Singer, songwriter, Memphis native, meditator, dancer, dreamer… those are some of the many monikers attached to Valerie June, and yet they all, individually and collectively, fail to capture her truest essence. She’s elusive that way, existing with both her feet on the ground and her head in the clouds as a magical conduit between the various planes of creativity. And never has that been more apparent, musically, than on her new album, The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers. From the opening piano tickles to the closing bird songs, June does what only she can do — take listeners on a fanciful flight through moments of a life ever in motion.
The same can be said for any conversation with June. When rummaging through the ideas and emotions expressed in her songs, she has a way of making the earthly ethereal and the elusive attainable. Let’s face it: Not every artist can so easily go from talking Tinkerbell to discussing production to explaining oppression. But Valerie June does so with grace and humor, all while munching on a clementine.
The new album is The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers. Now, I know you a little, but even if I didn’t, just based on this project I’d go out on a limb to say that I’m pretty sure you subscribe to the notion that we are spiritual beings having a human experience rather than the other way around, right?
When did that idea first take hold in you and what does it mean to you?
It always was there. And I was raised in Church of Christ, so it was always there. You always think that way when you’re raised that way.
[Laughs] Is that why things like gardening and dancing and songwriting are so important to you? To keep a connection with something greater than and outside of yourself?
Yes, I need to have those practices where I’m communicating with the other world within this world. And I think that’s what it’s about to be in a body — that you have the treat of being in a human body and bringing all of the stardust with you and communicating with other people in a human body. In the other world, you can’t just run up and hug Kelly.
[Laughs] You could. I would let you. Spirit hugs.
That’s what I mean. I’d go right through. In a body, this matters. Being matter matters. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Tell me if this is true for you, too… I’ll be in a great groove with eating well, exercising, meditating, hiking… doing everything right and feeling great. And then, one day, out of nowhere, it’s all gone. We have to continually cultivate that connection to our best selves, but we also can’t shame or berate ourselves when we lose it, right? How do you navigate both sides of that?
Well, on those days when I’m spinning, what I have to do is watch myself. Just be detached totally and just watch myself move around the room. Like, “Look, I’m gonna stay over here while you go through all that crazy shit.” During meditation, that’s what you do — you observe, watch, notice. You notice like you’re outside of yourself. And so, on those days, when it’s heavy — I get a lot of those days, that’s pretty much most of my time — I already have the practice of my gardening, my dance, my music. I can say, “OK, just 10 minutes of this, 10 minutes of that.” I have to break it down into small bits.
That reminds me of one of my favorite spiritual teachings I learned years ago which has stuck with me: That there are two wings on a bird — self-effort and grace. You need both because magic doesn’t just happen on its own. As I like to joke, “You have to clap for Tinkerbell.” Then, the magic will meet you.
Oh, I love that. Can I steal that? That’s going in my bin of positive things that I need to hear. Because the way you said that, it was perfect. You gotta clap for Tinkerbell.
Otherwise she dies, right?
Yeah. She needs it.
That’s right. She needs the love. Okay. Let’s talk about this record. You co-produced the record with Jack Splash, and y’all used a bunch of different textures and colors to build this thing. Do you hear production ideas when you’re writing? Or do you go into the studio with a totally blank canvas? What’s your process?
Well, I hear voices, and so I hear layers and layers of voices, and, with Jack, it was really cool because he put me with musicians that I could hum the voices to, but he was also hearing me hum the voices and, because he’s such an amazing producer, he was able to say, “I think that is going to be best translated as a horn or as a flute.” Sometimes I’ll hear instruments, but I usually just hear layers and layers of voices. So I hear the whole song, but not the exact texture that’s going to make that happen.
With this record, it was a little bit different for me to work with the computer and with learning how to use beats and learning how to find the sound that I was looking for digitally. That helped a lot because sometimes, when I’m with musicians and even with Jack, I would say stuff to people — because I don’t write music — like “I want to hear something cloudy, like a thunder drone,” and they’re trying to figure out what I’m talking about with thunder drone. But when you’re able to just go over to the computer and mimic the sound and they hear it, that’s way better.
Even though y’all fold new elements in, it still feels like a natural artistic step after The Order of Time which expanded upon Pushin’ Against a Stone. Are you someone who listens to lots of other music to gather up ideas and inspirations for where to go next or is it more intuitive than that?
I guess it kind of is more intuitive, but I listen to the world. I’ll be walking through a store or something, and there’s a quality about most things I hear that I like something of. I might not like the whole thing, but I like something about it. And I collect a little information of what I like, and I say, “Well, OK. What if that were to be something that we try or whatever?” So working with Jack was cool because he’s one of these people who sees the world like a kaleidoscope and instead of saying to me, “Oh, no, no, no, no, that’s definitely not something we’re going to try.” He was open. And so it was really fun to try new things and expand. We have music around us all the time.
Let’s dig into some specific songs and their messages because there are a lot of life lessons tucked into this thing. Right off the top, you lay out the loss of a love, but you do so by embracing beauty rather than bitterness. Like the line in “You and I”: “When the love left just a friendship, that’s when we found our greatest gift.” That particular tango takes two, though, doesn’t it? Both sides have to be willing to embrace that.
Always. True. And everything we have is something we have now, but we won’t have one day. And so we’re constantly needing to make that friendship with everything that we adore. And when we do it with humans, it’s just all that much more special. Or with yourself — just befriending that side of yourself and knowing you’re going to have those hard days, like we talked about earlier, but loving all of it — that ugly stuff, too.
For sure. That’s a good segue because, in “Colors,” you sing, “Count my wrongs and multiply them by the rights to justify just what I feel inside.” I hear that as a countenance to, again, not shame or berate ourselves for missteps. But to rather keep on keepin’ on with bringing our best in every moment… whatever that is in that moment. Am I close?
It’s true. That’s what it is. And what I think we end up having to do, no matter what, with our lives, we have to just pace one moment at a time. And yes, we are going to make some wrong moves. We’re going to fail. We’re going to fuck up. That’s going to happen. Just how it is. But you just, every day, dust off and say, “Well, what are the colors of this day? What is happening here to bring vibrance and life to this particular moment of my life and the area where I’m at today?” You know, just constantly finding, “Where am I at now? Where am I at now?”
See? All the threads tie together on this record because “Call Me a Fool” speaks to taking the chance and chasing the dream because it’s better to be a fool who tries than a coward who regrets, right?
Exactly. It’s better to take the leap and to fall and to just totally mess up and fail than to look back and be like, “Well, I didn’t even try. I didn’t even try to do anything.” And you’re on your death bed and you’re just like, “Man, I wish I would’ve.”
Then a totally different topic you tackle is the resilience of the Black community and the practice of joy in the face of oppression. And maybe it’s not actually unrelated. You address that in “Smile.” Cultivating joy is resistance. It’s self-care. And, while it is to restore your internal fortitude, is it also to prevent the weaponization of your emotions by external forces, if we’re able to find our joy even in the worst moments?
The weaponizaton of internal power… YEAH. That’s exactly what I’m talking about. You and I and whoever else, when you let someone take your joy and your smile, then they have control over your fear and yourself. And your spirit is where your dreams and your creativity and all the ways the world is created live. And if they have that, then they determine what your future is going to look like. But you’ve got to just be able to live in that space of joy despite it all.
You think of the spirit of John Lewis, even to the day he died, it was a loving spirit. You weren’t going to take that from him. And working with Carla Thomas. She’s seen all these things that have happened in Memphis with the assassination of Dr. King and just the racism and heaviness that the city and gun violence within our communities there and all of it. And she’s still a joyful being and she’s an elder. So, when I look to others and I see them with the joy, I’m like, “I’ll be all right.” You know?
Every time I see Mavis Staples, I think that. If she can live through all of the things that she’s lived through and still radiate nothing but joy and love, then I really need to get my act together. She’s a walking lesson.
Exactly. Great example. She’s seen it all and even walked beside Dr. King.
Okay. Last question… Years ago, I went through a world music phase, so the guitars in the first half of “Stardust Scattering” remind me of some of my favorite songs by Geoffrey Oryema and other African artists, but updated by a Memphis native. In a way, that sort of sums up this whole project — ancient ideas in a modern moment. What do you think?
I think that is exactly it. I love how you said it, because that’s what we wanted to do: “How do we take my twangy voice and marry it with modern sounds and have multi-dimensions and multi-eras all in one record that is very iridescent and stardusty and reminds them that there’s magic, even though we’re getting old? [Laughs] How do we do all of that in one record?”
When we work with these ancient sounds and what has come before and ancestors and just let them move through, then we’ll never say it the way they said it because everything you do is already done before. Your own voice saying it is the only thing new about it. So it is the same old thing, but it’s coming out in just who we are today with what we have at our fingertips.
It’s everything that’s come before put through the filter that is YOU. And it’s beautiful. It’s that little fairy dust that you put on it. You’re Tinkerbell! [Laughs]
[Laughs] Yeah. That’s right. I want to just be Tinkerbell.
To me, you already are, so I’m going to keep clapping for you because we need your magic.
Thank you! [Laughs]
Originally posted on Holler.country
Photo Credit: Renata Raksha