Photo: Renata Raksha
Valerie June Dreams Of A Better World On New Album 'The Moon And Stars: Prescriptions For Dreamers'
Valerie June misses the electric atmosphere of playing live in front of her fans. The Memphis, TN, singer-songwriter, nonetheless, is thankful: Her time off the road over the past year, due to the pandemic, has given her a chance to fully explore her creative identity in music, art and poetry.
"It's the first time I ever actually took the time to be an artist," June tells GRAMMY.com of her time in quarantine at home. "Usually, I just do art while it happens, while I'm doing other things. But because we had a huge [amount] of time, I actually spent hours every day … I dedicated [to] it like it was school."
That confidence and ambition shine through on her latest album, The Moon & Stars: Prescriptions For Dreamers, which she co-produced with GRAMMY-winning producer Jack Splash.
Astronomy and the pursuit of living out one's dreams are at the core of The Moon & Stars, which deals with the dreamers' journey seeking positivity and "choosing to create a new world, a world similar to this world Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] described when he said, 'I have a dream,'" June explains.
Many of the album's songs underline the difficult experiences of being a dreamer. However, June knows the finish line is worth it and exudes positivity throughout The Moon & Stars. It's a message that is emboldened by June's charismatic vocals that carry a childlike sense of wonder, further heightened by a dynamic soundscape of swirling, airy R&B and folk-pop-orchestrated melodies.
In addition to The Moon & Stars, June recently released Maps for the Modern World, a new book of poetry and illustrations. For June, it felt gratifying to carve out as much time as she needed to fully explore wherever her creativity led her. Still, she admits she isn't sure she'll be able to fully give up her newfound creative muse and go back to her pre-pandemic way of life.
"I'm still going to do some shows, but I think I'll have to keep carving new time for art because it's been really important for my spirit," she says. "With all of the heaviness and the challenges that we faced in the last year, I felt a great need … to be the positivity."
GRAMMY.com spoke with Valerie June about why the moon and stars are significant metaphors on her new album, what she learned working with legendary singer Carla Thomas, and why it's important to dream big and push past failures.
Why do you think the moon and stars are a relevant metaphor for dreams?
When you have an aspirational journey, like the dream of Dr. King, it is something that seems huge. It seems bigger than you. It seems almost unattainable. And I do believe that dreams are bigger than any individual...It directly affects everyone in your friend circle and your family circle, in your city, in your community, across the planet, across the universe...And stars and moons make people think in that terms of other planetary realms. And so, it's important, first of all, to have the moon and stars be the first part of the title, which puts people in the mindset of magic. Puts people in the mindset of imagination and adventure in other worlds.
And then once they're in that mindset, then you start to talk about the prescriptions for dreamers and dreams. And the fact is that dreamers need prescription because manifesting dreams, as we say with Dr. King's dream, it's not easy. It's huge and it takes years, and you're going to get weak. And you're going to need something like art to give you courage, to keep going, to keep believing, because dreams can wither...When you hear that song and you look at the protest, then you believe in the fact that we can change and [have] the human capacity to grow.
Producer Jack Splash has worked on a variety of projects, and it seems to have seeped it with a diverse collection of songs. How did his knowledge help you fine-tune the songs on The Moon & Stars?
Well, Jack Splash, his knowledge is the wizard of my record. He is the main force that was able to take all the dimensions and all the galaxies that I was imagining and exploring and brand them into one solid phase. He produced the record; he also played instruments and joined the band on many of the songs. And he introduced me to powerhouse musicians and arrangers like Mr. e or any of the Miami-based musicians who play on the songs and the L.A. musicians who play on the songs.
He told me that there was an email that came from the GRAMMYs and it was around the first time we worked together. He said, the email's said that we need to start addressing and lift up more female producers in the music industry. And Jack said, "What do you think about it?" And I was like, "Well, I think that's a good idea. We'll see if it happens."
He thought it was an amazing idea. He started to teach me how to produce, and I sat beside him all the way through this record. He was not only believing that we should have more recognition for female producers, but willing to be one of those people who's in the industry and is opening his door to training more people, to more female producers.
On "Call Me A Fool," you talk about not letting anything stop you from trying to live your dreams. Why is that important especially in these times?
Society isn't built to support dreamers. If you want to follow a path that's paved, then you will have an easier way of life. But if you want to go down a path that is very rugged and full of plants and thorns, then the world's like, "No, no, no." So, you might be called a fool for [not] following their path. But, if you have the dream and you have a vision of what it's going to look like is as you go on down the path and once the way is clear, then you have to do it. Because if you don't, then you'll be on your deathbed and you'll be wishing that you had—life is too short for that.
"Call Me a Fool" features the legendary Carla Thomas and follows her contribution on the album's preceding track, "African Proverb." What was it like working with her?
It was amazing. At some point, I hope we can get on the stage and perform together …
I think she deserves to be noticed and honored for her contributions to American music. When I was with her, it was truly amazing. She sang with Otis Redding, and she'll tell you all kinds of great stories about that … She's the fairy godmother of the record, because all records or every dreamer's journey has to have a fairy godmother.
What's the biggest way she's influenced how you've shaped your own career?
The biggest way would be that she's from the same part of the world that I'm from. And she knows what it's like to be a Black female artist in the South who loves all genres and music.
I watched the documentary on Tina Turner recently on HBO … Tina talks about what would it be like to put out a record and not have her picture on it and people not knowing that she was Black. [She talked about] … how would that affect her ability to be who she wants to be as an artist.
I thought about people like Carla and people like me, and now I'm still asking that question. What would it be like if my color or my skin wasn't something that came up when I was making music? I think it's starting to change. But people like Carla Thomas and Tina Turner, women here who are from the same part of the world as me, they help me put change here. That's what she's done for me and what she's done for so many other amazing female artists from the South.
You recently released a new book of poetry and illustrations, Maps for the Modern World. What was your inspiration for it?
It was a very sad inspiration because my father passed four years ago. When he passed, that's when I started to [write poetry.] One of my friends from Memphis, who is a New York Times bestselling author, said to me one day, "What happened to writing? You told me you're writing a lot when your father passed." And I said, "It was going OK. I have a lot of poems I've written." She was like, "Why aren't you doing anything with them?" And I was like, "I don't really know. They're really just for me." And she said, "Well, I want to introduce you to my literary agent."
She introduced me, and I took hundreds of poems … and I showed them to her, and she loved them. That started me down a path, and the path was that I should put all of these poems together … I love Shel Silverstein … and poets who illustrate their work. My mother is a painter, so I always have loved art. And so, I started to put the illustration to [the poems] because of it.
I think that anyone who has a talent or an art or is creative, they should do that with their energy right now because we have a portal open in the world. Because they're starting to come back and we have the ability to use this portal to reset the world and to put more mindfulness and kindness out across the globe.
If you have a talent in art, that can lift people up and give them courage and empower them right now, then you should do it. So, I'm trying to do every single one I can: art, poems, and music.
I'm so honored when Amanda reached out to me and asked me to sing on the song. I thought it was a very powerful song. I cried a lot when I was working on it because there's a poem, actually, in my book that addresses a woman's right to choose … I think about how much energy we put to work saying that a woman shouldn't have the right to choose.
It just seems so unfair when we could put that energy toward making it easier for the living, for people who are already here. Because once we start opening up the doors and making it easier for people … then we also make it easier for young mothers to be able to raise their children. We make the world, our world, and our nation more harmonious and more balanced and equal and fair. That song is super powerful, and the whole movement of Roe vs. Wade is very important for women and for freedom.
And I think that's important that we make life better every day. I imagine that the world could be a lot like what John Lennon [was] saying in his song ["Imagine"], that, "[The world will be as one]."
On "Fallin'," you say that it's OK to fail in pursuit of one's dreams. Why do you think so?
When you're dreaming, you go for it. One of the things about it is, you might be successful, but you also might fail, and the chances are that you're going to fail. You're going to fail if you're a dreamer. I've failed so many times, and I've fallen. One thing you got to know about falling is that it's OK.