a woman singing and playing guitar

The Lyrical Genius of Valerie June

The soulful singer-songwriter has long moved audiences by channeling a chorus of voices from her Tennessee roots. Now, on the eve of her fifth album, she’s primed for a bigger stage.

“Looky khan” needed to tell people about the first time he heard Valerie June’s voice. He had to thank her. So on the YouTube page for “Somebody to Love,” the bluegrass-inflected lullaby from Valerie’s 2013 album Pushin’ Against a Stone, looky khan tells the story. He was in the car with his dad, who has Alzheimer’s and dementia, and his dad was getting disgruntled with the long journey home. When this song came warbling through the radio, looky khan’s dad suddenly fell silent to “appreciate her angelic voice,” he wrote.

A magical three minutes, but no telling if his dad would recall them. One night later on, they were out on the veranda together, and looky khan’s dad turned to him and asked if he could put “that song” on. Looky khan knew precisely the one. They sat there listening with the rain crashing down, and it was so sublime that looky khan says he’ll remember that moment for as long as he lives.

People tend to remember their first encounter with Valerie’s voice. They may disagree on what it sounds like (at turns an old man or a young girl, depending on the song) or even the genre it represents (blues, bluegrass, folk, country, gospel, rock). Still, there’s a striking unanimity around the use of terms like “timelessness” or “soulfulness” to describe it—essentially, its transcendence of age and culture and myriad other categories we invent to sequester ourselves. Even in the bowels of comments sections, which often skew toward our less virtuous traits, there is an overwhelming consensus.

When I speak to her in early January, she’s a few days from embarking on the European leg of her tour for her new album, The Order of Time. Luggage is sprawled across her Brooklyn apartment, and she’s just pulled some thighs and legs from the freezer to make chicken soup—prepping for the tour involves restoring her voice. “I went to the store and I got some awesome organic ginger and carrots,” she tells me. “And I’m gonna drink a lot of awesome herbal teas—dandelion, burdock root. And I’m gonna take my bath, because I do a lot of that. That’s for rejuvenation.”

The Order of Time is the 35-year-old’s fifth album, though the first three were self-released. Her last album, Pushin’ Against a Stone, was co-produced by The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, and the new record features backup vocals by the likes of Norah Jones. Her relative anonymity won’t last long. But it’s unlikely to alter her approach, either. Her music is deeply rooted in family traditions: Her father and brothers also sang backup on one of the tracks.

Growing up, Valerie (in red, age 13) and her siblings often invented songs on the fly.

Q: Take us back to your childhood. How’d you get your start?

A: “I grew up in Jackson, Tennessee, and I was around a lot of people who had dreams. They showed me how to live each day with hope and inspiration. My father was promoting music, so that inspired me. He had a construction company too, which is how he made most of his money. I loved it when he let me ride with him in the dump truck. He loved music so he always had the radio playing. Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody’ would come on, and I would get up and sing at the top of my lungs.”

Your voice transforms considerably depending on the song. How did that come about?

“We went to church three times a week. It was Church of Christ, so there wasn’t a choir. We all joined our voices, and there were no real instructions. It was just get in where you could—so 500 people opening the songbook and giving it a go. It was one of the most beautiful things, because I would hear some people that could really throw it out there, who sounded like professionals, and other people who had rough voices or soft voices. I learned so much about singing, being around people with different types of voices. And I feel like anybody can sing. You just have to find your voice.”

And your experiences in different churches influenced you in different ways?

“When I first started singing, it was more from the lower part of my abdomen because we went to a black church and that’s how they sang. As I got older, like 10 or 11, we moved and so we went to a predominantly white church. That’s where the singing was from the head, so I learned to sing from a different place. We all have so many different voices: the morning voice, the afternoon voice, the evening voice. It’s great when my voice is fully warm and I’m ready to sing, but isn’t there something beautiful about the raspy times and the squeaky times? Why can’t it just be something that gives you pure raw emotion and moves you, and it’s not like every single note is perfection? It’s perfectly imperfect.”

Do you think your wide-ranging background is what gave rise to the variety in your songs?

“I think it definitely did. I’ve always loved where I came from, but I’ve also always loved what other cultures are doing musically. I’ve always been curious about it. Maybe moving and going to a different church and being around a totally different musical culture was the thing that inspired that first. But I also had a babysitter who was a black woman with a big afro, and she wanted to write country songs in a time when Charley Pride was the only African American country music singer. That was inspiring too. I’m constantly being more inspired by what moves me versus what the world thinks I’m supposed to write because of the way I look. [Laughs.]”

Critics have struggled to define your music. There’s something about your songs that feels universal. Perhaps that’s because you’re pulling from so many different traditions and pieces of your own biography. I wonder whether people are drawn to you because you defy these categories?

“I reckon they are. The most important thing for us creators is to shine, and to shine unapologetically. I feel like when I do that, people respond. That’s me being my truest self, me being who I came here to be. That is our job as human beings. Everybody has a reason why they came and a gift, and you have to live up to that highest potential of what you came here to do.”

You use the word “receive” when you talk about songwriting. It’s almost like you’re not taking credit for the things you’re creating. What’s your process like?

“Somewhere from the ether, I hear this voice, and I hear all kinds of different voices—a man’s voice, a young girl’s voice. Sometimes it starts as a hum, almost like baby talk, then it starts to morph into words, and then I start singing along with what I’m hearing. I hear other voices coming in beside it, like harmonies and layers. It’s like a chorus. It’s way too much, so I have to write it down and carve out what’s essential and important. Maybe one of the voices should be a keyboard or a guitar. That’s where I’m becoming part of the process. It’s a funny thing to explain to people. For many years, I wouldn’t talk about it.”

You were doing a lot of tough jobs coming up, trying to make this work. How has that informed your approach?

“It makes me so grateful for where I am, to be living my dream as a musician, but the truest thing for me is more about understanding the journey. When I was cleaning houses, waiting tables, and washing dogs, I was looking at it like, you know, it would be great to be a singer, but the whole act of becoming who I am as an artist is me working in those worlds first. That’s the magic of it all.”

Your new album is built around notions of time. Why is that theme so central to your work?

“All of the beauty around us that we’re excited to see in the world, those things happened in very small steps, with little things happening every day. There’s such beauty to that. Time is the ruler of everything. It’s the rhythm of the earth. For people trying to manifest a dream, you have to work with time. It’s about tending the garden and being like, ‘OK, if I don’t get there, at least I’m sitting in this garden, and I’m trying. I’m still trying.’”

You recently lost your father. Did that change the way you think about the themes of this album?

“It certainly brought it home. When my father passed in November, they called me and said, ‘Hey, he’s not gonna make it. You can fly in and go to the hospital and hope he’s there when you get there.’ All my brothers and sisters, all five of ’em, were there. We sang around him for two hours, until his spirit left. We just held hands and we sang. We sang hymns and spirituals, but also songs that we made up. He had dementia and Alzheimer’s. They say that people who have that sometimes have certain things from their past that they remember musically, and they like to hear those songs again and again. That proved true for him.”

Ultimately, what do you aspire to? What’s your ambition?

“I would love to look out at my crowds and see all ages and all colors, speaking all languages. What an awesome thing to have a show where you’re gonna bring together people who normally would not be in the same room. They’re all enjoying something together, and their worries slip away for a while. If we’re moving from 30 minutes of happiness here to 30 minutes of happiness there, and we’re all getting along in a beautiful way, then what a changed world, right?”

JK Nickell is a features editor at Texas Monthly and a former editor at this magazine. Email him at jknickell@yahoo.com.

Photography by Dustin Cohen

Originally Published March 2017