Valerie June, who tops her glorious mass of hair with crowns of flowers, knows the joy of dancing barefoot under the moon.
A twang from June’s home state of Tennessee accents her music, which is an eclectic mélange of blues, folk, jazz, soul, and gospel. Her country upbringing formed someone happy strumming her acoustic guitar, singing about nature.
June recorded “Home Inside” for National Geographic’s Earth Day Eve 2021 concert on a covered bridge in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. It’s the perfect reminder that nature can be found in the most urban settings. On a sunny spring morning, speaking from Brooklyn, June shared her feelings in this edited conversation.
National Geographic: How do you describe your sound?
Valerie June: As singer-songwriter music, I really am a multi-genre singer-songwriter, and every listener hears something different. There are pop elements on the latest record. Rock and roll. It’s whatever other people want to interpret.
National Geographic: How does nature affect your music?
Valerie June: It is such a big part of my music. With the latest record, I was recording the birdsong from my home in Tennessee and the cicadas coming out and the frogs. Nature to me is the best song. I used to go out and just be in nature all day and hang out by the pond. I think of nature as being very musical.
National Geographic: Where did you grow up, and what sort of nature were you in?
Valerie June: Between Humboldt and Jackson, in a little bitty middle-of-nowhere area was where I was raised. I am excited to go back tomorrow and celebrate Mother’s Day and have some time in nature. The garden’s been peeled and is waiting on me to plant everything. It’s really fun to get my hands in the soil and spend time watching things grow, and I like to watch things grow and experience what we experience when we plant things. If you respect nature, then you respect each other a little bit better. Nature is constantly teaching us and guiding us to be better people. I like plants more than I like people. I have like a hundred plants in a Brooklyn apartment.
National Geographic: How is nature a part of your new album, “The Moon & Stars: Prescriptions for Dreams”?
Valerie June: There are songs on the record about starlight. It’s a dreamer’s journey with this new record and required a lot of growth and how to be graceful in that growth. I look at nature; they got it down.
National Geographic: Did you have a connection to National Geographic before this concert?
Valerie June: As a child growing up I would be in the library opening up the magazines, and being transported to different worlds and traveling, not just my rural southern life. Growing up as a rural Black kid, [I thought] I am never going to go to Africa or Australia or Japan. And now I am ticking them off my list, and it’s all through working at a coffee shop at 19 and saving up my tips, and going to explore. I just developed a serious curiosity for traveling from seeing those visuals in the magazine.
National Geographic: Why does nature affect you so profoundly?
Valerie June: I feel like we are here on Earth, and I am walking through the city, and I want to know the name of this tree. I want to know the name of this life. I want to stand in front of it and get my personal view of the Northern Lights. I look at being an artist as taking a trip to another place. We should know what this flower is or this leaf or whatever. There are some beautiful cypress trees in New York. In Tennessee, they only grow by the swampy areas. Rivers are the same, just watching the rivers from the city.
National Geographic: What was the first instrument you played, and how did you come to it?
Valerie June: Guitar. And singing was the very first. Our voices had to be used as instruments, so I sang for 18 years until I moved to Memphis at 18 and sang in a band until my early 20s, and that's when I started playing guitar. I just taught myself how to play. Somebody gave me a banjo. I started playing that, then somebody gave me a ukulele, and I started playing that.
National Geographic: What do you hope people take from your music?
Valerie June: I hope to create more mindfulness and kindness on our planet and the power we all have to shift the energy of the planet to something more positive for the planet. How I look at the world, I see the injustice and insecurities and racism and starvation. And I say to myself, “I know there are enough resources on Earth for all living beings to sustain life.” And that is what I am going to believe. I am not going to believe in scarcity, and we have to begin to let go of the greed and move into a more mindful space for how we live on the planet. The Earth needs us to do this if we are going to stay.
National Geographic: What small change could everyone make that would yield the most significant change?
Valerie June: Not running the water constantly. Simply turn it off when not using it if washing dishes. Don’t let it run the entire time when brushing teeth. And turn off the lights.
National Geographic: Is nature always on your mind? Your albums – “The Way of the Weeping Willow,” “Mountain of Rose Quartz,” to name a couple – reference nature.
Valerie June: It really is! I didn’t even think about it. Oh my goodness. You are right. That might be because I am a Capricorn, an Earth sign. I guess you are right. Wow! I have a long way to grow. And working every day to grow a little bit more, and I will flower a little bit more like my plants.
National Geographic: What was the experience like doing this concert?
Valerie June: I loved doing the concert because I was able to sing with two amazing women, Marika Hughes and Mazz Swift. It was one of the sunny days moving into spring, and it was so beautiful to be with them and right by the pond and being around nature. Knowing I am going to go back to the area, by the boathouse, and all of those branches will be in full bloom, and that will be awesome.