Valerie June: In Bloom

The Tennessee native’s deep roots yield rich fruit on The Order of Time

Photo: Tommy Kha

Tennessee native Valerie June during a visit to Memphis, where she began her career.

In the apartment buildings of New York City, there is no shortage of crazy cat ladies. Valerie June isn’t one of them, but she does have her own obsession. “I am the crazy plant lady,” she says. The Tennessee native’s Brooklyn brownstone is a veritable greenhouse, with pots competing for space alongside musical instruments and her collection of vinyl albums. Her favorite plant is the night-blooming cereus, a member of the cactus family that opens up with a stunning, ghostly flower, usually just one night of the year. “This plant is just incredible,” she says. “I was dancing, getting my groove on, and I’m looking at the window and I’m seeing this alien-looking thing. What in the hell is this? It made me cry.”

June fixes a cup of tea and sits at a table in her kitchen. Following a wild election year filled with divisions and vitriol, she’s been feeling contemplative and a bit out of sorts, searching for answers on what her own role should be. “My job is to find pockets where I can create stronger communities and bond in the simplest ways,” she says. “It could be sitting for a few minutes in between songs with a group of people you don’t know, where no one is yelling, no one is fighting, we’re all in the same room chilling. Those moments are important. We may not all agree on things, but one thing brings us together at my shows.”

Her moving new effort, The Order of Time, seems like a branch that everyone could latch onto. The country roots and blues she plied on her 2013 breakout, Pushin’ Against a Stone, remain the foundation of her sound, but June ups the atmospherics with a mournful lap steel, the brush of a snare drum, and the tinkle of a xylophone. The new material is starker but still luminous, whether the gospel melancholy of the opener, “Long Lonely Road,” the hand claps and bounce of “Shake Down,” or the elegiac acoustic guitar and strings of “With You.” Still present is the hypnotic blues shuffle of songs like “Man Done Wrong,” which sounds like Memphis Minnie fronting the band at Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint.

Rather than write material specifically to fill The Order of Time, June mined a vast library on her laptop, which holds more than a hundred completed songs she has recorded using just her voice and guitar. Some are blues, others soul, hip-hop, or country—whatever comes to mind as she’s cleaning the house, going to the grocery store, or cooking. “I never write songs with the intention of putting them on a record,” she says. “The songs just come, and I try to write them. And the writing comes easy. I’ve been doing this since I was four years old, singing about frogs and rainbows.”

Now thirty-five, June grew up outside of Jackson, Tennessee, where her father ran a construction company and promoted concerts, bringing in the likes of soul legend Bobby Womack as well as putting on one of Prince’s earliest shows in the state. The entire family—June is one of five children—would hit the pavement together, tacking posters on any solid surface around town. Their house was filled with music, but there weren’t instruments. “Five kids make enough noise, so we just used our voices,” she says, laughing. “Our house was like The Sound of Music. At one point we knew every song in that movie.”

At eighteen, she left home and moved to Memphis, learning the guitar and banjo and becoming a fixture in the city’s coffeehouses and clubs. She would busk at the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Arkansas, meeting heroes such as T-Model Ford and Robert Belfour while honing her own distinctive mix of roots music behind an indelible voice that drew instant crowds. “People would stop on the street and be like, ‘What kind of music is that?’” she says. “I didn’t know what to say, so I just said, ‘The kind that Robert Belfour likes.’”

Since then, June has garnered praise from artists ranging from Sturgill Simpson to Norah Jones (each of whom she’s toured with), and Jones sings backup on a few songs on The Order of Time. And while June appreciates the increased attention and her profile is only getting bigger, chasing fame has never been what drives her. “I’m just a servant to the songs,” she says. “I’m not trying to find the next plateau for my career. I’m diabetic, and all I wanted to do with my music was be able to pay my bills! I’ve proved that to myself, so I’m fearless now.”