Exclusive: Q&A with Valerie June

Talking with Valerie June is like taking a breath of fresh air. Her calm nature and soft voice easily put one at ease. But it’s her music and songwriting that will take you to another stratosphere.
Coming off the release of her latest book, Light Beams, the delightful June stopped by the American Songwriter studio to talk about … what else, songwriting. The enchanting songstress shared a first-hand look into her writing process, which she tells us comes from voices she hears as she goes about her everyday life.

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“I hear voices while I’m washing dishes or while I’m grocery shopping, sometimes in my sleep, and I wake up and I remember it,” June tells American Songwriter. “But I don’t really ever sit down to write a song, I just hear it.“

Below are excerpts from our conversation with June. 

American Songwriter: Take us through your writing process.

Valerie June: When I was a very little kid, I’d be playing in the sandbox or in the yard, and I would hear these voices. The voices would sing to me, and I would just sing along with them. That’s how it started for me with songwriting, is that the voices that I hear in my head, mind space, I repeat what they say. And when I heard the voices, when I was a child, they were very light, like rainbows, frogs, clouds, things that were playful. But as I got older, there were all kinds of voices. And sometimes it’ll be like a man’s voice, or a woman’s voice, or a child’s voice. There are many different voices, low voices, high voices, squeaky, scratchy.

And as soon as one voice comes, then I start to hear others. They just layer and layer and layer like a choir, and it becomes like this symphony of voices is swirling around in my head. I do it a lot on my records where I put all the different voices that I’m hearing down, and then luckily I have producers who cut voices because so many start coming that it’s very difficult to control.

But yeah, it’s still that way. That’s how I write now, is I hear voices while I’m washing dishes or while I’m grocery shopping, sometimes in my sleep, and I wake up and I remember it. But I don’t really ever sit down to write a song, I just hear it. I’ll be bored in a plane, like when I was bored in a plane to come to write with Dan Auerbach for Pushin’ Against a Stone. The song “Tennessee Time” came because I was spending so much time on the road and away, and this voice just started singing, “Runnin’ on Tennessee time, runnin’ on Tennessee time,” and I didn’t get much else. So when I went to John Prine’s studio with Dan, because Dan didn’t have his studio then, we sat down. He said, “Well, what you been working on?” I always take the, I call those skeletons when I just get a piece of a song, a voice only sings a little bit.

I started flipping through and I was thinking, “Oh, we’re in Tennessee. Let me sing this for you.” I sang it for him, and he had the other part. So we co-wrote that. But whenever I go co-write, I always take those books, those journals, and journals of skeletons, and I just sing for the person that I’m working with. If they hear the other part, that’s key because sometimes I’ll have a voice that will have sung to me 10 years ago, and I don’t have the other part to this song. It comes into my head in and out of the 10 years, and it weaves, and it repeats itself, and it drives me crazy. Luckily, I will meet that next songwriter who has it, and I’ll complete the part, but it is very much like I don’t know what’s going to happen. So I always bring popcorn to writing sessions for that reason, because worst case scenario, we can eat popcorn.

AS: Do you receive full songs from the voices?

VJ: I do. I get full songs more than I get skeletons, and then I get the dream songs. I don’t get many dream songs, but when I get them, I wake up and I’m like, “Oh my God, what was that?” I immediately get my phone or a pad or paper that I keep beside the bed, and I just write it down, and it’ll stay with me all day. Sometimes, it’ll stay for years, repeating itself until I record it. I was thinking about this the other day. When I record them and I go on the road with them, and I share them with people, they leave me alone. They don’t come, the same song. New ones start to come randomly.

I’ll just be doing something, like takin a shower, or gardening, a lot comes when I’m working with plants, and I’ll hear this voice that hadn’t visited me for five years. And it comes back and I’m like, “Oh, I’m about to make a record. You trying to tell me something? You want to be on this record.” So the ones that get chosen to be on the record generally are ones that really, they sing the loudest. And because they sing the loudest and they’re driving me crazy in my head that much, I’m like, “Okay, I’m going to close your book. I’m going to go on and put you where you want to be, and then you’re going to leave me alone. Right?” That’s how it works.

AS: What makes a good song?

VJ: Well, oh my God, I just came from ACL [Austin City Limits] and honoring John Prine being inducted into the Hall of Fame, and the humor and the rhyme and the … “Oh, man.” And then Bob Dylan, we’ve been covering some of his songs on this tour with the ladies. And Tracy Chapman, so many songwriters that blow my mind. I think if you can paint a very vivid picture with words or a melody of a scene and invite the listener in and they can personalize it, like from “Angel from Montgomery,” Man, I’m in that song. I could see myself in that song, and others can too.

When people can personalize a song and see the whole picture. “Long Lonely Road” on my record, LeAnn Rimes said she’s from Jackson, Tennessee, too. She was like, ‘Long Lonely Road’ is my song.” And the reason why, we all know that old gravel road, we all know that back country old gravel road and the church, grands church, and the good Southern cooking and all that. We know that. So when you can draw that picture, and it’s not just you that sees that picture, but the others as well, the listeners.

AS: What’s the hardest part about songwriting?

VJ: Getting out of the way, that’s the hardest part. Just not overthinking it, just letting it come. I have songs about cooking, about getting dressed, about, it’s time to brush my teeth. And these are all terrible songs that nobody will ever hear because they’re the songs that get me to the next song.

AS: Any tips for aspiring songwriters?

VJ: Oh, wow. I love that question. I recently did a songwriting workshop, and that was the first time I’ve ever done anything like that. Because of the way that I write, I always feel like I don’t have any way to teach somebody. You hear what you hear. But there is a certain skill that you have to learn. So what I did was I took all the amazing songwriters that I love, from Leonard Cohen to Joni Mitchell to Tracy Chapman and Bob Dylan, the list goes on, and I wrote the lyrics of my favorite songs of theirs down. I looked at it and I’d just be like, “OK, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, bridge, whatever.”

And then I’d look at how did this rhyme, did that rhyme? How did they land it? Then I’d look back and I’d say, “Well, what imagery did they incorporate and why did they incorporate that imagery, and what did they allude to?” Like Leonard Cohen’s Jesus was a sailor when he walked along the water, and he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden towers. Why did he put Jesus in there? This man? I don’t know why he did that. So asking myself questions while I was cleaning houses and working at a coffee shop, I’d take that song with me, listen to it on repeat, and body slam it and dissect it and be like, “Oh, OK. I think I know what I’m going to do with these voices that I’ve gotten. I know this one’s a verse, that one’s a chorus.” Because they were just coming and I had no structure, no way to organize what they were.

Photo by JP Yim-Getty Images for Girls Write Now 2

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