The morning after firebrand singer Valerie June’s swing through L.A. to open for Sharon Jones at the Wiltern on Tuesday, she had a whirlwind day of activities related to promoting her acclaimed 2013 album “Pushin’ Against a Stone” before hopping a plane for her next stop: three nights with Jones at the venerable Fillmore auditorium in San Francisco.
As engaging as “Pushin’ Against a Stone” is, it didn’t fully capture the charm and energy of her live performance, which doesn’t surprise the 32-year-old Jackson, Tenn., native greatly.
“I like performing live more than anything,” the singer and songwriter said with a pronounced Tennessee drawl. “I get a little bit afraid in the studio.”
Perhaps, yet that didn’t prevent “Pushin’ Against a Stone” from generating some extraordinary reviews last year on its release. It scored an 81 on the Metacritic.com aggregate review website, and Spin magazine wrote: “The album has a studied looseness that's never contrived, and it shows a poise and clarity of vision which her earlier efforts barely suggested.”
Her live show highlighted the album’s stylistic eclecticism, touching on rural blues, gospel, pop and rock elements, all fueled by June’s powerfully steely voice, which was formed pretty much outside the confines of the world of contemporary pop music.
“I don’t keep up with what’s going on,” she said. “Today I had to do an interview, and the lady said here are the topics we want to talk about, and one of them is you are the top-selling singer-songwriter on iTunes. I said ‘What? What are you talking about?’ I had no idea.”
She grew up singing a cappella gospel music in the Church of Christ, which does not allow musical instruments to be played in services.
For the first 12 years of life, she said, her family attended a predominantly African American church before moving to an area where the congregation was mostly white — which gave her a deep experience in different styles of singing, which she tapped on Tuesday at the Wiltern.
June also was exposed to the music coming out of two major, disparate music centers because her hometown of Jackson sits about halfway between Nashville and Memphis.
“I just love music, and I absorbed what I love,” she said. “I’m not really into alternative country — I’m into Patsy Cline, who lived down the street from where I lived, and old Dolly Parton records, Kitty Wells and that old stuff. I like country music. I also like Eric Church, who has a great new sound but also holds onto that old sound.”
She also took major inspiration from blues artists including Mississippi John Hurt and Jessie Mae Hemphill and the electric-guitar-wielding gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
“When I was teenager, Britney Spears was it -- that was the pop world that was happening, and I knew I wasn’t in it,” she said with a laugh. “I was looking at music and thinking ‘What is going on?’ Then I discovered people like Sister Rosetta, this big woman with a blazing electric guitar. I knew, ‘This is it, right here, and that [Spears] is not it.' I’d always know that wasn’t it. So I’ve just been studying, trying to learn about the old country and blues artists.”
Here’s a video of June performing her ballad "Somebody to Love” on what she calls her “baby banjo” during a recent appearance on CBS’ “This Morning Saturday”:
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