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Brooklyn's Valerie June makes genre-confounding music with universal power

A Soulful Salve

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Brooklyn singer-songwriter Valerie June has one of those voices that floats out of the ether, a stunning yet comforting presence that offers up a healing salve in times of distress. It would be haunting if it wasn't so soothing, betraying a timeless feel and a universal message that feels almost anachronistic in 2017. Yet it's music that feels made for these times, if only because it offers us a reprieve from the stressful reality of the present.

June was born in Jackson, Miss. and lived in Memphis before eventually moving to New York. Yet despite residing up north, she maintains a honeyed, laconic Southern drawl when speaking about her genre-blending music. It traverses soul, Americana, blues, rock, and folk without being beholden to any of them.

"I just am who I am," she says as her tour van makes its way to St. Louis. She's currently on a lengthy tour leading up to the release of her excellent sophomore LP The Order of Time, which drops Fri. March 10.

"All of these titles and textures of voices — these descriptions like 'soul' and 'roots' and 'country' — those just kind of live on the outside of the window of my life," she explains. "The way I think about it is, I get the songs. The easiest way to explain it is that the songs come, and they come to me in different forms."

And there is something fundamentally elemental about June's approach — songs that move and shake according to their own logic, whether in a country shuffle or deep in an R&B pocket. June's voice can lift up like a soul singer in one moment but can just as easily betray a deep country twang on the next beat. Country shuffles, funky riffs, and ethereal indie ballads are all pieces of an organic puzzle that fit together seamlessly.

As far as the fitting together part, June credits collaborators like Richard Swift and Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys (who worked with her on Stone) as well as Matt Marinelli, who produced all of Time.

"On a song like 'With You,' I knew exactly what the song wanted. I knew it wanted to start with this heavy kick drum sound, and I knew it wanted to have strings," she recalls. "Then Matt has to get in the room and bring out all of the sounds bouncing around in my head."

On other songs, it's more of a full band, jamming-out approach — like the sprawling, aching "Love You Once Made," which builds from a minimalist groove to a soulful crescendo.

"For [that one] I had an iPhone recording of it, and I played it for everyone in the room. Guitar player Andy McCloud was there, and we had Pete Brown playing the keys, Dan Rizer on the drums, and Matt on the bass, and me doing my thing with my acoustic guitar and my one thumb playing," June remembers. "I told them that the song is like when you lose something you really love, the passing has happened. I need you to infuse the song with that and you really gotta be bringing it."

With both approaches, a distinctive sound emerges, one driven by June's spirit and sensibilities despite the eclectic mix of sounds and influences.

"It's like a play," she posits. "You know the parts people are supposed to play, but you have to encourage them and direct them in a certain way and then just let them go."

There's a certain assuredness and solidity to the spiritual way with which June talks about her music. She speaks of writing a hundred songs in preparation for the new record, just letting songs come in and not worrying too much about content or context. She only lets her head in when it comes time to pick out the record.

"I don't get to think about what I write, but I do get to think about what I'm going to put on the record, and I want to sing songs that move people, that have a universal subject that can help someone when they're feeling low," she explains. "It really comes down to what can I feel, because I'm heavily emotional and I just feel things. I'm a person that has broad emotions. If I can see myself feeling this song when I'm 60, 70, 80, that's a song I'm going put it on my record."

And, by and large, that sense of universality pervades her records, making them feel not so much of a different era as just a part from ours. June herself warmly admits to such transcendent aims.

"The funny thing is, I just see music and art as the things that come in and heal people after they've been touched by fear and doubt and worry. Music and art are kind of like the mothering arms that hold people for a moment and allow them to breathe and catch their breath and from there they can be lights in the world again," she says. "So my main calling now is just to shine and to be a light and do that for other people. So they can keep their light on."

She adds, "If we get enough lights in this world, it's gonna be so bright we're gonna put the sun out of business. That's my goal, anyway."

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