Music — July 29, 2019 11:09 — 0 Comments

Valerie June On Brad Pitt, Banana Candy, Etherial Portals And Time

Valerie June finally has free time. After a life working odd jobs and steeling moments to write songs, the lilting, butterfly-voiced Americana singer has room to make her art, unfettered by traditional responsibilities. And, she says, this is the best thing she could have hoped for. June talked about this newfound resource and the freedom it offers her ever-evolving creativity. She also talked about the time she met Brad Pitt (and nearly passed out), what her favorite candy was as a kid and how she grew up singing gospel music with family and friends all around her.

Do you remember when you sang publically for the first time?

I was in the 4th grade. I sang, “This Land Is Your Land.”

That was my first favorite song! Do you remember why you sang it?

We were, like, studying something in history and Woody Guthrie came up and I love that song, so I got in front of my class – well, I did ask the teacher if I could get in front of the class and sing the song after lunch. And he said yeah. So, I got up and sang, “This Land Is Your Land.” I staged my own mini concert!

They say what you do when you’re three or four is what you’re meant to do for the rest of your life. So, maybe that portended your future.


Was there a specific record or lineage of music that initially inspired you to perform?

I guess it would have been gospel. Because I was raised singing only. I didn’t start playing instruments until I was in my early 20s but I sang every Sunday and every Wednesday at church. Then those songs that we sang at church, we’d sing as a family all throughout the week just while we were doing things. If we were in the car on the way to the grocery store or if we were cleaning the house, we all sang. And usually the songs we’d sing were the ones we sang in church.

As a kid, you worked as a promoter hanging posters for your dad. I wonder, what aspects of the music industry went through your mind as you were pinning up those flyers?

I didn’t really think about it as a kid, I just thought I wanted to help my dad and if we did these little jobs then they would give us money! So, I learned how to save at a very young age because I’d have to save up to get something I wanted like a new shirt or a bag of candy, or something like that. But really, I always saw him working hard to provide for us as a family, so we all did our little part to help him, you know? I think that’s really what it was.

But as I got older, I started to see how those things that I did when I was little working with him were things that I could use once I started booking shows in Memphis at bars and coffee shops and stuff. Then I was like, “Well, I’ll just make a poster for this show and hang it on telephone poles all around the neighborhood and hand them to people and tell them to come to the shows.” So, that’s when it was almost like a flashback to when I was little and some of the things that I was learning when I was growing up came in handy as an artist trying to get my music off the ground in Memphis.

What kind of candy did you want to buy?

I liked Laffy Taffy. I liked the jokes inside! They’re so silly but I loved them. And I really liked the banana ones.

Not everybody likes banana candy but I think banana candy is pretty good.

Yeah! I don’t really like orange candy, though.

Okay: collaboration and family seem very important to you. Was there a time when you realized you needed to surround yourself with good people in order to flourish?

Well, I’ve been lucky that it just naturally occurs. I’ve never lived alone. I’ve always had somebody with me. I’ve always had a lot of people around me. Growing up, there were five of us in our family, our mom and dad and then tons of kids as friends for each sibling. So, there was always a lot of people around. That just carried on into my adult life. I’ve just always had a lot of people coming through my life. I think that carries over to why I spend so many days, if I can, alone and quiet. Because I know that I’m going to be surrounded by lots of awesome-that-I-can-look-up-to-collaborators.

Even the musicians that I’ve played with on the road, they inspire me. And the sound engineers that I work with, I can ask them a million questions about pedals and they inspire me. So, it’s always like I steel time to actually have quiet space because I know I’m going to be around friends who are poets or musicians or sculptors and be inspired. I’ve never had a loss for amazing inspiring people around me, whether it’s a brother, sister, friend, someone working for me or whomever.

What did you think about the idea of fame before you started to experience it?

I didn’t really think too much about it at all, ever. I had people that were famous that I loved and I was really happy sometimes when I got to meet some of them. But the one time I really lost my mind was when I met Brad Pitt. I turned into a 2-year-old and started baby talking. I just lost it. I couldn’t even get a sentence out. Like, “Can I go back and do that all over” is what I thought when I woke up the next day. So, that was the one time where fame kind of, like, hit me and I was, like, “Dang! Fame is a real thing!”

Where did you meet him?

He came to one of my shows in L.A. I had a long line of people who I was signing for after the show and my tour manager, who also produced the record – so, he was tour managing and playing bass and he was kind of running the night – and so he came up to me at the end of the night while I had an hour’s worth of people to talk to and said, “Brad Pitt’s upstairs and he wants to meet you.” And I was like, “Yeah, whatever!” So, I signed for all of those people and he kept coming down saying Brad Pitt was upstairs and I kept thinking it wasn’t real. Finally, I said bye to the last person and my manager was like, “Now, will you come upstairs and meet Brad Pitt?” And I was like, “The real Brad Pitt is upstairs?!” And he was like, “Yeah!” And I was like, “I have to go up there right now!” But I didn’t think it was real. I kept thinking my manager was playing a joke on me!

You worked with Dan Auerbach on your 2013 release, Pushin’ Against a Stone. Do you have a favorite moment from those sessions?

Really, I think it was just having so many cool people in the room like Dan, Jimbo Mathus, Richard Swift, who isn’t with us anymore. Every time I see Dan, we always talk about Richard because Richard was one of the funniest, like, biggest surprises of that whole time. It was the time when Dan met Richard and they went on to do some stuff together even after my session. But it was also the time when I met Richard. We just thought the world of him. I think that was the biggest thing. I worked with him on some of the stuff I did for The Order of Time. That was the biggest surprise, what in the world kind of person Richard was. He was like a sponge for anything creative. He did visual art but he also played every single instrument and he could sing. I think we both got that from that session – like, “That guy’s kind of amazing!”

What did you learn about your own songwriting style or ambitions between releasing Pushin’ in 2013 and The Order of Time in 2017?

I think that’s constant and it’s kind of endless. It’s not something I can say in one answer to one question because the songwriting is constantly, like, I’m learning more and more and expanding. It just evolves as you get older, which I guess I could consider that a treat and a blessing. My friend, who is also a musician, we were sitting around talking after a brunch she and I were having, and she said, “What are we going to do when we get old?” And I was like, “I don’t really know.” We were thinking in terms of our 80s and 90s. And she said, “I guess we won’t be bored because we both have music.” And I was like, “Yeah! I guess you’re right about that.” I’d never thought about the fact that we can get up and play a song to entertain ourselves – that’s something to do!

I do think about it, though. My grandmother is 93 and she’s in an assisted living home and I guess she does stuff. She’ll go down to the cafeteria and meet up with friends she’s met there and they take them to places and stuff. But how cool would it be if she could play music, because they have a piano there and she could just go sit and entertain herself and play some songs.

So, songwriting is like that to me. As I get older, it evolves and I learn more about it every single day and it’s a magical thing. It’s like, “Dang! That’s there? I didn’t even know that was there!” It’s just this thing that keeps growing and as I get older, I’ll lean on that. And that’s not necessarily for other people, you know? We give these songs out, but not every song I write is for the world. I have personal songs that are just for me that I get on the nerves of my family!

You’ve talked about songs representing ethereal portals for you. Is there one that came to you recently that you especially enjoyed exploring?

This a funny time to ask that question because I have a lot of songs that – they just come over time, over the years, and right now because I’m sitting and I’m thinking about the songs, like, “Which ones do I want to record?” Because at some point I have to make another record. You know, one of them took a very long time for me to write. It didn’t come instantaneously. It will be on the next record. When I went to sleep one night, I started dreaming and in the dream my brother was playing this song on an acoustic guitar and I was like, “Oh my god, what song is that? I love that song so much!” And he said, “I just wrote it.” And I was like, “Damn! That’s amazing. That’s, like, the best song I’ve ever heard in my life!” I woke up and I was humming the melody of the song but I couldn’t remember the words he was singing. So, I was like, “Should I call him and ask him if he recently wrote a song that he needs to play for me?”

But I didn’t call him and I just went on with the day humming the melody. And over the last, I guess I would say six months or so, the song has started to reveal itself to me and I told my brother about the experience and he said, “Well, I had written a song that kind of matches that but that’s cool that happened to you!” And I was like, “Yeah! I can’t believe it and thank you so much for coming to me in that dream!” That was really fun. So, it is like a little portal or an adventure that you go on.

What goes through your mind when you step on stage for a crowd?

I hope I can do this! I really don’t know what I’m going to say or the order of the songs. I know the songs that I want to play but I don’t really know how it’s all going to fit and, so, I just let it happen and hope for the best. It’s kind of like getting on a roller coaster and you go through these high moments that are like, “Ohhhh mmmyy goooodddddd!” and then you go to the slower parts, like, “Okay, alright!” So, getting on stage is kind of like that. It’s like a thrilling adventure for me.

What delights you most about your career these days?

Well, I’m really enjoying – I’ve been on the road a little bit of the last year but the fact that I’ve been so many years of my life, like, not being on my own schedule even when I was working other jobs and writing songs in between jobs as I was working and trying to carve out time for myself to be able to be creative. Now, it’s like, I have time. And time to me is more valuable than money.

I’ve always thought about time as the greatest value or commodity that you can hold in your life. If you can hold a virtue, I think time is a beautiful thing to have. So, I have time and I’m really having fun with my time. I’m learning new things on the computer about music and that drives me into a whole different zone. It’s like, “Woah! I didn’t know that all of these things are possible through Logic and through messing with different tones and microphones and different textures of sound.” It’s like, time is mine now. I don’t have to rush and say, “Okay, I must absolutely do this at this exact time!” Because I’ve done that already and it’s beautiful that this portal opened up for me to just be able to be creative and to learn more about my music and to learn more about technology and its place in music.

Because, like I said, I worked for many years to try and buy myself enough time to be able to see it and work on my art. Now I can do that and I think it’s just the greatest luxury you can get to be able to do that. It’s huge. I don’t know if you’re an artist, but if you have time to sit and work on a piece, I don’t care if it’s drawing or whatever it is, having that time is huge. It’s better than getting a check in the mail. It’s like, “Damn, I could sit here and work on this all day and nobody’s going to stop me? What!” It’s like freedom. The Order of Time, I guess, led to me having more time and time is a theme that keeps coming up for me again and again in my work. Time, time, time. It’s in almost every song, some form of time.


Jake Uitti is a founding editor of The Monarch Review.

Leave a Reply

The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney