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Interview: Valerie June

By Gemma Brosnan

WITH influences ranging from Gram Parsons to Stevie Nicks, Valerie June’s unique brand of organic moonshine music is captivating audiences across the globe.

She delivers first-person stories of downtrodden working life in a haunting Southern twang infusing fingerpicked folk, swinging gospel and swampy rock guitar.

By the time she released her debut album, ‘Pushin’ Against A Stone’ in June, the Tennessee native had already performed on Jools Holland, sung a stunning duet with Eric Church at the ACM Awards, toured with Jake Bugg, graced spreads in top music and fashion magazine and earned some of the year’s most glowing reviews.

Gemma Brosnan catches up with Valerie June to find out more.

Gemma: As a child growing up in Humboldt, Tennessee, you were exposed to gospel music and as a teenager, your first job was helping your father promote the likes of Prince and Bobby Womack by hanging posters in town. How much influence did this have on you musically?

Valerie: The promotion of my father’s shows has always sparked an interest.

Gemma: You were inspired by older musicians such as Robert Balfour when you moved to Memphis in 2000, but what initially drew you in to exploring traditional folksongs and picking up the banjo and lap-steel guitar?

Valerie: I was given the lap steel and banjo. When an instrument is given to me it collects dust in to corner until I hear it calling. When it calls, I sit with it for a while and begin learning how to play it.

Gemma: You sang and wrote songs for your husband-wife duo, Bella Sun, in Memphis before you went solo. How much impact did the emotional and musical split have on your direction as a solo artist?

Valerie: If you have ever been through a divorce, even if it was fast, divorce is never easy. Who gets married expecting failure? When a divorce happens all parties lose. Music is beyond rational/human mind-understanding. It can’t ever be fully explained, but time opens us up to all, even in high tide or low tide. Divorce was a low tide for me because I always wanted to be married. Parting from that marriage forced me to learn to play guitar, which led to playing banjo, which led to the uke. Nothing of love is ever lost. It just changes form.

Gemma: Your latest album, ‘Pushin’ Against A Stone’ is very eclectic and extreme in terms of genre shifting from straight up country to commercial pop and songs that are totally stripped down and raw. How would you describe your ‘organic moonshine roots music’ to someone who has never heard you before?

Valerie: My sound draws from the well of American roots music. It sometimes goes further back than that, but mostly seems to be stuck in a time that reflects a version of the past 100 years of southern living. Some might call it Americana. I prefer moonshine roots.

Gemma: Two of your co-writers on the album are Dan Auerbach and Booker T. Jones. How did that come about?

Valerie: Song writing led me to meet them both.

Gemma: You’re spent a lot of time in Europe this year which included supporting Jake Bugg – how was that?

Valerie: Fun!

Gemma: What do you miss the most when you’re away from home?

Valerie: My husband, family and friends.

Gemma: Of all those traditional songs you’ve studied, which is your favourite?

Valerie: I love ‘The Crawdad Song’.

Gemma: What’s the first music you can remember being really moved by?

Valerie: ‘Fast Car’, Tracy Chapman

Gemma: What was the last album you listened to?

Valerie: ‘GP’, Gram Parsons

Gemma: Along with the glowing reviews from your debut, you’ve had rootsy collaborators like Luther Dickenson, you’ve written songs with John Forte and contributed to Meshell Ndegeocello’s Nina Simone tribute album. What’s been the highlight of your career so far?

Valerie: Just being constantly inspired and able to grow daily as an artist is the highlight of my career. Aside from that, my performance on the American Country Music Awards with Eric Church in April.

Valerie June plays Islington Assembly Hall, Tuesday, November 26 http://www.ticketmaster.co.uk/event/1F004ACACBF1A08C [1]