Singer-songwriter June West spent a few years during college playing nightclubs in Tucson before taking a job in a Brooklyn record shop, where she fostered a love for vintage soul music. While living in New York, she went on tour as keyboardist for Boston-based band Quilt, traveling across America and Europe. All the while she was penning songs for her own project, The June West Band, chronicling her adventures on the road and big-city living. Many of those songs were also about escaping the hectic pace of that life and coming home. West recently did just by returning to Missoula where she grew up and first started playing music.
"Coming home can be a place—for me it's literally Missoula," she says. "But also it can be about returning to a state of being that brings you comfort."
In a video for her song "Love Conquers Fear," West sings about the Rio Grande and tall buildings with "perches of power that black out the sky," while she sits contentedly strumming her guitar under the canopy of Greenough Park alongside a fast-flowing stretch of Rattlesnake Creek. She has a keen sense for lyrical storytelling in the tradition of folk artists like Woody Guthrie. "The stories I'm told, they're hard to believe, but I keep on hoping they'll justify me," she sings. "Most of the time, the lessons aren't clear, so tell me the story of how love conquers fear."
West has been away from Missoula long enough to seem like a stranger to some audiences, but her musical associations should rank her among the local scene's royalty. She got her start in high school playing at the Boys and Girls Club in a 1990s-style cover band called SuperPants, and then went on to play with singer-songwriter Turner Canty in Magic City Boys and with the prolific Travis Sehorn on his album Little Goth. Her band with accordion player Julie Hurd, Julie and the Wolves—"She was the Julie, I was the wolves," West says—played the popular three-day music festival Total Fest in 2010. Most notably, West co-founded The Best Westerns with singer/guitarist Izaak Opatz after meeting him in a botany class at the University of Montana.
Opatz kept the country-western band going with a lineup of renowned Missoula musicians after West moved to Tucson, where she started a rock band called Death Moth and spent her time hiking in the foothills of the Catalinas.
"I moved down there for love," she says. "For blooming cacti and a guy. And while the relationship didn't last that long, it opened me up to an incredible community of artists and musicians." In New York, where she moved to attend graduate school, she worked for the record shop and music label Captured Tracks. She spent her time perusing old records, which inspired her to develop a country-folk sound that incorporates elements of soul.
"I have a special affinity for soul music," she says. "It really has to come from the gut and the heart—it's not something you can fake. It means you can have a simple song but you get the most out of it. Charles Bradley is one of my favorite living soul singers. He's had a such a sad life, and you can hear it when he sings. I cry listening to him."
West returned to Missoula this year for the supportive music scene. She launched a Kickstarter campaign, which ends Jan. 4, to help produce her first album, which will be recorded in Los Angeles. West will play several instruments, including guitar, cello and keys. The songs amount to a map of her past few years. "The Reach Back" imagines forgiveness as a dance move, one partner reaching for the hand of another. "Peaks and Valleys" is an introspective song written in the bustle of New York.
"I was trying to hang on to who I was so I wouldn't lose myself in everybody else's idea of success," she says. "It's about dreams as being this underworld where you discover a lot of truths you don't necessarily reveal to yourself in your waking life."
West also wrote a song for Opatz called "You and Me," which she sang for him one day when he was visiting from Los Angeles, where he now lives.
"We always had feelings for one another, and he offered me his love on multiple occasions, and I wasn't really ready for it," West says. "We were playing songs back and forth and I played him that one. I wasn't able to say what I felt, but I could play it."
West will play a couple of shows over the next few weeks: one on Monday, Dec. 26, at Real Good Art Space, and another, on New Year's Eve, with Opatz and Missoula Americana stalwarts including Hermina Jean, Chris Sand and Nate Hegyi. West and Opatz plan to tour Montana together, renting Forest Service cabins and playing small towns. The songs she's writing now, she says, have a glow of optimism they didn't have before.
"I've spent my whole life loving playing music but telling myself it wasn't practical or that I wasn't good enough," she says. "But that's the beauty of Missoula. It feels good to be back here and getting that nurturing for my music, so I can live that dream through instead of just wishing for it."
June West plays Real Good Art Space Mon., Dec. 26, at 8 PM as part of a potluck. Bring a dish. West plays again at The Roxy Sat. Dec. 31 from noon to 3 PM. Donations accepted. Visit West's Kickstarter page for info on her album.