When Valerie June Writes Music, It Begins With A Voice In Her Head The folk-blues singer describes her creative process as "receiving" a song. "It usually starts with one voice," she says, "And as soon as I hear one, then 500 more come in and surround it."
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When Valerie June Writes Music, It Begins With A Voice In Her Head

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When Valerie June Writes Music, It Begins With A Voice In Her Head

When Valerie June Writes Music, It Begins With A Voice In Her Head

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(SOUNDBITE OF VALERIE JUNE SONG, "JUST IN TIME")

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The passage of time weaves through Valerie June's new album, "The Order Of Time."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST IN TIME")

VALERIE JUNE: (Singing) Take my breath away and you put me down, teach me how to play again. I said and when I thawed (ph)...

SIMON: Valerie June Hockett started playing the Memphis club scene when she was still a teenager. She is a New Yorker now with a vocal style that takes traditional blues, country and soul and pushes them into another realm. Valerie June joins us now from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

JUNE: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: You might be in your 30s now, right?

JUNE: I am for sure (laughter) - well-earned years.

SIMON: So what makes you think so much about the passage of time?

JUNE: You know, it's always on my mind. I thought about it on my way here. I was like, well, I have to get there by 3 at the latest, you know? Time, time, time, it's on our minds. I woke up at 7, and I have to be at the doctor by 9, you know, all of these things. It rules our day and our lives.

SIMON: I ask the question, obviously, because of the title and the music. But I also understand that you lost a parent recently.

JUNE: I did, my father.

SIMON: That'll reset our clocks and how we think about time in many ways. Has that happened with you?

JUNE: It has for sure. Losing him and having also a new little baby born in our family in the same breath, basically, two months back to back, that definitely made me start looking at time.

SIMON: Your father was a gospel music promoter, right?

JUNE: Gospel and R&B, yeah.

SIMON: Promoted one of Prince's first shows.

JUNE: He did in the '80s (laughter).

SIMON: Yeah. Your father's voice is on this album, isn't it?

JUNE: Yeah. He's singing. He sings on the song "Shakedown."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHAKEDOWN")

VALERIE JUNE AND EMERSON HOCKETT: (Singing) Well, everybody, well, everybody, just any ole body, just any ole body, you're the one, yeah, yeah, you're the one, yeah, yeah, everybody (ph).

SIMON: And some siblings on this track, too, right?

JUNE: Yes, both my brothers, Jason Hockett and Patrick Hockett, sang me on there. So it's an honor to have them because we grew up singing together.

SIMON: And I understand Nora Jones...

JUNE: She is singing on there as well, yes.

SIMON: ...Who should not be left out certainly.

JUNE: No, not at all.

SIMON: What's it like to hear yourself sing with your brothers and your father?

JUNE: It brings back memories because we - I come from a singing family, and we all sang around the house, and I never thought about it. People would ask me, are you from a musical family? I'd be like, no (laughter) because we didn't play instruments. My parents probably couldn't stand it for us to play instruments because it was so loud at our house. One more thing to make it any noisier would've driven them out of their minds. So we just sang all the time. We sang everything and we sang all together and all different, you know, styles and ways. And so when I needed to have male background vocals on the record, I said I know it's got to be my brothers. And they sang with me at Carnegie Hall a couple years ago as well, so I knew that they could do a great job at it.

SIMON: And your father's voice.

JUNE: Well, that was an accident, and it got me one of the best memories that I'll ever have of him because he was sitting on the couch. And he got up to leave the room to go rest because he was resting a lot in the last year because he didn't feel well. And on his way to the room, I said we need you to sing. And he said, what? I don't sing on records. I said, yeah, you will today. And so the boys encouraged him. They were like, yeah, Daddy, get over here. Put the headphones on. And we got him around the mic and he sang and then we let him rest a little bit. So I'm so glad I pushed him a little.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHAKEDOWN")

JUNE AND HOCKETT: (Singing) And make it go around, said I brought it, broke it, bring it, and feel it when you sing it, that breakdown, shakedown, go around (ph)...

SIMON: You gave an interview to Rolling Stone, I guess, that said when you're writing a song voices come into your head.

JUNE: They do. It's similar to the way that composers hear a symphony in their head. They hear the strings. They hear the bass, the horns, everything. Well, with me, it's usually not instruments that I hear. It's usually voices, and it usually starts with one voice. Sometimes the voice can sound like a child's voice, sometimes an old lady's voice. Sometimes I can tell, well, that would be a white person's voice or a black person's voice or a young person's voice or whatever. And as soon as I hear one, then 500 more come in and surround it. So it begins to sound a lot like a choir or a chorus in my head. But most of the songs that I write for my records are songs that come to me while I'm out doing other things, like gardening or washing dishes or whatever. These voices just come, and "Astral Plane" came while I was cooking dinner, and I was chopping onions and throwing them in the skillet to saute and I heard the voice singing (singing) dancing on the astral plane.

And I was like wow that sounds really neat, chop, chop, chop.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ASTRAL PLANE")

JUNE: (Singing) Dancing on the astral plane, holy water, cleansing rain, floating through the stratosphere, blind but yet you see so clear. Is there a way for you to shine without fear?

Sometimes when I do receive a song, I do feel like I'm going to the place where that song was originating from. Like with "Astral Plane," as I was cooking and I was writing it, I do feel like I escaped and I was in this very iridescence space that was aluminum and starry, like the voice came and it took me to wherever it was (laughter) so...

SIMON: Tell us about the song "Man Done Wrong."

JUNE: That one - it came first with the music. And I play the banjo on it, so I had been sitting in my apartment playing that banjo (vocalizing) again and again for three or four days, and I was like, well, I really like this music. I'd love for something to happen with it. And then about the fourth day, the voice started chanting ee, na, ni, na, ni, ni, ni, yeah, na, ni, ni, na, ni, ni ni (ph) over the rift.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAN DONE WRONG")

JUNE: (Singing) Ee, na, ni, na, ni, ni, ni.

And I just kept playing that for a few days, and then after that, that's when it started to shape and it said (singing) gone and roam 'round everywhere, gone and roam 'round everywhere (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAN DONE WRONG")

JUNE: (Singing) Gone and roam 'round everywhere.

And so then more and more, as I told you, as soon as one voice comes then other voices come in. Like, soon as you open the door to one, then they all start to come in.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAN DONE WRONG")

JUNE: (Singing) Neighbor listen through the wall, neighbor listen through the wall (ph)...

SIMON: Valerie June - her new album, "The Order Of Time." Thanks so much for being with us.

JUNE: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAN DONE WRONG")

JUNE: (Singing) Friend dropped by but could not stay (ph).

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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