Valerie June lifts her singular voice on Santa Monica Pier

By Bliss Bowen

It’s been years since Valerie June has felt compelled to defend her wonderfully strange voice. Nasal yet earthy, girlish yet wise and womanly, it is, by her own reckoning, her primary instrument.

Now, after her 2013 album “Pushin’ Against a Stone” elevated her from homespun regional act to national critical darling and this year’s cosmic-sounding “The Order of Time” is placing her before welcoming festival audiences, artists want to collaborate because of her singular voice.

“That’s kind of cool,” she acknowledges in her syrupy-thick Tennessee drawl, conversing from the other side of the Atlantic shortly after arriving in France from Germany. “When I first started singing I felt a little bit [protective] about my voice, with my first band. It was a partnership with my ex-husband, and I felt like he always wanted a more soulful lead singer for his music. So I would try to sing as soulful as I could, but I sound like I sound.”

Thing is, the self-described storyteller does sound soulful, although hers isn’t a traditional “soul” voice in the style of, say, New Orleans queen Irma Thomas, who will perform before June’s Twilight Concert Series set next Thursday at
Santa Monica Pier.

June’s voice and music are unique hybrids of the gospel music she grew up singing in church, blues, Appalachian folk, jazz and rock. She says she goes into the studio with clear ideas of how she wants things to sound, but inevitably will “surrender” to the “certain magic that happens when the musicians and producers get in the room.”

“I don’t write music and all I can do is hum it out or tap it out or play an example of something similar,” she explains. “I just have to kind of tell a story — like, on ‘Love You Once Made,’ I said, ‘OK, look, y’all, this is a love where you had a tiny trailer and you fuckin’ broke up and every single piece of furniture you’re kickin’ it out of this thin, little, small door and you’re a little woman and you’re pushin’ out couches and it’s stuck, and it’s really cathartic.’ I have to paint a picture in their minds of how intense this was. After I told them that story they went back in the studio and they played it, and they killed it.

“With ‘Astral Plane,’ I didn’t want to say this going in, because I didn’t want them to be basically in the mindset of this artist, but after the song was kind of baffling them, I played ‘Ground Control’ [‘Space Oddity’] by David Bowie and said, ‘Let’s just go there, OK? Let’s f**king go there. [Laughs.] Where he went, let’s go, right now.’”

The cheery Bowie reference might seem incongruous coming from a woman who described previous recordings as “organic moonshine roots music,” and who grounds the horn- and fiddle-punctuated “Got Soul” with primal banjo. But listening to electric guitar notes cascade behind June’s undulating melody on “Astral Plane,” for instance, or the dreamy steel waves rolling through “The Front Door,” it makes sense.

“You have to get people in the spirit of whatever the song is in your mind,” she says. “These things happen in the moment. It either works or it doesn’t. … There’s a lot of trust involved.”

Overseas, foreign interviewers immediately ask about U.S. politics, when June wants to discuss art. She acknowledges wanting “to give people light and lift them up a lot more because we are dealing with some serious stuff in our country right now, and people focus on it 24 hours a day.

“There has to be room — like that little crack, like Leonard Cohen said — so the light can come in. We have to make that time in our day and in our lives to allow some light; it can’t always be CNN. [Laughs.] I want to leave people with a little sweetness. They can go back to being bombarded by all the things that are wrong. The blues is not something we have to beg for; it’ll come. At home, I focus on that. But in other countries, I don’t really feel so much like I have to leave that little flower on the pillow.”

June talks about being “raised heavy Christian,” and learning from metaphysical and spiritual writings by the likes of Thich Nhat Hanh, Joseph Campbell, Carl Sagan and Paulo Coelho. She describes a daily practice that includes affirmations and mantras to keep herself “in a place of light because it’s so easy to get down and look at the wrong and think, ‘Oh, God, what can I do [laughs] to change things?’”

Like June, the Grammy-winning Thomas, a down-to-earth national treasure who had a minor pop hit with “Time is on My Side” in 1964, before the Rolling Stones recorded it, grew up singing in church. Both women have bucked trends in their music and careers. June brightens when asked if she and Thomas will sit in on each other’s sets on the pier. (“That could be so cool — that’s a good idea!”)

“I’m so happy that I get to see her again,” says June, 35. “I met her and her husband with her, and they are the cutest couple I’ve ever seen. He takes such great care of her and they are just awesome, so I can’t wait to see them again. And they’re always traveling together. You know, he says, ‘I’ve been with her for 40 years.’ What? In the music business? That’s awesome.”

 

See Valerie June and Irma Thomas in concert from 7 to 10 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 3, as part of the Twilight Concert Series at Santa Monica Pier. Free. Visit twilightseries.org for event FAQs.

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