Valerie June: From Memphis
by Joan Allison | edited by Sarah Rutledge Fischer | photos by Jacob Blickenstaff & Danny Clinch
The voice on the phone is girlish and sweet with a distinct Jackson, Tennessee Southern drawl. She is fresh off a European tour, but back in New York for this interview. She is a friend of a friend of a Memphis friend but could just as well be my younger sister as we chat about her life and music. She is strikingly open and earnest and enjoying all of the great things that are happening in her career.
How did you know that you could sing or enjoyed singing?
Well I knew I enjoyed it. There was no doubt. That was one thing. The other thing was I knew my voice wasn’t what I heard when I turned on the radio growing up. I always thought I had a weird voice. I didn’t know if I could make a living as a singer, because I thought my voice was too weird for that. But I’m stubborn, and I believe in
Did you have any training?
Just [growing up] around all the members of [my] church. We didn’t have a choir, and we didn’t use instruments, but we sang every single Sunday. Everybody sings differently, you know? So, being around 500 different people every single Sunday and just listening to their voices and trying to figure out where their voices come from in their body. Some people sing from their low diaphragm. Some people sing very quietly from the whispering part of their voice. There’s different parts of the voice but you can hear kind of where it’s coming from. I spent 18 years sitting by different people and listening to the way they sang. If I heard something I liked then I tried to figure out how they were doing it. Your singing voice, to me, is like an old Mississippi Delta Blues singer infused with a sort of Tennessee twang and maybe some Iris DeMente.
Do you recognize those in your own voice?
Not really. I’m starting to recognize my voice, but I haven’t really been able to identify my voice before. Lately—because I’m older and listening back to recordings of when I was younger—I can hear how my voice has changed with time. My voice, to me, now sounds a lot more in the jazz singer range or even like a Memphis Minnie, Billie Holiday or Dinah Washington. These old sounds that you hear Ella Fitzgerald offer up.
I was walking around somewhere, and I heard my music on the overhead while I was maybe shopping for groceries. I was like, ‘wait a minute. Is that me?’ I realized that it was me, and then I was listening to it outside of myself, and I thought, ‘Dang! I really sound Vaudeville-ish, you know? But in my music, I don’t listen to it that way—as an outsider. I
don’t think about it at all. It was an interesting moment for me.
You’ve said that your songs are given to you by the ethers. Do you associate any sense – taste or smell or color – when you get this inspiration?
Usually colors…all kinds of different colors. ‘Astral Plane’ (Order of Time) is super ethereal and it’s like a lot of fuchsia and turquoise and iridescent colors. The love songs have a very soft kind of pinkish color to them and sometimes a white. I’ve had dream songs (that were) just darkness and one single white light, and I heard the voice.
Was that singular light a person?
It wasn’t any form at all. It was only light. It was a beautiful voice like an angelic voice. Pretty. Just so pretty.
Are there popular artists who influence what you do?
There’s a long list of people who have influenced me. I started to speak those out on social media, on my Instagram channel. But there’s so many, that it’s kind of weird to give credit to one person. It’s huge, it really is. I’m just a person who loves music, and if I find something I love, then I find more about what I love about it. I just keep asking questions
until I get to the core of what it is. Once I find what it is, then it gives magic to what I do.
I heard you were going to invite Tina Turner to a concert on your Switzerland tour. Did that happen?
No, but I’m super hopeful! She’s so powerful as an individual woman– the way she has taken genres of many different singers and married them into her own style. That’s basically the same thing that I’m doing. Sometimes people are like “It’s so new, what you’re doing,” and I’m like “No, it’s been done five billion times before. I’m just moved to do it myself.”
I’ve read that you love John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine,’ but mostly you want people to respect each other.
I think a lot of it comes from being from Memphis. We are from the place where Martin Luther King Jr., one of the [most famous leaders] in our country’s history of change and positivity, was assassinated. I think that teaches us a lot of lessons about how to move forward in the world.
We can fight our way through… or we can decide “I’m going to allow change to happen, and I’m not going to use the hostile things like fighting. I’m going to stand up for what I believe in, and I’m going to have respect for my neighbors. I’m going to believe that me doing that, and me having integrity for myself and for my community, is going to help change the world in small ways over time.”
If everybody looked at life like that then we’d be looking at multitudes of people coming together.