Valerie June brings her unique take on roots music to the Highline Ballroom.
Fri. 8 p.m.
Valerie June sings in a voice full of hard angles and rough surfaces. There’s a clanging quality to her tone, and a tinniness in her timbre, that speaks of the most unfiltered part of the American South.
“By no measure is my voice for everybody,” June admits. “Most of the world loves smooth, autotuned voices or beautiful ones, like Sam Cooke. But this is something different.”
Small wonder June has had no trouble standing out. She’s one of the few modern singers with the right vocal quirks to channel the roughest brand of American roots music. Her latest CD, “Pushin’ Against a Stone,” mines the deep country-folk-blues sound of Appalachia, while offering some invigorating twists of its own.
Smack in the middle of a rural folk track, soul horns surface. A dusty country track finds room for a psychedelic rock guitar, courtesy of June’s ace producer, Dan Auerbach. When not serving as half of the Black Keys, Auerbach shapes the sound of a growing number of roots-driven young artists.
June will bring her unconventional take on Americana music to Highline Ballroom Friday.
The singer’s looks haven’t hurt in building a growing audience. Countering the untamed quality of the music, the cover of June’s new CD shows her to be as glamorous, and even as stately, as Beyoncé. “It shows that you shouldn’t judge books by their covers,” June says with a laugh. “I love clothes, fashion and style.”
She has since growing up in Jackson, Tenn.
The eldest of five children, June absorbed gospel, R&B and soul music from her parents. Her father promoted singers as established as K-Ci & JoJo and Bobby Womack.
Another major influence were the two churches her family attended — one predominantly black, the other largely white. “First we lived on the side of town that was mostly black, then we moved to where it was mostly white,” the singer says. “Why drive all the way across town to the other church just because we’re black?”
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As a result, June found as much inspiration from folk and blues as gospel and soul, all filtered through the music of her home state.“The good stuff all comes from Tennessee,” June says. “Elvis, Robert Johnson, Memphis Minnie, Dolly Parton: It’s the stewing point.”
The singer started to make her own music in a duo called Bella Sun, along with the man she married at the tender age of 19. The marriage, and the group, didn’t last. “It was very difficult to be in a relationship with someone I was making music with,” June says.
By 2006, the singer started releasing rough solo records independently. She put out three before moving to New York — specifically, Williamsburg — though she had never dreamed about coming here. It just turned out she met a man from Budapest and fell in love. Three years ago, the two settled on a home which sort of split the difference between Tennessee and Eastern Europe.
June’s big break when the producer of the Lumineers (Kevin Augunas) stumbled upon one of her solo recordings on YouTube. He introduced her to Auerbach, who helped her get her contract with Concord Records.
June boasts a scratchier, stranger sound than more acoustic-oriented acts such as the Lumineers and Mumford & Sons. In fact, she’s closer to ramshackle performers like Shovels & Rope or Jake Bugg. Using uncommon instruments like the banjolele (a hybrid of a banjo and a ukulele), the album touches on both the historic and the modern.
“Most people approach roots music as though it’s something outside of themselves — like it’s just a thing old people did,” June says. “I take it from the inside, like I’m a part of this. And that makes all the difference.”
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