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Valerie June on finding the light in each other, plays new music in virtual session with The Current

Valerie June joins Mary Lucia for a virtual session with The Current.
Valerie June joins Mary Lucia for a virtual session with The Current.Photo Courtesy of Artist | Graphic by MPR

by Mary Lucia

April 08, 2021

Valerie June connects with The Current's Mary Lucia to play a few songs from her latest record, The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers plus an older favorite. June leads us on a meditation to kick things off, and speaks with Mary about channeling light in dark world, finding her voice, and spending time along the Mississippi River.

Interview Transcription

Edited for clarity and length.

MARY LUCIA: Hey guys, it's Mary Lucia. Welcome to this Current members session with Valerie June. I am so excited. We were just sort of saying that this is never going to feel quite normal. I wish we were sitting in the same room Valerie, but I'm so happy to meet you and happy to see you.

VALERIE JUNE: Well, this is super close. This platform that you're using at The Current is top quality. So thank you for that. I love it already.

Where are you right now?

I'm at home in my Brooklyn apartment. So I live between here and Humboldt, Tennessee, which is my rural life. But I've been in New York for a bit now.

Have you been in New York throughout the whole lockdown?

No, I was mostly in Tennessee, I came back up towards the end of August, beginning of September, and so I've been here since then. I'll go back to Tennessee, in about a few weeks to start the garden there.

Oh, nice. We want to start with the new record The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers. Listening to some of the songs I was struck with a sense of--where do you feel most misunderstood in your life?

Misunderstood, interesting. If my friends or family tell you, they will say that I'm kind of like an alien and that maybe I'm from another world and that maybe I live in another world. So maybe that's the place.

What do you think? What do you think they think is so other worldly about you?

I don't know exactly. I think we should ask them because, I think I need to start asking them like, why every once in a while do I seem like an alien? I know I enjoy being a hermit. I'm very introspective and I like being alone.

That is a skill that clearly has been put to the test in the last year. I find that there's a sense of isolation that works for me and then to a point where I just want to hug somebody. I'm okay on my own for the most part.

I'm with you with that. I'm at the hug point now. Like I just see strangers, and just want to hug that little old lady or whatever, you know?

Well, it is a crazy time in Minneapolis right now if there is such a thing as collective heartbreak. We are experiencing it right now. I think anybody who watches the news, anybody who is conscious of what is going on in the world feels the sense of heartbreak at senseless violence, particularly right now with the Chauvin trial in Minneapolis. It's really personal to us.

Well, I can understand that. I have been to Minneapolis many times now and I'll say that there's so much love there, like it's rich. There's so much diversity. The first time I when I thought, "Oh, there aren't going to be many people of color there, but there are tons of people of color of many different backgrounds and cultures. I just feel like when people come to my shows either at the Cedar or First Avenue, the elevation and the level of the Spirit was high. It would be you know, a mixed crowd, mostly white I'll say across the country in the world who follow my music. But I don't see the crowd that way. I see the crowd as spirits. And when they come--the heart that I feel that you're talking about breaking is so rich. And so sometimes I think it's okay for the heart to break. It needs to break because you break it open and it's like an agate stone there's all of these crystals and jewels of positivity and healing and angular and sharp and they can cut you! And it's a muscle and it might be tasked every once in a while, but you know--let it break. Just sit in that, you know? Be in that--it's what I'm feeling like I need to do right now.

I think that's beautiful. I also think too with letting your heart break is when change happens within yourself and hopefully, those around you and it's been brought to my attention-are you a meditator?

I am.

Do you have anything for us?

I try to spend my day like that, yes. I want to share just a short--sound meditation is what I call it. But it's really just focusing on sound words: harmony, tone, and just a short meditation with you if you're okay with it. So, I don't believe that you have to sit only or be in a seated position or laying down but if you feel like it, then lay down or get somewhere comfortable and sit. Or if you need to stand, just stop what you're doing and just bring your attention to your breath.

As I make the sound of the bell with my singing bowl, listen to the sound and how the sound never ends. It just trails right off and where it goes, I always do wonder, but allow it to bring your attention to your breath. Here we go. [singing bowl rings] Take a deep breath in. Then slowly release it out. In, and just slowly release it out.

One more breath and slowly release it out. And this time as you breathe in, notice the rhythm of your breath. In, noticing the rhythm, like the waves of the ocean and out. Noticing the motion. In--feeling the rhythm as it moves through your body. And out.

Feeling the rhythm as your heart makes music with its beat, and breathing in. Without me talking for a few breaths. Just sit with that rhythm for a little bit.

This time as you breathe in, notice the tone of the breath. We're all at a different place in our day. Is it heavy? Is it soft? Just watching the breath and noticing where you are in your day and being okay with that. Breathing in, noticing the tone. And out, noticing the town. In, and out.

VI'll let you have a few moments to just breathe noticing and watching the tone and the heaviness or the lightness of each breath. How does the breath land on the air? Take a deep breath in this time. Hold the breath as long as you can. Before slowly, very, very slowly concentrated with a notice to the cadence of each breath releasing it out and take a pause again, a rest.

Noticing the cadence before you breathe in, once again. Noticing the cadence and a pause and a rest. And out, pause, rest, and in. Hold it deeply, pause, rest. And when you're ready, slowly release it out. Take a few moments, taking those deep breaths, walking slowly noticing the cadence, the tone and the rhythm of each breath.

And finally, taking a deep breath in notice the harmony of your breath with the sounds of the world around you. I hear my computer humming as I breathe out. Breathing in I hear birds singing. Slowly breathing out. I heard somebody closing the door to their car. Slowly we breathing in. I heard a neighbor's footpring ran across the floor, slowly breathing out. And I'll let you take a few breaths noticing the sounds and the music all around you. The music of your life and harmonizing your breath with those sounds. As we come to a close, I'd like for you to visualize a light. It can be any color you wish.

Surround your entire body from head to toe, bottom to top, top to bottom with this light. Very iridescent and eliminate light and slowly breathing in that light. Feel the color in all your body and out. Sharing that colored light with everyone else on this call. Surrounding each person with that light is the rainbow of beautiful light as we focus on our light out across the planet so all birds, bees, black folks, white folks, old folks, young folks, mean folks, kind folks, all kinds of living things. Surrounding them with the light that we have in this call and they don't even know what is hitting them and touching them and making them feel uplifted and making them feel joyful in this moment.

Take a few moments before I make the sound of the bell to just keep radiating that light swirling it all around your body and throughout the planet as you follow your breath. As you listen to the rhythm, the tone, the cadence and the harmony of the music of your life.

You can stay as long as you need to in the meditation. I'm going to make the sound of the bell. We're at different places in the day so some people will stay breathing as we talk other people will move into the next phase of their day. Listening now the sound never ends. Dolphins can hear very high frequencies, elephants very low frequencies, but they all connect, just like our breath. There's a oneness.

So I know that with the trial for George Floyd, what he said was, "I can't breathe." And with Coronavirus, what that was dealing with and is dealing with is the respiratory system. And I just felt moved to share my meditations and my music practice and how spiritual music is to me. Because I felt like the veils been torn, we know where we need to heal, and breath and simply recognizing our oneness, and that connection to the music of life is a way to get there. So that's why I wanted to share that.

Valerie, that was so--can I call you every morning and do this with you?

Yeah, let's do it. I don't do it every morning. I do it different times in the day. So let's schedule it whichever time of day you like! I don't like rules.

This is amazing. This is a first I think for a Current member session. Valerie June, are you up for playing a tune right now?

Oh, for sure because it is April Fool's Day I think it's a very good idea to try to play my song "Call Me A Fool," but you know what I need to do that? Oh, yeah. There it is, I'm more ready than I thought I was. I call this song "Call Me A Fool" because I think that we need more dreamers on the planet. We need dreamers similar to the way Dr. King was a dreamer when he said, "I have a dream." And we're still pushing to see that come true. Or the way that John Lennon was a dreamer when he said, "You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one." To be a dreamer you got to be a damn fool. You got to jump in the water with both feet and not look back and you gotta let the world call you crazy. That's in love, it's in life, it's in dreams. Just fearlessly let them call you a fool.

[music: "Call Me A Fool" by Valerie June]

This is such a treat Valerie, your voice is so singular. And it's like a sort of like a fingerprint in that it really is so your own and I want to know, when did you find your singing voice?

I wake up and I'm trying to find it every day, even as you go throughout the day. I wake up in the morning and I can hit some super low like Barry White notes, and then in the middle of the day, I'm getting a little bit more open. And by the end of the day, I'm like, I can hear some Carla Thomas notes by the end. But yeah, like I have to walk into the voice every day and just be like, Okay, what is it? Because I know is not. It is what it's gonna be. It's wild, it's a beast.

That's what is so exceptional and personal because you are so unique in that way. And most singers I can think of when they first start singing maybe even as kids maybe there's less self consciousness. And then as they become more conscious of other people listening to them, they may be either are trying to emulate somebody, but you sound like you. And I just--I was just dying to know if it's like, that's how you came out of the gate.

I did try to sound like other singers, especially when I moved to Memphis and I started to be in the band Bella Sun. I really tried to make my voice sound more soulful, more what it would sound like coming from a black female. But I just--it just was forced. It was not natural. I think that the world needed to grow to the place of what they expect from somebody who looks like me.

I love that. Yes. I think that your Memphis roots to me, I love that city. Well, you're in two cities right now. You're just outside of Memphis and in Brooklyn, and both have incredible ghosts in those towns in terms of just the legendary artists that have shuffled around in that town of Memphis, and you've been able, well, obviously, you worked with Carla Thomas. How in the world did that even come about?

Wow. Well, it was a total dream come true moment because I loved her music and I did live in Memphis for a decade and never met Carla. She played like three or four shows over the years but actually getting to hang out and getting to meet her is hard. So I'm Boo Mitchell connected me with her. His father was Willie Mitchell and he has Royal Studios which is just as famous, his son, that man is amazing. They did all Al Green's stuff and Ann Peebles and all kinds of folks in there. And he called her and he said, would you be interested in working with Valerie? And she was like, "Sure thing!" And so we had the best day together. It was just me and her and we just talked about, like Otis Redding and Rufus Thomas and all kinds of fun stories.

It's amazing. I feel like you possess a certain spirit in your music, that I get the same vibe off of Mavis Staples. Have you met Mavis?

I love Mavis, you know, through marriage, Mavis and I are cousins. There was a marriage between one of her family members and one of my family members years and years back. Mavis is the queen of heart and joy. And I would extract as much of her as a role model for my life. I'll just steal as much joy as possible because she's got it.

She--I believe she is an earth angel. I've been lucky enough to talk to her a few times and you talking about that light? That incandescent light. Oh my lord, she is astonishing. And yeah, I also know that your father did sort of a side gig. He did some sort of music booking or promotion in Memphis?

He did it was actually in our little town, Jackson, Tennessee. If you go to Memphis and you drive to Nashville on I-40, the biggest town you pass between those two towns is Jackson. That's where Earl Perkins is from and Denise LaSalle, but we don't get any music there. So my dad had this dream. He was like, "Big acts come to Nashville and they come to Memphis, they gotta cross through Jackson. Why don't we get him to stop?" That was his little dream he tried to manifest and he did sometimes, Bobby Womack, and people like that.

Wow, see? That's incredible. And it was your grandfather who gave you your first guitar?

Oh, yeah. Granddad did. He didn't want to but he did. I was about 14 or 15 and he had one in the closet all since before I was born and nobody ever took it out. And I fell in love with the sound of the acoustic guitar and I begged him at a holiday once and I begged all day and finally grandma's like, "Let that girl have the guitar!" So gram's responsible too.

I love that. Valerie do you want to do another song for us, please?

Yeah, this song is called, "Home Inside".

[music: "Home Inside" by Valerie June]

Lovely Valerie June, we are so lucky to have you here. And also lucky to have members that support public radio like Minnesota Public Radio so that we can do these kinds of shows. I should remind you, if you are watching this on Zoom, that there is a place for you to enter a question. If you have a question for Valerie. Feel free to do that. And we'll get to that if, if you're not all too shy, but I feel like, I'm always curious to know, as a songwriter, Valerie, where do you start when you're writing a song? What is--is there always a first thing that comes in whether it be melody, whether it be rhythm, whether it be a lyric?

It's usually, for sure--it's usually a voice. I'll be doing something and I'll just hear voice singing to me. Like, y'all play songs for people on The Current, just driving and doing stuff or cooking or talking to a friend. And they hear some of like, what's that? I hear voices like that from wherever. I don't know where, wherever songs come from.

Yes. Have you ever had the the situation in which you knew there was a song within you and you were having such difficulty either structuring it or just getting it out? Or getting it down that you had to like, put it aside, move along, and maybe revisit?

Oh, yeah, what happens is, they don't always come as a whole song, right? And I'm a curious person sitting on the side waiting for the next chapter. And I'm like, "Okay, so how long are you gonna keep me waiting here?" And sometimes it's a decade or sometimes it's like, just a few nights? Or, you know, I mean, it can be a long time sometimes. And it's that is kind of painful, because I'm like, where is the story!

Well, you have worked with some really cool people. And I wonder about the process in the studio. Do you walk into the studio with a finished album of songs?

With this record, with "Pushin' Against A Stone," Dan and I were working on a couple of songs and I'd already had songs like "Working Woman Blues" that I did, I'd just been knocking around with that for years. And I did that with a Hungarian musician. And then "Pushin' Against A Stone," that song itself, Richard Swift, who's not with us anymore went over and started playing something. And he said, "I got this, I've been working on for a long time." And Dan loved it. Dan then started to play something and then the music sculpted. As the music sculpted, I started hearing like voices. I just started singing what I was hearing and it was, [sings] pushing up against a stone. There you go back, you go. Sometimes I can hear voices after I listened to the repeated same melody again, and again. If I'm writing with another writer, I'll just have them play the same thing again and again and just be like, wait for something to come. But that's not easy. If you want to talk about hard, that's hard beacuse then you're trying to create something. Pressure.

We have a question for you from one of our Zoom listeners. Joel wants to know, is there a venue in the Twin Cities you haven't played yet that you would like to play?

Hmm. Well..

You did Rock the Garden.

I did Rock the Garden and I loved it. Oh my god, that was such a high point in my life. Looking out at the crowd and being in the museum. Yeah, and I also rented a bike and I rode to visit with the Mississippi River because the way we have it in the south is huge and y'alls is just such a slither of her and to know her from all the different sides even in Canada. I go and visit with her, it's beautiful.

You've got to take highway 61 if you're driving to Memphis, it's such a big Beautiful route, but then when you get to that bridge, and you're crossing the Mississippi--yeah, I mean, it's connecting us I think, as far away as we may seem from the Twin Cities to Memphis, it's like, no, you've got that river as a conduit.

It's true. Maybe that's why so much good music comes off of that river, like from y'all down to us, and us up to y'all. It's a lot of music on that trail.

It could be. Got another question for you. And that is, Gene said: Just started a new job and meditation was a godsend. Do you use meditation to enter a space where you might be more receptive to hearing new lyrics?

Oh, yeah. That's really what I try to do with it is, like, go to this world, this other world within this world. And that's one of the beautiful things about it is that we can be here on Earth experiencing all the things we experience and still get to visit that space. I don't even know how to describe that space. But what I want to do is figure out how to bring that with me in every single moment. How do you do meditation in action? What does it look like to have it be a lifestyle, you know, not just sitting practice, but Cina Khan has walking meditation that I love to do. And mantra meditation, song meditations, different ones. So how do we live it?

Maybe we'll never know. But it's a good quest for life. I think. You want to play another tune, and we'll get some more questions for you.

Okay, this song is called "Smile," and as I--you know, we finished the record. [cell phone rings] Oops, I'm supposed to have it on silent. I'm in trouble boss is gonna get me! [laughs] But before we finished the record in March last year, then everything started happening with the world, and the pandemic and the loss of John Lewis, and the protests. And I had already had this song recorded, and I've listened to it again and again, trying to sequence the record. And I realized that this song is a song of using positivity as activism, and how sometimes everyone's already said it Dr. King said it, Harriet Tubman said it. So many of our leaders Lewis--John Lewis said it about bringing together the oneness of humanity. And what do you do after everyone said it and we're still pushing, still fighting to see it to be true? I believe there's a point of surrender where you just smile and you just know that you have this power in your heart, in your joy and in your inner space that nobody can ever to and to use that power to move mountains like the ones we're dealing with today. So here's a song.

[music: "Smile" by Valerie June]

Deborah said, "You've gotten a nod from Bob Dylan, how does that make you feel? And has it affected your confidence about your music?"

Wow. I definitely felt like I got a feather in my hat or a level of a degree from college when he said that, because I never went to school. So there are always those moments are you like "Well, should I have? Should I have?" But when Bob Dylan said that, I was like, nope, I shouldn't have. No, I did the right thing. It certainly helped my confidence.

That kind of affirmation from Zimmy, as we like to call them here in Minnesota is pretty spectacular. And though he's a larger than life figure, when you watch documentaries or interviews with him, you see this little slice of this humanity and like I keep thinking of him when he first went electric and he was in England, and they were following him around for the documentary Don't Look Back, and he gets in the car after the show. And he's like, "Don't boo me," like hurt feelings like, "Don't boo me man." Needless to say, I can only imagine the affirmation of hearing that Bob Dylan was a fan of your music is pretty spectacular. Have you ever had a dream of who you wanted to collaborate with that maybe seems out of reach right now?

Wow. Well, I mean, a lot of it seems out of reach. Even people like Sheryl Crow, who I've been on shows with, that I love and admire the music of. Or Dolly or, you know, like, they're totally out of reach for me. I've was lucky enough to be on stage and get to sing with Jackson Browne and Mavis at the same time on The Weight, and that was huge. And, you know, like, even someone like brother Theotis Taylor, who's an old 92-year-old piano player down in Georgia, who I don't even know if he still gets out and plays very much. But, a lot of it does seem a little bit out of reach when I think about collaborating. And then I go back to the fact that I'm a huge hermit. So these are thoughts that I toss around anyway.

Right? So we'd have to bring these people to you in your apartment. I think if we're putting this out there into the world, it'll be maybe a little less frightening and a little more obtainable. But you know who I think you should collaborate with at some point in your life?


Sean Lennon.

That would be incredible.

I'm going to get to work on that.

Yeah, thank you, that would be huge. I would love it love it love it.

I think again, people that assume, oh, well, you know, you're living in Brooklyn you're in and out of these incredible historical musical cities and that you would have just access like you said, Robert Plant lives in Nashville, but it's sort of an assumption people make that when you hit a certain level in your career that naturally you should know everyone else in this business. And that's just not true.

Yeah, it's not. I've run across Robert Plant and different folks, but actually, I need more nerve in the way of, "Hey, you want to sing with me on this song?"

I hear you. I'm going to give you one more question and then we're going to get another song. Let's see here. Sheena, one of our Current listeners and members said, "What is your most favorite song you think everyone should listen to? And what is a song you think doesn't get near enough love?"

Hmm, that's a very good question. I definitely think everyone should listen to "Home Inside," which is on this record. And, let me see. A song that doesn't get enough credit...I think that will be my song for rainy days, which is "Rain Dance," and yeah, today is a rainy day in Brooklyn. So I wouldn't mind playing that one.

[music: "Rain Dance" by Valerie June]

Song for a rainy day. I throw credit to Bob Dylan on that one too when I say, "It's all over now, baby blue."

Valerie June, this is so wonderful--again, and thank you to the members who make this kind of thing happen and make it possible. Like you said, with heartbreak and opening up your heart you'll find change and hopefully I mean, I'm not the most optimistic person and I have a feeling you have that way over me. You have an optimistic heart and I think for people to realize that sometimes you have to be almost broken before you start to see the world differently. You think of people less as others and realize how much we're all here together experiencing this together, and it sounds corny sometimes. But I do believe that if positive change comes from all of this, that we'll all be better for it.

I do too, I have a poem in my new book, and it says, "All are seen as self, a vast extension." And it does sound corny, when you think about it, you know, it can sound like a bunch of hippie bullsh**. And that's what it is, if it doesn't have the action behind it, that makes it real. But when you're really putting the action behind it, it's tough. And it's work. And it's like you say, heartbreaking and painful, but we don't get it done. We gotta get it done.

Tell me about this book quickly. Good lord, is there anything you can't do? Okay, you have a book, and is it of essays or poetry or a combination of both?

It's a combination of both. It's called Maps for the Modern World. Some are just lines like to keep people's hearts open and keep them encouraged along the path of their own. Seeds of light is what I call them, with little little bits of inspiration. If you're having a day where you're just like, I'm done with this sh**. Open the book. Maybe one of the pages will say something positive for you to keep going.

There is a certain amount of surrender that I think a person has to do when it comes to cynicism, like we were saying, and the open heart of meeting the world with that open mind and open heart. You do have to take the chance, it's not guaranteed that it's going to be better on the other side. But now that we've been through a--you got vaccinated, didn't you?

Oh, yeah, this week, I'm 100% able to go out, it's great. I'm gonna go order some sushi tonight. That's what I'm going to do. I'm doing it. I'm finally gonna do it.

Yes. It's the little small things that we're all grabbing on to and holding on to like, this is going to be over sometime, we're going to get through this, we'll see on the other side of it. And I think your positivity, your light, your message, your music is so healing. And we are also lucky here at The Current that you did this member session for all the listeners, and this new record that you're putting out into the world. How just--finally ask you, I mean, now that, yes, things are loosening up a little bit, but do you even dare start booking shows?

I really want to. And I'm thinking we should just do it. And people should be forgiving. If we hit a fourth wave, then we'll just move it back to the next year. We're going to have our shows though. We're going to have our COVID free celebration of post-pandemic experiences, and it's going to be great all across the world. I'm ready for that.

Oh I believe you. I want to thank everybody again, it's sort of a fact that people listen, either in their car or at work. And when the pandemic hit, that kind of eliminated two of those places. People weren't necessarily driving to work or going to work. But we found that people were listening actually, even more and longer. Never in my life that I think this job would be considered essential. But it's so essential what music does, and just the fact that it's the most I can do sometimes I feel like I should do more. But if playing like the new Valerie June record is going to get somebody through a bad slump. It's my pleasure to do it.

Well, thank you so much. I'm grateful for The Current, for all of y'all. Your music of many genres--it's a huge span. So I appreciate that and just giving you a big ol' hug right now, because we need that.

I know. Thank you so much, Valerie. Go get your sushi, go hug the chef. You know, pet a dog, do what you got to do outside and we'll see you on the other side for sure.

Thank you, Mary. It's good talking with you.

Thank you and thank you to all the listeners. We can't do these things without you and your support means the world to us. It's what makes these member sessions possible. So thank you.

Valerie June - official site

Songs Played

17:56 Call Me A Fool
28:00 Home Inside
38:17 Smile
46:37 Rain Dance


Host - Mary Lucia
Technical Director - Eric Romani
Producer - Derrick Stevens
Digital Producer - Jesse Wiza