Ahead of a pair of Cork dates, songwriter Valerie June speaks with Mike McGrath-Bryan about Ireland, writing, and being Bob Dylan’s favourite.
Memphis-born singer/guitarist Valerie June’s star has been in the ascendant for the last few years now, as tireless, globe-crossing touring has worked alongside a consistently growing media profile at home. It’s paying off for the Americana-loving multi-instrumentalist: second album The Order of Time has just released, and has been greeted very warmly by critics and audiences. In a honeyed Southern accent that rings over a long-distance phone line, Valerie is quick to convey humility in response to how things have escalated. “Oh, I’m getting a chance now, ‘cause I’m off the road for about a week. It’s really great to catch up with everything, y’know, after the shows, and being able to speak with the fans. So far it’s been really awesome, the album’s been out for about four months, we have a lot more touring and a lot more things coming up in the coming months, and I’m looking forward to it.”
The Order of Time’s critical reception has seen a massive spike in media and gig-goer interest in Valerie and band’s melting pot of country, folk and bluegrass influences. But its creation and production were far from the wiles of industry machinations, or the music-press hype machine. “Well, it was recorded in about four studios, the bulk of it was done in Guildford Sound, in Vermont. We did that because most of the musicians on it live in New York. And everybody’s got children and wives and husbands and families, so it’s better rather than pull people away, that we bring all the families and we all go to the middle of nowhere and we make a record. Kinda like the dream way to make a record. And for all the rest of the things, like horns and background vocals, we came into the cities and used different studios in New York, some in Oregon, some in Tennessee. That was kind of a fun process, locking ourselves in the studio for weeks and weeks, and having fun in the snow!”
No less an authority than Bob Dylan has named Valerie as his favourite current artist, a ringing endorsement from one of the founding fathers of the modern folk oeuvre. It’s a reality that is still to sink in on one of his lifelong admirers. “I’m still in shock (chuckles). I love it, I’m like ‘oh, my god, he’s the god of songwriting’. For me, the songwriting is the most fun part of what I do, I love it the most, more than performing. That’s the way I started, was writing songs, so maybe that’s the one that I’m closest to. So to hear him say that’s he’s been listening to my songs, and to be such a fan of his and his songwriting, it was like ‘wow’.”
Valerie’s trips back to Europe in the past few months have met with a massive response, and this upcoming jaunt is in fact her third European trip of 2017. When asked about the differences between continental and UK/Irish audiences, she wastes no time in discussing her Irish experiences. “Well, I really feel like Irish audiences are interested in a song’s story. They’re not just waiting on the hook, they’re interested in the whole story. Like, I really love Luke Kelly, and the way Luke Kelly could tell a story in a song, and some of his songs were really long. Most people in the modern day, information moves faster, it’s just a fast world we live in. Listening to a full song, rather than something that’s gonna be two minutes, and give you a great hook; it’s a big deal to me as a songwriter that (Irish crowds) do that, and they sing along. So I enjoy that, and I look forward to coming back.”
Aside from finding like creative minds around the gig venues of Ireland, Valerie’s enthusiasm for the country is evident as she explores her relationship with the country after several prior touring engagements. “I feel like Ireland is kindred to the South, in the way that we speak and the way that we write, y’know. So, I always felt at home there. I loved Britain, I loved Europe, spent a lot of time in those areas, but when I go to Ireland, something about it feels like ‘oh, I’m going home’.”
While on the go around the US, Valerie has racked up a number of high-profile television appearances, the likes of Austin City Limits, The Tonight Show, etc. With pressures like playing to camera and time when broadcasting live, one imagines the pressure is on. “TV studios are always super-cold, because they’re always piping air-conditioning in. So, I’m always freezing, but it’s not bad. Kinda the same as performing just one song for a crowd, or opening for someone. When you’re opening a show, you don’t get to play a full show, or get that high of showing the crowd exactly everything about yourself, but you can create that introduction to what you do, so I look at it like that. But when I do get to perform a show, then I tell stories, and tell ‘em things about my life, things about my plants, or having woke up on the wrong side of the bed. I like you to get to know me when I do a show.”
Valerie visited the White House at the invitation of former First Lady Michelle Obama, as part of the latter’s ongoing work to forward the causes of arts and cultural development. in particular. As a beneficiary of that graft and as someone that works with the Kennedy Centre to continue that growth, she recounts quite the experience. “Well, there was a long line of people waiting to get in that day, and a lot of security, very heavy, so I did all that, and finally I got in. I didn’t think I would get to meet her. I got the invitation to go, but I didn’t think she’d come and meet each of us, and talk to us and give us hugs, and spend time with us, but she actually did. She was the sweetest ever.”
Part of Valerie’s next European swing includes two Cork dates – one in the intimate rural surrounds of Connolly’s of Leap, and the other in the hidden Northside gem that is Live at St. Luke’s. “I haven’t heard much of either of them. I’m interested to get there, because it’s gonna be perfect for my solo show. I do spend time in Clonakilty pretty regularly, though, I’ve been to DeBarra’s tonnes of times, so I do love that part of Ireland, and I like just being on the coast, going there, so I’m gonna get there a few days early, go to the coast, and enjoy life when I’m out there.”
Valerie June plays a pair of Cork shows next month: on Friday July 14th, she heads out under the hammers to Connolly’s of Leap, and on Saturday 15th, she plays Live at St. Luke’s. Check venues’ websites and social media for tickets and show info.