Valerie June was all set to make her first appearance in Houston a few months ago when her schedule suddenly got a little crazy and she had to cancel. After almost a decade of struggling with a solo career, the Memphis singer-songwriter's ship had just come in.
June's manager, Memphis music attorney Coy Martin, had been previewing some of her songs for the manager of Kevin Augunas, the L.A. producer whose recent credits include Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes and Florence and the Machine.
"It was amazing," June bubbles. "It just took that one phone call and Kevin flew into Memphis the next day. So we're sitting at Central Barbeque and he just dials Dan Auerbach. And Dan answers!"
Augunas had been working with Auerbach's band the Black Keys, and says he felt Auerbach — whose recent collaborations include albums by Jessica Lea Mayfield and San Antonio rockers Hacienda — would get June's bluesy songs and her unique voice. Auerbach was on tour in Europe at the time, but arrangements were made for writing sessions with June in Nashville.
"I just had a hunch that bringing Dan in to write with Valerie would be a good stroke," Augunas recalls. "I knew we needed a few more songs and I knew I wanted to produce her record, but I also had an idea that we could go in some new directions that would make her more accessible. And then, once the writing sessions began, Dan asked me if he could help produce."
June says she had never worked with a producer or even worked in a studio except one brief time at Memphis's Ardent, a favorite of the late Alex Chilton.
"All my records have basically been home recordings," she explains. "I never had a budget for a producer or a band, so I was excited. But at the same time, you're going into something unknown."
For his part, Auerbach took a look at June on YouTube and was immediately intrigued.
"She has her own sound and voice, but I connected with it in so many ways," says the Black Keys singer and guitarist. "I recognized shared influences, especially the hill-country blues."
Auerbach describes June's album, which is currently being mixed in Los Angeles, as "experimental."
He put her in a band setting with guitarist Jimbo Mathus and Richard Swift on keys and drums.
"We just tried to push her to go for some new things," says Auerbach.
Augunas notes the album goes all over the map.
"It's got indie-rock elements, it's got blues and country, even touches on bluegrass," he lists. "We were listening to a lot of Junior Kimbrough and gospel stuff when we were recording, so it's certainly got a lot of that feel about it. She's super-talented, but she's grown as a singer during this."
He also thinks that working with other people helped June to tighten her own writing.
"When we got together and started arranging stuff, one goal was to get to the point quicker, get in, get out. Her natural solo style can be a bit loose-ended, and we wanted to tighten things up," says Augunas. "She took a risk letting Dan and I push her, but I think we came out of this with a great album that has a lot of commercial potential."
June agrees that the final product can be all over the map.
"Some of it is country, although very heavy country," she laughs. "Some of it is like Ray Charles and the Supremes doing some of Ray's country stuff. And we've got a song called 'Tennessee Time' that sounds like Porter and Dolly, which I love."
June was initially concerned about having a band back her on the sessions, noting that with some of her experiences with bands, "they'd override me." Married to a Hungarian, June found a simpatico backing band during a visit to Budapest last year.
"I've got my European Union band and they really get what I do," she explains. "We have some great gigs under our belt, so it's become very easy and relatively cheap for me to tour in Europe."
While everyone was tight-lipped at this point about any possible label deal, Augunas and Martin note that the strategy was to release the album in Europe, let June tour there and let the buzz she built over there work its way back to America.
Born in the tiny hamlet of Humboldt near Jackson, Tennessee — "it's the biggest town between Memphis and Nashville," she says — June reveals that rather than the blues, she grew up on gospel and R&B.
"Honestly, I just wanted to grow up to be Whitney Houston. I thought she was the greatest," says June. "I didn't start playing blues until I got to Memphis."
But once she was in Memphis, people began to take notice of the statuesque woman with the forest of dreadlocks, easy manner and magnetic presence. June's first break was a Memphis-based segment on the MTV Web series $5 Cover.
While June explains that she wasn't particularly musical growing up, she did grow up around the music business. Her father promoted shows and, according to June, was the first person to book Prince in western Tennessee.
"I'm grateful that I was raised around the business side," she says. "A lot of artists don't really have that good a handle on the financial side and the legal stuff and the logistics. Having been raised in that world has made the non-music part easier for me."
June began writing songs to amuse her playmates in kindergarten.
"You've heard of hearing voices," she laughs. "I hear voices all the time, sometimes a lot of voices. That's how most of my songs start.
"I'm self-taught, so when I first got serious about writing, I was very curious about what makes a particular song work," June continues. "So I would write out the lyrics of some song that really grabbed me and study it, look at the structure and the rhymes, and just try to figure out what makes that particular song work. That was my college."
"I probably listen to way less music than other musicians," she says. "I don't know if it happens to other writers, but this stuff is just always singing to me inside my head."
Get the Music Newsletter