If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
June explores the roots—and the promise—of blues, gospel, and folk music on her new album, The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers.
This excerpt is from BOMB’s Spring 2021 issue.
I have long admired Valerie June’s music and beauty from afar (I mean… her hair?! #goals), but the opportunity to dig into her new record, past and present collaborations, and overall joy-infused take on being an artist was an absolute pleasure. June plays in the traditions of blues, folk, soul, and country, styles rooted in her childhood in Tennessee, where she was exposed to gospel music in church and where her father was a music promoter. The modern production techniques of June’s latest album, The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers (Fantasy, 2021), make room for more reflective, meditative moments, as well as an appearance by Carla Thomas, the legendary “Queen of Memphis Soul.”
Although The Moon and Stars feels like a new direction for her sonically, it also feels like what June has always been: a torchbearer of folk and Americana music. June and I spoke over Zoom on an ordinary Saturday afternoon. I left our conversation feeling more in love with the power and beauty that exudes from a Black woman with a mission in life. If there is one thing I learned, it is that approaching art from a space of curiosity, wonder, and sincerity will keep you on a path of creating work that resonates with all
Celisse I’m so glad you asked me to do this because it gave me an opportunity to dive into your catalog. In this country, we have a selective memory about where we come from, but your music deeply encapsulates Black traditions. The Moon and Stars in particular harkens back to old folk songs—which are spirituals—but then brings them into Technicolor for 2021. It’s a great record, Valerie.
Valerie June Thank you. It means a lot coming from you because from the first day I met you, I fell in love with your music and your playing and everything. And you, as well, are able to speak on behalf of African American people through your work. It’s powerful. You work with artists like Lizzo, Jon Batiste, and everybody. Girl, who haven’t you played with? (laughter)
C I am so curious about the production process with you and Jack Splash on this record. The trap beat in “Within You” turned my perception of what the music was on its head.
VJJack appreciates art of all kinds, from poetry to visual art to fashion. He finds creativity in everything; it just oozes from him. Jack gets Americana. He gets where I’m coming from, but he also gets where I see my music going. When I played him “Fallin’,” he was like, “You don’t even need to do anything with that one; you can just put that on the record.” Having him be supportive of where I already was—it was powerful.
C I love hearing that. I’ve had a handful of tricky experiences where I was like, “Here’s my thing, here’s my perspective,” but then the producer is like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s fine, but this is what we’re going to do.” So it’s great to hear your artistry was supported in this process.
My favorite song on this record is “Stardust Scattering.” I’ve never heard a song produced exactly like that, where it feels as if everything is in the distance and it’s coming more forward and more forward and more forward. So cool!
VJ I’ve been learning how to use Logic, but I’m not a producer. When I first wrote that song, I put the beat all the way through—there was no break to it. It was just a drone. I thought that after I showed the drummer the vibe, we’d just let him do the beat. But Jack was like, “No, we need both. We need to keep your beat and we need the drummer to go in, too.” I’d been listening to Les Filles de Illighadad, this group from Niger that plays desert blues music, and I’ve been obsessed with Ali Farka Touré and Fela Kuti forever, and I knew I wanted it to have the feel and textures of African music, that style of horns and bass and everything. Since I can’t write music, I was in the control room with Jack and the bassist, and I was literally singing them the bass part that I wanted.
C But you singing that part for someone to play is writing. And truth be told, part of what’s amazing about working with Logic is that you can go to a keyboard and find the notes and plunk it out, but then there’s a feature in Logic that will notate the music for you.
C Yeah girl, I’ll show you, and it’ll blow your mind because there’s just so much that becomes available to you.
VJ Well, that’s the reason why I wanted to talk to you and know you better in my life. You’re on electronic instruments and keys and guitar. We’ve got a lot to learn from you, girl.
C As challenging as this time has been, and God knows it has been challenging, I’ve had this friend in music. Even in moments when I feel lonely, music has always been a constant companion.
I want to talk about “Call Me a Fool.” That video, the collaboration with Carla Thomas— there’s so much! What inspired that song?
VJ I feel like we all have dreams when we’re little, but as we get older, society says, No, we don’t need another amazing guitar player; we don’t need this; we don’t need that. So people start dimming their personal dreams and their light and who they came to be. And then there are dreams for humanity, dreams like Dr. King had for us to not be judged by the color of our skin but by the content of our character. Dreams like what John Lennon talks about in “Imagine,” that we might live as one. I look at all dreams as something that society is not necessarily set up for. The dreamer has to be like, Well, y’all can call me a fool because I believe in this, but I’m doing it either way.
C If it’s like desert island, bring to any gig, and I can make anything happen with it, definitely my white SG, my three-pickup, like Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s. It’s the most toneful by far, and every time I put it on I can’t help but think of Sister Rosetta and her legacy. I recognize that every time people see me play, they’re reminded of where this art form really comes from and how narrow our view has been. The truth is, electric guitarists are not just white men.
VJ Your playing does exactly what you said about my music: connecting to the roots of the modern day. You move outside of time. It’s as if Sister Rosetta is standing right there. You feel her with you. Her spirit is proud of you.
My favorite female electric guitar player is Beverly “Guitar” Watkins. I saw her play in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and I didn’t know what I was walking into. I walked in, and this grandma was playing guitar with her teeth and had it behind her head and got down. This little old Black woman. She killed it, girl.
CShe was amazing. I’m curious about your favorite guitar. What is your main baby?
VJ You know my Guild is a favorite. My Martin Dreadnought is a favorite. And my little baby ukulele. She’s the baby.
C There are a lot of songs on this record where there are two of your voices happening at once. When I’ve done that in the past, I’m trying to be laser-sharp, making one pass exactly like the other. But the way you use it in your record, it adds so much more dimension because the takes are just different enough to have this back-and-forth. It feels like your signature thing. It’s a vibe.
VJ I prefer to hear my voice doubled; every time I thought I was doing too much doubling, Jack would be like, “Hey, we need to double it.” Maybe with my next record, I’ll be able to have other singers. I love The Staple Singers, where there are those layered voices but it’s not the same person. With what I’ve done on this record, it’d be really hard to pull off live. I’d need a choir.
C Tell me about the final track, “Starlight Ethereal Silence,” and what it means for you.
VJ The record was finished, and we were mixing it in March in Tennessee. Every night when I would go outside, the birds were just so beautiful, it was like a symphony, an orchestra. I couldn’t wait to go out there and listen. As the temperature got hotter, other things started to chime in—bullfrogs, cicadas, everything. I was like, Why am I making music? I should just sit outside every day and record birdsong. And I thought about how I have periods of my life where I don’t really listen to music, where I go into silence. I hear more when I’m being quiet. I listen better after I come out of a period of silence too. That’s why we added thirty seconds of silence to the end of “Home Inside,” carving out just thirty seconds of quiet to listen to the music of the world. Then, with “Starlight Ethereal Silence” we move into birdsong and let the birds take us out. You have this meditative moment of realizing the beauty of music being all around us and in everything. Like right now, my refrigerator is humming—it’s just humming. Sound never ends. Sound is eternal, and it always has been. It was before we were. Sound is everything.
C Silence, at least for me, can feel like a mental and spiritual reset. I see that you’ve been leading these meditations on Instagram, and your whole album feels like one long meditation. I’m curious about your spiritual life and how you see that coinciding with your music.
VJ Music is a spiritual path for me. Everything that I feel spiritually is really hard to put into words. Spiritual is a heavy word. That’s why I named that track “Starlight Ethereal Silence,” because with the word ethereal you’re entering all these realms and worlds without any kind of heavy associations with religion. I have respect for all religions, and I think there is something wonderful in all of them. I read and study as many of them as I possibly can. Right now, I have a lot of crazy books around. That’s the way I’ve always been. I was raised super Christian—eighteen years at the Church of Christ—and I’m glad because that was like a doorway to be curious about the spiritual world. The beauty of being on Earth and being an earthling and being in a body and having this experience of smelling a flower or watching the sunset—that is spirituality. Musicians like Alice Coltrane or Sun Ra bring us to a realm where we’re thinking beyond what we see in the physical world—that’s what music brings to me, and I just want to share that with people.
C This is more of a music-nerd question, but when you were tracking the record, were you tracking the band live, in one big room, and then doing overdubs, or did you build from the ground up?
VJ Every song is different. With a lot of songs, we worked off the demo of my touring band—I’ve been touring with these same guys for years. If Jack and I loved something about the demo, which we did on several songs, then it would be the root of the song, and if we wanted deeper or richer keys, then his musicians contributed all of that. It was a totally different way of working for me because I’m used to myself and a band in a room. And the musicians that I tour with are amazing. They’re like family. They know my talk. When you don’t know how to write music and you don’t know every single chord, and you’re trying to describe a song to someone, you learn to describe it in certain ways: “I want this to sound gray” or “I need the drums to sound like thunder and a cloud, or walking-through-the-woods-in-the-middle-of-the-night soft.”
C That is just as valid. Handing musicians chord changes isn’t necessarily the best thing. When you send musicians demos or a voice memo of the song, they actually have to learn the song and become really acquainted with it. It actually opens up a space for deeper things to go on.
VJ This is my only record that I can think of where I didn’t work with Mazz Swift and Marika Hughes for the strings. Jack wanted to use Lester Snell, and it was amazing. But when we do it live, Mazz and Marika will play. I’m so grateful for the fact that we build relationships with these musicians. You know that you’ll always pick up where you left off.
C Especially being on the road. You want to be around people that you really love and enjoy. “Yeah, you’re a great bass player, but are you a good hang?”
I hate that I’m even asking this—because classifications are whatever—but how would you classify yourself or your music if you had to?
VJ I used to call it “organic moonshine roots music.” I named it that because when I used to busk down on the streets—and I would make $1,000 a day just in tips—people would be like, “What kind of music is that?”
C That’s amazing. Holy moly.
VJ I would say, “What kind of music do you think it is?” Some people would be like, Blues, some would be like, Gospel or Folk, others would be like, Hillbilly. I would say, “Well, it’s all of that.”
I started playing in my early twenties. I knew I wasn’t going to become Hendrix by starting at twenty-two, but I could learn the root of where I wanted to go and grow toward that direction. So I learned the basic folk chords first. I had to understand that and feel that. I always see myself as a singer-songwriter, and my voice has been my first instrument from birth. I never thought that I would be able to accompany any of my stuff on instruments. I was a cheerleader in high school, and I was the worst one on the squad because I didn’t have any rhythm. I couldn’t clap to a beat.
I basically just said, “I’m going to do ten minutes a day for my twenties and I’m going to keep booking myself gigs and getting up and butchering the guitar in front of folks and put all my emotion and heart and soul into it, and that will override the fact that I just fucked up the chord.” (laughter)
C I’m so surprised because I think your guitar skills are great. The reason I asked you about that classification is because you play a lot in folk, Americana, and roots spaces. I’m curious about your experience as a Black woman in those spaces because even though we know these traditions come from Black people, especially in modern music, usually the narrative is pointed toward a lot of white artists.
VJ Well, it’s definitely been an experience. Being from Humboldt, Tennessee, I’ve always been in the middle of the room when there were Black folks on one side and white folks on the other side. I’m all Black, but I’ve always been in the middle of the room like, Why can’t we just all hang out together? We talked about my spirituality, and that is my spirituality: Oneness, interconnectivity. There are no lines and rules to the oneness that we all are.
Occasionally, I’ll get scholarly and try to remind people that the origin of the music I’m creating comes from my people: African Americans, enslaved people, and deeper; it even goes further. But I feel that if I put too much energy into educating people, I’m not doing my best at being what I can be. And there are plenty of people who are better at talking on that subject and their passion is to speak on it. I’m too busy out there shining, trying to actually live the experience of freedom that our ancestors paved the way for.
C Yes, girl. I get that.
VJ Looking back at blues festivals and stuff, there were very few Black people at those shows. B. B. King would be on stage. Mavis Staples would be on stage. And the audience members would mostly be white people. And I would just be like, Why do Black people not come? I never wanted to learn about slavery in school. I never wanted to read any books on slavery or know anything deeper than what I already felt. I feel it. I’ve read everything—everything Baldwin, everything Du Bois, everything Ida B. Wells, I’ve read all of that—but nothing educated my ass like learning the blues. I’ve gone to my frickin’ grandmother’s Highway 45 Church of Christ and there would be like only thirty people and they all have accents that sound like mine and they sing country. I was raised this way. And I don’t want to spend the rest of my life explaining it. What I want to do is get on stage and do it.
There are days when it’s been hard. There are times when my heart breaks. It isn’t easy to be a person who has pushed against that wall. Now that I’ve pushed against that wall, it’s easier for the musicians coming up today, and I’m grateful for that. But that fucking wall was hard to push.
C That could be a whole separate conversation that I’m sure we will have over a bottle of wine at some point. I play a lot of rock music, and rock has become synonymous with whiteness, which is wild because we know it’s Sister Rosetta Tharpe, it’s Little Richard, it’s Chuck Berry, it’s Muddy Waters that are the foundation. And then every so often, the ill-informed Black person is like, “Why you playing that white music?” And it’s like, “You guys! This isn’t white music. It’s our music.” On the other side, there are some white men who also feel threatened, like you’re taking something away from them. I’m always just like, How do I take something from you that is my own to begin with? It’s not possible.
What you were hearing in those churches were the roots of this music we’re talking about. These country songs—actual country from the country—and spirituals are so earthy and grounded and so undeniably Black. I want to acknowledge, as another Black female playing rock ‘n’ roll music, I have also had times when I wonder where the Black people are. But it’s changing! I think there’s a shift that’s happening.
VJ It’s beautiful that the change is happening. When I’ve had to ask myself, “Where are we?” I go through all the history. I listen to all the poets. I listen to all the authors. I listen to all the musicians. I hear the moans. I hear the different genres. I listen to spirits and ancestors. And after I come back around I’m like: We are ever forward. We went from blues to jazz. From jazz to hip-hop. We are ever forward, and we don’t want to linger with any negativity, with any weight. The pain of the blues is real. When the Great Migration happened, they were getting away from that heaviness and that fear and the constant trauma—that is still in many of our bodies today—to start making something new, to watch the sun rise a different way.
My father, who was a music promoter, used to be like, “Your music is not for Black folks, but you have your audience and stuff.” But at the end of his life, he was in the front row at Carnegie Hall dancing to my music.
C That’s part of what I think is really cool about your newest record: there’s all this texture and all these modern things going on. To be perfectly honest, it’s all the blues. Every single thing out there happening, even the most modern EDM song has blues changes. I have a lot of hope for the evolution of music in general and, more importantly, the reclaiming of particular kinds of music. I’m like, It’s cool if this is just not your thing sonically, but don’t be confused that this music isn’t ours, too, because it is.
VJ It is. I think there also have to be people in the Sun Ra vein. He studied a lot of history, but he was moving futuristically. Because how else do you grow? Ultimately, I think the goal for humanity is a loving-kindness. It’s a mindfulness, and it’s colorless, and beautiful, but we’re never gonna get there without looking at the past, healing that, and then pushing forward, looking forward, forward, forward.
C How has this time that we’ve been in affected your relationship to music?
VJ You mean the pandemic? Just being at home, for the first time, I’m learning scales for real. When I’m on the road, I don’t have that kind of time. Before, I taught myself basic chords, but I never really practiced. I used to sit down to write a song and be like, Okay, let me pick this out. I think my playing will get better from this. But with my path, I think I’m supposed to inspire people to do more inner work, to choose thoughts that are more holistic and more mindful of each other. And music has a big hand in that because it brings people together. Music has that power.
C What does music, as a whole, mean to you?
VJ To me, music has always been and always will be the ultimate timekeeper. It transcends time. Music lives in a realm that people can’t really put their finger on but that they can enjoy. Where does it come from? They say, in the beginning there was the word. That’s sound. It’s the original. It’s the first presence, and it’s going to be all that there is. There’s sound even in black holes. There are sounds that we can’t hear. Sound is so much deeper than us. Every time I’m working on music, I’m reconnecting with that. I almost feel like I’m not in a body. I’m just floating through the stratosphere, enjoying the sounds and the textures.
Celisse is a singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and spoken-word artist. She has performed at the Beacon Theater, supporting Mariah Carey; Town Hall, supporting Graham Nash; Madison Square Garden, supporting Kesha; and the Apollo Theater with Melissa Etheridge. Celisse starred in the revival of Godspell at Circle in the Square Theater and has appeared on 30 Rock, the Electric Company, the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and Saturday Night Live, where she played lead guitar with Lizzo.
Originally published in
Our spring issue features interviews with Tiffiney Davis, Alex Dimitrov, Melissa Febos, Valerie June, Tarik Kiswanson, Ajay Kurian, and Karyn Olivier; fiction by Jonathan Lee, Ananda Naima González, and Tara Ison; poetry by Jo Stewart, Farid Matuk, and Joyelle McSweeney; a comic by Somnath Bhatt; an essay by Wendy S. Walters; an archival interview between Barbara Kruger and Richard Prince; and more.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.