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Sound Medicine


March 17, 2014

The “moonshine roots” musician on the magnetism of Southern music, learning to sing in church, and the timbre of the Tennessee landscape.

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Image by Matthew Wingnall

Before the American South knew Valerie June as one of its own, her star began to rise in Europe. Her music was met across the continent with enthusiastic audiences, but on one early tour she started to worry that the audience did not speak the same language as her. If they couldn’t understand her English, she thought, what good were her stories?

But June played through these concerns and the audiences responded. Her current tour, with soul music heavyweights Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, rides a wave of support for her debut studio album, 2013’s Pushin’ Against A Stone (produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys and Kevin Augunas, whose credits include Edward Sharpe and Florence + the Machine). The album landed in Rolling Stone’s 50 Best Albums of 2013 and its 20 Best Debuts of 2013.

Stories are the reason Valerie June is drawn to roots music. The songs that keep her listening have morals and messages that inform the energy of her days, and her own songs tell of love and loneliness, home and heartache. Each moves on its own plane, drawing from folk, blues, soul, and country territory. She calls it “organic moonshine roots music,” a reflection of her upbringing in the flatlands of Tennessee (and the perfect panacea to the journalist’s perennial demand to “define your sound”).

In both song and speech, she has an uncanny knack for voices. Her descriptions brim with dialogue: “The last time I was in Tennessee, I was in Knoxville, and people were just: ‘Hey, how you doing! Good morning, ma’am!’ And I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m home. Here I am, I’m home.’” NPR says of her singing style, “She sometimes channels an old male voice; at other times, she channels a younger woman or even a child.” A favorite story about the origin of these voices describes how June learned to sing from hundreds of teachers—the congregation at her childhood church. That palette of rich and varied tones encouraged her to experiment with her own vocal styles.

June’s strict Christian upbringing also established a discipline and spirituality that she credits with her well-being. She says growing up in the Bible Belt gave her a grounding “layer of life” with which to encounter the world. And while her music may be distinctly Southern, it includes collaborators from beyond the region. Musicians all over the world are influenced by Southern music, and June loves this transposition: “They learn it so well and they do their version of it.”

June and I spoke twice over the telephone, before and after her show in Memphis—dubbed a “homecoming” by a local newspaper. Our conversation traversed small-town life and city grit, the impact of mountains on vocal structure, and finding Alan Lomax in the twenty-first century—all of this shared with the sensibility encapsulated in her lyrics: “Ain’t tryin’ to be nobody / But my fine sweet self / Honey, if I give you everything / then, I’ll have nothing left.”

Henry Peck for Guernica

Guernica: You were raised in two small towns in West Tennessee: Jackson and Humboldt. Tell me a bit about growing up there.

Valerie June: Well, Humboldt is really small—it’s like eight thousand people. And you just see the same faces all the time. Whatever people are doing, they’re probably going to be doing it five years from now. You have your banker, your general store runner, the principal of the school, and things of that sort. It’s nice to see that, and to get old with other people.

When I was a kid, I always wanted to go to Europe, to go to Africa, to go traveling. And I said, “When I grow up, I’m gonna get out of this town and I’m gonna see what else is out there.” But at the same time, because I was from this small town, and not many people got to travel the world, I kind of had a fear that I couldn’t, that it would not happen. So there was that side that was like, “Oh no…”

Sometimes when you’re in a more fast-paced place, with more to see and do, you miss out on things like nature and beautiful, God-made things. They call it “God’s country”!

Because I was from such a small town, even moving to Memphis and being around so many different types of people, cultures, and races was kind of a shock to me. And it was kind of a shock to them, having me come in. Everybody was always like, “Where are you from, you can’t be from around here.” And I was like, “Yeah I am.” “Well, you don’t sound like it. You must be from Texas or Mississippi.” I was like, “No, I’m from right down the street. Seriously.” And this is funny because I’ve met so many fans from Tennessee who come from small towns like mine, and they sound like me, and they understand what I’m talking about when I tell a story about how proud I am to be from this tiny town, and how proud I am that maybe I don’t sound like everybody else, but I’m doing what I want to do, and I’m dreaming, and I’m creating a world in my life that I want to have, a magical little world. They understand it because they feel the same way. They’re just like, “I have dreams, and I want to see the world and I want to travel, but I’ll never give up home because it’s beautiful and I get to see the same folks and we’ll get old together, but also, I’m proud of being able to go and travel.”

Guernica: What did you take from the pace of life in Humboldt?

Valerie June: The time passes slower. You learn how to stretch every single moment of life and get the goodness out of it. And you appreciate simple things. Sometimes when you’re in a more fast-paced place, with more to see and do, you miss out on things like nature and beautiful, God-made things. They call it “God’s country”!

Guernica: There are a few places with that moniker—I know the Indian state of Kerala wears the slogan “God’s own country,” both for its natural environment and the religious diversity of its population. You’ve said that you owe your early vocal education to thrice-weekly sessions with five hundred teachers—that is, attending church. How did this teach you to sing?

Valerie June: It was pretty simple. There were no instruments and no choir. Everybody just sat together, came in, and there would be maybe five songs in each service. You just had to turn the page in the songbook to the page that the song leader wanted to sing, and then everybody would just start singing together. You get in where you fit in and sing with all your heart and that’s the only requirement: sing with all your heart.

Guernica: So how do you stand out in a congregation?

Valerie June: You don’t. That’s not the point. The point is to raise your voice and be heard to God. You really are just celebrating being in the presence of other people that believe the same things you believe. It’s not about standing out, and I think it’s funny how people get confused when they think about church music, because a lot of times there is a soloist who stands out, but my church wasn’t like that at all. Everybody is equal: everybody sings what they feel and what they want to feel. Some women would sing a deeper part that would be a man’s part normally, but their voice was doing that so they did it. You just learned how to use your voice the way you felt comfortable using it, and the odd thing is nobody ever went to anybody else and was like, “You sound terrible, you need to shut up. Don’t you come up in here next time singing with us.” You appreciate everybody’s voices.

Memphis held onto me until I was far enough along in my art and then it let me go.

Guernica: You moved to Memphis after high school and soon started playing there, developing your sound in the city over the next few years. What distinguishes Memphis for you?

Valerie June: It’s a pretty dangerous city. When you compare it to a town like Nashville, it’s definitely a bit more real, in the sense of showing all its history. Martin Luther King died there—it shows all the scars. The city doesn’t hide a thing, and that’s what I like about it, how true it is. There’s a lot of spirits of the past there. It’s a very heavy place to be. And you can get stuck there, you can become caught in the muddy water and it can keep you there forever. So if you’re going to be stuck somewhere forever, you might as well be around good people! It’s definitely always got a hold on my heart, it’s always pulling me back, and there were times when I was living there when I was like, “I’m never going to leave.” And it wasn’t because I didn’t want to leave, it was just because I was sticking to the ground and it wasn’t letting me go. Memphis held onto me until I was far enough along in my art and then it let me go.

And when I talk about music in Memphis, it’s a place you can go if you are a beginning artist or anywhere in your career, and you can incubate. Everyone’s going to nurture you and support you, in whatever way you’re looking for that will give you food to grow and to perfect your craft. I feel a lot of cities are like, you go and you are trying to do your art, and there are so many other artists there who are so brilliant. And it’s kind of like they stomp on the scene, and they are like, “You’re not already Picasso? Get the hell out of here!” And Memphis is like, “Well, you’ll get there one day!”

A lot of good music is born there because of the way they nurture musicians. But it’s not a place where you can make a great living playing music. You have to leave. And that’s why it kept me while it needed to keep me, it gave me everything it could, and then it pushed me away. It said, Okay, you can go now. I even tried to leave halfway through my stay there—I stayed ten years—and it wasn’t time to go. I traveled all around the country and I played and I did all this stuff and then Memphis was like, “No no no no. Come on back. You got a little bit more growing and learning to do.” That’s kind of how Memphis is.

Guernica: Land and place are age-old themes in roots music—do you feel connected to the West Tennessee landscape?

Valerie June: It’s flatland. I love mountains, and I would visit East Tennessee and see how beautiful it is around Nashville. And you get over to Knoxville and Chattanooga and it’s so pretty with waterfalls. I was kind of like, why did I have to be born in the boring cotton field flatland area? And I asked my dad once, “Why did you want to live on this side of Tennessee?” And he was like, “I don’t need anything coming between me seeing the moon and the stars and talking to God, and mountains get in my way.” He just wanted to see as far as he could across the flatland. I could see the beauty of that. When I was down in the Delta and I drove from Clarksdale to Memphis, it was a beautiful night and that’s when I decided to name my music “moonshine roots music.” The moon was just pouring down over the cotton fields, and I was like, this is why my dad likes being in the flatland.

When I think about singing, and music, I think about how the people who live on the East Tennessee side have more of a curve or yodel to their voices, and then you think about the curve of mountains, and the different layers of mountains. And people living on the west side, I think they have more of a flat, deep kind of voice. It’s really interesting—maybe the land reflects what voices are going to sound like.

Guernica: I love that idea of topography influencing vocal shapes, like immersion in wide, open spaces affecting peoples’ sightlines—they begin to regard every setting as if from a distance. You mentioned how you came to a name for your music. What is it about roots music that resonates with you?

Valerie June: I always have to say it’s the stories. The stories are just too good. And they have moral messages. I love to read things that have moral messages, and I love to hear stories where it’s not just a hook, you have to follow the story, you have to listen to the message of the song, and get it and use it in your everyday life. Like “Keep on the Sunny Side”—when you feel like crap, you just think about that song and get it going in your head a few times as you go throughout the day, and it’ll shift your energy. Even the sad roots songs have a lot of good stories to them, and the murder ballads are good too. I mean, who doesn’t like to watch a nice gory murder film on TV?

There are a lot of murder ballads out there, but most of them are about killing the woman. I was like, “We’ve gotta turn this around!”

Guernica: Your song “Shotgun,” about a woman seeing the man she loves with another woman and shooting him (“And if I can’t have you nobody can”), and probably herself (“Late last night they laid you in your lonesome grave / And don’t you know tonight they lay me beside you”) is a very tender take on the murder ballad.

Valerie June: “Shotgun” came from a visual, like a mini-movie, where I just saw an image and all the stuff that happens in the song. And I was a little bit scared of it, but I just wrote it. I looked back at it after I wrote it and I started judging it and thinking about it, and I said, “Well, it’s a murder ballad from the female perspective, I guess.” There are a lot of murder ballads out there but most of them are about killing the woman. I was like, “We’ve gotta turn this around!”

Guernica: I know you were involved in a group of female musicians from the South called The Wandering. How did that come about?

Valerie June: It was Luther Dickinson’s [a musician with the North Mississippi Allstars and formerly the Black Crowes] idea. He’s a connector in a lot of ways and he just so appreciates Southern American music. His father was Jim Dickinson, and he was raised around all this. Luther wanted to get us all together because first of all he wanted us to be aware of each other, but he also thought it was going to be a really beautiful project. He had a collective with Jimbo Mathus and Alvin Youngblood Hart, and they had this beautiful band touring and doing their thing as guys, so he thought this would get the girls in the South together too.

And then he got in the room with us and the music was so good he decided that he couldn’t stay out of it. So he pretty much jumped right into the band. But he was so nurturing. This was my first time playing banjo with a band, and he brought me in as the banjo player! I was terrified, because I have so much respect for the other ladies involved in the project, and they are from musical families, or have traveled and toured and been signed and all that, and at this point I hadn’t been signed and everything I was doing was independent. But I had my little part in this band and it was so cool! I had not traveled in a band—if you want to get broken in good, put four girls on the road together in a van and tour up and down the country. Lord! It was something. A big ole Southern experience.

I mean, roots musicians—we can get old, you know? We can get up there and wear overalls and deliver the songs, we don’t have to look any certain way.

Guernica: What challenges have you faced as a woman making music in the South?

Valerie June: My challenges have not been around music. My hardest thing in music was just sitting down and teaching myself how to play and believing in myself. So they’re all personal and self-created challenges that I think I’ve overcome within myself. Being confident enough to get on stage and play, things like that.

I’m grateful that music has been a place where I’ve found freedom. And as a woman especially I’ve found a lot of freedom in music. But what I’m doing is roots music, not doing pop music, and I think if I were doing something that was popular, then I probably would have quite a few more challenges. I mean, roots musicians—we can get old, you know? We can get up there and wear overalls and deliver the songs, we don’t have to look any certain way or be anything for real. Even though I like looking good—don’t get me wrong—but if I don’t want to, I don’t have to. But I appreciate that genre because of the freedom that the artist can have.

Guernica: And beyond music?

Valerie June: I don’t really like to talk about those things when it comes to the South. This is the reason I don’t like to: I feel like we’re moving forward. And I feel like we’re changing and we’re growing, and I feel like talking about the negatives and the strife and all the tribulations and trials, it prohibits us from growing and moving in the direction I feel like we’re going. You know what they are, the common things that people project onto Southerners. I’ve always kind of been in the middle of every room, trying to get people together, no matter what color they were. Even from when I was in grade school or church or wherever, I was always like: we’re one, and we should respect each other and grow as one. And respect each other’s diversity, of course.

With those other challenges, I can’t believe the ignorance there, so I don’t allow it to affect my life, I don’t allow it to come into my zone, and it’s not in my world, really. I create my own reality. And I’m not the only one. My reality is becoming more prominent. I believe that the South is changing, and that it’s growing, and people are respecting each other more in this day. That’s what I feel. And I won’t see it any other way.

Guernica: I’ve heard you spent a lot of time at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, where you came upon the work of Alan Lomax, the great documentarian of folk music. What did you learn from him?

Valerie June: He was capturing like a photograph all of the music that I love. Once I found out that this one guy did all of this research and studying and I could go to one place and dive in, and then with his Black Appalachia record, I was just like, “Wow. This is amazing, it’s mind-blowing.” And the way that he was fearless at a time when blacks and whites weren’t really hanging out so much. He was almost best friends with Zora Neale Hurston, who’s an amazing writer I love, she wrote Their Eyes are Watching God, and it was probably not so common to have friends publicly like that—a black woman and a white man. I respect his work because he dedicated his entire life to writing about and collecting this music. And then he went to Europe and he started getting into other cultures! And that was neat, too, that he wasn’t just stuck in one place and one time.

Guernica: Lomax went to great lengths to record music far from the trail, and collect sounds that had little exposure beyond small vicinities—as you say, capturing a photograph of music from this period. Do these kinds of undiscovered or at-risk musical pockets still exist? Do you know of modern-day collectors like Lomax?

Valerie June: Yeah—I’m part of a project that I’m really proud of called The 78 Project. It’s a couple of folks and they just go around and they make 78s [78 rpm records]. And they chose me, and they’ve also chosen a lot of rootsy type artists to record 78s. It’s really neat to sit there and make a 78, and have one take to get a song put on this record. One take! It has to be right. And then watching them burn the record, seeing what my song looks like, the black ridges, the cuts. Then they make you listen back to it immediately after you have made it. And there could be a bump or a scratch—it’s just the imperfection of that whole process. It’s neat that they’re still doing it and just keeping that tradition alive. They travel like Lomax did. They put these record players or burners in the back of their car and they go, and they capture music all over the country.

Guernica: You’re in the middle of a long tour with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, you’re playing in and out of the country, and you’ve been living in New York for the past several years. Do you have any rituals or habits from Tennessee that you carry with you?

Valerie June: The biggest, I’d say, is just trying to weave God into every single moment of my life. And being raised a very strict Christian has helped me so much. Not that I am now, but just having that discipline—I’m so glad that I was forced to wake up and go to church every Sunday morning, and then, even when I didn’t want to go back at night, my parents made us go back, and then, when I didn’t want to go when I got out of school on Wednesday, they made us go, and when I didn’t want to go to church camp, they made us go…

If my parents hadn’t been made to do that from living in the Bible Belt, maybe it wouldn’t be something that matters to me—maybe I wouldn’t even know how to talk to God.

It just established this layer of life that helps me to deal with all of the crazy shit that can happen. I just have to do prayers and meditation and affirmations to myself as I go throughout the day, and that’s the only way I’m able to make it through some days. It just keeps me grounded. I’m not religious, but I am spiritual and I extract that from it, creating my own practice. That’s huge, and if I wasn’t born in Tennessee maybe it wouldn’t be so strong in me. If my parents hadn’t been made to do that from living in the Bible Belt, maybe it wouldn’t be something that matters to me—maybe I wouldn’t even know how to talk to God. I know a lot of people that don’t pray or anything, and that’s fine—but I need to. I don’t even want to call it prayer, I just want to call it talking to something bigger than me. And I don’t even want to call it God. I just want to call it connecting with something that’s greater than I am. So that’s the biggest thing from Tennessee—the spirit.

Guernica: Have you ever used affirmation cards?

Valerie June: I love stuff like that. I have a lot of different collections of cards at home. It’s hard to say my favorite deck, but there is a deck called the medicine cards, and it’s Native American animal cards. You pull one and you get your animal, and it could be inspiration or self-esteem, and it says a little story about the animal and why that animal represents self-esteem, and if you pull this card today then this is what it means for your day. It kind of sets this little tone for the day, or at the end of the day, if you’re having a hard problem, you go pull one of these cards and it can set you in a new direction.

Guernica: For the foreigner who lands in Memphis tomorrow and needs a musical education, what three songs would you play to encapsulate the South?

Valerie June: Dang. “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” would be a good one. It’s a pretty standard Southern spiritual and so many people have done it. I think “When the Roses Bloom in Dixieland” would be another good one. And the final one for me would be “Tennessee Waltz,” and I’d listen to it done by Sam Cooke or Dolly Parton or Emmylou Harris. There are so many different versions of “Tennessee Waltz” and they’re all so good. Good lord! Ask me later and I’ll tell you three different ones.

G

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