First Look Friday: Valerie June Interview
First Look Friday: Valerie June Interview
Photo of Valerie June taken by Danny Clinch.

First Look Friday: Resiliency Is In The DNA Of Memphis' Own Valerie June

First Look Friday: Valerie June Interview Photo of Valerie June taken by Danny Clinch.

If you haven't heard the love-lorn, soulful, rich, powerfully beautiful, country twang-induced, rurally recognizable voice of this week's First Look Friday subject then can you really call yourself an audiophile?

Fresh from Humboldt, Tennessee, Valerie June is a product of her environment + embodies pure strength, resiliency and confidence that makes her brand of "organic moonshine roots music" sound like home cooking to one's ears.  Mixing different elements and genres like a down home jumbalaya, Valerie loves these sounds and her voice—and blend of spice, sugar and vinegar—makes her familiar and distinctive at the same damn time.

First appearing on the music industry's radar, Val was on the MTV series, $5 Cover, on an episode covering the modern music scene in Memphis back in 2009. She then released her collaborative EP with Old Crow Medicine Show, title Valerie June and the Tennessee Express, that led to her popping all over town. A medical setback forced her to reassess things in her life, yet she was able to fight against the odds thanks to her strong willed family.

The result of showing such grit + determination was Pushin' Against a Stone, which was released in 2013 and feature Memphis legend Booker T. Jones. Since then, she has been bubbling on high, being on everyone's lips and making it harder and harder to ignore her honest, homespun authenticity. With The Order of Time readying to hit shelves and digital marketplaces on March 10 (please press play on "With You," below), we are ecstatic to introduce the Okayplayer audience to Valerie June, a true star in the making.

A moving, ethereal person with the voice reminiscent of Billie Holliday, we chat it up with Valerie June about her musical influences, how a little thing like diabetes couldn't stop her shine + why working with Bjork would be cool.


Okayplayer: To music snobs the world over, you are making an impact. What is it that those in music game are seeing and hearing that the rest of the world has yet to discover?

Valerie June: I can't speak for them.

OKP: For those who have a passion for music, they honed their skills and practiced their craft. Who are your most cherished influences in music and why?

First Look Friday: Valerie June Interview Photo of Valerie June taken by Danny Clinch.

VJ: John Lennon. Nico. David Bowie. Syd Barrett. All the old-time blues and country singers. Elvis. Tina Turner. Fela. Karen Dalton. Tom Waits. Kitty Wells. Bob Marley. Bad Brains. Stevie Nicks. Nick Drake. Nina Simone. A.A. Bondy. Cass McCombs. Joanna Newsom. Etta James. Norah Jones. So, so many more. I like to stay inspired!

OKP: Can you talk about how your life was while developing as an artist? How did you react to your first bits of press?

VJ: Life before developing as a professional artist could be entitled: The Memphis Years.

I moved to Memphis for love at the age of 18. We married at 19 and parted in my early twenties. While we were together we had a band, Bella Sun. I wrote the lyrics and sang lead. I did not play an instrument. Upon our parting, I was still hearing songs, but it was impossible to book shows to entertain audiences for an hour by singing alone. So I became determined to teach myself to play guitar just enough to accompany my voice. I never wanted to experience the handicap of not being able get these songs out just because I was without a band.

Alongside sitting with the instrument between jobs, I developed a plan. I had the goal of making a real record. No labels were interested in me at that time, so I was planning to invest in my own career. My goal was to save $50,000 to be able to make a real record and self-release it. It took seven years of working three jobs per day plus gigs at night to come close to my goal. I'd save a little from each check—week-to-week, month by month, year to year. Seven years later, I reached $45,000, and my body shut down.

I was 27. I went into the hospital only to come out diagnosed as a diabetic. I can remember sending off a prayer from the ER. I pleaded to continue living so that I could make a real record. I also could not believe that I was a diabetic. I was thin. I was a decade in as a vegetarian, a yogi, et cetera, but it was true. I had to quit all of my jobs, leave Memphis and return to Humboldt, Tennessee where my mom and dad took care of me. I can remember not being able to get out of the bed for weeks. I was so weak that I couldn't walk to the restroom or even open a water bottle. I had to rebuild my strength.

One day, my mom had had enough. She came into my room, put my purple yoga mat out on the floor and made me get up and begin getting my strength back. The journey towards full strength actually took over four years to regain, but she forced me to start. She got me going enough to where I could sit and play the guitar. I called all of the restaurants and bars I had played at for years in Memphis and asked if I could have my job back. I was able to sit in the corner and play for an hour and make a little bread to pay for common bills. All of this happened before the Affordable Healthcare Act, and I had never had any insurance. I would put any extra dime towards my dream.

With a pre-existing condition, trying to secure healthcare and diabetic supplies was over $1,500 / month. All of my savings for the record went to paying off my hospital bills and paying for my insurance premium. I was extra grateful once my monthly insurance rate went from over $1,000 to $500. Affordable Healthcare is not free, but it is better than what existed before—especially for people who live with chronic illnesses. A friend introduced me to Kickstarter. He said I should reach out to the folks who had been coming to my shows for almost a decade in Memphis and ask them to help me earn enough to make a record. I was amazed at how many fans and friends helped me. That's how I got to make "Pushin' Against A Stone".

I often thank diabetes because I don't know if I really would have quit my jobs and leapt for my dream once I reached the goal or not. It all happened during my Saturn Return, so perhaps there were plans greater than my own for my life. Regardless, I made a leap in my life at age 27 to live off of my music alone. I signed my first record deal at age 31 and [I] still feel grateful for the continuous lessons I am learning by following a dream.

OKP: How did you react to your first bits of press?

VJ: I was very excited! I had worked for my father's promotion company, so I had seen the old fashioned press kits he got from artists. I put one together for my band and went to every music venue and publication or station in Memphis to try to drum up interest in our music. It was very rewarding to see it come together with the first bits of local press [that I had received]!

OKP: With incidents involving people of color, police and racist occurring almost on a daily basis around the globe — how can your music (and/or others) help to relieve the trauma that is being experienced by the masses?

First Look Friday: Valerie June Interview

VJ: Wow! The wording of this question could not be more fitting for where I see myself in today's world. I feel called. I am called to share light and to shine through my art. Music has offered me healing and rejuvenation in the toughest times of my life. When I have needed a new world within this world, [David] Bowie was there, [Bob] Marley told me to remember "One Love," Dolly [Parton] said she would always love me, Nina [Simone] sang in heavy emotion that human kindness is overflowing and I think it's gonna rain today, and John Lennon painted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech in his song, "Imagine". If my songs have the medicine to touch any heart as those have touched mine... even just for a moment, then I have done my job.

OKP: What have been the most definitive obstacles that you’ve overcome in your career thus far?

VJ: The most definitive obstacle I have battled with is my own self-doubt. This path has led me to quieting the doubtful voices that tell me what I cannot do and awakening the goddess that tells me anything is possible. Kind of like Jiminy Cricket!

OKP: Can you also talk about the importance of the music industry scene as how you’ve experienced it? How do you see it evolving in the next five years?

VJ: There really was / is nothing like having a team. During my Memphis years, I thought I was strong enough to DIY my career with a little plan, but I have carefully chosen the people I work with. And they are stars in their own right... There is something about having heart in what you do no matter whether it is cleaning toilets or opening shows for The Rolling Stones. Each person on my team has heart [and] I cannot really ask for more.

OKP: How do you see it evolving in the next five years?

VJ: I see streaming becoming more and more prevalent. I also am hopeful that more and more honorable ways are found to connect it to the artist—the source.

OKP: What are some things that you’ve learned about yourself that comes out in your music?

VJ: Lessons are constant. The biggest one for now is the importance of our time here on earth.

OKP: What were some moments from your recent travels that will forever stick with you? Why?

VJ: The Women's March in Paris, France will stick with me forever. I was there for work and had a day to go the March. The best signs [I saw] were "Kindness is Everything," "Women's Rights Are Human Rights" and "There's A Crack In Everything, That's How The Light Gets In!" The last one is from a Leonard Cohen song. I love his songwriting and was sad to see that he passed away.

OKP: What was the first song that you ever wrote entitled? Can you talk about what it has come to symbolize since you’ve entered into the professional life?

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

VJ: [Laughs] I have written so many that I can't remember the first one!

OKP: How can your music speak truth to power in an age where people are so quickly digesting sounds and disposing of artists in a nanosecond?

VJ: I think it is OK for an artist to take their time creating. It is also OK for the world to digest it in nanoseconds. The artistic quest is a solitary and internal adventure. It's an inward thing. It is shared with the World, but the World is not the greatest focus or concern. The truth of a person's art is really only known in small bits over a long time anyway. I am still processing [Jimi] Hendrix.

OKP: Collaboration is uniquely a key to the success of certain creative individuals who wish to change the game. Who would you want to work with this year going into the next and why?

VJ: Working with Bjork would be cool. She embodies music as a universal language and I would be interested to see what otherworldly songs we could write together. Especially taking our roots from such different parts of the earth. Something magical could happen!

OKP: What is the overall message that Valerie June is trying to present in her music?

VJ: I am just a servant of song. I write them because they come to me. Of my own songs, I don't sit down to write based on genre or themes. After they are written, I do the best I can to honor them. They are living things. They tell me how they wish to be realized at their greatest potential and all I can do is be a servant to them.

OKP: Can you break down the inspiration behind a song that you created but never put out?

VJ: I once received a lullaby. I think I haven't put it out because it might not be for the World. Maybe it is [only] for my first born? Who knows?

OKP: How do you see yourself changing the music industry for the better versus all of the bad stuff that goes on within it?

VJ: All I can do is be authentically me! Every being has a light [and] no light is the same. All are needed. So, I suppose for any musician who is focused on exploring and shining their own unique light there, we would see a positive change. One little light at a time.

OKP: How do you get over any anxiety before hitting the stage to perform live? What are some lessons or tips that you’ve learned from others about doing a stage show?

VJ: The entire day is preparation for the show. I dance, drink tea, chew ginger, hydrate, get good rest, time my meals — pretty much everything is about getting my mind, body and feelings in alignment to have a powerful performance. 22 hours of preparation for 1-2 hours of showtime.

OKP: If the reader’s learned one thing from this First Look Friday chat with Valerie June — what would it be?

VJ: The readers should learn that I am addicted to popcorn [laughs]!

Be sure to keep your eyes and ears open for more from Valerie June (and us!) by following her on Twitter @TheValerieJune.