Tennessean folk-soul singer Valerie June has music in her blood. Growing up in Memphis, she helped her father, Emerson Hockett (the late promoter who put on shows for gospel singers and artists like Prince and Bobby Womack) put up posters around town. When she reflects on memories of her childhood, communal singing was usually involved, “I always say it was a little bit like the Sound of Music at our house,” she remembers during a conversation before her headlining show at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Toronto.
The kinship experienced between people is only one of the themes she explores on her sophomore LP, The Order of Time, which was released last year. Over its 12-track run, the album is a meditation of electric blues, African rhythms and undeniable soul. Produced by Matt Marinelli (Bad Brains, Beck), June explores the inevitability of death, family (her father and brothers, Jason and Patrick, contribute backing vocals on standout song “Shakedown”), love and “time as the ruler of Earth’s rhythm.”
Following its release last year, The Order of Time received universal acclaim, grabbing a spot on Rolling Stone’s album of the year list and cementing June as one of the brightest new talents to emerge from the South. As June describes her approach to music there’s a quiet spirituality that emanates from her and she is resolute that her albums are never truly finished. Instead, they’re in a continuous state of evolution: “Things are never done…ever. You just say it’s a wrap and allow the rest to happen over time. We caught up with June to discuss “organic moonshine roots music,” collaborating with family, belonging to a church that banned instruments and having “the courage and tools necessary” to manifest your dreams.
A.Side: You coined the term “organic moonshine roots music” where did that come from?
Valerie June: Well, I think of my music as a plant. Which isn’t necessarily what people think of as far as the music world works. When they say “roots” in the music world they think of Americana and Folk and Blues and that only… I think of it more as a plant. You have the root of a plant that allows the rest of the plant to branch out and flower and go all kinds of directions. So I thought if I start with the foundation, the root, and study that then… I’m going to ultimately become myself. I’ll have a good solid foundation and I’ll just grow and grow and be who I came to be. But I don’t call it that anymore because I feel like it became limiting [as] people only heard roots in the context of “roots, blues, Americana.” If you’ve heard my music you know that I do that and so much more. I thought the terms “organic” and “moonshine” would be magical terms and they would allow that magical side to be present but, I don’t think they get heard so I don’t say it anymore. I let the listeners tell me what they hear and that is so much fun for me. After shows people describe it and they do it all so differently. Me trying to tell them what my music is…is an impossible feat.
There’s music writer’s for that.
VJ: *laughs* Yeah, it’s not really my job and I shouldn’t have tried to do that.
Congrats, it’s been nearly a year since your album The Order of Time came out. The songs were written over the course of 10-12 years. That’s nearly as long as you’ve been making music. How did you know you were finally done?
VJ: Things are never done…ever. You just say it’s a wrap and allow the rest to happen over time. And because live songs are different than what they sound like on the record every venue and every audience is different. The songs are alive and the job is never done. It just keeps growing and changing and lives longer than the artist. A simple song like: “I Fly Away,” “I Shall Be Released” or “I Put a Spell On You.” Any of these songs have been around for a very long time but with each singer they change.
Throughout the album the theme of family is undoubtedly there and this is even reflected in your choice to feature vocals from your father, Emerson Hockett and your brothers Patrick and Jason on “Shakedown?” How did this come about?
VJ: We are a singing family and we’ve been singing since we were born. [We sang] while we put the clothes in the wash, cooking in the kitchen and on the way to see my grandparents. We just sang all the time. I always say it was a little bit like the Sound of Music at our house. And now my little niece, she just turned five and oh my god, she can sing so good! My brother sent me a video of her just belting. It’s just so exciting to be in a singing family. When I had the show at Carnegie Hall my father and my whole family came up and I was like, “If y’all are coming then y’all are going to be singing.” When it came time to record [the album] I knew I needed my brothers and father singing. It was pretty natural as far as, it’s just the way we’ve been living. And when people would ask me if I was from a musical family and I would say no. My little brother plays guitar and taught himself to play guitar and everybody sings. But I never had thought about it that way because we didn’t start playing instruments until we were all grown.
I read that musical instruments were banned in your church, yet you were allowed to sing?
VJ: Yeah, which is probably why we didn’t learn to play until we were older.
Now you’ve been making music for over a decade and have mastered playing guitar, banjo and ukulele…
VJ: Working on it… *laughs*
Am I missing any?
VJ: Not really. I can write a song on almost anything… like spoons or whatever. I’m a singer and songwriter. Like even the sound of that refrigerator. If I listen to it long enough I’ll be able to find a melody and sing with it. I hear music everywhere and that’s the way I play. My band… now they are musicians. They are monsters at playing their instruments and have mastered it. I am more a master of the song. In the sense of working with the instruments to marry them to the song. That’s how I learned how to play. When I started to play, I sat with a couple of different people to and it was a disaster! I was just like, I just need to follow my voice. I went home and never took another lesson. So far it’s turned out alright.
I didn’t get into this to be a traditional or purist. I got into music to grow and change.
Valerie June, February 2018
I’d say it’s worked for you! You decided to pick up the guitar in your early twenties in spite of, having grown up in a church that banned it. And then rebelling against the idea that you need music lessons to be a musician. What made you rebel against these ideas?
VJ: My father promoted music so we always loved being around music. He was living music twenty-four hours a day. I think it was the sound of acoustic guitar strings and I was like, oh my God that is the instrument for me. The other one that I would do in my next life would be the Cello. I just love their warmth and the way they vibrate against your chest. That’s ultimately what I fell in love with. Then I heard the songs that we used to sing in church with instruments like, why are we doing this? *laughs* But I am glad we did because we used our voices in place of the instruments. So I learned a lot about the voice. That was eighteen years of unconsciously being a student.
How would you say your music has evolved over the last decade?
VJ: It has so evolved! Like I said it’s like a plant and plants teach me a lot. They start with a their small seed, they grow roots and sprout and they change, they freaking change! They don’t stay the same and we don’t bind them. You kill a plant, that’s change too. I didn’t get into this to be a traditional or purist. I got into music to grow and change. The journey of following a dream has taught me so much. I wanted to do something that was a challenge and what it would be like to manifest something invisible, something that was in my mind. You see it so clearly but, the world doesn’t. How does that happen? How do we bring something into reality?
So I asked myself, what is the biggest, scariest dream that I have? And it was to be a singer. I always told my family that I wanted to be a doctor or lawyer. I never told them that I wanted to be a singer because it was so much bigger than me. The reason I wanted to manifest something that was invisible because I felt like that was the only real thing. There are two worlds: the physical and invisible world. Things happen first in this invisible world and you have to believe so strongly in what you have in that invisible world. You have to believe, believe, believe. Then you have to do the work in the physical world to help manifest this vision. I told myself that if I can manifest one small dream then maybe I can have the courage and tools necessary to manifest a larger dream.