Valerie June seems to be a paradox. Judging by her music and social media, she maintains a sense of childhood innocence, while espousing lyrics of wisdom and dressing like a rock and roller. Like her personality, her music can’t be categorized into genres, as it spans folk, gospel, blues, and Americana. However, her music (like her lovely character) is not fragmented; it spans all boundaries of genres and neatly coalesces into a modern Southern soundtrack.
Her acclaimed first album, Pushin’ Against A Stone, (produced by Dan Auerbach), has already garnered her the approval of Michelle Obama, one of her more well-known fans. Known for her unusual twangy voice, she has moved from playing at small coffee shops (like Java Cabana) to being invited to open for Nora Johnson (who is featured vocalist on this album) and performing at festivals like Bonaroo and the Outside Lands.
Her lyrics are full of the usual, but timeless themes country music, like working hard disappointing men, but June brings another level of introspectiveness to her lyrics. She finds hope and idealism in the bores and joys of everyday life in songs like “Long Lonely Road,” in which she describes her father’s struggle to support his family. Other songs like “Shakedown” are song that celebrate simply being alive. “Shakedown” is a juke joint dance song that continuously builds with harsh organs and gritty guitar. “Man Done Me Wrong” is a dark banjo blues tune that is slick with vocal improvisation and a cheeky tempo.
The single from her album is “Astral Plane,” a gently ascending tune, that is being praised as a standout in June’s career. According to Psycic101.com, and astral plane, is simply “a level of existence.” These planes transcend materiality, allowing us to live in the world of spirits and physicality simultaneously. At least, this is the view that many religions and June hold. The entire album recreates this experience of being in two, or many worlds at once. Moments of silence, near-white noise, and June’s heavenly crooning, elevate us into another mode of music-listening, then a soulful organ or a hard-hitting lyric brings us back down to earth again. The record demands full attention, and multiple listenings, as it deviates from all other music out there today.
Unlike many artists today, Valerie June obviously isn’t trying to do anything, reach any particular audience, or constrict her music in any way. It’s clear that her music couldn’t come from anyone else than this church-goer gal from Jackson, TN. Her voice has the twang of a Tennessean, the quaint, nasal quality of an Appalachian yodeler, and a sense of soul that is her all own. Her voice is both childlike and mature, reminding us of the esoteric title of her album: The Order of Time. June asks us to think of time as a sea of experiences rather than a narrow line through space. Her album does this, as it creates little experiences of joy, dance, and reflection for us listeners along the way. June reminds us that American music doesn’t need to be pigeon-holed or superficial to be successful; it can be gentle, raucous, insightful, and spiritual.