June McDoom :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

On “Babe, You Light Me Up,” the opening statement from her self-titled EP, June McDoom layers her delicate folk rock with synthy textures and kaleidoscopic ambiance. The mood is sustained through the rest of the collection, out this week from Temporary Residence. There’s a tender quality to McDoom’s psychedelic balladry, but also an arch playfulness and tendency toward the spooky. Take the warbling “By June,” with its disorienting echoes. “I can’t even find my way/without your hand in mind,” McDoom sings, and indeed the EP, recorded with her partner Evan Wright at home in their piecemeal studio, suggests a kind of journey into the unknown. Originally intended as a stark folk recording, McDoom abandoned the concept in favor of an experimental Wall of Sound approach. She joined us from New York City to discuss it. | j woodbury photos: Ryley Pascal

Aquarium Drunkard:  I really appreciate the layering on your new EP. With a song like “Babe, You Light Me Up,” you’ve got these reggae-styled upstrokes, paired with twangy stuff over top. All throughout the record there are dubby moments that happen with the vocals and the new wave textures. Despite the writerly qualities of your work, it’s clear you’re not interested in presenting yourself as a standard singer/songwriter. 

June McDoom: This is the first project I’ve ever recorded. It includes the first songs I ever wrote. I moved to New York six years ago for jazz school. I was mainly singing jazz. But when I wrote a lot of these songs, I was like, “Okay, this is going to be a folk album.” I really loved Simon and Garfunkel when I was younger. I thought that that would be the thing I really leaned into: harmony, super-stripped down, early ‘60s folk. But when I started to record these songs with my partner Evan [Wright] on four-track, keeping it super simple with just nylon and vocals, it was just sounding really bad. I wondered, “Why? This is such a simple concept. Why is this not working?” 

So then we just went crazy. One of my favorite singers is Dionne Warwick, and there’s this specific early album of hers that I was really obsessed with at the time. We’re both into the really thick stacks of texture, a “Wall of Sound” Phil Spector thing. It was a crazy veer off from the super minimal folk thing that I wanted. We just started experimenting, buying random microphones and venturing into this new concept. 

AD: What music did you grow up hearing? 

June McDoom: My parents moved from Jamaica in the early ‘70s when they were really young. I come from a large family; they’re all from Jamaica. I grew up only listening to reggae music. And for a long time, I felt like that was really outside of my musical identity. My dad only listens to reggae music. He always has headphones in. When I went to jazz school at 17, I didn’t know who John Coltrane was. I didn’t know a lot of jazz history or a lot of American Music history. So I got into a lot of soul and folk. But as I started working on this record, I began listening to Alton Ellis then I was like, “We have to add some sort of element of this.” And then that became part of the whole big identity thing for me.

I think I really found my way into it through my love of production. Those producers in Jamaica would build a lot of their equipment. It’s just the craziest thing to me. The production side of things, I think that’s why I kind of grew out of singing jazz as much as used to because jazz is very much a live music. Jazz musicians are crazy talented at what they do. The beautiful thing about jazz is the live quality of the music, and I learned in this process that the countless ways that you can approach recording an instrument is something that deeply fascinates me. I became obsessed with how you can record something, and how you can make textures from sounds.

Another thing that ties back to the whole thing about coming from Jamaica is that my grandpa Colin Smith is a musician. It’s so crazy because I grew up with him my whole life. He makes mento music, Jamaican folk music. He plays the banjo. He’s had a band my whole life. As a person who really loves American folk music—now I’m finding my new love again for all Jamaican music. That’s been super special because now I really need to make a project with my grandpa. He was just honored by the Jamaican government for continuing the work of Jamaican folk music. It’s so cool that he’s so close to me, and I’m trying to learn from him more about that stuff.

AD: I can’t wait to hear the banjo record you guys make together. 

June McDoom: He’s also an incredible singer. He’s a baritone singer. My next goal is I want to write a song that’s appropriate for him and I to do a little duet on or something, and I produce it.

AD: That’s the coolest idea, you should definitely do that. 

June McDoom: I haven’t told him yet, but it’s happening. 

AD: You can just point him to this interview and say, “Surprise!” I wanted to ask you a little bit about another influence of yours that means a lot to me personally. When did you first hear Judee Sill’s music? 

June McDoom: It was also kind of when I was starting this project. I was listening to Spotify one day and the song “Emerald River Dance” came up randomly. It’s not on there anymore. 

AD: From the collection Til Dreams Come True. 

June McDoom: I’m really in love with that whole project. I kind of discovered her from that. But “Emerald River Dance,” it’s my favorite song ever written. I say this all the time. It’s the craziest song. I just took a road trip to Ohio to play a show and I listened to it on the drive. It’s a really incredible, special song. There’s so much music I love, but that song in particular had a really big impact on me. I feel like for a long time I have struggled trying to find my songwriting identity. I feel like every time I write a song, it’s a kind of overwhelming process because I kind of have a short attention span. I’m always trying to just be really concise. She’s talking about the meaning of life in the most beautiful and concise way.  I just love how natural her music is. 

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