Valerie June noticed something strange in Miami when she was recording her latest album. It seemed every session was conducted under a full moon.
The Tennessee-born singer-songwriter insists this was not part of some plan to schedule sessions around astrological or astronomical timetables. But it was an interesting coincidence just the same and it didn’t end there. Later, when June and producer Jack Splash moved the project to another studio in Los Angeles, the singer says she went outside on the final night of recording and looked up just in time to see three shooting stars blaze through the night sky.
“It was crazy,” says June, in an interview with Postmedia from her home in New York. “The moon and stars are so involved in this album. I don’t even know how to explain it, but they are there.”
That may be why June’s new album, due out March 12, is called The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers. These otherworldly signals may have helped give some cosmic order to a loose collection of songs that would eventually turn into somewhat of a concept album. That wasn’t intentional either, June says. She didn’t mean the songs to have a cohesive theme. In fact, they came from various periods in her life over the past 15 years.
It wasn’t until she had finished recording that she realized there was an underlying narrative to the songs.
“It was like ‘OK, what is this trying to say to me? What is it trying to tell me?’ ” says June, who will give a solo online performance as part of The Calgary Folk Music Festival’s Block Heater on Feb. 20. “That’s when all the thinking and the messages started to emerge. I was like ‘Oh my goodness, this is a journey. It’s like a dreamer’s journey or someone’s path where they are following something that they love.’ ”
It doesn’t take long into a conversation with June to realize her enthusiastic chatter about full moons, shooting stars, journeys and dreamers reflects an overriding, endearing positivity that infuses both her creative process and her output. While recording in Miami and Los Angeles, June would begin sessions by designing mandalas on the studio floor out of freshly picked flowers. The Moon and the Stars is set for release almost a year to the day when the full ramifications and dread of COVID-19 first began entering the public’s consciousness. June makes no bones about the fact that she hopes the album will act as a tonic for troubled times, whether it be inspiring big-picture dreaming or simply encouraging the pursuit of small pleasures.
“It’s universal,” she says. “It’s the dreams that I imagine are dreams for the individual but also dreams for humanity. So they could be a big dream like Dr. King’s dream for humanity or John Lennon’s Imagine for humanity. Or it can be a small dream: like you want to have coffee and you want to sit in your favourite spot in the coffee shop and hope nobody is there; or you want to fall in love with a certain person and you really, really hope that they love you back. Whatever the dream is, it’s just little seeds and cells of inspiration to uplift people to give them courage to go for it.”
Of course, positive and uplifting doesn’t mean flakey. Moon and Stars will be June’s third release for Fantasy Records since 2013 and the third set of songs that prove her to be one of modern music’s most intriguing, genre-hopping originals. Blessed with a startling, powerfully singular voice, she proved strong grounding in everything from gospel to straight blues, soft-groove psychedelia and girl-group pop. She was introduced to gospel at church and schooled in R&B, blues and soul by her father, a part-time music promoter who was reportedly the first to book Prince in western Tennessee. June’s 2013 major-label album, Pushing’ Against a Stone, was co-produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach and Kevin Augunas, received rave reviews and landed on the best-of 2013 lists for Rolling Stone and American Songwriter. Her followup, 2017’s The Order of Time, cemented her position as a critics’ darling and earned high-profile praise for her ease with multiple genres.
The Moon and Stars follows suit, mixing spellbinding soul ballads such as opening track Stay, with the fragile folk of Fallin’, avant-pop stylings of Stardust Scattering and no-nonsense straight-ahead R&B of Call Me a Fool.
The producer Splash, who has worked with everyone from Alicia Keys to Kendrick Lamar and CeeLo Green, created a sturdy multi-layered sound to house June’s songs and brought in some heavy-hitters to help achieve it, including iconic Al Green keyboardist Lester Snell and Carla Thomas, the Stax legend and “Queen of Memphis Soul.”
For June, having an interest in multiple genres isn’t a calculated career plan or symptom of artistic restlessness. She sees it as a natural instinct.
“Like in nature, there’s no boundaries for beauty,” she says. “No matter what it is, there’s beauty found. Nature is the thing that guides most of my life. I love flowers. I’m crazy with gardening and plants and stuff and just watching how nature moves and how, as long as it’s moving towards the light, it’s happy. It wants plenty of sun. It wants plenty of water. Why can’t I be like that with music? Why can’t I just throw the paint against the canvass and see what happens?”
She also thinks her country is ready to move towards the light after a period of darkness. The subsequent reflection that sprang not only from the pandemic but from the social movements that fought for equality and justice in the streets present a real opportunity for America, she says.
“It’s been a hard year and I just feel like we’re in a very cool place in my country in particular,” she says. “We could actually open a lot of doors in the way of love and respect and kindness to one another because a lot was revealed to us last year. What do we want to do now that the veil has been torn and we can see everything? I think it’s time for anybody who has a heart that is open to start working on the healing. Now is the time for that. Don’t waste any time. Just believe that human beings can as great as the light of the moon and stars and make it happen.”
Valerie June will perform online from Brooklyn on Feb. 20 at 8:20 p.m. as part of The Calgary Folk Music Festival’s Block Heater. Visit calgaryfolkfest.com for pay-what-you-can tickets.