June rocks a custom 4-string baby ukulele banjo made by Memphis banjo luthiers Tommy George and Christian Stanfield. Her collection of banjos includes two vintage ones that stay at home: a 1930s Gibson model and a 1930s Vega
that Ry Cooder gave to her. Photo by Jordi Vidal

What was it like touring with Sharon Jones?
She was a force. I get inspired thinking about it because, she was just, like, “l’m going to take my life and do what I wanna do with it, and what I wanna do with it is play music. I’m gonna do it every day until the day I leave this planet. And I don’t care what anybody’s got to say about it, I’m doing it.” And so that fearlessness, and being such a fierce woman, and fighting back in so many ways through so many things, is just inspiring. I learned a lot. I’m still learning from her.

During an AmericanaFest 2015 performance, you shared this story about how your dad said he saw a white guy playing the blues and it sounded like you. It turned out to be Jack White. What did you think about that when he first said that to you?
Well, I laughed because I didn’t really think my dad got what I was doing. I was living in Memphis, I had my 12 to 15 jobs, and I was playing music and burning my own CDs, and hustlin’, trying to get ’em out. I just didn’t think my dad really understood what I was trying to do musically because his framework was for R&B and gospel music.

And so, I was like, “What?” My dad kept trying to come up with the guy’s name. “It started with a J and his last name started with a W. Maybe it was Johnny Wilkins, I don’t know?” I kept guessing and finally I said, “Was it Jack White?” And he’s like, “Oh yeah!”

I just laughed so hard because, first of all, my dad, over the course of his life, worked with so many entertainers. He put on one of Prince’s first shows. He worked with Bobby Womack on a show. He would come home and tell us stories about people he met. To me, this was another one of my dad’s old stories, like, “That old man—he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” And then I looked it up and Jack White did play in Jackson, Tennessee, that night! It was hilarious.

“I had to learn to play an instrument because I didn’t want to be in the middle of the room trying to sing and that’s all I can do.”

Jack’s brother invited my dad into the soundcheck, and he said they were the sweetest people ever. He said, “I couldn’t believe all them white folks standing up in there rocking out.” It was hilarious just listening to my dad—who’s this old black man who grew up listening to R&B and soul and gospel—listening to him translate to me what he thought was similar to what I do. And I thought, if I’m getting through to my dad, and he doesn’t even listen to the kind of music I like, I might be getting through to other people. And that was way before Pushin’ Against a Stone came out.

You’ve named Mississippi John Hurt as an influence. Who were some of your other guitar influences?
The people I loved guitar-wise were folk and blues, simple music, not shredding, just playing a few chords with a couple variations. I started too late to even get my head around shredding. I couldn’t even get my chord A to chord B to chord C [laughs], so I had to lead with something that’s a little more straightforward and down to earth with the changes. And I felt like the stuff John Hurt and the Carter Family were doing was stuff I could do. And so that’s where I started. But I’ve always called it a roots kinda thing, like that was a root of where the music could go. If I start with this root, if I start with this foundation and simplicity and I get that down in my own way, then I can begin to blossom out into other avenues and see where it can really go.

That was the start and from there it just kept growing. There are so many musicians who I love the way they play. It just keeps changing. I love Nick Drake; I love the way he fingerpicks. I don’t know if I’d ever be able to play that way but I just love it. Of course, I love Hendrix. Who doesn’t? And I look at that and say, “Oh my god, I’m 35 now. Maybe by the time I’m 105 I’ll have it [laughs]!” And I felt the same way about a John Hurt song when I was 23. I was like, “Hmmm, maybe by the time I’m 80 I’ll be able to play a John Hurt song.” So, I’ve always kept the goals, and the idea of this coming into fruition as a faraway thing, but work every day toward trying to get there. Because how cool would it be to be 80, sitting around, and able to play a Hendrix tune? That would be kinda great.

Valerie June’s Gear

New Martin 000-15M (live)
1960 Guild M-75 Aristocrat (live)
Gold Tone 5-string banjo (studio and live)
Custom George 4-string baby ukulele banjo (live)
1955 Martin 0-15 (studio)
1962 Gibson ES-330 TDC (studio)
1930s Gibson Mastertone 5-string resonator banjo
1930s Gibson EPB-150 Electric Plectrum Banjo

Fender Deluxe Reverb Reissue (live)
1960s Fender Princeton Reverb (studio)
1970s Fender Super Six (studio)
1950s and ’60s Magnatone amps (studio)
1963 Gibson GA-79RVT (studio)

Fulltone OCD (live)

D'Addario ECG23 Extra Light (.010–.048)
Martin Acoustic Light (.012–.054)

Can you talk a little about your songwriting process?
I really think it’s a lot like a person who writes arrangements for other people, or writes
symphony arrangements where they hear what the music is in their head. They just hear a band in their head all the time. But with me, instead of hearing a band or an orchestra, I hear voices. I hear the voices in my head first and then start to translate what I’m hearing. That’s pretty much it. I’ll be walking down the street, sometimes waking up, sometimes sleeping, or washing dishes or whatever, and I’ll just hear a voice. Sometimes I don’t even realize that I’m hearing it.

How was making The Order of Time different
or similar to making Pushin’ Against a Stone?
In general, I was saying what was on my mind, versus with Pushin’ Against a Stone I was more in a place that was more inquisitive and learning how to even speak to a musician. Having Matt in the room on this record was really great, because I’m still learning how to speak to musicians. I’d be talking to people that started playing when they were, like, 2 or 3, and I started playing when I was 23. I don’t know how to read music so I can’t really tell you what to do where, but I know when something’s not sitting the way I want it to. Of course, ultimately it’s my record so if I don’t like the way the drummer’s playing I can just say something like, “That’s a little too hard for this song. I had something a little more ethereal in mind,” or whatever.

I can use colors, like, “It needs to be a little more gray and then a little bit cloudy and then maybe some fog…” I use terms like that and Matt uses musical terms and was able to turn that into what I was thinking as a musician. Matt knows me very well—we’re basically best friends. There wouldn’t be anybody who could catch up as far as all the things he knows. He’s almost like a mind reader.

How did those arrangements come about?
Both Matt and I had notepads and we both wrote down what we heard on a particular song. So he’d be like: “I hear electric guitar, horns, organ, and pedal steel.” And I’d be like: “I hear electric guitar, strings, fiddle, and pedal steel.” “Why do you hear horns?” “Why do you hear strings?” And then sometimes we’d try both the horns and the strings and having them both down we’d know which was the one. Sometimes it was both of ’em that worked on the same song, so it’s all just experimenting. It’s very much like being in a scientist’s lab where you’re, like, “Hmmm… maybe I’ll try a little bit of this. Well, that was an amazing explosion!” or “I don’t know, that didn’t give me the lift I was hoping for so let’s try something different.” You just stay in there playing until you get it where you want it.