Telling Stories – Valerie June Interview

1 Mar

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It is fair to say that the music we are surrounded by as children, that we are exposed to growing up, will have a profound influence on our tastes in adult life. For artists, it will likely have a significant bearing on the kind of music they want to make or that can be heard within their own sound. Valerie June describes her sound as ‘organic moonshine roots music’, so it should be no surprise to learn that she grew up in Tennessee, just one hour from Memphis and two hours from Nashville. She was surrounded by blues, soul, roots and gospel and as she performs, it is clear that each one is in her soul.

She is currently on tour supporting Jake Bugg (not for the first time, he’s a big fan) and will play a sold out headline show at London’s 100 Club on 5 March. This follows an appearance on Later… with Jools Holland last year and time spent in the studio with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys to work on her album.

Her rise to prominence has been gradual though and the result of some damn hard work on her part. Her soon to be released ‘debut’ album Pushin’ Against The Stone (out in May on Rob da Bank’s Sunday Best label) is preceded by three bootleg recordings she self-released and a number of grinding jobs. Jobs which she has said gave her a real sense of how the old blues artists she loved must have felt, coming home after a long and arduous day’s work, to sit out on the porch and play until bed.

She began performing at age 19 with her now ex-husband as the duo Bella Sun. When the band (and her marriage) ended she was left with an aching to write and sing but she didn’t know how to play an instrument. ”I didn’t ever want to experience not being able to perform cause I didn’t know how to play an instrument” she laughs as we speak in the cold backstage area after her fantastic set at Norwich’s UEA, ”and I didn’t feel like going about finding another band, because that wasn’t going to solve the problem. So I just started to teach myself how to play”.

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She is a captivating character, both to look at and to listen to. Her fabled dreadlocks don’t look as wild as they do on stage as she sits opposite, it’s been a long day (that began in Belgium) but she is still charming, funny and happy to talk. She speaks candidly and thoughtfully and tells tales of her past, present and future that we’d happily listen to for hours on end as they are recounted in that beautiful southern-belle accent. She even manages to make the various intricacies and philosophies of yoga sound like something magical.

She tells us about growing up and that, while she may have started performing at 19, she had been singing ever since she was a little girl. As a regular church-goer with her family, not singing wasn’t really an option. ”Everybody had to sing in church!” She smiles as she remembers, ”It’s like 500 people and you are commanded by the law of God to lift your voice in praise, so everybody had to sing together. It was a lot of fun to go to church just for the songs, you know? There were the messages too, but the songs were the best part, hearing all those voices. Everybody singing”.

That background and sense of fun has served her well so far. Valerie is blessed with a unique voice, she calls it unusual, and with the gospel of her church and the Memphis blues inside her, she soon found people falling in love with it and having a good time as she sang. Out on the road as a solo performer, she was teaching herself how to play as she went and found her audiences to be extremely supportive.

”The Memphis crowd is really nurturing, they are awesome,” she explains. ”So that was a good birthplace, not just for my music, it’s the birthplace of rock and roll and blues, you know? It’s the birthplace of a lot of music that we listen to in this world so I think it’s in the water to be nurturing if you are a Memphis music lover”.

Memphis music seeps from the pores of The Black Keys music so hooking up with Dan Auerbach to work on the album seems like a natural fit, and his (well Memphis) influence can be heard. Especially so in her latest single, “You Can’t Be Told”, which is a fantastic, earthy piece of blues rock.


Surprisingly, this was the first time Valerie had worked with producers and while the experience was fun, she admits it was hard work and was quite a learning curve for her. There was one element mind you that she did particularly enjoy about the experience; her smile grows and her eyes widen as she tells us. ”Dan’s studio is pimped out. It is awesome. He has got like a candy store of instruments, it’s better than a music shop. So it was neat to be around all those instruments, you are like ‘can I play this one? Can I play this one?’”

At the moment she is all about the strings, ukulele, banjo, guitar etc, but there is the faint possibility that her range will be expanded upon. ”My husband bought me a keyboard for when I signed my publishing deal with BMG Because he was like “you’re official now, you been writing songs for ever but now you got this stamp, like the certificate of a songwriter” So he bought me a keyboard, because every songwriter needs a keyboard!” Not that she has touched it yet of course, being out on tour all over Europe to promote her record plays havoc with that sort of thing.

As we compare finger length to see who would make the best piano player should either of us ever take time to learn (it would be Valerie, no question, her fingers are long and elegant, ours, not so much), we talk about how it feels now that, after seven long years and a lot of hard work, she stands on the cusp of her debut release on a label. Does she feel official now?

”I have played music my whole life in one way or the other”, she says. ”It’s something that I have done whilst I was doing other things, now it just so happens to be that this is all I do, but there is a lot to it”. Her strong work ethic is standing her in good stead she explains as it is not as simple as many people presume it to be. ”Everybody thinks that being on stage and being the centre of attention for the night or whatever is like easy or something. [But] you think of it as a job and you’ve got to be on your game and you have got to be like, about your business. I’m just really mindful of what kind of energy I am trying to put out into the world”.

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It’s an energy that she says can be a shock to some. She tells a story about buying a belt in London (and a rather lovely belt it is too) and how the woman selling it was taken aback when Valerie spoke, her southern twang was not the accent she anticipated hearing. It happens with her music as well. Looking the way she does, people expect her to play reggae rather than blues, but they soon come around.

It is also an energy that was present in her previous recordings and while Pushin’ Against The Stone may be billed as her debut, she is not about to forget or dismiss her past. Those bootleg recordings are part of her, they are like her children she explains and they will always be with her and always be something she is proud of.

But what of the future? She has worked so hard to get to this point that surely there must be a part of her that is ready to relax, or is this just the beginning? She has spoken in the past of how she expected to be doing this long into her dotage, noting that is how it is for people who make roots music, nothing happens for them until they get really old. So is that the likely scenario then? An older Valerie out on her porch late at night, mosquitos and fireflies buzzing above while an audience of friends, family and grandkids listen to the songs from her latest album? Her answer is remarkably honest and draws parallels to an unlikely source.

”A person that I recently read about, Beatrix Potter, what she did was when she was a child, she started writing and painting and she carried it over into her adult life and she began to just share it with the world. [She shared] her world with the world and people fell in love with the rabbits. And one day she married her second husband and at that time she stopped writing. Everybody was like ‘what’s going on you’ve stopped writing’. And she was like ‘I had to stop, the stories weren’t coming any more’.

“So I think music will be like that for me. When the songs and the stories stop coming, then I will stop playing music but until then, this is my life. She was, in the meantime, performing with her husband and doing a lot of other things and I kind of see my lifestyle like that. Where I have all of these other interests and I play music. I happen to be very gifted and I want to share that gift with the world, and I invite people to have a little piece of my world. Not too much! So that is kind of how I look at it. All the records are important, all of it matters, it is a journey for me”.

It is a journey that has taken her across the globe and back again; a journey that is about to see her release her highly anticipated debut studio album. It is a journey on which she has taken a bit of her world, a bit of her past, a bit of Memphis and she has shared it all with us. It is a journey that we hope will continue for some time and that the songs keep coming.


“You Can’t Be Told” will be released on 4 March and will be available on download and 7” heavyweight vinyl. Valerie June’s debut album, Pushin’ Against The Stone, is out on 6 May. She is playing the 100 Club on 5 March and has just announced some new UK and European tour dates for May.

Stalk Valerie June: Website / Facebook / Twitter / SoundCloud

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2 Responses to “Telling Stories – Valerie June Interview”

  1. name not supplied April 14, 2013 at 01:56 #

    beautiful piece of writing

  2. Paralax August 19, 2013 at 14:15 #

    Great read

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