by Helen Grant
I was surfing around SoundCloud earlier this year looking for new music. In my random fashion, I ended up listening to “I Wanna Be On Your Mind” by Valerie June. You know you’ve been hooked by a song when several months later you’re adding it to your mixes. And when you skip over to Memphis to visit on your birthday and catch said songstress on the cover of their alt weekly “The Memphis Flyer”, which you end up reading about how she financed her album through Kickstarter, then you know you’re onto something special.
I’d also noticed that she popped up in NPR’s music coverage and I’d known about her concert date at Austin City Limits Festival. Only later did I catch that she too has a habit of wearing aqua blue suede shoes. It was then I decided, “Well damn, if this isn’t a serendipitous trend, I don’t know what is, because clearly I’m supposed to interview this lady.”
So set up an interview I did.
After exchanging messages with June’s representation, I was told the best time to interview would be at Saint Elmo’s Soundstage late Friday night. Turns out she had a pretty busy schedule as we noticed her being interviewed by Austin’s 103.1 I Heart Radio press team at ACL on Saturday. At any rate, being dropped off at this random place in Austin for the interview gave me definite pause for thought. I noticed a barbed-wire steel gate barring the entrance. I wasn’t quite sure what to think. Once I got past security, I walked into a dark and quiet compound. Amidst the workshops, I spotted a vinyl sign with a depiction of the patron saint of sailors, Saint Elmo.
Walking into the place with Jared, June’s manager who greeted me outside, I was also introduced to Dave Wolfe, Saint Elmo’s owner. While Jared went off to get Valerie for our interview, Dave gave me a cup of much needed coffee and an impromptu tour of the studio. Inside the rehearsal space was a white infinity room and with a green screen tucked away on another wall. There were also studio recording rooms in other parts of the building and I was told Saint Elmo’s is also used as a photography studio too. Austin does good music business it seems. Dave said he’d been working on assembling the technical side of the studio for 4 years and only earlier this year did it finally open; they’ve had a steady stream of customers ever since. Turns out The Flaming Lips at one point were supposed to do something there at a SXSW, but another fan with a studio opened their doors for free. And as Dave notes, you can’t beat free.
By the time Valerie’s walked in and sat down to talk to me, everybody had gone back to their jobs prepping the space for rehearsal. It’s as if we fell into our own time zone. Tennessee time, some might say.
OKC.NET: So tell me about growing up in Tennessee.
June: It’s a beautiful state to be in a lot of ways. Life is a lot slower than it is in most of the cities. It was nice, we just kind of took our time with things.
OKC.NET: You mentioned in other interviews that you grew up just outside of Memphis and Nashville, so were you able to jet up to either of those places for music when you were growing up?
June: Um, we went to Memphis. The first concert my father took us to was to see a sunset symphony on Beal St. right on the river at the end of the street. And it was really awesome. It was my first concert that wasn’t something he promoted. He loves music, so he would just take us to Memphis. We also went to Memphis because we also cleaned bricks. He has a construction company so they did demolition. And so when they were tearing down old buildings they would salvage everything. All the wood, and the locks, and, you know, the kitchen sinks and the stoves and all kinds of stuff. So he would salvage the bricks and we would clean them and stack them on pallets. My brothers would drive the forklifts and they’d put the bricks on the tractor trailer truck. And then we’d all pile in the truck and head to Memphis to sell the bricks. And he made much of his living that way to help pay for five kids and a wife. So we all worked and did our part and Memphis was a regular part of our business.
And as far as Nashville, he had an attorney there for his company. So we took trips there when we needed to and the attorney’s office was near music row, so I was aware of music row in Nashville from of that.
OKC.NET: Did you absorb a lot of musical influences from these places, because when I went earlier this year, I was surprised (and delighted) to discover Stax has a musical academy. Has it been around for awhile?
June: Yeah, since I moved to Memphis it’s been there. I went there and played when it first opened. And it was just really neat to see, there are kids who are learning how to play at such a young age and I get jealous of them.
OKC.NET: Yeah, I was going to say within the last decade OKC opened a music business school attached to a college, ACM@UCO. I’ve asked local bands, who got their start before it opened, if they’re a little jealous of today’s students, and of course they say, “I wish it had been around when I was starting out.” So how did you get your start playing music?
June: I started playing music in my early 20s. I sang my whole life, and wrote songs, like melodies, just singing. But when I got out on my own I joined a band. And the band was ok. It was like soulful folk and funky music, there was an acoustic guitar, a bass guitar, and drums. That was it and I sang and wrote the lyrics to songs. But they broke up and that was a good thing because it forced me to say, “Well, I’m still hearing lyrics. I need to pick up an instrument and learn how to play so this never happens to me again and I can always go out there in front of a crowd and perform.”
OKC.NET: So what did you learn to play first and was it hard?
June: I learned to play guitar and it was very hard. First thing was just to wear my fingers down to build the callouses because it hurt so bad. So I figured if I just wore them down by sliding them down strings, I’d get faster and I’d get the callouses. And once I got that knocked out, it became pretty clear to me that the thing kids picked on me at school about, not having any rhythm, was a problem. Like being a cheerlearder in Jr High and High School, I was always the cheerleader in the back row because I was out of step with the rest. I never had good rhythm, but they let me stay on the squad. I would play hand games and I was terrible. Because I was so off, they’d go to slap hands and my hands would be behind the beats.
So when I started playing guitar and music, because I don’t have good rhythm, it was really, really difficult. I had to teach myself how to keep some kind of time. And I beat myself up about it a lot when I started, like “I just need to sit with the metronome and learn how to keep time.” But eventually I realized I needed to play to my voice. Some songs I sing fast and some songs I sing slow. So that’s how I let go of my hang up and started to play in my own way.
OKC.NET: Did you branch out after guitar?
June: Yes. Banjo and another friend gave me “the Baby,” which is ukelele banjo. I’ve been given a keyboard by a friend. Instruments don’t sit around long before I do something with them. So that will be the one I learn next.
OKC.NET: So let’s talk lyrics. I caught an interview you did with a French news outlet where you talking about feminism. And I hear that in a song like “Workin’ Woman Blues” with lines that go: “I been workin’ like a man, ya’ll, I been working all my life, yeah, all my life, ya’ll…”. I think about earlier when you said about cleaning bricks with your dad, did those times come to mind when you started writing this and other songs?
June: I think it’s so funny. I think everything in a person’s life, when they’re a writer, influences what they do. Like the memories, they’re just there, it’s not conscious. My dad’s been working really hard, and my mom, and my grandmother. I think about how they say a woman’s work is never done, and then I think about the women of the world. And the song to me is like an anthem, and I think “I am appreciative of the hard work my mom did, what the ladies do at the grocery store, the ladies cleaning hotel rooms” – you know, that used to be what I did too. So I appreciate them all. The pop stars who carry the weight of the image and have to deal with all the crazy shit the tabloids write about them, and I just appreciate all the different roles women have in the world and the work that they do. You have to balance that with family and I think it’s just huge.
OKC.NET: So do you have a good balance of between work and family?
June: I think in my life I constantly have to work to be a better friend and better family member. This year I’ve been on the road all the time and I’ve only been checking in on them. My brother just had a baby, and I have to look in from a distance on Facebook because it costs a lot to call over and when I do get to call over, because I was in Europe, they’d be asleep. So, I just keep up with my family on Facebook a lot and recently since I’ve started to tour in the States, my mom and my sister and my father, they join me at certain show dates. Like my little sister and her husband were supposed to join me at ACL, but they had to cancel because he got a job interview. And my mom, my dad, my aunts and uncles, and my husband joined me for Letterman…”
OKC.NET: Oh, I didn’t realize you were married! Does he get to join you on the road a bit?
June: Yes. Sometimes. We meet up in different cities.
OKC.NET: That’s got to be interesting…
June: Yes, sometimes we have a lot of dates in different cities and it’s fun, but other times it is really challenging to get back into the groove of being together after we’ve been apart so long. So we have to battle out, like “where were we?” You know, what I mean?
OKC.NET: Yes, in a strange way I do.
June: Yeah, so we have to go “Don’t you remember you’re supposed to put the dishes away after I wash them?” or “Don’t you remember you were supposed to put the new trash bag in the trash if I take it out?” So we have to remember these roles we created for ourselves. It’s a living thing, marriage is.
OKC.NET: Are you working on new material or just promoting the album?
June: Yes, I’m always working on new material, but I’ve been promoting the album a lot. I also got asked by Starbucks to do some work. So I went to Electric Lady Studios, and it was so cool to be in there. Usually studios make me nervous like doctor’s offices. And I’m always scared, but when I went to Electric Lady, I wasn’t scared at all. I was like “Yeah, I can play here.” And so I liked working on new stuff there. It’s got a cool vibe.
Our time was cut short since June had to go practice for Saturday’s show. But before we wrapped up the interview completely, I’d also learned that she loved to sew, knew about the Gee’s Bend quilters, and is a fan of Dolly Parton’s early work, and collects it on vinyl when she can, in addition to collecting gospel music on vinyl as well. In line with her music being a serendipitous discovery for me this year, I kept running into people on her crew at ACL. When I took a break in the press area later on Saturday, I ran into Jared and randomly met her driver and friend, Roxy. Who told me a little bit about how she met Valerie and what a hard worker she is.
I do believe all that hard work paid off on Saturday at Austin City Limits Festival. The crowd was packed at the BMI stage, even though it was 2:30 p.m. and hot, her set kept drawing people in as they filtered into Zilker park. My co-editor, who hadn’t listened to her music before, walked away impressed with her music and performance. So if you have a chance to see her in concert, don’t miss out, she puts on a great show.