Valerie June: Sometimes Down, Never Out
Singer-songwriter Valerie June has been knocked down, but never out, by heartbreak, illness, and hardship.
Valerie June is a celebrated singer and songwriter whose style spans a wide range of musical genres, from traditional roots through modern R&B and Afrobeat.
Born in 1982 in Jackson, TN, she began singing in her church. She moved to Memphis in 2000 and played in the duo Bella Sun with her then-husband before becoming a solo artist after her marriage ended. She first gained national exposure in 2009 as a featured artist on the MTV online series $5 Cover. Soon after, she recorded her third album, Pushin’ Against a Stone (2013), with money raised on a crowd-funding platform. It reached the top 50 in the Billboard charts and earned her a nomination for a Blues Music Award.
A skilled player of ukelele, guitar, and banjo, June is recognized for her distinctive vocal stylings, combining the emotive edge of the blues with the power of gospel. She describes her style as “organic moonshine roots music.” Her fourth album, The Order of Time (2017), was listed as one of the best albums of the year by Rolling Stone. She released her latest record, The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers, in 2021.
Walking home from school one day, 14-year-old Valerie June Hockett saw black smoke rising into the sky in Humboldt, Tennessee. As she got close, she realized that it was her own home that was ablaze. The fire took everything. But her family had already been saving for their dream home. And following the blaze, a new job offer kept her family’s dream alive.
Valerie June: The stars aligned for my father to get this job building a church. And that money from that job, he went down to this auction of this house we’d driven by all my life, it was a beautiful house, it was this big old house in the country, and he won the auction.
But she says that what she learned from the purposefulness of her parents was that you don’t always get what you want, or what you need.
June: I think about my dad and, he knew the rules of what it meant to be a black business owner, small business owner in the South, and how much he had against him, and he rewrote that story every day, with the weight of five kids on him and a wife.
Valerie June has rewritten her story many times, fearlessly, and in ways that defy easy categorization. The New York Times has called her, “simultaneously rural and cosmopolitan, historically minded and contemporary, idiosyncratic and fashionable, mystical, and down to earth.”
June: It’s just like dealing with that idea from Robert Frost when, when you know, he was saying, we get two roads and you choose one. And we have to do that all the time and I’m like, but what about the other road? I don’t wanna choose. Clearly I don’t wanna choose. I can’t choose a genre in music, I can’t choose one way, I don’t wanna just go one way.
She credits her parents, dad Emerson, and mom June, for much of her fearlessness.
June: They broke down those doors for us, so I never felt like there was anything I could, I wouldn’t achieve, or go for, just because of the color of my skin. I always felt like, sure, I can do that, why not?
Valerie June began composing melodies and lyrics at an early age. At 18, she left Memphis with her soon-to-be husband and much parental disapproval. They performed together as the soul duo, Bella Sun. But it never felt quite right to her.
June: I did try to sing more soulfully. I tried to sing more like in a way that, would be digestible for people because of the way I look. But, it just, I knew it wasn’t working, I knew it wasn’t me, and so, I just stopped. It really felt like I was wearing a different body suit or something. Like I was being someone else.
By 2005, the marriage was over. In Memphis, June wrote songs at night and cleaned houses by day. She began performing these new songs in small venues, but for all her persistence, success took its fine old time.
June: When I first started I wanted things to happen fast, but, I enjoy just, this whole, like just every day moving towards something versus like it all being here for me. I wrote a poem about it, and it’s just dealing with, like the old growth trees.
(A Life’s Work by Valerie June)
I worked and waited for something grand, but it never came. A bead of sweat, my accolade, my work speaking for my name. The winter of my journeys here, collectively I see, the treasure of a life’s work, like the rings of an old growth tree.
June finally began learning guitar, and then went to Andy Cohen, the seasoned blues man for lessons. They mostly just sat and talked about music history, the blues, gospel, Appalachian folk.
June: And what I got from him was a list of amazing musicians to listen to. ‘Cause he loved to talk about people like Reverend Gary Davis, or Mississippi John Hurt, or Elizabeth Cotten, and just falling down this rabbit hole. I’ve went through many holes, rabbit holes in music. There was of course the Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, all of that and, where I like listening to stuff like Sun Ra, or Bowie, or Alice Coltrane, transcendental sounds that are more spiritual, but really hard to explain at the same time.
In time Valerie June would become a very fine guitar, banjo and ukulele player. But her parents didn’t understand the ways in which she was changing. They thought she was forgetting her roots, but Valerie June had a vision. In 2006 and 2008, June cashed in her savings to make two self-produced albums. She was putting money aside for a third, when she was diagnosed with diabetes. The medical bills left her penniless.
June: There’s just a point of surrender. Like why go to aggression? Just let go. Just be like, okay, yeah. The way I look at it is, I did everything I could. My savings is wiped out, I’ve lost everything. I’m at the bottom. What next? You know what I mean? Like I can only go one way and that’s up, so.
And just as when her family lost their home, June found opportunity in adversity. In 2010, she released the EP Valerie June and the Tennessee Express. By 2011, she was touring and had swapped Memphis for Brooklyn, preparing for bigger stages and bolder opportunities.
June: I used to be so scared, to get up on stage in front of people. I focus my energy on, the songwriting part and the inner side, and that involves a lot of soul.
2013’s Pushin’ Against a Stone was her breakthrough record. It was a hit in the US, Europe, and beyond. The songs told the story of her life, of hard times, hard work, and good-for-nothing men. The title was drawn from the myth of Sisyphus and his eternal attempts to push a great stone up a slope.
June: And I feel like, we all have stones in every day. That is a reality. I’m not delusional, and I’m not telling myself it’s not there. Yes, it is heavy, and it’s gonna be hard, and it’s gonna feel like it’s gonna roll back on me, and I’m gonna get knocked over, but, shift that perspective for a second, and think about the possibility of it, actually getting up the hill.
Her relationship with her parents had never been the same after she left home. But in 2015, the whole family came to New York to see her perform at Carnegie Hall. Security had to be called to stop her dad, who was ill at the time, from dancing in the aisles.
June: But I said no, don’t grab that guy, that’s my dad. And then, everyone in the whole place got up and started dancing. And this is like the stuffiest place that you can play. And so he’s like dancing, and everybody was dancing and yelling after that. It was a real rock show after that.
Less than two years later, her father Emerson Hockett died. In 2019, she lost her best friend Mary Burns to cancer. To grieve and to heal, she turned to poetry, writing almost incessantly. It turned into a book, 2021’s Maps for the Modern World.
June: This one’s called “A Life of Meaning”.
(A Life of Meaning by Valerie June)
I was, I came, I went. I loved, I lived, I lent. I gave, I took, I spent. Look back, what has it meant?
To be in these bodies, to be able to smell a flower, or play an instrument and feel the strengths and feel the vibration of it against your chest, that’s what it’s meant to me. Just having those moments of, living, being here. Getting my chance.
And Valerie June is taking her chance every day. She describes what she does as organic moonshine roots music, and it’s constantly growing, evolving. Her latest record, 2021’s, The Moon and the Stars Prescription for Dreamers, was released to critical acclaim, with fans calling it musical medicine, and the journey of healing. And no one has appreciated that journey, more than Valerie June herself.