Valerie June On Learning To Love 'Perfectly Imperfect' Voices : The Record On the new album Pushin' Against a Stone, the Tennessean surveys a spectrum of her home state's signature sounds. She tells NPR's Audie Cornish that she got over old anxieties about her singing voice by embracing it as a storytelling tool.

Valerie June On Learning To Love 'Perfectly Imperfect' Voices

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


I'm Audie Cornish. And this is Valerie June.


CORNISH: This song, "You Can't Be Told," is big and bold, and it's just a taste of Valerie June's sound. She grew up in Tennessee and her music feels like it rides the spectrum of the signature sounds of her home state, from the rural roots of hill country to Nashville's country twang to foot-stomping Memphis blues. Valerie June stopped by our studios to talk about her latest album, "Pushin' Up Against a Stone," and about her special blend of blues, folk, country and Gospel. Valerie June, welcome to the program.

: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: Now, you've been quoted as describing your music as organic moonshine roots music. And clearly, there's a lot there that has to do with Tennessee itself, and you even have a song called "Tennessee Time." And we'll hear just the opening of it to get a sense.


CORNISH: A little ode to the place that you love, right?

: Very much so.

CORNISH: Tell us about this.

: So when I first moved to New York, I was still returning to Tennessee quite a bit every few months to perform. So one day, I was boarding a plane to head back to Memphis, and I heard this beautiful voice singing to me, and it just started singing, running on Tennessee time. And I was just like, man, that really is what I'm on because New York City is moving so fast, and I'm just kind of taking my time with everything. And I'm still on Southern time, or they call it colored people's time or C.P. time or Delta time.


: Whatever you want to call it, it's a little bit slower than New York time. So when I received this song, I just heard a voice singing that, and I didn't have the music to it at all. That's all I heard.


: So when I got with Dan Auerbach, he had some music. You know, he had the peanut butter for my jelly with that song. And he did...

CORNISH: And he's obviously from the group The Black Keys...

: Oh, yeah. Mm-hmm.

CORNISH: ...a well-known producer.


CORNISH: And you say you hear the music in your head. Is it your own voice? Is it - like how does it work?

: Usually, it's not my own voice. It's usually many different voices, and that's always a hard subject to talk about because it kind of sounds crazy, you know, to say, hey, I hear an older black male voice. Sometimes, I hear a younger woman's voice. Sometimes, I hear a child's voice or, you know, there's many, many different voices, either you feel connected to them and you write them down. I try to write down every song that comes to me, and if you just write every song, then you get to the good ones.


CORNISH: Every time it comes in your head, you mean?

: Yeah, yeah. Just write them all.

CORNISH: But that's fascinating because your voice is so distinct, and yet it feels so different with each song. And one song called "Shotgun"...


CORNISH: ...which is a murder ballad.

: Mm-hmm.

CORNISH: And I want to know about the voice that brought you this tune.

: Well, I met PJ Harvey when I was in England, and the first thing I want to do when I meet a songwriter I admire is to ask them how do they receive songs. And she told me I don't really hear voices, but I really see images, and so when I was writing "Shotgun," it's one of the first songs that's come to me as an image. And it was quite scary for me.



: We have to balance out the murder-ballad situation.

CORNISH: This is a ballad. This is definitely a ballad.


CORNISH: I want to go back to your roots for a second. How old were you when you first started singing and when you first started writing like this?

: When I first started singing, I was very young. My parents took us to church every Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday evening, and that was for 18 years of my life. And the congregations that we went to were maybe about 400 people every Sunday, and everybody were just lifting their voice. And so I found that if I sat beside different people, then I just started to mimic what they would do with their voices. And it was just a silly, playful way to learn how to use my voice as an instrument.


CORNISH: When you were first starting out, what was the reaction of people when you'd show up at the club? Because we should say that you've got these beautiful dreadlocks and all of this gorgeous sort of jewelry, and you look very sort of ethereal. And I don't expect the voice that I hear coming out of here...


CORNISH: ...coming out of your very young-looking face.

: Well, the kind of reaction that I would get depended on what venue I was in. Like sometimes I would be at a more blues-related venue, and they would be like, what is that? That's not blues as we know it down here.


: And that's what gave me the idea to start calling it something magical, like moonshine roots music because I wanted people to come to the music with just an open mind and just to be like, hey, is it good music? Because if it's good music, then I'll listen to it. And I noticed that every time I played at any venue, people would come up to me after the show, and they would all have a different thing to say. Like some people would be like, that's hillbilly music. Other people would be like, that's blues if I've ever heard it. Other people would be like, man, that was so spiritual and so Gospel. And I'm like, OK, well, how can I really call it anything other than good music if it touched the people and broke their, you know, barrier and got to their heart and moved them emotionally in some way.

CORNISH: And made them all want a little piece of it, right?

: Yeah.

CORNISH: To claim you for whatever their tribe is.

: Mm-hmm. To define it however they wish.

CORNISH: Valerie June, thank you so much for talking with us.

: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: Valerie June, her new album is called "Pushin' Against a Stone." You can stream songs from the album at


CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.