Orange Peel, theorangepeel.net
WHEN: Friday, Feb. 14, at 9 p.m., $25 advance/$28 day of show
Sharon Jones, back on track
Powerhouse vocals and contagious melodies are the formula for Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings’ new album, Give the People What They Want. Photo by Kyle Dean Reinford
Fans of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings have been waiting a long time for that band’s new album. Give the People What They Want was set to come out last summer. But just days after Jones’ first single, “Retreat,” premiered on NPR, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Now, after only nine months, she’s ready to tour the U.S. and Europe in promotion of her fifth album. While nine months probably felt like a lifetime off the road for the celebrated soul singer, the rest of us can only marvel at the speed and grace of her recovery.
Released last month, Give the People What They Want channels the feel-good sounds of 1960s and ’70s soul that have become the hallmark of Jones’s performance. As ever, her voice is the highlight. Whether she’s pushing the limits of her vocal chords or softly crooning “Slow Down Love,” Jones’ phrasing is always impeccable. She pushes and pulls her melodies, setting up increasingly intricate rhythms alongside her backing band. The Dap-Kings, of course, help. Syncopated guitars and drum parts interweave into catchy song intros that lay the foundation for the primarily horn-driven tracks. On “Stranger to My Happiness,” the saxes and brass set up a repeating riff for Jones, supporting her seemingly endless interpretations of the song’s melody.
Even though Jones has concocted an immediately recognizable style, she’s always moving in new directions. This is the first record to include background singers Saundra Williams and Starr Duncan, who have been touring with the band as the Dapettes for more than a year. It’s also one of the first to feature overtly political commentary. On “People Don’t Get What They Deserve,” Jones seems to be channeling the Occupy movement of the last couple of years, singing, “Money don’t follow sweat, money don’t follow brains!” before calling and responding with the Dapettes over the song’s title.
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings headline The Orange Peel on Friday, Feb. 14.