Modern-Day Sirens: Valerie June

This month’s modern-day siren admits to hearing voices, sometimes in the form of a chant and other times in a skat-style melody without any words, and while singer-songwriter Valerie June knows her creative process is “kinda weird,” she maintains that in order to write new music, the main thing she has to do is listen to the universe.

Growing up in Jackson, Tennessee, the daughter of a music promoter, Valerie was exposed to a variety of music genres at a young age. When asked about how she would categorize her music she told NPR, “I don’t feel like I should have to have rules.” Valerie’s fluid voice has been described as “an ocean wave that carries the listener along with it.” The rippling sounds in her songs blend gospel, country, and folk with touches of Appalachian bluegrass.

Valerie didn’t start playing guitar until her early twenties, then picked up the banjo and finally the ukulele which she lovingly calls ‘the baby’. With folk musical idols like Skip James, Elizabeth Cotton, and Etta Baker, Valerie strives to create music that is fresh but pays the utmost respect to the musicians that came before.

She calls her first album, “Pushin’ Against A Stone, a “bootlegger bedroom recording,” meaning whatever money could be put aside from working went straight into studio time to record her latest songs, from bedroom to album.

For two years, Valerie transited between New York and Memphis, playing music, and selling albums out of her car. “Hustling,” she called it, and a Kickstarter enabled her to complete her first full album in 2013, with a tribute to women everywhere titled, “Workin’ Woman Blues.”

Not only does this siren have a unique musical style, but she also has eclectic creative tastes. Valerie enjoys collecting vintage clothing and creating her own styles, but admits, “It’s hard to bring a sewing machine on the road.” Whenever she arrives in a new town, she takes a daily stroll and searches for clothes in local shops. “So, when you’re thinking, what’s Valerie June doing this weekend? She’s probably at home having a fashion show.” 

In addition to sewing, Valerie also enjoys painting. “I paint large,” she shares in an interview at Middletree Studio. “Whenever I feel like it, I go paint,” and she points out a wall-size canvas of a work that took her several years to complete.

Valerie’s 2021 album “The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers” includes a song feature from her musical “fairy godmother” Carla Thomas. To Valerie this is perfectly natural, “Every dreamer’s journey has to have a fairy godmother.”

The creation of Valerie’s songs read like fairytales. Once upon a time, Valerie was cooking on her cast iron skillet. She’d added in garlic and starting in to chop the onion when she heard a voice singing in time with her knife, “Wanna be on your mind.” Chop. Chop. Chop. “Stay here all the time.”  It was just that fragment of the song but later working in the studio she was able to flesh out the full melody of her hit single “Wanna Be On Your Mind.” A happily ever after, indeed.

That same year, Valerie published her first book of poetry and drawings entitled Maps for the Modern World.  She says after her father’s death, she started to hear not only lyrics but also spoken words. She collected hundreds of these lightning bolts and paired them with self-drawn illustrations, “little seeds to keep people’s dreams alive.”

Valerie remains vocal about the purpose of art:

“We have to be ready as dreamers to go that extra mile. And we need prescriptions ready to go to keep the engine revved. I believe we can create a world of oneness, but I think it’s gonna take a lot of heart and art to get there.”

Of course, it always helps when you can go to that magical place of creation together with people you trust. Visit JamBase to see her upcoming concert schedule and be sure to tune into songshinesounds where more musical happiness abounds.