“Why Not Make It Real?” A Conversation with June LaLonde

In the lead up to the release of Minneapolis singer/songwriter/producer June LaLonde’s self-titled album, she beat me at chess seven times in a row. In one of those games, I made the mistake of attacking with my queen too early and too much. I thought I had her on the defensive, but before long, my strategy came back to bite me–focusing on only one piece, drawing out her pawns and bishops to block, had left side of the board undeveloped and vulnerable.

What she knew that I didn’t was the value of position play. In the intro to Logical Chess: Move by Move (a book she kindly recommended to me) Irving Chernev identifies it as a principle that allows a chess master to make the best move even in an unfamiliar setup; as I now understand it, you don’t need to memorize every possible outcome. You just have to position yourself such that good moves become available to you.

It works off the chessboard too. Was June LaLonde expecting to come out as transgender two years ago, at the age of 30? She says no, certainly not. But, with the strong opening of a decade spent making mostly-instrumental electronic music, was she well-positioned to make a dynamic second debut? June LaLonde the album speaks for itself.

“This feels like my first record where you get to see and hear me, and it feels like the first time making a record where I own 100% of everything that went into and comes out of it,” she says of the project. Whether haloed by euphoric synths and chimes (“Colors”) or vitriolic guitar and drum stomp (“Rough Tongue”) she spends these nine tracks taking command of her circumstances and her newfound lyrical voice like a shift in the game she was waiting for all along.

Shortly after the release, LaLonde spoke to The All Scene Eye about tapping into her long-dormant rock influences and tackling production challenges like chess puzzles.

The circumstances of this last year influenced the album, but I know this project has been in the works for longer than that–the first single, “Colors,” came out in 2018, right?

Yeah, “Colors” came out before I even knew this album was coming. I’ve always been pretty slow to put out new stuff, so I was entering a period where, “Okay, how about whenever I finish something, I put it out and just see what happens?” I feel like a lot of people don’t listen to albums as much as they do singles, and it’s harder than ever to get traction on your work, so I thought it would be a worthwhile experiment to see what would happen if I tried putting out more at less intervals of time, but ultimately, that wasn’t terribly satisfying. [laughs] I always prefer to listen to albums.

So coming out of that period, how did the shape of this album develop?

It kind of followed the same process that I’ve always had, which is I just make whatever it is I want to hear at that moment, whatever genre or style that happens to fall in. I hold onto everything and collect it until I have enough for an album or I have a concise statement, and then I’m like, “Oh, okay, this works. I can package this all together.” 

It started with “Colors,” which was kind of my coming out song. From there, moving back to Minnesota and pretty much immediately going into lockdown, starting to be more beholden to the horrors coming out of my phone, I just came around to feeling like I can’t afford to live timidly anymore. As far as I know, I only have one shot at this thing called life, and if I’m not living it to my fullest, then what am I doing? So where most of my albums before this were kind of purposely made into mirrors that people could get whatever that they want out of, for this one, I tried to fill it with pieces and statements that were more directly from me–instead of having it be a mirror, turning it into a window.

I read the album story that you wrote [on the Bandcamp page], and it’s interesting to me, this dynamic of making instrumental music versus making lyrical music. Tell me more about your journey as a lyricist.

Over the past ten years of making music, I’ve used my voice here and there. Sometimes I’d just write a track and it sounded like it needed lyrics in order to stand on its own–I couldn’t get away with just making it instrumental, so I would have to muster up the courage to write something and then perform something, and then perform it over and over again until it sounds right. 

I kind of like to put it like this: I was 30 when I realized I was trans. I’m 32 now, and when I found that out about myself, I was able to retroactively look at my life prior, and I was able to finally nail down why I felt like a background character in my own life. It felt like I was living life at, like, 60% of what I could be. [laughs] I thought I was doing great, but then I realized I was trans, and it’s like, “Oh, shit, that’s 60%.” Now I’m at, like, 95%, but as a result of that, I’ve just never put much stock into building a relationship with my voice. I’ve only ever wanted to put out stuff that–that vibes with me, obviously, but would be voiceless so that people could project or get whatever they would like out of the music. 

But now I have a voice, and I feel like even though it doesn’t sound like a passing cis female voice, it’s still my voice, and even if it sounds like shit, the fact that I’m putting stuff out there that sounds like that as a woman might go towards helping somebody else be okay with their voice, helping them express themselves. Even if it isn’t done well, just showing them that it can be done.

I just had more to say, too. I had statements that I wanted to make, as opposed to making music that avoids being bolted down to a time or a specific situation. I had a point of view on this album and I wanted to push that forward to let people both get to know me better and potentially find something in themselves with it too.

So was “Colors” the first example of that?

Absolutely. That was inspired by The Go! Team’s record Rolling Blackouts, and that is still one of the happiest records I’ve ever heard in my entire life. Really really cool, but also really upbeat, really peppy, and that’s by design. I wanted to take that feeling of elation and put it into my own music. It starts off like another instrumental track from me, but then halfway through, my voice shoulders its way in and starts adding to it and making it feel complete. I’m pretty proud of that progression.

It’s kind of meta, isn’t it? That’s also the story of this album.

Yeah, exactly! Finally feeling like I had a place where I belong and where my voice is valued, and I don’t have to tuck myself away. I don’t have to hide. I can just be loud and brash and ugly and messy–maybe even, you know, beautiful and inspiring at the same time. To be a person, really. [laughs] I’ve loved that track for a long time and I’m really happy I can finally put it out on the album and put it in front of people like it’s new.

“Rough Tongue” is a different angle on the trans experience. Tell me about writing that song.

That came from lockdown and, again, being beholden to the horrors coming out of my phone, especially during the Trump years, and all the anti-trans legislation, all the hateful, awful vitriol that you see from apparently-well-meaning folks online. I hate to say this, but part of my experience in being trans is coming to grips with the fact that some people want me dead. Some people are very upset about you existing. They don’t know you, but they know that you exist, and that’s an issue, and they want that dealt with through whatever nefarious means necessary.

Obviously, I don’t subscribe to that, and it just made me really, really angry. I wanted to shove a giant middle finger at that sentiment and give people something to blast in their cars going down the freeway at night when they’re feeling low in their own trans experience–or queer experience, for that matter–and give some kind of vent, some kind of release for it. I wanted lyrics that had strong imagery related to how I was feeling about that, which is pretty vitriolic in my own way. It’s kind of like Eels. Are you familiar with them?

I know of them. [laughs]

That’s fair. I feel like he’s spent his whole career under the radar, except for–I don’t know, it’s weird. But his lyrics on–I think it was Souljacker. You know, just adopting a character that can do things that he wouldn’t do himself, but through which he can express his feelings, get those out in somebody’s ears, and have them experience catharsis through that was something that stuck with me. Basically, fuck fascists and fuck transphobes.

Hear, hear!

Yeah, that’s a pretty easy fuckin’ statement to make, right? But some people will disagree with you, and that’s the part that boggles my mind. Yeah, they deserve to die alone. [laughs] No sympathy. They get what they have coming to ’em.

Compared to the rest of the record, it’s a very aggressive-sounding song too. It has this almost industrial feel. Tell me about where that heavier sound comes from for you.

I grew up playing guitar and listening to bands like Queens of the Stone Age, Beck, Battles, who is a band I still love despite them going from a four-piece to a three-piece to a two-piece. [laughs] Helmet, Hüsker Dü, stuff like that. I’ve spent most of my career making electronic music, but all of my life, I’ve wanted to make a rock record, and it’s only recently that I feel confident in putting that stuff down and committing it to record. 

I’ve always been in love with the volume, the textures, the feelings, the emotions that come with it, but I’ve never been in a place to actually capture that until now. I spent a long time teaching myself how to mix guitars, how to mix vocals, how to produce drums to get that sort of sound–Nine Inch Nails, too. I mean, I gotta mention them, right? [laughs] Obviously. That’s stuff that I grew up with, but I never put it on record because I wanted to be a mirror, and mirrors should be flattering, but this is a window, and I want to be honest. So that’s how I felt, and that’s how it sounds.

Tell me more about the mixing of this record. Being an album that pulls you so many ways, I imagine it’s a challenge to bring it all together.

Abso-fuckin’-lutely, and I’m so apologetic to Molly Drag, the person who had to master this album and make it all sonically make sense. [laughs] Like, “Here’s an album. Nine tracks. It’s all over the fucking place. Best of luck! Thank you.”

But no, I learned a lot about how to mix guitars, how to record guitars–for earlier stuff, it was just direct line inputs from my guitar into my little mixing box and then into my DAW, whereas this one, I’m actually going through my amp and throwing that into the mixing box, reading up on things like sympathetic frequencies, how to EQ particular instruments, how to carve out space for everything while they’re all occupying so much of the spectrum at the same time. 

The snare on “Rough Tongue” pretty much takes up the entire frequency band. [laughs] Same with the guitars and same with the vocals. It’s like, “Jesus Christ, how do I make this work?” The first go at “Rough Tongue” that I put out on an EP was pretty muddy, but I revisited it for the album, refined it, applied some new knowledge–just a lot of EQing and reverb and panning and stuff like that. Shit I should have been doing way earlier, just didn’t have the knowledge to do.

It was a different process for each track, truly. Sometimes the drums would come first, sometimes the guitars would come first, sometimes the bass. Single slices of a track, like an eight-bar loop, and then I would have to figure out the rest of it, and by then, the mixing was already in one spot. It was a chess problem; I built myself into a position on the board, and it’s like, “Aw, shit, how do I get out of this?” [laughs] It was a lot of learning and a lot of backend fiddling around, but eventually I got there. There’s still way, way more to learn and try and achieve when it comes to that stuff, but I’m pretty happy with where it came out.

Where do you make these tracks, and what is your setup like?

I made all of this in my bedroom, so it’s really just my desk, MIDI controller, keyboard, my guitar, my bass, an amp to send the signal through, and all of that gets thrown into a little mixing box that I got, like, ten years ago–I should probably replace it–and then into a DAW. I use Reason, primarily. I have a USB condenser microphone that I use for my vocals, but there’s no sound treating, the room. It’s definitely making the best of what I have. Even though I could make it better, it’s kind of a fun challenge to take what I guess you would technically call bad recordings and have them work.

Doing more in the box once you’ve got the performance, not trying to perfect the engineering of it first.

Exactly that. I’m not going to sit there like James Murphy from LCD Soundsystem, have the whole space treated up specifically, and then spend months laboring over EQing a snare. I’m just going to get the goddamn performance down, have it make sense in the space, and then move on to the next thing. If I need to, I’ll come back. By the way, huge love and respect for James Murphy. [laughs] I hope I can collaborate with him.

As I was listening to this record, I had in the back of my head, “Oh, there’s an LCD Soundsystem thing happening here.”

Another huge influence of mine, for sure. His story is incredible, and it gave me a lot of courage in keeping with music despite being 32. I think our society over-values youth, to a degree. I’m not that old, I’m only 32, but at the same time, when you’ve been doing music for over ten years, you have to come to grips with, “Am I doing enough? Is this worth it? Am I just going to be like a dad in his 40s that has a Strat that he doesn’t touch, but totally will tell you about this blues show that he went to in ’82?” LCD Soundsystem, his story definitely helped give me courage in keeping up with it, just feeling earnest and hopeful.

Production-wise, I was really into the track “F.A.N.S.,” where you sample NASA recordings. Tell me about making that track and how those samples worked their way in.

Well, I’ve always wanted to be a storyteller, and I feel like I used to make music where you could easily imagine the story happening alongside the track inside your head, but I wanted it to be a bit more purposeful for this one. I wanted to make something that sounded spacy. I wanted to take the listener on a journey. Something that started as the anticipation before flying up into space, you know, going into space, flying into a black hole and the tension that that brings, and eventually, reaching your destination, but where are you?

Whenever I make a piece of music, I always see a music video for it in my head, so I always have some sort of narrative. For “F.A.N.S.,” it was literally about this character whose sole job is to fly out into the far reaches of space to plant the seeds of a new star, but it’s a one-way trip. It’s incredibly important, what they’re doing, but they’re not going to be able to make it back, at least not unchanged.

It’s partially the same theme as “Glitter Sands” where you’re chasing something, but the journey is what changes you, and to some extent, you can’t control how that goes. I personally believe that you gotta make the best of whatever situation you’re given, if you can. That’s the only way to keep on surviving and thriving, right? With life itself being a journey. I never thought I’d be sitting here on the phone talking to you about a record I made. I never thought I’d be sitting here having made this music. I never thought I was gonna be trans. You never know what life’s gonna throw at you.

So there’s a grandiosity to it, but I think for something like that, it’s important to have that grand sense of space and things progressing to make it feel like a journey. It was a lot of fun just coming up with a simple series of layers and progressions to help facilitate that, and just build and build and build, and then just stop and let the listener fill in what they think happened.

In a way, this record is a window, but one that leaves room for interpretation. It’s not prescriptive, even though it is a statement.

For sure, and I think the best art tends to have that quality to it. It’s not just a matter of the artist making a statement and the viewer or listener receiving it. It should leave room for conversation, and it should leave room for the listener, in this case, to provide their own viewpoint, you know, contextualize what they’re experiencing against their own life and see what fits.

I also just didn’t know those NASA recordings were out there, so that’s really cool to find out.

Yeah, it’s all publicly available, like, free to use with no copyright. It’s a pretty sick resource. I’m a huge proponent for the commons. Copyright law of the 20th century–thanks Disney–depleted a lot of the commons, and I think that’s really unfortunate, but you have institutions like NASA, like the Smithsonian with the copyright zero collection, where they just put up hundreds of thousands of recordings, images, videos, and things like that that are completely copyright-free. I love stuff like that.

You mentioned having such a visual sense of these songs, and there are some really cool visual elements to this record. The cover is such a cool little diorama setup.

Oh my gosh, yeah. That was created by a buddy of mine, Tim Gutowski, who ended up building the model that I commissioned, and a mutual friend of ours that goes by Zen ended up photographing it. I just put final color treatment on it, made it ready for display, basically. But yeah, I had the idea in my head, like, “I don’t see a lot of album covers in the space that I operate in that use photography.” I have some training as a photographer and filmmaker, so I started thinking about ideas for that.

I have recently been inspired by people making these little–I guess you could call them dioramas, right? But just miniature scale models, and how therapeutic and pleasing those are to look at on Etsy and Instagram. I thought, “Well, what if I had a little June in there, and she had a little record shop, and on the sides of that building were records, and it was sitting on a record shelf?” [laughs] I sketched it out and brought it to Tim, and I’m like, “Hey, can we build this for the album cover?” They’re like, “Yeah, sure. Might take a while.” I’m like, “Totally understandable. Let’s do it.”

I figured, “Well, it would be a lot of work, but why not make it real?” Which is kind of the whole story of this record, to be honest. It’s why I’m talking to you. Normally, if I’m putting out something, I just tweet once, and that’s it, but on this record, I had a whole Trello board filled with plans on how to release it, how to reach out, what I need to do, and so on. A lot of that was overwhelming, but I’m trying to say yes to that stuff more [laughs] just to know what it feels like and what that process looks like. I’m like, “If we can do this, why shouldn’t we?”

I love that there’s so much depth to it. You can read some of the sleeves on the shelf next to the model, and there’s stuff in the little record shop–there’s so many layers.

Yeah, even inside the little record shop itself, there’s album covers from previous stuff that I put out, which I put in as Easter eggs for past listeners to stumble across. The model-making friend of mine thought it would be funny to put a little chess piece, have the floor be a chessboard pattern–my identity is all over that cover. I’m really happy with it, and–I’m part of the furry fandom. I don’t know if that’s obvious.

I was able to pick up on that, yes. [laughs]

[laughs] Yeah, yeah, I bet the context clues were all there. For furry album covers, it’s always either illustrations or graphic design, and that’s cool, but I’ve never seen photography, and I’ve specifically never seen models, so I wanted to feature that to help it stand out and to make more of an impression in circles that I run in.

You’ve talked about how you’ve been putting yourself out more in terms of promoting the record. What have been your biggest takeaways from that process?

It’s a lot more work than just making music and putting it out there. That’s my biggest takeaway. [laughs] As an independent musician, you have to wear so many hats, and if you’re really on the grind for this thing, then you are easily doing the job of a dozen or some odd people, right? You have to make the music, obviously, you have to mix the music, it’s expected that you master the music, and then you have to create a visual identity around it because social media is inherently a very visual medium, and that’s the best way to get people’s attention.

You have to be your own publicist, you have to style yourself, you have to photograph yourself, you have to write press releases, you have to reach out to blogs like The All Scene Eye, you have to reach out to radio stations, and all of that is work that individuals do full-time. But as overwhelming and as grueling as that could be, ultimately it was a lot of fun, and I think it was worth it. I mean, I got a chess buddy out of you with it, so like, hell yeah, that’s a win.

[laughs] Yes!

I’ve gotten some nice words written about the record, which is also a win. That sense of validation is always appreciated, no matter how much we like to pretend we don’t like seeing nice words written about us. I think the biggest takeaway is that it’s given me experience that I can use to potentially help out other people, and to help myself going forward. I’ve already been through it, so I can do it again. Eventually, I’m trying to get the courage to play live, but I feel like I need to give myself enough experiential context in what it means to be a musician trying to make it work, so to speak.

Right, before you go booking and trying to network with people in that whole other aspect of the music world.

Yeah, I’ve turned down the opportunities to do live shows before because I felt like I wouldn’t be able to put on the experience that I’d want to give, or I was in college at the time–I would find any excuse, frankly. But those offers don’t just come consistently, especially with what the music climate looks like now, so if somebody were to call me right now, like, “Hey, you wanna play a show?” I would say yes. 

I would be scared shitless. I wouldn’t even know where to start, because it’s like, “Do I show up with a laptop and just press play? Aw, shit, who do I know that plays drums? Who can play this guitar part for me? Fuck.” [laughs] I’d be scrambling, but I’d say yes. Again, you only get to live once, and I feel like the more something scares you, the more you should try and do it. So yeah, it was scary, it was overwhelming, but ultimately, it was worth it, and I really am appreciative of what it taught me.

Your partner sang backup on the last song on this record, “Radio Silence.” How did that track take shape, and what was it like working together?

That’s actually, I think, the second song made for this record after “Colors.” “Colors” came from a very specific place, but “Radio Silence” was more of a culmination of my full experience so far with this person, my partner Trivia. We were living in the woods out on the west coast on an apple orchard, and I was working front desk at two hotels in town–it was kind of a touristy place. I got to check in Isaac Brock at my hotel once. That was cool.

Whoa.

Yeah, but I couldn’t get the courage to say, “Hey, thank you for your work.” I just treated him as a normal person because I didn’t wanna fuckin’ bother him. Kicking myself over that.

Did he happen to set any lampshades on fire? I have to ask.

[laughs] You know, luckily, he didn’t. 10/10, would check into a hotel again. But no–and that situation was going okay for me, -ish. Despite working at two hotels, I was still pretty underpaid, and Trivia was working a remote job, but the internet we had out in the country was just so fuckin’ abysmal, and we never got to get out of the house. Living out there was killing them.

This is also my first serious in-person relationship. We’ve been together for four-plus years now. Trivia is twice divorced, and we both come from broken situations, and I always felt that relationships work best when you talk–when you try to come together as partners and work through whatever the problem is, which seems easy enough to say, right? But a lot of people don’t actually practice that. 

There’d be baggage that we’d have to work through together, there would be issues like money, or relationship feelings about wanting to be poly versus wanting to be monogamous, having different goals and dreams, me not being sure if I want to commit to one person, things like that–but I love this person, and I feel like any problem can be solved as long as we talk and we try to work on it together.

There’s no reason to be screaming and fighting with each other. Fights happen, don’t get me wrong, but I think with Trivia, I’ve matured and grown a lot as a person, and I have a lot to thank them for that. I just adore, love, and appreciate them, and I wanted to write a love song that wasn’t just, “Ooh, I love you,” “Ooh, everything’s great” or “Ooh, you treated me wrong, ooh, these problems. Ah, my dog, my tractor, my whiskey.” 

I love those songs, don’t get me wrong, but I wanted to make a piece that was talking about how a relationship can be, truthfully, the partnership of two people solving problems together, and how that can be a source of love and appreciation. It’s you two against the world, and even if you’re isolated, even if things aren’t going great, you still have each other.

Had the two of you worked on music together before?

Yeah, on Floating Rooms, Trivia actually provided backing vocals for the track “Grey Eminence,” which was my song about depression. Are you familiar with the concept of a grey eminence?

No, I don’t think so.

It’s like an unseen entity that’s ruling over a court and actually making decisions, as opposed to the person that you see. Think of a king, but there’s a shady advisor behind them that’s secretly calling all the shots. The term that I saw was “grey eminence,” and I thought, “Oh, that’s a nice couple of syllables. I’ll use that, thank you.” So Trivia sang backup vocals on my song dealing with depression, and then very kindly volunteered their vocals for one about our relationship.

I felt it was important to have their voice on it because a relationship is about two people coming together and solving problems, so I asked Trivia to help me solve the problem of making this track beautiful, and they did an amazing job. Trivia expressed to me that one of their dreams was always to be on a record, and I thought, “Well, I make those. I can make that happen.” Listening to that track still always almost brings me to tears.


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One thought on ““Why Not Make It Real?” A Conversation with June LaLonde

  1. Way to put a few tears in my eyes. Always proud of you, June. Thanks for hosting this interview as well, The All Scene Eye!

    “Be excellent to each other and party on, dudes!”

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