[Read our ★★★★½ star review of Valerie June’s The Order of Time here.]
Valerie June has an overarching life goal: to never stop being true to herself. The Tennessee-born and bred singer, songwriter and musician has a very distinctive flavor and unassuming presence. She wears long, full-bodied dreadlocks and speaks with a ripe, extremely delightful Southern accent. There isn’t any symbolism or premeditated idea behind her look necessarily.
The tocsin-voiced performer jokes towards the end of our recent conversation about spending over an hour to fix her permed hair 17 years ago. “It’s just me wanting an easy life. It [perm] burned the hell out of my scalp. It was not fun,” June says. “Now, I just get up and walk out of the house (laughs).”
Musically, the woman born Valerie June Hockett likes to keep her sound just as simple. Sometimes vocally, June can blare out a nasally wail. Any other time, her delivery is an airy yowl over rhythms and melodies that blend folk, jazz, Americana, gospel, blues, soul, country and bluegrass. “I meet my voice where it is,” she proclaims.
“If it’s in a rough place, then it’s time to sing a darker song. If it’s playful and has elasticity to it, then I’m able to sing a higher, more angelic song. I try not to put much pressure on it to be a certain way.”
Often singing about her Southern roots, the entertainer behind the 2010 EP Valerie June and the Tennessee Express, 2013’s Pushin’ Against a Stone and this year’s The Order of Time shares that it was a close friend who coined the term “organic moonshine roots music” to describe her work. June prefers to think of her music as a blossoming plant.
As a matter of fact, the assured Southern belle no longer cares to even use the four-word term her girlfriend created. “It’s more a way of growing,” the humorous 35-year-old performer says. “I just go by Valerie June’s music and leave the rest alone.” When she started making The Order of Time, June had over 100 songs lying around. She and her producer, Matt Marinelli, chose 20 songs a piece before settling on the LP’s 12 tracks.
“We went with what we were feeling,” the daughter of a concert promoter recalls. “I was alone in the writing process, so it’s cool to have another person helping me with an external ear.” The thought of sharing those leftover miscellaneous songs with another singer or musician allows June to segue into remembering some great collaborative moments with other performers she’s had. Not to mention, this rainy afternoon prompts her to light candles, listen to records with her boyfriend, try to compose new music and relive some of those chance moments. “When I’m reminded of where I’ve been and all that I’ve done, I feel grateful,” she insists.
Born the eldest of five children, June, who now lives in Brooklyn, co-wrote and recorded Pushin’ Against a Stone in Black Keys member Dan Auerbach’s studio. Former First Lady Michelle Obama invited the resilient performer to the White House. And she contributed vocals to Meshell Ndegeocello’s “Be My Husband.” The guitarist, banjoist, pedal steel player and ukuleleist gravitated towards Norah Jones when she opened on tour for her. “Norah taught me how to be grateful and sweet,” June reminisces. “She’s one of the sweetest gentle souls of everybody I’ve ever been around.”
The late entertainer Sharon Jones was just being cleared of her first round of pancreatic cancer when June chatted with her at length while on tour. Jones’ strength and tenacity as the infectious leader of the extended ensemble The Dap Kings resonated with her. “She hit the road and did not stop,” she expresses. “Whatever it is you desire to manifest in your life, you don’t have time to waste.”
Once an aspiring art student, June spent two months on the road and co-wrote songs with music legend Booker T. Jones. Her admiration for the veteran musician’s gold and platinum plaques as a lead performer and session player in his living room inspired her to continue to defy genres and musical categories. “Whatever genre you want a song to be, go for it,” she encourages. “Don’t let the world decide who you are based upon the color of your skin.”
Health is another issue. Discovering that she was a diabetic when she was 27, June doesn’t allow it to stifle her spirit. The avid reader of Joseph Campbell’s inspirational books admits to keeping her purse on her at all times so she can reach for candy anytime she needs it. For the last year, she’s been proactively dancing for exercise. Technology, June says, makes it easy and fortunate for her to manage her condition.
“You can’t let it beat you,” she says. “You have to live with it. It makes me feel a lot like a normal person. I’m able to monitor each second and my blood sugar by looking at my iPhone, not having to prick my fingers all day long.”
It’s been a “treat so far” for June to embark on her journey and revisit her musical history. Writing music and coming up with new concepts invigorates her. Seeing where music takes her is an even greater reward. As for her legion of global fans, Valerie June believes she’s fulfilled a greater mission by being authentic.
She aspires for her spirit to be as infectious as Jones. “As long as I’m going along or following my heart, then I’m following my path,” June affirms. “If other people see it, maybe they’ll be inspired to follow their own path. We’re all just being our own beautiful individual selves.”