Valerie June: Why the Brilliant Folk Artist Doesn't Write Protest Songs

"I don't want to allow this world to take away the beauty of what I have created by asking me about politics"

Valerie June's latest album is 'The Order of Time' Credit: Jacob Blickenstaff

"Songs have hopes and desires bigger than me," says Memphis blues-folk artist Valerie June. "Just like a person does. I think everything is living. If you didn't notice, I'm totally emotional and everything has feelings."

For June, music is a living, breathing thing. So is everything, really – from the instruments she strums to the rooms she plays in. On The Order of Time, the follow up to her debut, Pushin' Against a Stone, this idea took on even more of a visceral significance: June's father, Emerson Hockett, passed away after a long illness in November, but his vocals landed on "Shakedown." Hockett's most immortal relic – his recorded voice – appears an album about balancing the finite nature of time with the hope that it's all more perfect circle than dead end.

Melding a nasal voice that is at once young and old – sometimes she's trying to sing like a grandfather, other times, a child, thinning the lines between both – with blues, folk and gospel, The Order of Time is from one generation with a shadow that hangs in another. But if June has her way, where or when will never be exactly clear. Like on "Man Done Wrong," there's the familiar ring of the banjo, but the neo-folk instrument du jour is deeply tonal, referencing the instrument's often overlooked African roots.

"'Man Done Wrong' is tribal, and it made me feel like I was sitting around the fire with my face painted singing this song," she says. "But other songs it's like, 'Hey, why can't the banjo have a little bit of soul?'"

We spoke to June about the banjo's past and why she doesn't want to talk about politics.

Your father was a promoter, working with Prince and Bobby Womack, but he supported his family through his construction company. Do you think a lot about how to balance art with the need to make a living?
When you are an artist, you deal in two worlds. But you have to live in the outer world. You have to live with others, take care of others, you have responsibilities. Your journey is always dancing between those two worlds, and that's what The Order of Time is really talking about. Talking about this journey that each individual goes through in their life, of balancing what they came here to do in spirit and what they actually say when they are in the real world.

I've learned so much on that path. I've had so many jobs, working with my dad and cleaning houses and at coffee shops, cooking meals, walking dogs. With each one, I kept my mantras and my affirmations towards the vision that I had inside as an artist. I'm playing with the thought of, "What does it mean for your dream to not be yours, but a lot of people's?" And maybe these things live after us. It's a journey through time and process like any other thing. [Art] has its time when it's a seed, and when it's flowering, and it has its time when you feel like it's dead, but then it gets revived again. It's just a process.

Have you always turned to music to help figure out that progression – the linear or non-linear nature of time?
I don't really think very much when I am writing a song. The voices come to me, like when a composer writes a symphony. They sing to me and I sing to you what I hear.

Sometimes they're an old man, sometimes a woman, a child – and I try to mimic them because I feel like that's my job. But when I listen to other people's music, like [the Grateful Dead's] "Ripple," chills come over my whole body. And I think, "This might be the last day of my life." Some music does have the ability to take all the time I have lived so far and make me look at them in a reflective light. But I don't think about songs. I just get 'em.

Do you consider yourself spiritual?
I am definitely in the spirit, but the words that end in "-al" are so hard for me. So many bloated heavy things around them. It's music that is in the spirit, it's very ethereal. [Songs] take me from my body and my earthly spot to my imaginary place – I call it imaginary, but maybe it exists, I don't know – and it's somewhere out in the ether. Sometimes I feel like maybe these voices are spirits that are here on Earth. Other times I'm like, "Oh no. That's definitely not human."

How connected do you feel to traditional religion, then?
Not very. Very grateful for it, because I was raised that way, but I think spirit and religion are two separate things. I dance in the spirit. I have this beautiful thought about John Lennon's "Imagine," where he's talking about all these things he's imagining and there would be no country, no religion. Well, I have this beautiful thought that there would be those things, but we would respect each other. That's why I like New York. So many different kinds of people live there like a beautiful machine that just dances.

Folk music has often tended to lean political, especially in times of social strife, but you're not fond of those words that end in "-al." The Order of Time doesn't ring that way, unlike some of how Pushin' the Stone could have been interpreted.
It's a funny thing to me – I made a record, and I received these songs. And I have protected them. I'm their servant. And nowhere along the way does that involve anything political. I don't turn on the news, I don't know what's going on with the world in that sense, I am very protected in my space. It's very sacred. And as the servant of the song, I don't want to allow this world to take away the beauty of what I have created by asking me about politics. What in the world? Can we not just have beautiful music? Can we not just create something that is happy and fun? It's an easy thing for people to take the way you look on the outside and try to shape things – that's the funny thing about the banjo. I play the banjo but not every single song where I use the banjo is a folk song.

Well, most people probably aren’t aware of how the banjo's origins trace back to Africa.
It's so true and I'm just sorry for that instrument, because all it wants to do is everything, like every other instrument. Like songs, instruments have feelings. In the past when I saw people playing it, I've thought, "Oh, that's going to be a bluegrass song." But it can be everything.

What does the word "timeless" mean to you?
It means that ethereal realm. What happens before we come into the body and after we leave it. It's best to think of it in an ethereal way: What happens when I write these songs and go to those places? It's just a feeling. In the greatest music, it's a feeling. And that's timelessness. It takes you back to before you got in this body and went by the rules. You have to go by the rules. There's a certain physical structure we have to work with and time is a part of it.

It's a bummer, isn’t it?
Well, I think it's great. It's all got its purpose. It's like training ground for other things. Everything always is, really

What artists feel timeless to you?
Last year was a pretty deep year because of the loss of my father. In doing that, we lost so many people – my father promoted one of Prince's first shows and he talked about that all the time. That was his greatest thing that he did. And I knew, as soon as Prince passed, that my father was going to pass. Because my father could not stand to be on Earth without Prince.

And David Bowie. He is what I mean when I talk about a world outside of this world, but still being on Earth. Same for Sharon Jones. I opened for her and I guarantee you she was working with the sprit world. She knew that her body was not going to last forever and she wanted to spend every day doing what she loved and she gave it everything she had. Same with Leonard Cohen. That is timeless. "Suzanne" has been sung by so many different musicians. I was just like, man, what does that all mean? That all of them left in the same year? And then my dad? I thought, well, he just must be promoting a huge concert with all of them on the other side of the ether.