Some people are born to make an impact, and that’s undoubtedly true for one-of-a-kind artist Valerie June. She sparks inspiration and even healing through her music, spanning every genre from Americana and soul to country and bluegrass. The Tennessee-born songstress picked up instruments for the first time in her 20s, leading her down a solo music career path that boasts several albums, a stint on former MTV show “$5 Cover,” and even a Grammy nomination.
These days, the singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist (who’s also known for her extravagant on-stage attire) is getting ready to launch a tour in celebration of her most recent album, The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers. Additionally, Valerie just authored and released her first book, Maps for the Modern World, which showcases her art, poetry, and other creative works. Please welcome this week’s FACE of Memphis, the inspiring Valerie June!
Tell us a bit about your upbringing and what led you to a career in music.
I was raised between Jackson and Humboldt, Tennessee. I didn’t start playing instruments until I was in my early 20s, but I was born singing. I sang with my brothers and sisters, and in church, we all sang as a congregation. No choir or instruments were allowed in our church, so everyone lifted up their voices together. There were about 500 people at church, so I had a lot of vocal teachers! My father also owned a music promotion company, so I worked with him to promote many of his shows.
Can you tell us about your new album, The Moon & Stars, and where you found your inspiration?
I created The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers to inspire listeners. It is meant to light a spark of creativity, wonder, imagination, and adventure in our hearts. The liner notes list a prescription for each of the songs. In general, songs and art are powerful healing forces in our lives. Here are a few examples of the healing prescriptions for each song from the liner notes:
- “You and I”: For sharing, friendship, discovery, and intention
- “Call Me a Fool”: For beginning — the leap, fear of failure, and confidence
- “Smile:” For transcendence, hope and possibilities, and rebirth and growth
- “Within You”: For creativity, belief, and sacred space
The songs came to me over the course of my 20-year journey to become ‘Valerie June.’ It has all been about following a dream. Like the book, The Alchemist, there have been many lessons along the way. Through these songs, I’m sharing some of the lessons I’ve learned so far.
Your sound incorporates everything from folk, blues, gospel, and soul to country and bluegrass. How did you arrive at your signature style, and what music or artists most impacted it?
I am still arriving at my musical style because I tend to gravitate toward things I love and naturally incorporate them into my creativity. I love exploring and living beyond the limits of things like genre or time periods because when something moves me, it always transcends time and explanation. It just feels authentic and real. [I’ve been influenced by] the work of Etta James, Carla Thomas, The Carter Family, Tina Turner, and Elizabeth Cotten, to name a few transcendent women.
What’s your earliest or most cherished memory of music?
My grandfather gave me my very first guitar, and I promised him I’d learn to play it. It took me a decade to settle into it, but I did it!
You are known for your eye-catching on-stage outfits. Who are your fashion influences, and where do you love to shop?
I love looking beyond the limits and boundaries when it comes to being creative musically. The same is true with fashion and art. I love watching people and seeing how styles can be intertwined to create something fitting.
Lately, Robin Brown at Magnolia Pearl has been a partner in fashion. A young designer, Philista Mills, inspires me, and I’ve also worked with Frye Boots. I like to find fashionable things at estate sales and junk stores as well as the top shops most people visit. There are no limits or rules as long as it looks nice and feels comfy.
Fashion is also a way to inspire people to dream and be imaginative. Ultimately, that is my life’s purpose — to live and inspire in my own quiet way. When we are imaginative and dream, we create new and beautiful worlds. There’s endless potential for the beauty we can see in this world, but so often, we are not encouraged to dream and explore — especially as adults. If I can inspire others, whether in music, fashion, poetry, or art, I will spend my life trying!
If you could recommend the work of one underrated or little-known musician, who would it be?
I would recommend listening to my Young, Gifted, and Black Playlist. There are so many incredible artists that the world is still just discovering.
Can you tell us about your book, Maps for the Modern World?
Wow, I wrote a book! I’m so excited to have Maps out in the world. The book is full of inspirational lines, poems, and essays that follow the theme of appreciating the natural beauty and light in our lives.
Every heart has an inner map and purpose for being on Earth. It’s just — how do we remember to trust ourselves when the world is dark or times are heavy? Maps for the Modern World reminds us that only we know why we are here and the gifts we came to share. It’s a book meant to guide us to the heart key that reveals our secret map. It’s only a guide to the map we each already hold.
What’s next for you?
I’m going on the road! Finally, after two years of hardly performing live, I will be on the road again. I can’t wait!
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Aside from faith, family, and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
My plants, baths, and dancing.
Thank you for sharing your creativity with us, Valerie June, and thanks to Renata Raksha for the photography.
Meet more inspiring women from across the South in our FACES archives.