On one of the most blisteringly cold days in December I sat next to Valerie June in a small coffee shop and listened to her tell me about how music helped her and her family grieve the death of her father. "I feel like his spirit was so happy," she explains, describing the hospital room that was filled with song as her father slowly passed. "I feel like we would've all been a freakin' wreck if we didn't have songs."
June grew up in a musical family, though she didn't see it that way at the time. Her father promoted blues and R&B shows for a living and the family attended church every Wednesday evening and twice on Sundays. But it was folk music—and artists like Joan Baez, Mike Dillon, and Joni Mitchell—that inspired her to sing. She was drawn to songs she thought moved people and inspired change, music with a moral message. She started playing guitar in her early twenties and from there began to book shows in Memphis, playing coffee shops and open houses.
On her forthcoming album, The Order of Time, June dusts off the "organic moonshine roots music" she introduced us to in her first album, Pushin' Against a Stone. Her sophomore album—written with help from Norah Jones— matches its predecessor in length and musical style, but her vocals are featured more prominently, hinting at a more confident approach to making music that works with her capabilities. The energy June brought to us with "Workin' Woman Blues" is still there in songs such as "Got Soul" but overall the record less resembles a push out the door and more like an exercise in vigilant renewal. From the very first note on "Long Lonely Road" to the joyful trumpet that closes the record 11 songs later, June's self-described "organic moonshine roots music" ultimately celebrates being alive. Reflective of her outlook on life,—one that takes everything, even the good times, with a grain of salt— The Order of Time glides and grooves right before breaking your heart completely.
Over coffee, June and I talked about time and space, taking care of yourself, and embracing who you are.
NOISEY: Your music is beautiful folk-rock blues. What was it about that genre?
JUNE: The whole act of folk singers in the 60s was so powerful to me growing up. I just freaking loved hearing the story about Joni Mitchell going to cafes and playing or people playing for freedom, Mike Dillon, and Joan Baez, and Mavis Staples….I thought, ok, well, each of these songs that I love from these genres have something in common, and that's a story and it's a moral message to help open a person's mind to a new place. If they're in the darkness that hopefully is going to give them a turn of events that's going to help them to move out. [The blues is] not meant to keep a person in a dark place, and the same with folk. The power that music [has] to move people and to change parts in time is what drew me to it. And then from there just seeing how that was the basis for a lot of other genres of music. I felt like if I say I'm a folk singer then I'm bound to that for the rest of my life, if I say I'm a blues singer then I'm bound to that. And I'm really just a fucking singer who sings some songs. Whatever I receive that's what I sing, so I don't sit down and say I'm going to write a country song, it just is country if it's country so that's kind of one of those things.
The tradition of folk music tends to lean a little more political. Do you see yourself at all as a political force in music?
My only job is to write the songs and sing them, and allow people to come into them in their own way, and I don't really know much about politics at all, and so how can I be political? I don't know anything, I don't know what's going on over there. Because what I really feel is that politics are here and human beings are here, and I live right down here with the rest of the human beings. And we're responsible, we're responsible for our Earth, and our world, and our neighborhoods, and our communities, and respecting each other. So, yeah, I vote up here but I work down here, this is where our focus should be, it should be on creating the world versus living in the world out there…And that is where your focus always has to be. That's where my focus has to be, where your focus has to be, where his focus has to be. Always inside on the world that we're creating in here, and then doing little bits out there.
So it's more like taking what's inside and giving it?
Yeah and just realizing that inside power is huge. You can't do it without all the distractions of looking there at politics and things like that, so I try not to go there. I try not to let that be my compass.
So what do you use as your compass then?
So many things. The simplest are mantras and affirmations, which seem really silly, but they keep me on track. It goes in my head 24 hours a day. Just this, "Thank you so much because I am now peaceful." "Thank you so much because I am now honoring the space that's around me." Just these things trying to keep my head out of the way of distractions, but that's a hard thing to do because then something big happens in the world and I'm looking out I'm not looking in. I'm not religious, because I can't tell you what to do. You do your thing, I do my thing and we just get our practice. We have an ultimate goal but you do it your way.
Has it always been like that for you?
I was raised super religious, and that's a cool way to be, I'm grateful for it, because it gave me a lot of discipline but it also helped me to see all the different ways of being, and to honor those. I don't disrespect people's religions and their places, and the way that they want to be. I feel like it all leads to a common place.
Earlier you mentioned that you want your music to take people places. What kind of place do you see yourself creating for listeners?
I feel like the space that an artist or musician can create is kind of like everybody out there in that other world blowing a trumpet and being like "Hey buy this, hey do this, or believe that." It's like we can create a space that allows people to just come in, and let go for a little while of all of it,and just enjoy being alive. Maybe you're at one of my shows and you're sitting, or standing, or dancing beside someone who's older and a different color. Bringing all of that all together in one room or one place, and turning off the minds that would be normally going, allows a huge shift to be able to happen in a consciousness. It's kind of like I can't write a song when I sit down and say I'm going to write a song, but if I'm doing other things and I'm not really thinking about writing a song, songs comes to me easier. So, if I can get people to a place where they're just doing things and not thinking about it—ain't anything crazy, just chilling—then that kind of opens up a space in their life, in their week, in their day where they can just allow maybe some other wavelengths or channels to come through. It's in those times that you're able to reboot so you can go back and create again, and create again, and create again, and create again.
You have a song, "If And," and it has this line in it about "men are born and then they're beaten down." Can we talk a little bit about that line?
"Men are born strong, then broken down. Burdened at birth til 6 feet in the ground." It doesn't have to be a man, it could be anybody here. And when you're looking at the world outside it's very easy to leave the house get beaten down, come home feel beaten down, go to sleep, wake up get beaten down again, on and on. If you're not doing something that revives you, or gives you strength to go on, then it's hard to feel this movement toward your own personal way of living so to be. A person could actually go through their whole life like that, and it's painful. I feel sometimes if you live out there in the world and you don't protect yourself in any way give yourself any treats, nourishment, happiness, positivity, then you will feel like that.
How did you start with working with your spirit? Did you fight it for a long time? Or did you embrace it?
That's another reason why I'm grateful for growing up in the Southern way because I really didn't have a choice, they beat it into me. And then just being around so many amazing spiritual people like my mom, my dad, people who believed in what could be. You know to grow up in a house where dreamers were respected, and the spirit is a lot about dreams and dreamers you know a person's spirit is. It's not the physical, it's not what you see, it's what's in that other world more so.
When you talk about the other world, do you mean like the spiritual—astral plane if you will?
It's the inner-world. It's your inner-world, if you want it to be an astral plane then it could be. But I think it's all relative to that person's perspective, whatever you believe is your reality in that space. Nobody can tell you what to put in there, but people do suggest things all the time with advertisements. So you might get some changes happening that you didn't think could happen because you weren't being conscious in that moment and they just seeped in. But for the most part it is yours, and your own creation, something can't be taking away no matter if you're oppressed or anything and that's why it's such a powerful place to work from. Because the world might stamp you or oppress you, but if you're working from that place you'll always be fed, you'll always have what you need to do what you need to do in that moment, whatever moment of your life.
How do you feel that translates into your music?
It definitely would translate into a song like "Astral Plane" because it's like a person looking for a inner-light and trying to believe in that thing that they see inside that isn't visible to anybody else. I'm still learning the meaning of it