"Understanding the order of time is important to anyone hoping to manifest a dream," says Valerie June. "There is a time to push, and a time to gently tend the garden."
Since the release of her 2013 breakout Pushin' Against A Stone, June has been patiently at work in the garden of song, nurturing seedlings with love and care into the lush bloom that is her stunning new album, The Order Of Time. Some songs grew from seeds planted more than a decade ago, others blossomed overnight when she least expected them to, but every track bears the influence of time. See, time has been on June's mind a lot lately. It's the only constant in life, even though it's constantly changing. It's the healer of all wounds, the killer of all men. It's at once infinite and finite, ever flowing with twists and turns and brutal, churning rapids that give way to serene stretches of placid tranquility. Fight against the current and it will knock you flat on your ass. Learn to read it, to speak its language, and it will carry you exactly where you're meant to be.
"Time is the ruler of Earth's rhythm," June explains. "Our daily lives revolve around it. Our hearts beat along to its song. If we let it, it can be a powerful guide to turning our greatest hopes and dreams into realities."
June knows a thing or two about turning hopes and dreams into realities. With Pushin' Against A Stone, she went from self-releasing her music as Tennessee's best kept secret to being hailed by the New York Times as one of America's “most intriguing, fully formed new talents." The New Yorker was captivated by her "unique, stunning voice," while Rolling Stone dubbed her "unstoppable," and NPR called her "an elemental talent born with the ability to rearrange the clouds themselves." She astonished TV audiences from coast-to-coast with spellbinding performances on The Tonight Show, The Late Show, Austin City Limits, Rachael Ray, and CBS Saturday Morning, and graced some of the world's most prestigious stages, from Carnegie Hall to the Kennedy Center. First Lady Michelle Obama invited June to The White House, and she toured with artists like Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings, Sturgill Simpson, Norah Jones, and Jake Bugg in addition to flooring festival crowds at Bonnaroo, Outside Lands, Newport Folk, Hangout, ACL, Pickathon, Mountain Jam and more. In the UK, the reaction was similarly ecstatic. June performed on Later…with Jools Holland, joined a bill with the Rolling Stones in Hyde Park, and took the press by storm. Uncut praised her "remarkably careworn vocals," MOJO swooned for her "glorious sound," and The Independent's Andy Gill wrote, "June has the most strikingly individual delivery I've heard in ages."
When it came time to record the follow-up, June felt liberated by the success, fearless and more confident than ever in trusting her instincts and following her muse. There was to be no rushing the music, no harvesting a song before it was ripe on the vine and ready to be plucked. When she sensed the time was right, she headed to rural Guilford, Vermont, with producer Matt Marinelli, spending long stretches through the fall and winter living and recording away from the hustle and bustle of her adopted home of Brooklyn.
"They made us feel so welcome in Vermont," remembers June. "I was cooking amazing food and hanging out with the band all the time. There were long talks and long walks in the snow, and friends would come up for holidays. I felt like I put myself in a place where I could really soar. With the last album, I was absorbing and learning and developing so much in the studio, but this is me taking the things I learned and the things I felt in my heart and fighting for them."
In her heart, June is a songwriter first and foremost, willing and able to blur the lines between genres and eras of sounds. The result is an eclectic blend of folk and soul and country and R&B and blues that is undoubtedly the finest work of her career. Opener "Long Lonely Road" settles in like languid southern heat, as June looks back to the sacrifices of her parents and grandparents, singing in a gentle near-whisper of the sometimes difficult, sometimes beautiful journey we all must undertake in search of brighter days. On the soulful "Love You Once Made," her voice is backed by rich horns and vintage organ as she makes peace with the specter of loss and the ephemeral nature of our relationships, while the bluesy juke joint rocker "Shake Down" features backup vocals from her brothers, Jason and Patrick Hockett and father, Emerson Hockett recorded at home in Tennessee, and "Man Done Wrong" centers on a hypnotic banjo riff that's more African than Appalachian.
"People shouldn't necessarily think of bluegrass when they see the banjo," explains June. "It was originally an African instrument, and people in America used to play all kinds of banjo: mandolin banjo, ukulele banjo, bass banjo, classical banjo, jazz banjo, there were even banjo orchestras. For some reason people like to limit it and say it just has to be in folk and bluegrass, but to me it can be in anything, and I really wanted to set the banjo free on this record."
The banjo turns up again later as the underpinning of the R&B rave-up "Got Soul," which plays out like a mission statement for the entire album, as June offers to "sing a country tune" or "play the blues" but reveals that underneath it all is her sweet soul. Those genre terms might be simplistic ways to attempt to define her, empty signifiers creating distinctions between sounds where June sees none. "With You" channels the sprightly, ethereal beauty of Nico with fingerpicked electric guitar and cinematic strings, "Slip Slide On By" grooves with shades of Van Morrison, and "If And" slowly builds over meditative hum that hints at John Cale.
Despite the music's varied nature, the songs all belong to a cohesive family, in part because they're tied together by June's one-of-a-kind voice, and because they're all pieces of a larger rumination on the passage of time and how it affects us. The ultimate takeaway from tracks like "The Front Door" and "Just In Time" is that the present is all we have. Everything around us (our loved ones, our youth, our beauty) will someday fade and disappear, but that transience is what makes those things all the more magical. We're given this brief moment to share our love and light with the world, and when, as June sings on the album, "Time's hands turn and point straight towards you," you'd better be ready.
Thankfully for us, June was ready when time told her to harvest these songs. In the garden, as in life, there is a time for everything and the moment has finally arrived to enjoy the fruits of all her labor. With 'The Order Of Time,' Valerie June has prepared a bountiful feast, and there's a seat at the table for everyone.
It is difficult to believe that 2009 marked the 50th anniversary of Irma Thomas's first recording session. She remains one of America's most distinctive and classic singers, a treasure from the golden age of soul music who remains as compelling and powerful as ever. As Don McLeese wrote in his review of her Grammy®- winning 2006 album, After the Rain, "Most singers who have been recording as long as Thomas resort to tricks, mannerisms, and show-off displays, but she remains the anti-diva, a stylist of exquisite understatement whose every note rings true and hits home."
Irma first achieved prominence with a string of 1960s hits such as "Time Is On My Side," (later covered by the Rolling Stones), "It's Raining" and "Wish Someone Would Care." She toured extensively across the South with her band, The Toronados. Yet, her life has not been without its share of hardship and challenge. Pregnant at age 15, she was forced by her father into what she calls a "shotgun marriage." After the devastating effects of Hurricane Camille in 1969, when she
was a single mother with four children to support, she moved her family to Los Angeles and worked for a time at a Montgomery Ward store, recording and performing only intermittently.
Upon returning to Louisiana in the 1970s, she slowly rebuilt her reputation as The Soul Queen of New Orleans, signing with Rounder in 1986. In 2005, while she was working in Austin, Texas, Hurricane Katrina flooded her home and destroyed all her possessions, along with her nightclub, The Lion's Den.
Now, she and her husband, Emile Jackson, have rebuilt their home (she may have been one of the few who had flood insurance!). In the wake of the tragedy and loss that Katrina brought, her career has enjoyed an unprecedented upswing.
After The Rain, recorded in rural Maurice, Louisiana only weeks after Katrina, won Irma her first Grammy® (as well as a Blues Music Award for Soul-Blues Album of the Year and many other accolades). Last year's Simply Grand won a Grammy® nomination, as well as another Soul-
Blues Album of the year award. Irma had previously garnered Grammy® nominations for her live album, Simply the Best!, and her collaboration with Marcia Ball and Tracy Nelson, Sing It!, both on Rounder. Many career highlights have followed her Grammy® triumph, including her appearance with Stevie Wonder at the 2008 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and her recent appearance on ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. In 2009, she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.
There are many other bright sides to Irma's story. After she graduated from Delgado College in 2001 at the age of 61, the school initiated the Irma Thomas Wise Women Center. "We provide counseling to young women, and the occasional young man, who may be unsure of the possibilities of furthering their educations," she explained. "We provide encouragement, and I share my own struggles."
Rounder Records celebrates this remarkable milestone in Irma Thomas's career with the release of The Soul Queen of New Orleans: 50th Anniversary Celebration, which features 3 new songs, 9 highlights from her Rounder catalog, and 3 tracks recorded as a guest for special projects on other labels.
For the first time since 1990's live album, Irma and producer Scott Billington chose to record with her working band, The Professionals, a group of New Orleans R&B veterans (who might have a lesson or two for younger neo-soul musicians to learn!). The three new tracks include the uptempo "Got To Bring it With You" (co-written by Fabulous Thunderbirds frontman Kim Wilson), and the newly-written but ever so classic soul ballad, "Let It Be Me." Irma and her longtime keyboard player Warner Williams co-wrote a new blues, "Your Ship Has Sailed." These songs showcase Irma in her classic element, with no click tracks, auto-tuning or other studio tricks. Nobody does it better.
Other highlights include her joyful interpretation of Dan Penn's "I'm Your Puppet" (from her Rounder album My Heart's in Memphis), and her deep reading of the Tom Jans song "Loving Arms," originally released on the I Believe To My Soul collection on the Hear Music label. A more obscure track is "There Must Be a Better World Somewhere," recorded as part of a tribute album to the great songwriter Doc Pomus on Rhino Records.
This album also marks the 25th year that Irma and Rounder VP of A&R have worked together, an artist/producer partnership that must be something of an industry record. Says Scott Billington, "It's been a great privilege to work with Irma as we imagine each new recording, and to help her find the right songs. I think we've discovered quite a few good ones over the years, and it's always a thrill to hear her transform each song."
Irma summed up her career in a conversation with New Orleans writer Jeff Hannusch, "I really haven't thought a lot about being in show business that long because I'm having so much fun right now. Recently, I've gotten a lot of acclaim and its all humbling. The Grammy® award was especially prestigious, but I'm truly honored and humbled by them all. I might slow up a bit in the future, but I don't ever foresee retirement. I know 50 years is a long time, but when you're doing something you really love, you don't think about the years."