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Songs We Love: Valerie June, 'Astral Plane'

Valerie June's new album, <em>The Order Of Time</em>, comes out Jan. 27, 2017.
Danny Clinch
Courtesy of the artist
Valerie June's new album, The Order Of Time, comes out Jan. 27, 2017.

History moves through all of our voices, in inflection, tone and vocabulary. Some people call this collective language "the spirit"; to others, it's "the voice of the people." Valerie June just calls it song: the ongoing record of human sorrow and delight that she shapes into tunes and verses that may start small, but open up to the centuries.

On her new album, The Order Of Time, June places these missives she "receives" within new settings. The country and blues inflections of her 2014 breakthrough album, Pushin' Against A Stone, are still present, but more subtle, blending with jazz and ambient elements that help the songs become more conversational and more expansive.

Sharing "Astral Plane," the first track from The Order Of Time, June engaged in an email conversation about how these sometimes old songs found new life in the recording process, what happened when she tried to write for Massive Attack, and how Norah Jones and her collaborator, keyboardist Pete Remm, helped make The Order of Time the beautiful channel it is. (Jones contributed her culinary skills, for one thing!)

Ann Powers: You have always had an eclectic sound that goes beyond most conceptions of "roots" music, but this new album really shows you exploring atmospherics and a different approach to production. How have your sound and your approach to songwriting evolved in the time since you released Pushin' Against A Stone?

Valerie June: I honestly could not really tell you much about a change. I can say that many of the songs on this new record are what I'd call 'old songs.' They are songs that I had written at least 10 years prior to Pushin' Against a Stone. Sometimes it takes songs awhile to find their family/kindred recording connection. Kinda like finding a soul mate, I guess... Other times that family is found with great ease. It just depends.

"Astral Plane" is calmly philosophical, in a way that associates with all of your music. You're at ease with notions of the spiritual and incorporate the language of that realm easily and gracefully into your work. This reminds me of the work of writers like Alice Walker and bell hooks. How have you developed your ideas about these more esoteric themes? What is their place in contemporary songwriting, in your opinion?

Wow! Alice Walker is a definite great when it comes to writers, so thanks for those words! "Astral Plane" is one of those songs that I received and still find myself walking into the meaning of...

Often what a song represents the first time I hear it and what it means years later are two very separate lanes of life. Time can do that to you. I think "Astral Plane" is one of those songs that will ever be revealing itself to me.

What I can tell you is that Massive Attack sent a track for me to write to a year ago or so. I love Massive Attack, so I gave it a go! Like many songs I've written, I was cooking in the kitchen. I had the track on loop in my headphones trying to hear voices around it. Finally, I turned the track off to focus on the cooking. That's when I heard the voice and started to sing what I heard. The chorus came first ... "Dancing on the astral plane, in holy water cleansing rain, floating through the stratosphere, blind but yeah you see so clear." It took me out of myself. Most songs I receive that do that I want to hold on for myself, but I tried to fit that one to the track. I did an awful recording job on the demo that I sent to them. That's usual for me. Recording is not a strong point for me!

Needless to say, as I hit the send button, I was feeling regretful thinking I should have kept it for myself. I was a little happy when I received a quick and sweet note back saying it would not work for their latest project. With just a few sniffles in a tissue for my ego, I fell asleep and awoke with the song on repeat in my mind. That led me to sit in the living room with my guitar and try to create music for it. That's when I knew it was for me to sing. All songs received aren't for the writer to sing, but most of the time, they will let you know how they'd like to be realized in the world. There sitting with my acoustic guitar, I knew it was for me.

Like many of the songs on The Order Of Time, this one beautifully incorporates several different musical elements — keyboards, pedal steel, horns — yet it never feels overblown. How do you achieve that delicate balance when your musical arrangements get bigger?

As I mentioned above, I am not strong in the recording department, but I feel fortunate that great producers come into my life and help me through! The producer on "Astral Plane" [and throughout The Order of Time] is Matt Marinelli. His sensibility with sound and decision to surround me with musicians that play many genres and often work with strong female singers helped the song have those textures without feeling overblown.

Valerie June, <em>The Order Of Time</em>
/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Valerie June, The Order Of Time

Other songs on The Order of Time still show your gospel roots, and in fact you even got some of your relatives to sing with you on those songs. Family plays a big role in the way you conduct your career. What's the importance of this family element within your art-making process?

The importance of family is huge because we are a singing family. That's why I love The Staple Singers so much! Because my family doesn't really play instruments as a main item, but we all use our voices as instruments. It was always fun to get a song started around the house and find a sister to start humming along, then hear a brother catch you on the chorus, and maybe my mother would walk in and hit a backing vocal ... that was it right there! That was all you really needed to get through the day!

You're touring with Norah Jones this fall, and she also sings background on a few songs on your new album. Tell me about your collaboration with her, and what you find interesting and personally influential in her music.

Norah is a great part of the making of this record! First of all, she was kind enough to lend Pete Remm and his masterful B3 and keys to play on almost every song! He brought some magic! Then, they gave us the key to their place to let us go over and record some of my vocals while they were on the road, to help us keep cost down and be in a comfortable environment! Then, she came up to Guilford Sound in Vermont with us over Thanksgiving while we were making the record. Let me just say, the woman can throw it down in the kitchen! We came out of the studio on Thanksgiving Day to a full-on spread made for kings and queens. She'd almost give Gran a neck-and-neck competition on her amazing yeast rolls that I grew up eating. Lastly, when we did need backing vocals, she and Mazz Swift were the perfect match to make it happen! They are my sisters. I feel like my life so far has been filled with meeting some of Earth's kindest souls. Everly Forwardly!

The Order Of Time comes out Jan. 27, 2017, via Concord Music Group.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.