Photo by Renata Raksha
Listening to Valerie June sing is an exercise in unique transcendence, but the same could be said of listening to her talk. A native of Humboldt, Tennessee — a little more than halfway between Nashville and Memphis — June speaks with a honey-soaked drawl that could charm even the iciest coastal skeptic (now, she splits time between Tennessee and New York). It also adds an earthiness to her descriptions of the spiritual practice and meaning of her upcoming third studio album, The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers (out March 12), yet another bluesy, vibrant exploration of all the richest corners of American roots music.
Her aim may be interstellar, but as is obvious in this Q&A, her wisdom on terrestrial topics is tough to match — she even has a book of poetry and illustrations coming out in April, Maps For The Modern World. June spoke with VMP about her new album, the overdue conversations about country music’s Black history (she cites Tina Turner’s debut Tina Turns The Country On! as a formative influence) and how to persist even when things get hard, a lesson most of us could use right now.
VMP: It's wild to think about the fact that we've all been quarantined for a whole year. How have you been passing the time?
Valerie June: I have been having so much fun being in the house and alone and in isolation, but I'm kind of at the end of it where I'm like, "I miss people!" I've been drawing, I've been painting, I've been learning new things on the guitar and the banjo, learning how to make music on the computer, watching the snow, gardening, talking to my plants and hugging trees — girl, I have been doing it up.
So you've been busy, is what you're saying.
Yes! I know how to stay busy. I don't get bored. And I'm a hermit, so I really like being alone — but now I miss people (laughs).
Had you recorded the new album before the pandemic?
We recorded and finished it right before the pandemic. But the pandemic hit right as we finished so the team decided we wouldn't put it out last year, and put it out this year instead. I usually don't take breaks, because I love what I do and I've had experiences in my life where I couldn't do what I wanted to do because I was not well. Since I've had my life energy, I just feel like I gotta do it while I have the energy. I know one day, I won't be able to go, go, go. So now, while I'm energetic, I feel like I should take advantage of it and try to get as many dreams manifested in this time period of energy as I can. So when I get old, I can just look back and be like, "Well, I did it. I went where I wanted to go, I saw the things I wanted to see."
When you're talking about physical wellness, are you alluding to diabetes?
It was diabetes. When it hit me, it hit me very hard. My body just wasn't ready. It's taken years, actually, to get it back ready. But as soon as I got it halfway ready, I was up and out that bed. You couldn't stop me.
As you started writing for this album, what kinds of ideas were behind it?
I write all the time — well, I can't say all the time, because it comes when it wants to come. I just keep myself ready to receive a song whenever it'll come. Some of the songs I wrote 15 years ago, others I wrote while I was in the studio recording the last record, others I wrote while I was boarding a plane or in my sleep, even. All of that means that I just have these songs that I need to record. When I find the right fit family-wise for the particular song, I'll record it.
I have the songs, so I didn't really have an exact plan. But I knew I wanted to create something that was dreamy, iridescent, ethereal, illuminate and other-worldly. I wanted to mix eras, and I wanted it to be super multi-dimensional — and I knew then, once I knew what I wanted to do in the spirit sense, I had to find the people that would make it happen. My touring band is part of that, but also Lester Snell, who Jack Splash brought to the table, Carla Thomas, Boo Mitchell — so many people were the people. Carla, she's the fairy godmother of the record. Lester and Jack, they're both wizards. It was just a dreamer's journey all the way through.
Being Memphis-based for so long, what does it mean to you to have Carla Thomas on your album? How did that come together?
Boo Mitchell was the one who connected me with her sister, Vaneese Thomas, who is also a singer. Because Carla doesn't have a phone, Vaneese is the way she gets contacted and managed, and Vaneese is wonderful. When I first met Carla, I had gone to the grocery store and picked up a bouquet of flowers. I put a red flower in my hair — I wanted to honor her. She's like a goddess, so I wanted to present her with these flowers. I went in, and I was ready to work on the music, and she comes walking in in a cowgirl hat with red flowers pinned to her jacket. I was just like, this is it! (screams) I don't know how this goddess walked in here, but she is the queen for real.
You've also worked with Booker T. Jones. What is it like working with those kinds of music veterans who have been at it for so long? What do you get out of those experiences?
What I get is the opportunity to hear stories directly from the mouths of the elders, and to say thank you to their face — [looking] in their eyes. And to ask questions about things that I need guidance on in the music world! To know when to take my breaths, and when to push. Things of that sort. They've lived graceful lives, they're beautiful and balanced lives. I can learn a lot from that, as a person who has the energy, so like I told you, now I take advantage of it. Every once in a while, it's a good thing that I might need to pause and hear their stories. Carla would tell stories about Otis Redding, working with him, and her father Rufus Thomas, and the history of Memphis, and Dr. King, and the tone of the town as it's changed — because she's been there the whole time. Straight from her mouth, there's nothing like it. I said very little. I just had a huge smile on my face, red flowers in my hair and was just so open to everything she was saying.
Singing alongside her, how long did it take to make the song happen?
It was pretty fast. Maybe we worked on the song for 40 minutes, and we got together at 10 a.m., and we hung out till midnight (laughs). The song actually was super easy — after speaking to her for a couple hours, I was like, "I love her speaking voice, not just her singing voice." So I had her read this African proverb at the beginning of the song. Looking back, I realize that she is the fairy godmother who warns the dreamer that, "You're gonna be a fool if you test the depths of the water!" It's needed on a dreamer's journey, you gotta have a fairy godmother. When I heard her voice, I was like, she's the perfect one! Then when she started singing, oh my God. Her voice! She can still hit all those beautiful soprano high notes. So heavenly.
Age and time haven't touched her voice — I love hearing time on voices, but I also love when things are preserved and taken care of as well. I'm not so good at that. I love old things, but I usually just bang ’em around and get them even more old.
Thinking about the idea of a prescription, as in your album title, in a time of so much illness, what do you hope this album gives to people?
Every time we went to work on the record, it was generally around a full moon, if not on a full moon. The moon was with me all the way. Then, at the very end of the record, when I walked out of the last session at 1 a.m., I looked up at the sky and I saw three shooting stars. So they were with me all the way. The only thing that wasn't with me, clearly — I knew it was gonna be moon and stars, but it felt like it was gonna be something else — so when the pandemic hit...
I've been practicing things that keep my spirit lifted for years. That's the only way I was able to have the energy to make it through my low point of health. When the pandemic hit, I was like, these are prescriptions. They're prescriptions in the same way my favorite poets, my favorite artists, my favorite musicians, have been prescriptions for me — these are my prescriptions for people who are interested in what I do. I knew that was the medicine that I had the ability to share, and I just wanted to go for it.
Being in the last year, and seeing all of the things be unveiled that we need to heal in our world and in our society — being from Memphis and knowing the dream of Dr. King — I just felt like it's time for us to continue to make that dream a reality. It's beyond time. I wanted to just know what it would take to keep people's dreams and their imaginations open, versus them closing as we get older. These songs are kind of my way of helping to keep people open to imagining a new world, or dreaming dreams. Because we need more dreamers in the world.
It does feel like sometimes Memphis' place in the American music world sometimes gets ignored, at least as compared to other similarly historic destinations. How do you see the music community there now as opposed to when you were just starting out?
Even when I was coming up, the elder musicians around Memphis would tell me, "If you want to make it, you're going to have to leave Memphis." It's like an incubator or some cocoon, where you can really tone and hone your craft and they are super supportive of you — maybe not monetarily, but in the way of spirit. There's so much spirit and so much freakin' soul there, you just can hardly talk about it. It's something you know is there. There's power in Memphis — there's magic.
Definitely. As an outsider, it does seem like there's some struggle to preserve that part of the city's history just from a financial standpoint.
Ten years away from Memphis and on the road, plus not being a born and raised Memphian, every single time I have an interview or anything to do with music, I talk about Memphis. It needs that light, and people need to recognize its place in the history of music, period. It's the most sung about city in the whole world! Every time period in American history, there's been a song about Memphis. It needs its due. Same with Carla! It's her time — it was her time then, it's her time now. I don't think things have to have money or be famous, but appreciation and just noticing things that are beautiful, that's what I think sometimes people can bypass when they think about Memphis. There's a lot of good stuff there.
Given how much of Memphis' music history is Black music history, that dynamic also connects to the way Black roots, country, Americana musicians have too often been overlooked. People are trying to correct that history, though — what parts of those conversations resonate with you, and which parts do you think are still not being emphasized enough?
(Sighs) Wow. I don't know how to even begin to answer a question like that. It's huge. I'm such a dreamer, and I've been so busy doing and being the magical thing that I think goes deeper than the color of skin we are, that I don't want to have conversations where I have to get my scholarly hat on and explain why it's OK to be Black and sound like I sound. (laughs) Every time I put energy toward that — and I think there are amazing studies being done about it — but when I put energy toward it outside of just being it, helping to pave the way in the way that Tina Turner helped pave the way for me, that's not the way I need to use my energy. I need to use my energy for keepin’ on knocking on the door, and keepin’ on pushin’ and putting my action toward the fact that Black people are vast. Black people are magical. We do all kinds of things, and we're human. When Dr. King came to Memphis, he came to say, "I am a man." Those simple words. I am a human.
Being recognized as human — that's a big deal. The more music can do that, to translate and to translate and to transcend color, the better we're all going to be in the future. But also recognizing the color that has contributed. Saying, "Hey, there's more than just Charley Pride." There's more than just a couple of country Black singers. There's a whole freakin’ world of Black musicians and artists and singers that have been doing country, blues and all kinds of stuff — and have been born and bred that way. I sound country because I was born country! My grandmother, my great-grandmother — they all sound crazy country. We're born that way. It's not something we're trying to do, you know? The recognition is beautiful, how it's starting to happen, and it needs to happen more.
My whole attitude around all of it is that beauty is political, and joy is an act of resistance. All I can do is smile, like what my record says. It'll get you down to be out here on these streets, a Black country singer doin’ what you gotta do and having everybody — even your own, sometimes — not recognize and understand why, and who you are, and the natural state of it. It's natural! To have to explain it?! Constantly explain yourself?! It's too much (laughs).
Completely. As you're saying, a huge part of the unfairness is then having to then talk about the unfairness, and constantly be asked how to fix it.
It also shouldn't be like, "OK, there are Black people within this lane, and so now we recognize that and we're gonna have this whole other lane." Nope! Thank you for the appreciation, we need that — but we also need to go back to the oneness of humanity and figure out ways to include and incorporate and have it not be about color, but be about music!
When you were starting out, it wasn't like you had a record deal overnight. How did you stay motivated and tapped into your creativity through those hard luck times?
Well, the songs haven't stopped coming. I still hear ’em. As long as I hear ’em, I'm going to feel compelled to want to share them. They're forceful. I've had dreamers in my life. My father, being a Black man in the South, and owning a business, and having five kids and a wife dependent on you — he had to make his own way. My best friend from Memphis, she died in 2019, but she owned her own coffee shop. It was always a dream for her to have a cafe, and it wasn't easy for her. She didn't make a lot of money, most people go to Starbucks! But she kept the doors open. It was the best place for me, because I had my first show there.
There are all these dreamers around you, the stars that keep you motivated and keep you going and keep you believing in your dream — knowing that dreaming is bigger than you. They died in the middle of trying to realize their dream, both my father and my best friend. With both of them, as they passed, I was lucky enough to be there, coaching and helping them to the transition. My father, he told me, "I just feel like I've failed, that I haven't done what I wanted to do in my life." I said, "What are you talking about?! Look around! Everything we have is because of you!" My best friend was like, "I never was able to do with the shop what I wanted to do with the shop." I was like, "Are you kidding?! I wouldn't even be able to play music if it wasn't for you giving me that stage."
What I'm doing, when I look to someone like Tina Turner or Dr. King, I know that dream's not for me — it's bigger than me. It's for that next person, so that they'll be able to come and it'll be that much easier for them. Knowing that, and knowing that no matter what, a dreamer, when they get on their deathbed, they have to say, "I fucking did it and I didn't look back!" Knowing that those are my motivations, and knowing how many people went through some crazy bullshit so I could sit around and play guitar all day — that's what keep me going! There were people literally trying to figure out, "How am I gonna get off this plantation?" So that I can be their granddaughter, so I can play my music, you know?
Do you remember the first song you wrote?
I remember hearing a song when I was very little. Just rainbows and frogs, that's all I remember. I was outside playing in the sandbox, and I just heard this pretty voice singing it. When I hear the songs, I just start singing along with them.
Natalie Weiner is a writer living in Dallas. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Billboard, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, NPR and more.
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