I originally met Valerie June last November when she participated in the Fire + Fire: Gypsy + Black event, where Hungarian Gypsy and black American musicians shared the stage and explored common musical bonds. Of course, you can't miss the Medusan head of locks she sports, and then there's something about her that reminds me of Thandie Newton's Beloved. When she sang, she was definitely calling on something very Southern and very much older than what usually comes out of the mouths of young artists these days. If you attend the Weeksville Garden Party this Saturday, you'll get a chance to experience Valerie's "organic moonshine roots music" for yourself.
In the meantime, here's a short email exchange she and I had, after which you can check out her song "Raindance"
Roots and blues music seems to be holding its own against the onslaught of technology-driven sounds. Some would even say the forms are coming back, particularly if you think of artists like the Carolina Chocolate Drops. What do you think is the appeal?
I went to visit with my grandmother of 86 and my great aunt of 92 last week just to sit and listen to them tell me stories. I asked them questions about our family line, recipes, and if I could freeze celery for soups and broths. Gran has just recently regained her strength from a double knee replacement surgery, and Aunt Avanell is concerned only about doing things at her own pace and not the will of others. As I ate fresh pecans and listened to their stories, learned that apple cider vinegar is good for balancing blood sugar and removing age spots. There is nothing new under the sun except our personal version which has never been and will cease to be when we are gone. We sit with the elderly listening to their stories while gathering traces of knowledge to incorporate into our day to day lives. While I do believe that traditional music should be preserved, I also believe that it should be used as an inspiration and a foundation to create a person's authentic and original form. I think the appeal of roots and blues music hold's its own against the onslaught of technology-driven sounds because it is the basis and strength through which most of the modern sounds branch out from. We gain strength from the lessons of our ancestors, and we are awakening or as you said, "coming back" to these traditional sounds at our own pace. My attraction to archaic music is to use as and influence on my own form, Moonshine Roots Music.
On the other hand, I have a sense that there's something that Northerners don't get about "roots" music? Do you agree? Why do you think that is?
The Flatlands of Tennessee are the lands I first broke bread, but I've always been enchanted by the mountains. I always hated living on flatland. I packed the car to head down to Clarksdale, Mississippi to perform at The Juke Joint Festival in the scorching sun, and as I drove home later that night, I was graced by a huge, round full moon. I fell in love with the flatlands after seeing The Mississippi Moon shining down on the rows of cotton. It wasn't hiding behind any trees or mountains for miles and miles. I felt like it was telling me the stories of the ghost that worked those fields years ago. It made me grateful to be from The South, from near the Forked Deer River, and from the edge of three counties. I have been warmly welcomed by Northerners and Southerners alike. If there is anything that Northerners "don't get about roots music" then maybe it would be the honesty it reveals. It is raw. It is dirty. It's sometimes just down right brutally honest, but I've got a feeling that Northerners "get it" just fine.
What do the blues and roots music do/convey that no other form can?
Blues and roots just tell another version of the same story that old time country and bluegrass tell. There is a common thread that these genres of music share that is just viewed differently by what the listener is willing to hear. If you are truly listening to the music, you can make it your own and move beyond the structure that society has place the music in as a specific genre to just getting a "feeling" or an emotion. That emotion and feeling is what the music is really trying to convey. That's what it's all about!
Has anything surprised you about the way your voice–both as a singer and a songwriter–is evolving?
I try to stay surprised by the way my voice and songwriting evolves. I'll let you in on a secret: If you stay surprised about each moment and watch them unfold, then it's easier to realize just how powerful and magical we are as creators. The fun thing about calling my music Moonshine Roots Music is that it allows me to have flexibility in my creative process. It's important for me to not feel confined to a specific genre of music. When I enter the songwriting process with an element of surprise, I find I am more open to just writing a song versus writing a "blues song" or a "roots song". I am influenced by artist like Joanna Newsom and Imogen Heap and much as I am by Elizabeth Cotten and Etta Baker. I like to think my listeners are intelligent folks who listen to my music with open ears and an hint of surprise which enables them to define each song as they see fit. I just unleash the sounds and stay in a constant state of awe about the entire process of making music. It's truly how I find my spiritual center, and I hope it's how I provide comfort for others in letting them know they aren't alone in happiness or sorrow, love or fear.
Besides this Weeksville performance, what's next for you?
Fairy Dust, Saturn's Rings, & Banjo Strings…I will be off somewhere over there writing and recording songs, cooking hot water cornbread in my cast iron skillets, and taking herb walks through the woods!