Singer-Songwriter Valerie June and Her No-Rules Approach to Music

Valerie June will play the Telluride Blues and Brews Festival.
Valerie June will play the Telluride Blues and Brews Festival. Jacob Blickenstaff
From playing rural shows and Red Rocks to Memphis stages and the Obama White House, singer-songwriter Valerie June has been growing as a musician. Her esteemed 2017 album, Order of Time, which is tinged with blues, soul and R&B influences, dances between the mystical and the physical.

"Working between those two realities" is how she writes songs, she says.

Westword sat down with June ahead of her appearance at the Telluride Blues & Brews Festival this weekend to talk about musical boundaries, her thoughts on manifestation, and how she connects her music with life around her.

Westword: You are about to hit the legendary stage at Telluride Brews & Blues. What can the crowd expect from your show?

Valerie June: Well, I hope to give them great joy, uplift and inspire, and that’s kind of what I do. I hope when they leave my set, they are super, super high and ready for a new day of life and enjoy the rest of the artists there. Really, I’m all about sharing some magical experiences. I know blues can be sad, but my experience in it is very powerful and healing for people.

Is the connection with the audience your favorite part?

Yeah, I’d have to say it is, because playing live, it isn’t easy to do. I was reading an interview with Sturgill Simpson, and he said getting on stage is like preparing for a battle. And while I was reading, I was like, "Oh, hell, yeah, that is what it's like!"

It’s not just get up there and sing a song... . There are different ways of being. I try to have a spiritual connection with me when I’m performing and speak to people beyond their physical selves. I enjoy this side of it, to be guided through a spiritual way with people, and sometimes we don’t even know what’s happening when it’s touching us. We could be shopping in a grocery store and a song comes on, and we start humming along, and we could have been in a shitty mood, and after, we could be smiling and don’t even know why. That’s the spirit of music. It can change the way we feel.

What has your musical journey been like, and how has it allowed you to write an album like Order of Time?

The best things in my life happen while I’m doing other things. So I just did it as I was living, traveling from city to city. I’d be writing, or as I was sleeping, I'd dream songs as they come...but it took years. It’s not something that just happens; the songs had been coming for over a decade.

Just thinking about the journey, the dream and the order of time: If you plant a seed, and you tend to it every single day and just wait, wait, wait, then it manifests into a flower. You work every day just a little bit; you don’t have to even really think about it. Just over time, you see the fruits of your labor. It’s like that with anything. If you want to nurture a bad seed, you’ll see the fruit of that. If you nurture a positive seed, you’ll see the fruit of that.

When I tell you I write songs doing other things, it’s the little moments between getting on the subway, off the plane, off the phone — these songs just come out. I hope that all people listen to the voice of what they are called to do in life and move to do that no matter what job they do. I’ve had so many jobs, and [in] every job, songs would be there. Serving coffee as a barista, cleaning houses — you’re always doing the job you were born to do, whether you realize that or not. It’s always there.

click to enlarge Wanda June refuses to follow the rules. - JACOB BLICKENSTAFF
Wanda June refuses to follow the rules.
Jacob Blickenstaff
Do you ever sit down to intentionally write something, whether it's in a natural or political space?

I’ve been waking up for years at four o’clock in the morning, and I wrote something I posted on Instagram; it was a letter in my journal. It was a memory that hit me. I woke up and was just in tears. I couldn’t take what’s happening to the children at the border with immigration, and I was feeling that first time I was taken away from my parents because I wanted to spend the night with my babysitter. They finally let me. We got maybe two blocks down the road in the car, and I had a panic attack as a child, and I lost it. I just said, "Take me home, take me home." I thought about those kids being torn from their parents and not even being able to go to bed at night knowing that their parents are in the other room, not knowing where they are at all.

I couldn’t control it, I had to sit down and write that letter and get that thought out. That’s the way it happens for me. I don’t intend to do anything other than feel.

I read the news, but I don’t watch it. I don’t want to know other people’s commentary on the negative things that have happened. I just want the facts. When I start to hear other people’s opinions, it tears me apart. "Wow. This is how we think as humans? How are you not totally in tears right now?" ... I don’t understand when things can’t be personalized. There’s a song on Order of Time called "Just in Time," and it says, "We are one, just in time, we are one."

Everything to me is spiritual. Everything to me is above political, and I work from that place. ... [I] transform that energy like an alchemist and put it right back out.

What drew you to soul music, and what sustains you in this space?

I think the thing that draws me constantly for whatever genre it might be — I have to feel it in my bones; I have to have a visceral reaction. When I feel it, then I’m drawn to it. No matter what genre it is, I’m madly in love with it and want to know more.

I don’t believe in rules when it comes to my work or what I can enjoy because of the color of my skin or my age or anything. I just cross all kinds of lines, because I don’t believe that I have to be one way: only a rock singer, only a blues singer. No, I dance all over the planet and have fun. It has to have a magic to it I feel in my bones. If it has that, I can follow through with it. No matter what genre.

Telluride Blues & Brews Festival, Friday, September 14, to Sunday, September 16, 500 East Colorado Avenue, Telluride, Colorado. Tickets start at $30.
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Taylor Heussner has been writing for Westword since January 2018. She received her bachelor's degree in creative writing from Colorado State University and writes for myriad literary magazines. When she's not attending concerts, you can find Taylor searching for music, writing poetry or petting the neighborhood dogs.
Contact: Taylor Heussner