The making of Organic Moonshine Roots Music: How Sister Rosetta Tharpe inspired Valerie June to do anything or die trying

The making of Organic Moonshine Roots Music: How Sister Rosetta Tharpe inspired Valerie June to do anything or die trying

For most, Valerie June’s success to date seems meteoric. This Southern gal from Jackson, Tennessee has already wowed British audiences on the legendary music show “Later… with Jools Holland”, an iconic musical program that has showcased everyone from Paul McCartney to Björk. She sang a duet with Eric Church at the American Country Music Awards in 2013. She, along with her distinctive dreadlocked mane, has enjoyed features in countless magazines, including the coveted September issue of Vogue magazine and O: The Oprah Winfrey Magazine, as well as serious features on NPR’s All Things Considered, Fresh Air with Terry Gross and Tiny Desk Concert. And, her last and much talked about 2013 debut album Pushin’ Against the Stone, was the creative product of her collaboration with Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys and record producer Kevin Augunas. 

 However, a ‘meteoric rise to success’ is not how June describes the trajectory of her career. Before her so-called debut album, the 34-year-old June started performing at age 19, alongside her then-husband Michael Joyner, in the duo Bella Sun. After her divorce, she pursued a solo career that saw her inventing her own “organic moonshine roots music”, which is a decidedly modern eclectic mix of blues, gospel and Appalachian folk music; and became quite a skilled player of a variety of instruments, including the guitar, banjo, and lap-steel guitar. And, she self-released at least two albums, including The Way of the Weeping Willow (2006) and Mountain of Rose Quartz (2008).

 Despite her featured appearance on MTV’s online series $5 Cover, opening for Jake Bugg on the UK leg of his 2013 tour, or even working with Auerbach; June insists she has no one single big break to which she would credit her success to date.



New York Guitar Festival: What was your ‘big break’ moment and how did it come about?

Valerie June: It's been a journey so far, so I can't credit a BIG break without discarding some of the most cherished steps I've ever taken!  


The first thing people find striking about you is your voice. Tell us about your journey to finding your voice as a singer.

 I have always loved to sing, but I know my voice is not for everyone.  I tried to tame my voice and make it less strident.  That never really worked as much as just allowing it to be the wild beast that it is naturally.  As for finding my voice, I do that every day when I wake up and get moving!  I find it as I move into a cup of coffee and then again as I stand in the steam of the morning's hot shower and then again after I've eaten a heavy southern cooked meal and then again right before I close my eyes to sleep at night.  Singers must always be finding their voices. 


In past interviews, you’ve described yourself as a songwriter who ‘receives’ songs. Can you elaborate on your creative process? How do you distinguish ‘receiving’ songs from simply composing songs?

I don't know much about composing other than what I'm able to do when I'm sitting in front of another songwriter.  Alone, I usually just hear a voice and have to allow it to come forth.  That sometimes involves ignoring it or walking or cooking...anything but sitting down to write.  When I do sit down to write, if I've just heard a voice singing, you can rest assured I've let it roll again and again in my head before I grab a pen.  (Sometimes it sounds like baby talk.)  


What are some of the best lessons you’ve learnt about playing the guitar? 

Sometimes, just banging around is the best I can do!


Had your musical career not taken off, what else would you be doing with your life?

 Domestic artistry, i.e. hanging out the house with a few babies on my knees and a banjo on my lap with a guitar within arms’ reach. 


If there is one under-appreciated guitarist or rising star you’d recommend our audience discover (if they haven’t already), who would you recommend and why? 

Patrick Hockett: My little brother is a great guitar player, singer and songwriter.  I'm lucky to have him! 


What lessons have you learned from Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s legacy?

I've learned to be fearlessly who I am from Sister Rosetta Tharpe.  Her very image is powerful even today.  She represents freedom for me as a woman and as a black woman.  Then you add on the fact that she brought it as a singer and a musician in a male dominated time for music.  My problems and worries seem like dew drops compared to what she faced hitting the stage.  Having women like her come before me makes me feel confident that I can do anything or die trying!


What can we expect to hear you perform at the tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe?

Wait and see!


Interview by the New York Guitar Festival's Zingi Mkefa.  To learn more about Valerie June, please visit:


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