From the gospel hymns she sang alongside her siblings at weekly church services, to hearing hits by icons like Bobby Womack and Prince, much of Tennessee native Valerie June's childhood was defined by music. At the age of eighteen, Valerie left her hometown of Humboldt for the legendary city of Memphis, a move she says made her "fearless" and helped her find her voice. While there, she wrote many of the songs that would later appear on her debut album, The Way of the Weeping Willow, and fell in love with the work of artists like Nico and Nina Simone. Since then, she's traveled the world, moved to Brooklyn, and recorded four albums, including The Order of Time, which will be released next month. The experience of listening to Valerie sing is similar to hearing her talk. Her voice is confident and strong, filled with wisdom, warmth, and light, characteristics that perfectly capture the spirit of "Two Hearts" and the beating pulse of "Shake Down." Her music tells a story that you can feel deep in your gut.
I spoke with Valerie — who was recovering from a cold — about growing up in Tennessee, how a request from Massive Attack led to "Astral Plane," and why self-care is vital to creativity and activism.
Dianca Potts: Like you, I come from a Christian household and spent a lot of time at church as a child. Did the experience of singing hymns as a part of a congregation shape your sound in any way?
Valerie June: As soon as I was born and my mom was able, she and my dad took me to church. I'm the oldest girl — I have an older brother, a younger bro, and two younger sisters — so I've witnessed this three times. After the little ones were born, they'd come home, and if it was a Sunday, they'd go to church. I went three times a week for eighteen years, so it was very deeply ingrained in our family. We were a part of the Church of Christ congregation, so there wasn't a choir, everybody just sang together. My brothers and sisters and I, we'd just open up the [hymnal] and sing.
When my father was passing, we all came together and sang for a couple hours, and it made me realize that singing with family [was] the root of my music. It's where it all started. My brothers and sisters sing on the record, and my dad is on there too. We were able to record him before he passed, on April 5. I have a lot of pictures of him, but hearing the sound of his voice is so special to me.
DP: Your voice is frequently described as "distinct" or reminiscent of iconic singers like Billie Holiday. Looking back, which voices have shaped you the most?
VJ: I love really unique voices. For example, a few years ago this woman heard my voice, and she came to one of my shows and gave me a mixtape with Nico and Nina Simone on it, and she said, "Your voice reminds me of these women, and I want you to listen to their music because it'll change your life." When I put on Nico, she took me to a dark place. Then I put on Nina Simone, and I didn't like her voice at first. I thought, Why in the world does she think I sound like this? But it took me becoming a woman to respect and to really love her voice, and now I listen to her a lot. I love people who use the voice in an interesting way and let it be what it is. It's not always beautiful, but it makes you feel something.
DP: You lived in Memphis for a while, which is a city well known for its rich music history. How did being a part of that creative community impact your songwriting?
VJ: I live in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, now, but I left about six years ago from Tennessee, and Memphis was the first place that I went when I turned eighteen. It was really great. I lived there for ten years and I met so many amazing musicians. Everyone would always say, "Have you heard of so-and-so, you should listen to this," and so that's how I got my musical education, just by running around with musicians. It made me fearless when it comes to just being who I am as a musician. It'll always be a birthplace for me.
DP: I'm so in love with "Astral Plane," especially the way it explores the idea of the human spirit being able to separate itself from the body and return at will. What inspired this song?
VJ: Massive Attack sent me a track of their music and wanted me to write a song over it. I loved it, and I said, "I'll give it a try." I listened to it all day on repeat, trying to hear something, but nothing came, so I turned it off and went to go cook, and then I started to hear this voice saying "Dancing on the astral plane, in holy water cleansing rain," and I started singing it while I was chopping [vegetables]. I recorded it later on my phone, and once I had it all done, I wondered if it would fit with the track. I didn't know if they would like it. They said, "This doesn't really match our thought process [for] the message of this song," so my ego was a little crushed, but the lyrics were so powerful and beautiful that I had to sit with my guitar and come up with some music for it. I'm so glad that they rejected it.
"There's a crack in everything and that's how the light gets in." I feel like that's my job, to find the crack and be that light. That's what I'm called to do.
DP: Since the inauguration, I've found it difficult to listen to the news like I used to, so I've been trying to listen to music more often, and I spent a lot of time with Order in Time after I got back to New York from the Women's March in DC. It gave me a lot of peace. How have you found peace in the past weeks?
VJ: For months now, I've felt so called to just share my light and shine. The people who've inspired me, like Oprah, Michelle Obama, John Lennon, and Bob Marley, I feel like they created a world within the world. They said, We live here and we have the power to create our own world. Everyone has that power, and everyone has a light, and all of these lights need to be encouraged to shine, so my job is to nurture that through sound and art and creativity, to inspire people to shine. In order to do that, I have to protect myself and take care of myself, so I dance a lot, I hang out with my plants, and I do things that nurture my spirit.
I went to the Women's March in Paris, and it was such a powerful and uplifting experience to be in the crowd. One of my favorite signs [at the march] had a quote from Leonard Cohen: "There's a crack in everything and that's how the light gets in." I feel like that's my job, to find the crack and be that light. That's what I'm called to do.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Dianca Potts is a writer in Brooklyn (Bed-Stuy, to be exact).