Cory Branan and Valerie June have a lot in common. They are both Memphis-bred, roots-oriented singer-songwriters. They're both making a new city their primary home now. They've both gone a ridiculously long time without an album on a legitimate national label, given their talents. And they both his Austin this year on the verge of rectifying that situation.
They also found themselves on the same stage Friday afternoon at the Yard Dog folk art gallery on South Congress, for the annual SXSW day party sponsored by rootsy Chicago indie Bloodshot Records.
Branan, now based in Nashville, signed with Bloodshot earlier this year and was making his debut for the label at Yard Dog, ahead of an official showcase the next night. Playing with a new three-piece backing band made up of Nashville's Thriftstore Cowboys, Branan ripped through five songs from his terrific Bloodshot debut, Mutt, which is due out May 22nd.
He opened with the hard-rocking, darkly funny “Survivor Blues” and segued into the nostalgic “Yesterday” (“You were a walking want ad/You had summer on your side/Our front yards faced each other from across the great divide”) with, “Ladies, in the second verse — if you stick around for the second verse — I will teach you how to break his heart every spring.”
After the Tom Waits-like “Snowman,” Branan introduced “Karen's Song” as “a love song about an ex. She wasn't an ex at the time, but I find it's good to throw an insult in just in case.”
Branan ended the loose, funny, spirited set with the anthemic “Badman” (“Well, okay, I'm a bad man, baby/I think a bad man would do you good.”), beginning the song by saying, “I'm with the late, great Jim Dickinson on tuning. He said it's a decadent European tradition. So that's close enough.”
Mutt, which was recorded a couple of years ago in San Francisco, will be Branan's first album since 2006's 12 Songs and his first for an established label. It's about time.
June played before Branan, telling the crowd, “I'm originally from Memphis, Tennessee, but lately I've been keeping time and cheating on Memphis with New York.” She preceded to hush and clearly surprise a previously chatty audience in a brief solo-acoustic set that found her alternating between acoustic guitar and a mini-banjo (“I brought the baby with me.”).
Unlike Branan, June doesn't have her new record quite finished or her label situation sorted out. Her presence as a “special invited guest” of Bloodshot was a giveaway that the label is courting her, but they aren't alone. After a hard year of career development, June is putting the finishing touches on a debut album recorded primarily in Nashville, in close collaboration with the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, who co-produced (with Los Angeles producer Kevin Augunas), co-wrote several songs with June, and plays on the records. Two additional songs for the album were recently cut in Los Angeles, both featuring Booker T. Jones, one co-written with the Stax icon.
“It's a blend of a lot of what I do in a solo show, which is roots music — blues, folk, and country, with a hint of gospel,” June says of the work-in-progress album. “A blend of that with a more soulful note that Dan and Kevin brought to the table.”
June tours solo, but much of the album was recorded in a band setting, with Auerbach, Jimbo Mathus, and session players Eric Deaton and Richard Swift. Reconciling these recordings with her live approach was a hurdle for June, who was concerned with exposing fans to music she couldn't replicate live.
“I had a meeting with Dan and he said, 'why don't you go home and sit down with your guitar ad learn to do your version of these songs, just like you would with a Jessie Mae Hemphill or Carter Family,'” June recounts. “And that sounded good. Maybe I could do that. So I listened to it and thought I could do that, but I could also record more songs similar to what I do live and have more balance as well.”
The resulting compromise is leading to an album that mixes full band tracks with solo performances, and June is happy with the result.
June's official showcase Wednesday night was heavy with industry insiders who are trying to reconcile June's risky originality with her considerable commercial potential. June is currently weighing multiple label offers, from both European and American outlets, and hopes to make a decision in the coming weeks. She's already turned down one major-label-connected offer.
June says the plan is to present the finished project to American labels and if she doesn't get an offer she's happy with soon, to sign a European deal (where there are current offers she likes) and release the album in Europe first, hoping that overseas sales and buzz would prompt better domestic offers.
“If we decide to go with the European label, it's only going to come out there first. And we'll build interest over there,” June says. “I know with this record who I am and what I'm worth. And I know what I want out of a label. Until we see that, I think being independent [in the U.S.] is the best thing for me. The labels need to see that they can make their money back, then it's going to be easier for them to up the numbers over here. Because that's what we need in order to be able to market this record at the level we want to market it. I won't be shopping long before I make a deal in Europe, if I don't get what I want.”
June will play the Beale Street Music Fest in early May and hit the road soon after with “The Wandering” a new roots-music supergroup of sorts organized by the North Mississippi Allstars' Luther Dickinson that also includes Amy LaVere, Shannon McNally, and Sharde Thomas.
We'll have more on Branan and June's new projects in coming issues.