Radiant Tennessee-born singer-songwriter, Valerie June, is resourceful, especially energetically. Speaking with the conscientious musician, it’s quick to see she’s as caring about ideas as she is talented, as aware of tone and feeling as she is technicality or intellect. It’s this mood that she brings to collaborations and cooking sessions with stars like Norah Jones—the two hung out and made music and meals together recently—and the mood June brings to playing stages like the Pilgrimage Music and Cultural Festival, which she will perform at on September 25, now her third time at the fest. But, for June, it’s often about making the most of these moments—whether they’re in person or at home in hibernation—and learning how they can better inform the present and future days that’s significant.
“I had a beautiful few days with Norah Jones,” June tells American Songwriter. “And that was just like any time being able to hang around her. We were talking about music and these times, and knowing she has dates that got cancelled, knowing I’m not the only one going through these slowdowns.” She adds, “That was a special weekend.”
Community is important for June. So after gigs were cancelled in various areas, it feels rejuvenating, she says, to head to Pilgrimage to play for fans and family.
“It’s been one of the most fun festivals that I’ve played in the United States,” June says. “This will be my third time, so I can say that as a seasoned Pilgrimage Music Festivaler. Every time I go, my family, all come. That’s home, Tennessee.”
June says she intends to bring the entirety of her big band to the event—there will be no stripped-down set for her. It’s fitting of the festival, which boasts big names like The Black Keys, Black Pumas, Tank and the Bangas, and Dave Matthews Band. Of course, the backstage can be often as fun as the main stage at events like this and, June says, she’s looking forward to both seeing fans and playing games with artists in the green rooms. June, a star but not one necessarily followed by paparazzi, can meander and weave in and out of almost any social group.
“I don’t have a huge following,” she says. “I have a perfect-size following.”
June, who released her most recent record, The Moon and Stars Prescriptions for Dreamers, in March, has since enjoyed a great deal of critical acclaim for it. It’s been bitter-sweet, in some ways. On the one hand, she’s earned the most adulation for this work than any other. Yet, she’s had few opportunities to share that joy. June, who often schedules meet-and-greets with fans, has not been able to do that for almost two years, due to the pandemic.
“[I’m] without being able to hug my fans after shows and hear about their lives and how the songs live in their lives,” June says. “I have a real relationship with my fans. I can actually be with them.”
In times over the past year-plus when June wasn’t able to focus on music—or couldn’t wrap her mind around it for whatever reason—she sought other avenues. Often, they were just as holistically prosperous and purposeful. For one, she’s a certified yoga instructor now. It’s an achievement she’s always wanted to undertake; she’s been doing yoga now for a few decades, she says. So, over the past few months, she jumped in.
“I’ve actually been taking the time to learn Sanskrit and the philosophy behind it,” June says. “I’m thrilled to dive into bodywork and study it in the same way I studied songs, dance, creativity, and art.”
With athletes, they say it’s helpful to play all sports, not just one. If you want to be a good football player, play basketball and baseball, tennis and do gymnastics. The same is true for artists and thinkers. If you want to understand math, try cooking something. If you want to be a good songwriter, try reading novels. June knows this and it’s part of her regular practice.
“I feel like I’ve been busy with music,” she says, “but I’m also trying to busy myself with other things I enjoy because I’ve been doing music for a couple of decades. I feel like I get so much from other creative sides. My painting helps my music, my poetry, cooking. If I just focus on music I feel like I don’t grow. I have to be doing so many other things—reading, exploring.”
It’s all about gaining knowledge, perspective, and the gumption to share it with an audience. That’s often what being an artist means today. June knows it well. It’s who she is, it’s who she’s made herself to be. But it’s not as easy as 1-2-3, there’s always something to learn, to be made aware of. Surprise is the heartbeat of glee. And the folks at Pilgrimage Music and Cultural Festival will know that in full effect, to be sure.
“I think it’s just the spiritual nature of it, which I love the most,” June says. “I don’t know where it comes from, it always keeps me guessing. That’s what I love most about it. It’s one of those things you can hear but you can’t hold.”
For more on the festival and Valerie, click here.