There are so many big name and multi-talented singers and songwriters in our Diabetes Community, it’s sometimes may seem like certain vocal cords became more powerful when pancreas insulin-making functions took a plunge toward tone-deafness. Joining that roster of skilled singers in our diabetes tribe is rising star Valerie June, a singer and songwriter from Tennessee who has her own unique style that blends together gospel, country, blues and soul music and which put her on Rolling Stone’s list of top 50 albums of 2013.
Valerie was diagnosed with type 1.5 (also known as LADA or Latent Autoimmune Diabetes in Adults) as a 20-something in 2009. Naturally, it wasn’t something she welcomed in her life. But looking back, she says it was that health and job-impacting diagnosis that pushed her to transform the music that she’s loved all of her life into a career that’s now taking her across the globe.
We had a chance to talk with Valerie by phone recently when she took a break from recording in her New York studio — chatting about her musical roots, how her career has taken off in recent years, and how diabetes has played into all of it.
DM) For those who aren’t familiar with your music, tell us a little about it.
I call it as an “organic moonshine roots music,” because it’s really an mashination of all the music I grew up around — gospel, soul, country, bluegrass and Appalachian music. That was all around me. In Memphis you have blues and rock ‘n roll, sax and rock’abilly, and all of that. But in Nashville you have country. So me being from Jackson, which is between these two very influential music cities, I heard all kinds of music growing up.
And my folks had us in church every Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night, so I learned a lot about gospel music just by going to church three times a week. So I had a really rounded education in music that I wasn’t even aware I was getting when I was young.
So it was in church where you got started singing and playing music?
Yes. Our church didn’t have any instruments or choir. Everyone sat in the pews together, either silent or they opened up the song books and went for it. I sang at the top of my lungs alongside 500 other people every single week, and my brothers and sisters and whole family sang. Because in the Church of Christ, you’re commanded to lift your voice up to God. And so I learned to sing with 500 other people who really weren’t aware that they were teaching me. I did that for 18 years, and it’s a big part of who I am.
When it comes to playing music, I’ve not been doing that as long as some people. I started late, in my early 20s. My parents had five kids, and they didn’t want too much noise around the house. They were like, “We don’t need anymore noise, so please don’t play.”
And you’re self-taught on the guitar, banjo and ukulele?
Yes, I play those three. And I play them because they were given to me. My grandfather gave me my first guitar at 15, but I never had to learn to play early on because I was in a band. But I decided to learn and develop those skills. I got a banjo for Christmas from a friend, and then I got a ukelele for my birthday from a friend. So, not all at once but over the course of several years. But, I don’t play anything that hasn’t been given to me because it means something. That’s kind of the rule.
We hear that before the music career you did a lot of odd jobs — from dog walking, to waitressing, selling soups in a herb shop, and laying bricks?
Yeah, I’ve had a lot of jobs (laughs). But that’s how my family is. They taught us to survive. My parents really focused on that. If we ever feel like we need to get out there and hustle to make dinner, we have tricks of all kinds to put into motion. As long as you’re not robbing and stealing… then you’re good. You have to make an honest day’s living, is what my family always said. So my father owned a couple businesses, and worked as a music promoter and also had a construction company. So that’s how I started working when I was little, and they put us to work; they didn’t just let us grow up. So I’ve been working for years, and you have to have that. I never worry about being able to provide for myself.
Really, the only time I worried was when I was diagnosed with diabetes because I was too sick and couldn’t physically work. But that’s when music really started to take a lift. The talent of being able to sit somewhere for 30 minutes to sing or make music, and get paid for it, that came in handy for me and was kind of neat. My parents taught us to develop all kinds of skills and learn how to market those skills, and that’s what I needed to do then.
And your diagnosis with diabetes was in roughly 2009?
Yes, I was 27 then, and I’m in my 30s now. At the time, I was working really hard. But when I was diagnosed with LADA (otherwise known as type 1.5), I was really sick and wasn’t able to basically cross the room and had no energy. I was pretty much in bed all the time. I had to tell all my regular housekeeping clients, the herb shop where I worked, and all those “real jobs” I had, that I wasn’t going to come back because I couldn’t physically do the work anymore. I had no energy to be on my feet the whole day.
Before finding the restaurants and bars started asking me to come back, I sat down on street corners — anywhere — and just played music. I’d make a couple hundred bucks and that was how I was able to live at the time I was diagnosed. I’d just go a few times a week to a venue and sit in the corner, and play music and get paid to pay my bills. It was nice that music took care of me in that time. It was really that need to provide that kicked into a musical career for me, because I had a lot of bills to pay.
I hadn’t had health insurance my entire life, so after being diagnosed I had mountains of health bills. And I needed to make enough money to buy the diabetes things that I needed, like paying for doctor visits and medications and test strips. That all costs a lot of money. I took everything I had worked for and saved my entire life, from those night gigs to all the day jobs on my feet. I’d saved that money for 7 or 8 years, thinking I’d use that to make a record. But instead of using it to make a record, I had to use it for medical bills and to live. So, I’m glad I had it, but I wasn’t able to make my record like I wanted.
How did you manage to get back on your feet and self-finance your music?
I was devastated, because I had to spend all of the money that I’d worked so hard to save… on my health. Are you kidding?! Some friends introduced me to (crowdfunding site) Kickstarter. I’d been gaining fans over the years, so I was simultaneously getting recognized. My friend said, “Maybe your fans would give some money to help you make a record.” And so I did a Kickstarter campaign, and managed to raise $16,000. It was amazing — the record was sponsored by the fans who came to those bar gigs, festivals, libraries, and restaurants that I played before I had label backing and sponsorship. And that’s how I was able to make Pushin’ Against A Stone, in 2013.
What an amazing story! Who inspires you musically?
There are just so many, and it’s a countless and endless list, really. I really fell in love with the 20s and 30s music when I first moved to Memphis from Mississippi: John Hurt, Elizabeth Cotten, The Carter Family, and Alan Lomas. Once I discovered country blues and straight-up old-time country, I never left it. Loretta Lynn is someone I always find myself listening to, and hanging with her last year at the Americana Awards in Nashville, I’m inspired by her. There are so many people whose music I love and have now been able to spend time with and even play with.
How has everything been on the diabetes front these days, especially when you’re performing?
When I was first on the road playing music and dealing with diabetes every day, I wasn’t on a pump but was on injections. I was very out of control with my numbers. But once I got on the OmniPod, things improved. That first year was tough, thought, because I was on the road and was scared to dive too much into the ranges and settings. I communicated with my Nurse Practitioner from the road, and she was teaching me remotely over the course of that year how to take control of managing diabetes myself. Because I wasn’t in a town where I could go take classes and learn everything about using my pump. So over time, maybe a year or two, I really got it down.
When I came off the road this past winter, I was able to sift through everything I’d learned and really start to adjust my numbers and doses based on each hour of the day. So now I know that when I go to bed and my blood sugar rises, I can set my pump for Dawn Phenomenon and be OK in the morning. It’s really helped me quite a bit and I want other people to know that using that Pod and my Dexcom CGM together have really helped me feel like a normal person 85% of the time. That’s huge!
How do you take precautions for diabetes when performing?
I make sure everyone around me knows that I gotta have orange juice on the stage when I’m about to perform. Not that I have any lows while I’m up there, but just in case, I don’t want to be waiting for orange juice. Because I go crazy when I’m low, my mind starts to slow down. So while this has never happened, I could be in the middle of a song and start to sound like the Energizer Bunny… (laughs). That’s probably something I could work with and play it off, but I don’t ever want that to happen.
Also, my whole day is geared around the performance, as far as what I eat and the time I eat. So I always make sure my numbers are a little bit higher before I perform. I know that when I leave the stage, it’s going to be lower and in that normal range. So before I go out, I’ll have a little bit of food just so I’ve got something running through me. These are things normal people don’t have to think about, and it’s taken years of trial and error to figure this out.
Definitely! It’s so great to find little tips or tricks from others who “get it.” Have you learned from other musicians with diabetes?
Actually yes, the reason I started keeping orange juice on stage was through B.B. King. I was reading an article about him and diabetes, and he said in that article that he always kept OJ on stage. So, that’s how I started doing it. It’s learning through these other musicians, and other people who are diabetic, different tricks that they use.
Those connections are so important… and we were sorry to hear of Mr. King’s passing recently. Did you ever get to meet him?
I wasn’t able to connect with Mr. King before he passed, but I was able to see him play! Which was amazing, of course, and I’m so blessed to have had that chance. He did a lot of shows over the years, but sometimes I think with people who play that much, you think maybe you can just see them next time and then you don’t get that chance. So I feel very fortunate to have seen him perform. He sat down the whole time. I imagine as an older gentlemen with diabetes, he probably had a whole amazing team around him. I think those things matter. For me, it was great to see how he rose and performed, and he’s a great role model for me.
What can we expect from you next on the music front?
I am working on writing a song with some guys with (British band) Massive Attack, who write more modern music, and that’s kind of neat because it’s different than mine, but it’s a lot of fun to work on a project that’s a totally different type of music and see where it goes.
And yes, I am working on a new album being released in 2016. I’m thinking the winter, in February. I am super-excited about that. We are working on it every day, just like everyone else working whatever job they are in.
In the meantime, what messages do you have for the Diabetes Community and beyond?
I call diabetes the active or moving disease. And this goes to anyone who’s dealing with diabetes. Anytime you’re feeling bad, it’s important to just move your body. Even if it’s just 10 minutes. Just move your body, get it moving for a few minutes, to get your numbers in range and just feel better. I keep my body moving through the day. Whatever it is, walking or doing cartwheels… that really helps my blood sugar and it’s really a miracle how movement helps you feel better.
Thanks, Valerie! Great talking with you, and we definitely appreciate you taking the time , and we hope we get the chance to hear you perform in person before long.