Culture Trips

Valerie June: ‘Black women have always been eclectic. We just didn’t make the headlines’ | Music

“I love the way you say that. Girl, I’m about to write that down,” Valerie June says in her charming Tennessee drawl, as I repeat the activist term I think summarises her worldview: radical imagining. “If we can’t imagine and if we can’t dream then how are we going to create any more beauty?” she elaborates. “Or continue the cycle of trying to create a world where we’re all living as one?”

The folk-soul singer – now two decades into her career, and name-checked by Bob Dylan as a contemporary great – is a self-professed dreamer, always searching for alternative ways of viewing life: she tells me about visiting her family garden to bless the earth, shifting her energy through dancing, and retaining the wide-eyed outlook of a child. Speaking from her current base in the countryside a few hours north of her home in New York City, she even saw wonder in the snowstorm that ravaged the state, and ran out to draw mandala shapes in the fresh powder. “The days of your life that you have snow are so few, that you got to get out there and play in it when you get it,” she says with a girlish laugh.

Radical imagining has seen her rise from slogging out her 20s on the Memphis scene, to becoming a singer-songwriter praised for her blending of Appalachian bluegrass, Sunday morning gospel soul, and sultry basement bar blues. Her aim to bring the beauty you want to see in the world is encapsulated in her new release The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers, a stunning concept album that shows how far June has evolved from her early days as a folk artist.

The hypnotic rhythms of You and I, and the Sun Ra-inspired poetry of Stardust Scattering both showcase Afrofuturist pop, while the drum loops on songs like Within You almost position June, a long-time anachronist, as a contemporary alt-R&B star alongside the likes of Sampha and Kelela. Imbued in each song are “little biddy spells” as June calls them, to inspire courage and strength when there is no one around to offer it. “I’ve looked at the world and needed things to inspire me to keep me on the path of dreaming, because it can be so heavy,” she sighs. “It feels like society isn’t in support of the dreamer.”

Those dreams began with her parents, who raised her and her four siblings in a small town near Jackson, Tennessee. Her father worked as a construction worker to supplement his passion as a local concert promoter, bringing acts such as Prince and Bobby Womack to town. It was a difficult job that often saw him lose thousands of dollars if a gig sold poorly. “When he failed, and the next day he put on his clothes and worked the other business and continued, and we never starved; I learned how to be a dreamer from watching him.”

Though the family went to a church that forbade instruments, music was always a part of life. “We sang all the time,” June says. “There were maybe 900 songs in the songbook at church. We knew a lot of different tones and textures in the layers of the songs and how to use our voices as an instrument. I think that’s why I hear voices first when I’m making music.”

Aged 14, her family’s home, a cinder-block garage and workshop her father was planning to convert into a real house, burned down and the family lost everything. But the church helped the family get back on their feet, and her father won a job offer to rebuild a burned-down church in the local area and was finally able to buy a stable home.

‘Voices themselves are something mighty otherworldly’ ... Valerie June.
‘Voices themselves are something mighty otherworldly’ … Valerie June. Photograph: Renata Raksha

In 2000, June moved to Memphis at 19 and began performing with her then husband in the soul duo Bella Sun. The band broke up after their marriage ended in 2005 and she decided to finally pick up the guitar her grandfather gave her when she was 15, knowing she had to rely on her own direction if she wanted to make it. Years of working minimum wage jobs, playing dive bars, and self-releasing her own albums followed, until a small breakthrough came in 2009 after she was cast in $5 Cover, an MTV drama series based in the Memphis scene.

She was then diagnosed with diabetes, and medical bills ate up her savings until she was introduced to Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, who produced and co-wrote her third album Pushin’ Against a Stone in 2013, bringing out the grit and emotional depth of June’s sepia-tinged soul. Her brand of self-described “organic moonshine roots music” was well-reviewed and the album cracked the US Top 50; 2017’s The Order of Time was an album of the year in Rolling Stone.

June’s voice is a reedy instrument that carries all of the rough edges her blues heroes like Memphis Minnie shared, along with a worldly quality that compares to Nina Simone’s. “When I was little I thought that a singer had to sound like Whitney Houston or Aretha. That was really a singer,” she says. “But as you get older and you really listen to voices then you realise that voices themselves are something mighty otherworldly; the cracks in them, the breaks in them, the place a person might breathe, the place they fail to breathe, how they hold the note and how long they hold the note, the character of voices.” She jokes on how much her own voice changes: “In the morning I sound like a man, and in the evening I can sound as light as a kid.”

She prefers to use genres like “colours on a canvas” rather than let one genre define her. “I know I’m always gonna sound country listening to me talking, but I can sing whatever I want,” she says. Only one thing is for certain: “I just can’t get married again. I’ve been married twice, it don’t work, girl,” she laughs, summarising her outlook on both relationships and genres: “I can’t choose one – I like them all.”

Her appetite means that her songs often focus on relationships and vulnerability, but Smile, a spirited pop-rock tune, where June cries “life started keeping me, getting me down / All I could do was smile”, is reminiscent of the determined protesters at last summer’s Black Lives Matter marches who kept fighting in the face of dismissal and oppression. She admits to seeing a similar inspiration in the song, but hers was of the civil rights marches of the 1960s. “Listening back to the song in the middle of all those protests last year, I was like, dang, what I was seeing were the marches, where people would be hosed down and pushed back, and they got up anyway and dusted off.” June has previously shied away from making her songs political (telling Rolling Stone in 2017 that she doesn’t want to “take away the beauty of what I have created by asking me about politics”), but Smile uses joy as an act of resistance.

I ask her if she feels like she’s been tokenised as a Black artist, and she recalls a quote by Jean-Michel Basquiat: “I am not a Black artist. I’m an artist.” A wish for colourblind art may seem naive, but June’s dream for a future of artistic freedom is appealing. “I see myself that way, and I’m going to continue to see myself that way, despite the fact that industries are divided and still trying to make a balance between gender and race.”

Thankfully for June, that future is slowly coming into existence. Artists such as folk singer-songwriter Rhiannon Giddens and alt-soul singer Brittany Howard – who won best rock song at the Grammys this week – have put Black female guitarists centre stage, exploring broader genres than ever. “It’s great because Black women have always been eclectic and doing everything, we just didn’t make the headlines,” June says. “I think it makes our ancestors smile, because they would hope that we’d be past having everything being colour-coordinated. It would be based on the content of a person’s character: are they an asshole or aren’t they?”

Judging by the state of politics here and in the US, it may be a while until June’s asshole-or-not criteria comes into play. Until then, she has “a lot of dreams that I want to explore before I have to leave the earth”: along with an album, she also has a book out in April called Maps for the Modern World, a collection of poems and illustrations about cultivating community and mindfulness.

I wonder how she stays so positive and energised. She tells me she has to constantly maintain this outlook, calling it a practice to “figure out what brings you joy” every day. “With dreams you always deal with failure. You have to embrace the idea of your dream being bigger than you.”

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