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Valerie June: Spirituality Through Her Music: The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers

As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 16 – Summer 2021 – Acoustic Amplified!

When you hear the voice of folk artist Valerie June, you instinctively know to keep listening. There’s something about singer-songwriters like her who truly leave a mark—something that’s simple yet ineffable, an inimitable spirit that can be heard behind their every musical breath. That’s what June has to offer on her new record, The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers, released this past March.

Beginning with the meditative, soulful “Stay,” rising up to the bright, playful “Colors,” and eventually arcing down to the anthemic “Why the Bright Stars Glow” and “Starlight Ethereal Silence,” which features field recordings of bird song, her sound is ethereal, and otherworldly. It’s roots rock; it’s Americana; it’s folk; but it’s also so much of its own art that it feels as though it’s coming from another plane. As June elaborates on her vision, it’s clear that that’s exactly what she was going for.

The physical album also comes with literal prescriptions—guides in the liner notes to how listeners can spiritually connect with each track. As June says, “These songs and my work are about reminding people of their life purpose and their gifts so that they will share it so we can get back a little bit of balance.” As she expresses below, that greater spiritual balance is something lost as many cross from childhood into adulthood. The album breathes with a powerful sense of spirituality, but as June notes, she’s spiritual, not religious.

The record, save “Starlight Ethereal Silence,” was completed in January 2020, but once COVID hit, June and her team decided to push back the release to 2021. It was co-produced by Jack Splash, whose credits include Alicia Keys, Kendrick Lamar, and John Legend. It also guest stars Carla Thomas, the “Queen of Memphis Soul,” known for her enduring vocal work with Stax Records in the ‘60s, who sings backing vocals on “Call Me a Fool.” June’s connection with both collaborators helped shape the record into the multilayered, culturally resonant piece that it is.

Read on to learn more about June’s passion behind The Moon and Stars, her inspirations, and the spirituality that underlies her music.

Can you tell me about the process of making your new album?

It was really a fun process, but my record-making experiences are usually not what I would describe as fun. They’re usually more like, “I’m scared because studios are sterile, and oh my god, what’s going to happen.” But this started not as an intention to make a record—I think that’s where all the fun came in. It was just me and the guys, and we went in and we made the demos of “Call Me a Fool,” “Smile,” “Stay,” “You and I” . . .most of the big heavy-produced songs on the record. And I listened to them, and I was like, “Hm, we’re missing some dimensions and galaxies.” Then I ended up meeting Jack Splash, and because he is such a lighthearted person and such a cool person to just be around and talk to and know, that part was fun. And everyone he brought into the room and all the musicians were amazing, and they were like so easy to get along with. . .so yeah, it was a really fun process.

Valerie June performed “Home Inside” Brooklyn, NY for Nat Geo Earth Day Eve 2021 Virtual Celebration, which aired Wednesday, April 21, 2021

What was it like working with Jack Splash?

If I had an idea of something that I wanted to do, he was 100 percent supportive of that. And as a woman in the chair of producing, that was huge to have this amazing top-of-the-art producer saying, “Sure Val, if you want to try a beat, let’s try a beat!” And not everything we tried worked; some things we’d be like, “Mm, let’s go back.” But the fact that he was open to trying gave me confidence in my voice as not only a musician and an artist and songwriter but as an engineer and producer. There’s also another producer on “Colors,” whose name is Ben Rice—he’s a Brooklyn guy—and Ben was the same. The “whole openness to wanting to just explore and have fun with music” part was huge with both Jack and Ben. And also with the musicians that I worked with. I’ve known the New York-based musicians for many years, and they know my language. They know that I don’t write music and I don’t speak in musical terms. I speak in terms like “thunder,” “gray,” “colors,” “green,” “black,” and I tell them what I want to hear. I say something like, “I want a softer part on this.” And sometimes I’ll have musical examples, and sometimes I won’t, but they know me well enough now that I don’t have to do that much explaining to get what I’m looking for.

What is your creative process like?

Usually, a song starts with the voice, and I’ll hear the voice humming and singing. I’ll sing that to myself again and again, and sometimes I get the whole song, sometimes I don’t get the whole song. And after I get the voice, then I find the instrument that it works with. Like with “Stay,” for example, I was playing piano—and I don’t play piano—so I was just playing block chords that I looked up on the Internet. And as I was hitting those block chords, I started to hear the voice, and it said, [singing] “Oh I, I don’t know,” and I kept playing, “how long I’ll stay.” And I wrote the song, and then when I got with my piano player, Dave Sherman, who is amazing at playing piano, I showed him the block chords, I sang him the song, and he was able to do all the beautiful embellishments on it. At the beginning of the very first song on this record, you’ll hear the barroom piano.

From where do you take inspiration?

Everywhere. Plants, people, books, poems, paintings, gardens—lots of gardens (I went to the Botanical Gardens this week), dreams. “Why the Bright Stars Glow” came in a dream; I’ve written other songs in dreams. Some songs come when I’m cooking. You know, just wherever they can.

In the album’s description, you refer to a sort of magic about the way we live. Can you elaborate on what you mean by that?

Well, we’re all creators, and I believe that every life has a purpose, and every person has a gift that they can give to the planet. But I also think that when we’re little, we know that that’s why we came to Earth, but we don’t know how to get it out and articulate it. And as we get older and the world and society isn’t built to support us along our dream path, and with our individuality and with our gift that we need to share. So we start to dim it down, and we lose that magic that we have when we’re little. In which case, the Earth becomes out of balance because we have all of these people that have gifts that were never able to share them. So what we’re looking at is all of this imbalance of what could be so beautiful.

Can you speak about the role of spirituality in your music?

It’s all spiritual [laughs]. It’s all spiritual in the way of things from heart to soul to courage to bravery to dreams to just connecting us with the fact that everything first starts in our imaginary realm. And that imaginary realm could be called a spirit realm. And why could it be called a spirit realm? Because we can’t see it. You can’t really see thoughts, but when they start to happen, you can see them; when they start to form and manifest, and they become physical like this table I’m sitting at. It’s physical now, but it was somebody’s ideal to make an enamel table. And they had it in their head. And it was invisible. So that world, the invisible world, is the spirit world. And that’s the world where many of the songs come from. It’s like the ether. It’s kind of like you put your hand right through it. I don’t know where it comes from, but I hear it, and I live there every once in a while; I get treated to go and hang out there. And I bring these songs back from this space.

But I think we all have the capacity to go to that space. It looks different for everyone, but it’s always there, and it’s always with us, and that space is where our magic lives. And when we can connect with it, then we remember our gift that we had when we first came to Earth, and we’re able to recharge our batteries so that we can get on about the business of making it happen here. And I think that’s really what the songs are; they’re just like little seeds to remind and inspire people of that side of themselves.

What was it like working with Carla Thomas?

Oh, it was so much fun. She is one of the most joyful people in the world. She reminds me in her joy energy of Mavis Staples, because they both just exude this lightness to life even though they’ve seen very many things on Earth and many challenges and different things. She opened the door for me to be able to do what I’m doing. And so because of that, because of her being an elder in music, she was able to tell me things that I feel like I can use to keep me on my path. Working with her was a prescription. Like how I say there are different poems that I might read or working with a certain plant or wearing a certain color can be prescriptions for me…being with Carla was a prescription for me.

Photo by Renata Raksha

What is your favorite song on the record?

“Starlight Ethereal Silence.”

Why?

[Laughs.] Because I think that the birds, they’re the best singers. I’m learning from them.

What did you bring to this record that was different from other records you’ve produced?

With this record, I’m like fearlessly igniting people’s superpower, basically starting the human spirit evolution through music, which is what I feel Sun Ra or Alice Coltrane do with their mindfulness music. And that’s that. I’ve been scared to do it in the past for many different personal reasons, and with this one, I was like, “You know what? I’m just going to let all of my magic out.” [Laughs.] I know that I’m a healer, and I know my life’s purpose is to be a bodhisattva like so many other people on Earth, and what we do is we lift people up. We give them light. We remind them of who they really are.

Did the social upheaval of last summer influence the presentation of the release at all?

It affected the process of how I would be able to tell the story of the record, and the purpose of the record for dreamers, and the raising of consciousness and the spirit practice side of it. All of it came from having the record finished in January of 2020 and having a year to look at the world, watch it explode, and know exactly what I need to do as my part to help heal it. I wouldn’t have had that whole theme of “Dreamers”; it didn’t come until after the pandemic started, just listening to the record as I watched the news.

And even watching the January 6 riot and knowing how the negative side of ourselves can be easily turned on like a light switch, I’m like, “Well, yeah, it can, so why can’t the positive side be turned on?” And my way of being is to use positivity as a form of activism and a form of creating great change in the world. I feel like we’ve already heard people like Dr. King say, “I have a dream”; we’ve heard Angela Davis say, “Hey, the way people of color are being treated isn’t fair”; we know Harriet Tubman knocked down doors so we can be free. So now I feel like the whole perspective of that. Still keep those voices being heard but also show how through living magically and mindfully and in joy and through positivity, we tell a new story. We write a new chapter of the book because wherever your mind is and whatever you continue to cycle through and say, that’s what you continue to live. So if we start saying things like, how do we treat each other with more harmony, with more positivity, and more loving kindness, if that’s our intention every day, it’s going to start to happen.

Photo by Renata Raksha

How did you feel about being a part of the National Geographic event on April 21? I feel like their mission is related to yours.

It is very related to my mission. I felt so excited to be a part of it because, well . . . I look at my niece and nephew. With all of the plastic on the planet and with all of the bad decisions that we continue to make every day, is there going to be a planet for them? And then I’m also such an Earth lover that sometimes I get down on the ground in the garden, and I just kiss the dirt. I love the Earth. And when I think about it, I know our power as human beings. And the negativity of worrying about climate change and worrying about the planet can weigh me down sometimes. But then I realize with enough of us becoming conscious of our responsibility to the planet and the ways that in our own life we can make those shifts and changes to help it to be a better planet, just like what I said with the light switch of negativity from the protest, the light switch of positivity in the way we treat Mother Earth will begin to shift, and it’ll heal faster than we ever thought possible. And I think we kind of subconsciously know that the planet can heal faster than we think is possible, but it’s time now that we actually not only know it, but we start living it. Like I went to Home Depot and I was buying a paint roller, and I was like, “Man, these plastic ones are really cheap, I want one.” But then I thought about it, and I was like, “No, I’m going to get the wooden one with the metal because that’s going to be easier to reuse and recycle in another form than it needs to be.” So just these things to think about the planet and the Earth and how we can shift the energy of it through each little mindful step that we do. Mindfulness is everything, even with the planet, even with the way we treat each other. Everything.

You mentioned earlier that after you find the voice for the song, you then find the instrument to go with it. What is your favorite instrument for songwriting?

The guitar is the first instrument I go to, but I don’t have a favorite. They are all super special to me.

What guitars are you currently playing and why?

Guild Aristocrat Electric: I love it because it sounds beautiful, and it’s lightweight!

Martin Acoustic Dreadnought 000: I love it because it’s got a very warm sound and a smaller body. Our bodies fit together like a perfect match.

What is your definition of guitar tone, and has it changed over the years?

Not too bright, but bright enough. Not too buzzy, but fierce enough. Just sweet enough in all of the right ways. I don’t think my definition of tone has changed because I’m still finding my perfect tones and colors. It’s an ever-present process.

What does your practice consist of?

During the pandemic, I would play scales and songs for about six hours each day between the instruments. It was fun to have the time at home to make practicing a key point of my day.

What inspired you to play guitar?

I was in a band in Memphis as my first venture in music. I sang and wrote songs only. When the band broke up, I had built up a great following, and I found myself unable to do shows by just singing alone. That’s when I knew I needed to learn to play guitar. I was in my early 20s, and I just started with books and videos. It’s been a self-educating experience.

What is your advice for young women who hope to work in the music industry?

There’s no better time than now for a woman to be in the music industry. The world is trying to change for the better every day, and it’s going to take each of us believing in ourselves and our dreams to create a new and more equal stage for the future of the music business. Believe!

Track Listing

1 “Stay”

2 “Stay Meditation”

3 “You and I”

4 “Colors”

5 “Stardust Scattering”

6 “African Proverb”

7 “Call Me a Fool”

8 “Fallin’”

9 “Smile”

10 “Within You”

11 “Two Roads”

12 “Why the Bright Stars Glow”

13 “Home Inside”

14 “Starlight Ethereal Silence”

Kate Koenig

Kate Koenig is a songwriter, music journalist, and music teacher based in Brooklyn, New York. From 2016 to 2018, she was the editor of Music Alive!, a music education magazine for middle schoolers, and associate editor for its sister publication, In Tune Monthly. Since her time at In Tune, she has been a regular contributor to Guitar Girl, Acoustic Guitar, and Premier Guitar magazines, as well as the annual Martin Journal. As a songwriter, she's released two albums—Haircuts for Barbers (2018) and Etemenanki (2021), both of which are available on all streaming platforms.

Kate Koenig
Kate Koenig is a songwriter, music journalist, and music teacher based in Brooklyn, New York. From 2016 to 2018, she was the editor of Music Alive!, a music education magazine for middle schoolers, and associate editor for its sister publication, In Tune Monthly. Since her time at In Tune, she has been a regular contributor to Guitar Girl, Acoustic Guitar, and Premier Guitar magazines, as well as the annual Martin Journal. As a songwriter, she's released two albums—Haircuts for Barbers (2018) and Etemenanki (2021), both of which are available on all streaming platforms.
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