"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.
Love and hate need each other for either to have meaning and I feel like it’s the same way with people. I’d like to believe love always wins coming down the stretch—it just might not be the way you envisioned it. In my experience love often isn’t what I expected and wouldn’t be half as good if it was. That basically is what I wrote this album about.
Townes Van Zandt once said “There’s only two kinds of music: the blues and zippety doo-dah.” I’ve always loved that. In my opinion, labeling music sucks, but clearly marketing and classifying music without some label is near hopeless, so here we are. This is not a blues album, though if someone asked me what kind of music I write, I’d like to say blues. Blues singing is an exorcism of the blues itself, and that’s how I relate to what I write. This album for me is an attempt to shine a light on my various traps and sorrows as well as explore their emotional depths. I try to purge hard times in song and can only hope that through sharing these glimpses of hard-to-pin-down emotions, others may feel less alone. So that’s how I approach songwriting—hopefully not wasting anyone’s time, and contributing meaningfully to the conversation within the songs of man.
Since making my last record, I destroyed all the pillars of my life intentionally and by accident. I found myself wondering what the hell I was doing, and had to slowly start rebuilding. When you go back to the ground level in any field, with your toes in the dirt, you've got to really want to do it. I already came up through the clubs, playing all the small gigs, busking the streets, and also got the delusions of grandeur that come from playing in much bigger places. When you've been through it and you know how much work it is to start from the bottom, you have to ask yourself if it's truly what you want. Here we are, so I guess the answer is yes.
A little over two short years ago, I was set to be married to a woman I loved very much, had just won my second Grammy with Old Crow Medicine Show, and life was good by all perceivable standards. However, I was deeply unsatisfied artistically and needed to leave the band. After the first year of touring my last album, I swore to myself I wasn’t writing another goddamned broken-hearted love song, but then my lover took flight and I found myself alone, worn out, disillusioned, and heartbroken in a way I hadn’t known before. The future was looking like an exhaustingly long walk through a knee-deep tunnel of shit ending in death, so, it seemed like it wasn’t going to be an overly joyous next record after all. BUT, I wanted to find a light in the darkness. This album is more of ‘a map out of the darkness’ than ‘an invitation to it.’
In writing this album, I wanted to paint a vision of the prison of expectations that eat loving relationships at their core and can turn them into a mechanical farce. The premise through most of this album can be summed up by the title “Scripted Love”. The songs reveal characters trapped in scenes they didn’t create as much as rehearsed. Their roles are played through narratives either engrained or sold to them through: Hollywood, social norms, family, fairy tales, etc. Hung up on “what’s supposed to happen” over what’s happening. They find themselves disappointed with the reality of relationships due to their false idealizations. Love becomes a possession rather than a presence. This isn’t to say I don’t think that there aren’t millions of people living in harmonious, real, and loving relationships. I don’t happen to know an overwhelming amount of them, but I know they exist.
In December, I spent two weeks on the Washington coast at a friend’s place where I wrote over half of these songs. I was alone with the cold wind and rain pounding in from the North Pacific. Then I ended up back in Nashville living above my friend Nikki Lane’s for a few months where I wrote the rest of them. I moved to a cabin in the country outside Whites Creek, Tennessee to record the album and then took it on the road where I finished vocals and bits in Stockholm, The Isle of Skye, and Blue River, Oregon.
I wanted to personally tell the story behind this record, but there are some things I can’t write so freely. Here’s all the name-dropping, self-congratulatory bits that I’d feel like an ass saying myself, written by a professional.
Gil Landry’s ‘Love Rides A Dark Horse’ follows his critically acclaimed self-titled 2015 ATO debut, which featured appearances by Laura Marling and Robert Ellis among other musical pals. Rolling Stone raved that the record landed at "the four-way intersection between Dylan-inspired folk-rock, atmospheric Americana, dusty cowboy songs and street busker ballads," while American Songwriter hailed it saying “these songs, and especially Landry’s honest performance, resonate long after the last note fades. They beckon you back to further absorb his heartfelt, occasionally comforting, musings on the trials and tribulations of romance-gone-sour. It’s a subject most of us have experienced, can easily relate to and one that Landry explores with taste and subtle, refined passion.” The album earned Landry dates with Ben Harper, Laura Marling, Brandi Carlile, Justin Townes Earle, Warren Haynes, Bruce Hornsby, The Wood Brothers, and more, in addition to festival appearances in the US, UK, & Europe.
'Love Rides A Dark Horse' breaks new ground for Landry with contributions from fiddler Ross Holmes (Mumford & Sons, Bruce Hornsby), keyboard player Skylar Wilson (Andrew Combs, Rayland Baxter), and drummer Logan Matheny (Roman Candle, Rosebuds), the songs explore a more seductive, stripped-down sound built upon a hushed sense of intimacy that calls to mind Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits. The album's tattered narratives cast aside romanticism in favor of reality.
Landry sets the tone from the outset with the alternately joyous and ominous album opener "Denver Girls," singing, "If it's not paradise now / Tell me what you're waiting for / Don't you know there is no evermore?" The song features haunting background vocals from First Aid Kit's Klara Soderberg, who joins Landry again later for a proper duet on the driving "Berlin." Additional female vocals appear throughout the album, some from Karen Elson and others from Odessa, their presence a gentle reminder that, as Landry puts it, "it takes two to disagree."
On the spare "Bird In A Cage," Landry searches for escape from the prisons we build inside our own minds, while the classic country of "The Only Game In Town" offers up biting wit in its take-down of love for love's sake. It's a sentiment he explores from a number of angles, perhaps most poetically on "Scripted Love," which looks at the ways we set ourselves up for failure by aspiring to unrealistic standards.
The scope of Landry's songwriting extends beyond just romance, though. On "The Real Deal Died," he laments the performance nature of style-over-substance art, while "The Woman You Are" finds solace in the company of a partner equally alienated by gentrification and sanitization of contemporary culture.
I hope you dig it.