Valerie June on “The Moon and Stars,” Her Voice, and The Afterlife | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Valerie June on “The Moon and Stars,” Her Voice, and The Afterlife

Still Dreaming

Mar 11, 2021
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For anyone who has encountered the singer/songwriter, Valerie June, one feeling is abundantly clear. She is a treasure. With an elastic, spirited singing voice, June offers the proverbial light to any and all who will listen. The immense value she offers, too, is borne from her uniqueness—which is no easy thing to maintain. The world, as we know, often works to strip people from what makes them special (read: different). But June has looked that practice in its eye and rejected it. To that we say, thank goodness! This week, June will release her latest LP, The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions For Dreamers. The album is rich and showcases June’s penchant for positivity and imagination. We caught up with the artist to ask her how she first fell in love with music, how she maintains her spirit, and what she thinks will happen to herself after she dies.

Jake Uitti (Under the Radar) When did music first enter your world in a significant way as a young person?

Valerie June: Ahhhh! Well, it just—I was born with it. I always say when I was born, I was pulled out of the womb and they slapped me on the butt and I just started SINGING!!! So, that’s what I was born doing. When I was little, my grandmother and my mother tell me that my voice was really weird. It sounded like a man. They said that I sounded like a little old man! I’m like, “So, I’ve always had a weird voice?” That’s what I asked them. [Laughs] So, that’s kind of what it’s been. Then when I was a little kid, just hearing songs about rainbows and frogs and stuff like that while I was playing.

Oh wow, like The Muppets?

Similar, yes! I’ll never forget those socks, of the Nanny.

Right, yes! That’s awesome. I love that show.

I love those socks!

The green and white ones.


Okay, so you had a love of music. But how and why did you decide to invest your energy into it? I know you used to help your dad, who was a promoter, put up fliers as a kid. So, maybe you were around the business of it early on. But why did you decide to invest in music as something you wanted to do besides, say, singing in the shower, so to speak?

Yeah! That’s the best place. I did it because I knew I was a dreamer and I wanted to follow a dream. I wanted to see what does it look like to really try to achieve a dream and why is dreaming so hard? Why is it so hard for us to make our dreams come true? Why has it been so hard for dreams for humanity like Dr. King’s dreams to manifest? Or why was it so difficult for, you know, Harriet Tubman to push past slavery and be one of the leaders pushing us past slavery? Why was that so hard? What does it take to have a dream and to make it come true? To see the world the way John Lennon mentioned in his song, “Imagine?” So, in order to see what dreams for humanity were like to manifest and why that was so hard, I decided I wanted to follow a more personal dreamer’s path to see if that could give me any guidance of advice or insight into what it takes to manifest dreams.

Wow! That’s amazing. So, you wanted to see the blueprint of what it was like to achieve a dream—I’ve never heard anyone say it so explicitly like that. It’s almost like a personal sociological experiment?

Well on the new record, the last song—not the last track but the last song—“Home Inside,” the lyrics to that song say, “The earth is a school/to shine is why you came.” And if you look at earth as a school, then yeah it is an experiment. This is the class, you know? So, of course, I want to spend my life doing that experimentation. One of my favorite books that I read when I was, I guess, maybe early teens was—Gandhi has a book, it’s an autobiography. It’s called, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. I was just thinking about that then, like, “What? Experiments?!” We never really think of life that way.

You mentioned your voice earlier. But as you got older, how did your singing voice come to you? How did you refine it? Or, perhaps a better way to ask is, how did you maintain your vocal uniqueness?

Well, I tried to have one vocal lesson and I probably should have more vocal lessons for preservation. But I couldn’t—my voice was. It’s a wild beast! It’s untamed and I just couldn’t fit it into what it was supposed to be to fit, to sound mainstream or to sound like what people were used to hearing. So, I got a lot of courage when I moved to Memphis to be a singer because people would turn me onto people like Elizabeth Cotton or Karen Dalton or Ola Belle Reed or E.C. & Orna Ball, these people with super odd voices. [Laughs] They made me feel better about my own voice. Because all voices are needed and all voices are necessary and everybody doesn’t have to sound like, you know, the local opera singer. I like all voices. I like beautiful ones and mainstream ones and ones without character, too. And going to church kind of did that for me, too. Because our church was not church where you use instruments. It was a church where you used your voice. So, I heard hundreds and hundreds of voices every Sunday in my life and that was beautiful to me, to hear all these different voices. Some from white folks, some from Black folks, some from old folks, some from children. All kinds of voices!

It takes maybe a certain type of spirit to not want to filter or reduce that. But to enjoy the cornucopia of it, in a way.

Well, I had to! It’s natural to want to fit. So, I wanted to fit. When I first started singing in Memphis, I would try to sing a song the way that I would hear it by that other singer. But it just wasn’t for my voice. So, as I listened to someone like Nina Simone the first time, I got to tell you, I did not like her voice. I was like, “Ehh, why do people listen to that?” But after I got, like, through my first divorce and I became a real woman, I listened to Nina Simone. And I was like, “What the hell? This is touching me.” It was like what I needed. I couldn’t have got through that shit without her voice. The same with Nico’s voice. When I first heard Nico’s voice, I was like, “This is dark, it’s from hell and what is this?” But now, it’s like one of my favorite voices in the world! I listen to her all the time! I need that space that she created, emotionally. I think that’s what some voices do. They have that capacity to take you somewhere, emotionally.

How often do you think about making Brad Pitt wait? And do you have any other funny celebrity moments?

That’s funny, I was just thinking about that this morning! I was like, “I wonder if I’ll ever see Brad Pitt again?” [Laughs] I sure was! I was like, “Oh my god, I hope so!” But yeah, I mean, I don’t know—do I have any funny celebrity moments? Usually they’re funny because I turn into a total weirdo and don’t know how to act around celebrities! So, I don’t know. I can’t think of anything but I can tell you that I can pretty much predict that my character is going to be weird!

Part and parcel with your journey as a dreamer is your relationship to mindfulness, energetic attention, a relationship to the stars. What interests you about these facets of life?

It is a mindfulness practice to follow a dream throughout your lifetime. Because when we’re little, we’re told to dream and what are your dreams and things like that. But as we get older, it’s like, “No, no, we don’t need anymore dreamers!” It’s more about conforming and getting a job and following the rules and stuff. So, dreamers have to use their imagination and they have to dream beyond the limitations of what society might have. They have to dream in spite of it. So, the journey can be super precarious and just kind of dangerous in some ways to be a dreamer. Especially if you dream for something beautiful in the world because if you’re trying to dream of something beautiful, there’s so much heaviness and negativity that sometimes it’s like why are you trying to do that? That’s foolish, the world is the way it is. But whatever! All of that to say that mindfulness is a way to practice along a dreamer’s journey and keep yourself encouraged so that when the negativity occurs, you have already a practice in place that keeps you uplifted, that keeps you positive, that keeps you balancing out all of the real shit that you gon’ have to see and go through on a dreamer’s journey.

What was the genesis of your new LP and what does it feel like to offer the album to the world today?

Ah! It feels like sharing little seeds of light or hope that I have. Or it feels like when I’ve seen a shooting star cross the sky—all the dust that happens around it and behind it. It feels like that, like maybe when a person I imagine or what I want to see when I see a stranger in my head open up the record, that when they open it up, the light glitters and star dust will start to come out and it will go around them and give them a little glow. They will have little moments of happiness! Because we have to take these little pockets of happiness where we can, you know?

Do you feel like the record is in touch with something either in you or in the world that maybe past music wasn’t?

No, I think it’s always there. What is on the record is ever-present and it’s with all of us all the time. We always have this light. We always have this. There’s a beautify to life and a iridescence that’s everywhere and it’s always around us and you don’t have to go deep, you can find the appreciation in just, like, watching the freaking snow fall right now! It’s serious to be on the Earth and to be an Earthling. It’s a really, really magical experience. We don’t get to stay in these bodies for long. So, for us to have this time with each other on the planet at the same time—and the amount of energy that we spend putting up bullshit for each other versus appreciating all of it, all that we have, is kind of baffling to me. So, it’s all here! It’s always here. It’s right here in front of us. And it’s nothing new.

I feel inclined to ask—and I apologize if this is too personal—but may I ask, what do you think happens after we die?

I continuously ask myself that question. It’s on my mind all the time. Ever since I was born, I’ve asked myself that question. It changes as I go throughout time. And I think it’s relative to the individual. Just like we’re in this body and we create this reality of this experience—I’m going to walk across the room and have a tea in a minute—all of that, that’s what I see. So, I think, whatever you see, you will experience when you move through the shift and transition. What’s real will become that much more real. It basically responds to what your mind’s eye is already showing you.

Thank you. Okay, let’s talk about the new record. What was it like to write the new tracks—and, I should say, my favorite is “Call Me a Fool,” so maybe you’d like to talk about that one?

CALL ME A FOOL! I love singing that because whenever the song came, it was like, you know, we’re always experiencing these moments where it’s like, “Should I do this or shouldn’t I do it? What’s everyone going to say if I decide to do this? Should I follow this dream or shouldn’t I follow this dream? Should I love this person or shouldn’t I love that person?” On and on! At the end of the day, we’re all making these choices all the time. We’re all taking these great risks and, you know, you just got to take a leap sometime in your life. And you got to let the world call you a fool for doing it. One of my favorite cards in the Tarot deck is the fool card. Because the fool is the card of new beginnings. It’s the card of taking leaps. It’s the card of not knowing whether there’s going to be solid ground there if you fall. So, right after “Call Me a Fool” is the song, “Fallin,” because falling does happen. If you’re on a dreamer’s journey, you have to know that you will fail at a certain point. But it’s not about that. It’s bigger than that. It’s bigger than the fall. So, all of it is through the dreamer’s story. On that particular song, Carla Thomas sings. And, to me, every dream has to have a fairy godmother and Carla Thomas was the fairy godmother of this entire record but especially that song. Where she says to the dreamer, “Only a fool tests the depth of the water with both feet.” And the dreamer’s like, “Fuck it, I’m jumping in!” [Laughs]

What do you love most about music?

I love that it’s everywhere. I love it, love it, love it. It’s everywhere. It’s even in silence. There is no moment that music doesn’t exist. Music is a spirit and a force and it’s not describable, really. We try to capture moments of it to share with each other but really it’s big. It’s huge! It’s in black holes! It’s everywhere!

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