Friday, June 20, 2014

Erica Rivera Interviews Valerie June

Q&A: Valerie June

Singer songwriter Valerie June is a jack of all trades. The intrepid 32-year-old plays guitar, banjo and ukulele, and shifts seamlessly between blues, soul, country, and gospel-influenced tunes. Born in Tennessee and based in New York, June landed on the indie music radar with her first studio album “Pushin’ Against a Stone” in 2013. The LP, released on Concord Music Group, features co-writing credits from Booker T. Jones and the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, who also acted as co-producer. June’s modern twist on old-fashioned sounds has resonated with audiences across the globe. Her current tour schedule includes performances at both Wits and Rock the Garden.

Q: What is your first musical memory?

A: My dad bought “The Bare Necessities” sing-along tape from Walt Disney. I would get as close as I could get to the TV screen. There were little Mickey Mouse ears that went over each word when you were supposed to sing it. I would sing along with it at the top of my lungs. It was so much fun.

Q: How did your upbringing in the church influence your development as a singer and songwriter?

A: I went to church twice on Sunday and once on Wednesday from the time I was born to the time I was 18. I was surrounded by voices all the time. It wasn’t a church where you had a choir or instruments. Everybody had to sing.

Q: You told NPR that you write songs based on voices that you hear. Are any of your songs autobiographical?

A: I don’t believe so. I sing the ones I can relate to. If I can’t feel it, I can’t sing it. Kinda like when you listen to a song on the radio, and you’re like, “Hmm…I don’t like that one. Skip. I don’t like that one. Skip. Oh, that’s my song right there!” and you start singin’ it and feelin’ it and clappin’. All the songs that I choose to sing are my songs. All the ones I don’t choose to sing I might give to somebody I feel can sing them someday.

Q: You play such a wide variety of instruments and styles of music. Is there any kind of music you don’t like?

A: That’s a hard question. There are things that I don’t like, but usually in every genre I can find something that I appreciate.

Q: Your latest album is called “Pushin’ Against a Stone.” What are the metaphorical stones that you’ve had to push in your lifetime?

A: They’re countless, honestly. Currently, my father is getting well in the hospital with heart complications. I deal with diabetes, which is quite a challenge. I’m getting stronger. Nothing’s gonna keep me down. You have to take it and turn it, turn it into something you can live with and grow from and that pushes you.

Q: How does diabetes affect your touring?

A: I wear a pump, so I have to carry my OmniPod around. It’s great because it sticks onto your body and works as a mini pancreas and you move it to different locations in your torso every three days. I have to carry insulin, and I have to keep it cold; if it gets warm, it’s ruined. If I don’t have it, I’m dead. In the States, I don’t get so worried, because I can just go to Walgreen’s and order some more. Overseas, it’s a nightmare. You can’t really have it shipped to you because people don’t know about keeping it cold. When my pump isn’t working right, I have to take shots, and that’s the worst thing that could happen to me because I hate needles.

My whole day has to be about balancing my energy so I’m ready to do a show. It’s about pacing myself. I try to eat well so I can have a few drinks at the end of the night and be a normal person. I try to have fun in there, too.

Q: You’re playing two shows in Minnesota. Wits is intimate and indoors. Rock the Garden is a large outdoor festival. How do you prepare for each of those venues and audiences?

A: Wits is going to be really different because I’m going to be with a band of people I’ve never met before. [In the past] I was nervous because I didn’t play so well with others, but after a year-and-a-half of touring constantly, I’ve gotten better at just jamming and letting the songs be different. When I do the Wits show, it’s going to be a new experience for me just as it is for the listeners. When I do Rock the Garden, it’s going to be more familiar to me, because I’m going to be with Jason [Dimatteo, bass] and Kevin [Raczka, drums]. We’ve gotten into a nice trio. We don’t have to rehearse. We just have to feel what we’re feeling.

There hasn’t been any time to sit quietly in my room or apartment and develop the show in a new or different way. It’s developing as it occurs. It’s nice. It keeps me from being too rehearsed. I never know what I’m going to say or what I’m going to do. I don’t know what story I’m going to tell. 

Q: You live in New York now. What makes you most homesick for the South?

A: Just my family, missing everybody. Like now, I have four days off. I feel the need to go back to New York and be with my husband, but I also feel like I want to go to Tennessee and be with my dad. I need to go see my nurse in New York and tend to my personal health. It’s hard to choose when to go to which home.

Q: Your husband doesn’t go on tour with you?

A: No. Sometimes he’ll meet me in places, like Australia, but he usually says to me, “I have my own life!” [I’m] like, “Hmph. Okay. Whatever.”

Originally published on in June 2014.