Valerie June: Everything In Time

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.

Crow Black Chicken: Brothers in Blues

Crow Black Chicken’s power-trio blues channels the genre’s history through modern filters. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with guitarist and vocalist Christy O’Hanlon about the band’s new album.

“Being a Corkman, I heard the blues before I knew what it was. I heard Muddy Waters on the radio, and my ears pricked up like a dog. I thought ‘what the hell is that? And where can I get more of it?’” Such a lifelong passion is evident in the tunes and live excursion of Cork/Tipp blues power-trio Crow Black Chicken, an outfit steeped in reverie for the traditions of the genre while leaving their own mark.

Guitarist and vocalist Christy O’Hanlon discusses the band’s beginnings. “Initially, we came together in 2008 as a four-piece blues cover band. We did that for a year until the then-guitarist left one rain-soaked night, after realising maybe he wasn’t as special as he liked to think. Then we formed Crow Black Chicken. We found people liked our own songs more than the covers., until eventually we were doing more original music than covers. When we recorded our second studio album, we used some other musicians, Stephen Parker on keys, Christian Volkmann on harp, Mark Walsh on lap steel and I think that record benefited from the variety of sounds. But at the core of our music is, and always will be, guitar, bass and drums. That is our sound!”

The band has recently put down its fourth LP, Pariah Brothers. O’Hanlon is enthusiastic about breaking the creative process down. “Pariah Brothers was the first time all the elements to make a record came together, to make the best studio record we could make at this time. We had Philip Magee (Kodaline) to produce and engineer, and sent it to our friends Steve and George in Texas to mix. We’ve discovered that it isn’t simply enough to write great songs, or play great, the music has to be captured in the right way, if it’s done right it’s like lightning in a jar when it comes back out!

We all have our roles pretty much figured out at this stage. I write most of the songs and bring them to Stephen and Gev, they will change some things, or suggest some things, put their own stamp on it. sometimes Stephen will come up with a riff, and we’ll develop from there. But always each member will do what he thinks will work for his bit, so to speak. Then we road-test everything and see if the fans like the tunes, they change, usually the fat gets cut away, and then we record them.”

The band crowdfunded the LP, choosing American industry leader Kickstarter over local options like fund:it or more niche services such as PledgeMusic. O’Hanlon explains the choice. “Kickstarter has a much wider scope than other fund raising vehicles, it’s also slicker and easier for funders to pledge. I guess the fans have become like our record company allowing us to be able to keep the ball rolling, seeing as we have no label yet to do that job.” Off the success of the campaign, is the temptation there to drop the physical/digital balance when releasing records? “For us, there will never be a substitute for the physical copy of our records, people like having something they can hold in their hands, admire the art, possess. Well, at least our fans do!”

On the topic of physical records, the band released their third album in conjunction with the restructured HMV, then riding high after absorbing now-defunct entertainment franchise Xtravision into its distribution chain. Did it make a difference? “We released Rumble Shake with HMV, it was great as a blues-rock trio to see our album get to number 12 in the charts. But in the end, these type of outlets are dying out. It doesn’t affect our bottom line, we have always relied on people that come to the shows to buy the records, or contact us directly.”

Cork has a rich vein of blues, from the genre’s ’70s heyday to the present. So, when the band looks at the scene in the city at the moment, that connection is central. “So much of it is expected to be retrospective. We don’t confine ourselves to any particular genre, we don’t get up in the morning and decide to write a blues song, it just sort of happens. Planet blues is certainly big enough to encompass all flavours of different things. Two Cork blues outfits stick out, one new, in Crojayn and, one are old friends, Joe Callaghan and Hot Guitars.”

From retrospect to the future: what next for Crow Black Chicken? “For Crow Black Chicken the road beckons, that is what making records is all about. A wise man once said “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey that matters”. Hopefully we’ll tour the UK and Europe. Then back to record album five, This Time Next Year We’ll Be Millionaires.”

Crow Black Chicken play Cyprus Avenue on Friday August 5th. New album Pariah Brothers will be available soon across all digital platforms.