How Valerie June's Voice Guides Her Songcraft

Valerie June's style is all her own, with music that centers around her unique and expressive voice. Instead of picking up an instrument to hammer out a tune, Valerie says that she often receives the vocals to a song in her head before ever hearing any instrumentation. And with a voice as captivating and strong as hers, it's no wonder that those instruments often take a backseat.

Though various writers and reviewers have tried to place Valerie's genre–bending music into a neatly categorized box, a single label never seems to do her justice. And when I asked her how she would define her own music, she replied simply, "It's just Valerie June songs."

Valerie June - The Order of Time

Valerie June - The Order of Time

To hear more of those Valerie June songs and snag tickets to a show on her tour in support of her newest album, The Order of Time, you can check out her website here.

Congrats on the new album! It’s been a couple of years now. Is that just because you’ve been too busy touring?

Thank you! I’m glad I got another one out. And yeah, that’s what it’s been. I haven’t stopped [touring].

Do you have any staple gear, a favorite guitar or banjo or uke that you won’t go on the road without?

Well, I love to take the Baby. The Baby is a little ukulele banjo that I got. It was made for me by some friends in Memphis, and my best friend gave it to me for my birthday one year. I like having the Baby on the road with me.

She only plays one or two songs, but she is really a character! She comes on stage, and people love to see her. And she just shines, so I love having her. She’s a bigger star than anybody I know.

She’s easy to play in a vehicle, too. Like if I want to get into the front seat in the van and play a little bit, she’s easy to do that with — a guitar is clunkier.

Do you tend to write a lot on the road, or do you do most of your writing when you’re at home in more of a controlled space?

I literally write everywhere and anytime. Whenever a song comes is when I write it. It doesn’t matter where it is. Sometimes I’ll start writing a song on stage [laughs].

I know that you wrote some of your first album with Dan Auerbach. Is writing often a collaborative for you?

Yes, I wrote half of the first record with Dan. I first started working with another person when I was living in Memphis, and I was only writing lyrics [because] I didn’t play any instruments. That was from the age of 18 until about 23. My ex–husband and I had a band together, and he played the guitar and I wrote the lyrics and the melodies.

But since then, I’ve written with Dan, Booker T. Jones, and a bunch of others. So many different songwriters that aren’t famous in a face recognition kind of way, that are more famous as songwriters. Which is kind of cool and intriguing to me, this idea of the songwriter being behind–the–scenes famous.

You’ve said before that you grew up in a singing family that you never really considered as “musical” because nobody played an instrument. And you just mentioned that you didn’t start playing an instrument until you were in your 20s? How did you decide to pick something up?

It was the pretty traumatic event of my band breaking up and being alone and just having a voice and some songs in my head and not being able to get them out.

That was kind of like a moment of panic and torture all at once where I was like, “I don’t want to live my life like this.” If I have a song that’s coming to me, I want to be able to sit down and get it out and play it in its full form and present to a coffee house full of people or a theater full of people.

I don’t want to have to be in the position of, “Oh, no! I don’t have a guitar player! I don’t have a drummer! I don’t have a bass player!” I want to just be able to play the song because that’s what singer–songwriters are best at.

Of course, it’s great when they get great bands, but it’s also really great when they can just play that song and touch someone’s heart and uplift them or shift their day or help them through a grief or whatever it might be. Just a simple song.

Valerie June

That sounds like it was a very individualistically liberating time for you, for sure. Which instrument did you gravitate toward first?

Guitar first. That seemed the easiest [laughs].

Did you start taking lessons right away or did you mostly learn on your own?

I tried to take lessons. I went to this amazing guy in Memphis named Andy Cohen, and I love him so much. He’s an older gentleman who had been on the road with Reverend Gary Davis and a bunch of old blues guys, and he would tell me all of these amazing stories.

But I just couldn’t learn how to play [the guitar]. I had to sit with it, and I had to pull out a chord chart and just teach myself how to play to my voice. I couldn’t follow somebody else’s way of teaching me how to play. It just didn’t stick. Every single time I tried to go get a lesson and then come home and do it, it just wasn’t working.

So the way that I started to learn to play is just by sitting there and having a melody in my head and having a voice and lyrics and just picking the chords that matched my voice and my lyrics. I started to play to my voice, versus sitting down and trying to learn how to play another style or any style or traditional method. I was just like, “Okay, I need to just play to my voice.”

So your voice is really your main instrument in that way.

I can’t just sit with any instrument and match the sound to another instrument. I don’t hear that way, I only hear it through voices."

Yeah, for sure. It’s the guide. I can follow the voice and play by ear with the voice, but not with anything else. I can’t just sit with any instrument and match the sound to another instrument. I don’t hear that way, I only hear it through voices.

It sounds like voices have always been a very important part of your life, growing up singing with your family. Do you think growing up that way has impacted how you make music today?

Yeah! Singing with my family has definitely carried over and not in an obvious way. Like you’ve read before, I didn’t think that we were a musical family. We just sang all of the time, and I thought that was normal [laughs].

We all have our separate lives now. People have kids and wives and husbands and everybody is going their separate ways, but when my father passed and we all came together and started signing the songs that we used to sing growing up, I was like “Wow, this is so special that we do this.” We don’t even think about it, we just do it.

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That kind of reflective experience — coming together and singing a lot of the older songs that you sang growing up — did that play a part your decision for this second album to record songs that are 10–12 years old now?

No, what came into play there was this idea of a song just not going away. Wake up in the morning and it’s there. And it’s still there like ten years later. And the song is just calling you like, “Please! Please! Put me out! Put me out!”

There are a bunch of singer–songwriters in the world, and those singer–songwriters want to be known for their craft. The songs want to be known, and the songs call, and they want that moment to shine. And they keep calling until they get that moment. Me, as a vessel, I have to go with it.

These songs wanted to have their day, and they’ve kept calling me for years. I had to wait until it was the right time and they had what they needed — the support, the comfort, the everything — before I allowed them to go because I’m the keeper. I’m the one that they come to, and I’m the one that serves them. I have to protect them and support them and present them in ways that I know that they would love.

That’s why I say don’t do it unless you’re going to honor and serve the song.

Did these songs change shape a little bit from when you first received them?

Most of them stayed true to how I initially heard them because they are what they are. Like as a woman, I get older and I age and I change and my body changes — and I feel those changes [laughs]. But even at 35, I am the same person that I was when I was 18. So the songs have these changes that do happen, but they are still what they’ve always been at the core.

How was your studio experience different this time around? Has touring almost non–stop for three to four years impacted your process?

Well, for the first record I did in the studio, I had a full budget and did it with Dan [Auerbach], and I feel like he was a teacher and a guide for me. He taught me so much. I had never been in a studio with professional musicians with a budget to do a full record.

I had done an EP with the guys from Old Crow Medicine Show, and that was really fun. We did five songs and took an afternoon and made it happen. But really making a real record, I had never done it.

I say all the time that I went into the room with a master of sound and recording and production when I entered the room with Dan. And I just went in there like any student would go into any class: ready to learn and absorb instead of injecting my ideas and my opinions to shape what would happen.

The process this time around was like I took everything that I learned there, and I collaborated with the producer more than just absorbing only what they had to say. So with Matt [Marinelli], it was just more back and forth.

I became more of a part of the process than a student of the process. And I think that all of that is necessary or I wouldn't have had the confidence when I entered the room for the second time with the second record to speak my mind.

Yeah, that growth period is definitely super important.

And with the finest teachers! I feel like I got fortunate because I could have had any teachers but those are the ones that came into my life, and I just think it’s so great. It’s feels like getting accepted to the college that you always wanted to go to.

Valerie, thank you so much for talking with us today.

Thank you, you have a good day!


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