The everyday magic of Valerie June

The acclaimed singer-songwriter sees magic everywhere. Even in apple juice.

Valerie June performs in 2014.
(Image credit: AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

Growing up in Humboldt, Tennessee, singer-songwriter Valerie June was surrounded by voices.

June's family attended the Church of Christ, a denomination whose churches highlight worship through song. But some, like June's, forbid instruments. So the music is all acapella.

It's fitting, then, that when June writes songs now, she receives them as voices bringing the words and melodies to her, almost like a magical radio transmission. She doesn't pretend to know where the music comes from, either. "It just comes into me and then it comes into the world and it's something that comes from the invisible into the visible. I feel like it's a path for me to really get an understanding of other processes and creations," June says by phone from her Brooklyn apartment.

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This process is clearly working for June, whose 2013 debut Pushin Against a Stone (produced by The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach) launched a cavalcade of media praise. The New York Times lauded her as one of America's "most intriguing, fully formed new talents," while The New Yorker was captivated by her "unique, stunning voice," and Rolling Stone quickly referred to her as "unstoppable."

June seemed to come out of nowhere with her bright warble and astonishingly eclectic songs, a genre she used to call "organic moonshine roots music." But really, she came from Humboldt, Tennessee, a town halfway between Memphis and Nashville, two cities alive with all kinds of music. And she also came of age with a father, Emerson Hockett, who was a gospel promoter who would take June around town to hang up posters for artists he was promoting, including Prince.

It took some years, some luck, and a lot of hard work from those early days in Humboldt, but now June is firmly in the spotlight. Which is an excellent place to be as she prepares to release her second album, The Order of Time.

Living in Brooklyn has shown June not just how much her Southern upbringing lacked diversity, but how much harmony is possible when disparate cultures come together. "Where I'm coming from in the South, it's different. I remember seeing my first Indian person in my whole life. I was in K-Mart as a kid. I saw an Indian woman wearing a sari and a red dot on her head. I didn't see many Asian people. I didn't see very many people of other cultures at all. No African people. I saw black people, of course, but I'm talking about people from Nigeria or Ghana. Those things seem foreign when you don't have them around you, when you don't have any other culture. New York shows me that people can have their differences, but they can believe different things and be opposites while living in harmony every single day."

That June finds magic in city life is appropriate, because she finds magic in so many places. "Magic" is a word she uses often, defining it as "an iridescence. It's an ability to play beyond the laws of a physical realm. To just really tap into your personal consciousness and bring something that no other being on planet Earth can bring... So magic is you being fearless enough to believe in your power and your light."

June sees magic everywhere — even in the utterly quotidian aspects of daily life. "You have a thought, like, 'Oh, I want some apple juice with my breakfast.' That's just a thought, but the next thing you know you're drinking apple juice with your breakfast. That is magic. It's taking something that was just a thought and bringing it into the physical realm."

Before you scoff at this magic juice, here her out. "There's an art to it and there's a craft to it," she says. "My life is dedicated to understanding the process of taking something that's in the invisible world and bringing it into the physical world."

Living between worlds explains songs like "Astral Plane," the shimmering lead single from The Order of Time. NPR's Ann Powers compared the lyrics of "Astral Plane" to the literature of Alice Walker or bell hooks. A peaceful ode to intuition, "Astral Plane" began as a song for Massive Attack, who'd sent June an audio track, hoping she would contribute vocals and lyrics. "They wanted me to write to the track, but I didn't really hear any voices. I listened to the track all day. So I didn't hear anything, then I stopped listening to it to make some dinner, and while I was cooking, I started to hear the voice singing, "Dancing on an astral plane/ Holy water cleaner than rain," and I really liked it. So I wrote the whole song while I was cooking." She recorded her lyrics over Massive Attack's backing track, but they decided against using her recording.

In typical Valerie June style, she finds the magic in this. "When I received it, it felt like a song for me. I felt like it was really personal, but I also knew I had been listening to their track all day. It seemed like they opened the door to the place where the song came from. So shouldn't I try to sing to the music that they sent? So I did, but they had the choice. If it's not where they thought the song would go, then that's the answer to the missing piece. So it stayed with me. It's mine."

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Erin Lyndal Martin

Erin Lyndal Martin is a music journalist, poet, and visual artist. Her music journalism has appeared in Salon, No Depression, bandcamp, The Rumpus, PopMatters, Drowned in Sound, She Shreds, and elsewhere.