Valerie June has the kind of voice that will prompt you to pull out your phone and Shazam it. Soulful and raspy, in a haunting style reminiscent of Billie Holiday, it’s the perfect hybrid of folk, blues, gospel, and country. “I used to call it Organic Moonshine Roots Music,” she recently told InStyle. “But I don’t believe in labels. If it moves you and touches you, then that’s the goal.” Ahead of her performance at Lowdown Hudson Music Fest, an annual summer festival on the Hudson River waterfront in downtown Manhattan, the Memphis, Tenn. singer-songwriter talked more about her musical influences, meeting Bobby Womack, and how she keeps her dreadlocks looking so stunning.
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What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
“I learned how to sing at church, so I heard quite a lot of gospel. I know the songbook of hymns backwards and forwards! Once I got a little older and started to develop taste, I fell in love with Whitney Houston, Janis Joplin, and Bob Marley. But first and foremost, the requirement for me has always been if it’s a good song.”
You’ve got a very unique voice: It vacillates between soft and powerfully raspy. Have you always had that tone?
“It’s a good thing my church didn’t have a choir, because I probably never would’ve been accepted—my voice was so wild; it didn’t fit in anywhere. I jump around. I don’t really sing in a structured, tamed way.”
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Your father worked as a concert promoter for Bobby Womack. Did you ever get the chance to meet him?
“Yes, but it was very brief. At one of his shows in Jackson, Miss., my dad put me in charge of catering for the green room to make sure he had food and towels. Just to have that blessing of shaking hands with him sent me from being a small town girl in Humboldt, Tenn. to believing that it would one day be possible for me to go up on stage and do what he was doing.
Who would be your dream collaboration?
“Ozzy Osbourne could be a lot of fun. I love the lyrics to a lot of the Black Sabbath songs.”
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I was not expecting that answer. On an unrelated note, did you know that when you Google ‘Valerie June,’ the third thing that comes up is ‘Valerie June hair?’
“The dreads definitely get way more attention than I do! I got into them when I was 19. They’re great because I can get up and go without worrying about doing my hair—I don’t have to comb it or anything! For the most part, it’s about the flexibility and not spending hours of my life working on my hair.”
How do you maintain them?
“I wash them once a week. If I miss it once, every other week is fine. Some people even do once a month. It’s very freeing. To be honest, I think it looks better the dirtier it is.”
Listen to “Somebody to Love” above, and buy Pushin’ Against a Stone for $8 on the iTunes Store.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.