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To the Moon and Back

Valerie June Grows Beyond Roots and Soul

Valerie June: ‘People usually put her in the folk and singer/songwriter genre. But I always heard tons of different elements in her music,’ says the artist’s co-producer Jack Splash. Photo: Renata Raksha

Valerie June’s co-producer, Jack Splash, wanted to make sure that he fully understood June’s songs. So, along with demo recordings of her new music, he asked her to send him all of the lyrics—not a weird request, but not a very common one, either. June complied, and she took it one step further, sending along the poems she’d been reading: important works that had inspired her lyrical ideas. 

“Being the magical angel that she is, at the end of each lyric, she would also give me an excerpt of an Emily Dickinson poem, and another one from the Sufi teaching of Hazrat Inayat Khan, for example,” he explains. “She told me, ‘This song was inspired by the poet Hafiz who wrote ‘The Gift.’” 

Responding in kind, Splash sent June a volume of Sun Ra poems. Musician and producer developed a complex connection, and The Moon and Stars is the musical, mystical fruit of that friendship. 

“Before I met Valerie, I’d been very intrigued by the unique mixture that she seemed to have under the surface of her music,” says Splash, whose stellar credits include Alicia Keys, Kendrick Lamar, Mary J. Blige and many others. “People usually put her in the folk and singer/songwriter genre. But I always heard tons of different elements in her music. I was excited to work with her because, when I’m a fan of someone’s music, as a producer, I always imagine what kind of music I’d make with them, and I thought working with Valerie could be really exciting.”

Their production builds on June’s soul/blues/country roots, adding lush, but often subtle, ethereal touches that set each song in its own ambient world. The gospel soul of “Stay” (Track 1) includes synths, flute and strings supporting the dominant piano and drum rhythms; it’s followed by “Stay Meditation,” a short, reflective improv on the sounds of the first track. Artistically and spiritually, June is reaching for even more than her own wonderful songs convey.

Starting Fresh

Splash and June began the project with some inventive but meticulous work in Splash’s personal studio, Fresh Young Minds (Sherwood Forest, Calif.). For about six months, it was just the two of them, developing and fine-tuning songs and arrangements. 

“We knew that in the end we would have some pretty wild, lush arrangements,” Splash says. “But I wanted to make sure that in the beginning we were really nailing down the core of each song, so that nothing would get lost in the production. I figured if we kept it super intimate at the beginning, with just her and her acoustic guitar and a banjo, and me with all my toys—synths, keyboards and drums—through experimenting we would create a map of where we wanted the music to go.”

Splash did his own engineering in Fresh Young Minds, operating with the idea that everything must be recorded well enough to keep if they wished, but knowing that eventually they would employ further studios and musicians to realize the songs fully. He set up stations for June’s vocals, guitars and banjos, as well as the “toys” he played, and captured everything to his Pro Tools rig. 

June’s vocals were recorded through a Neumann U47, as well as a Manley Reference Cardioid tube mic that she brought to the session; both mics were run through a BAE 1073 Preamp/EQ. Royer R-121 ribbon mics were set up for her acoustic guitar and banjo.

“Those ran through my True Systems Precision 8 mic preamp, so I could get the full tone of the acoustic guitar and banjo, as well as a bit of the room,” Splash says. He played his Yamaha U3 upright piano on the sessions, capturing that through two AKG C414s, also through the True Precision 8 preamps. 

Dwayne Bennett played Criteria’s Yamaha grand piano, captured by engineer Ian Mercel via a pair of Neumann KM84s above the hammers and a spaced pair of AKG C-414s outside the open instrument. Photo: Ian Mercel

“Sometimes we would just put down all the organic elements—acoustic guitar, keys, vocals—and after Valerie left for that day, I would come up with a crazy rhythm that might work with it. I’d play those things for her when she came back and we’d decide whether it worked or we should try again—just planting the seeds of the nuanced, weird kind of psychedelic stuff that we knew we wanted to add.” 

All of the electronic keys (MiniMoog Voyager, Roland Jupiter 6, Roland Juno 106, Mellotron, Mark II Fender Rhodes, Dave Smith Prophet 08) went direct to Pro Tools. “We used a lot of virtual instruments, as well,” Splash says. “We had UVI Vintage Vault, Arturia V Collection, Output Instruments for synths and pads. To lay out demos of some of our original string ideas, we used EastWest Symphonic Orchestra.

“For the live drums at my studio, I used my vintage Rogers Cleveland mid-’60’s kit with the Rogers Powertone Snare, and I swapped out the snare with my vintage Ludwig ’60s Supraphonic and my Ludwig Black Beauty for a few tunes,” Splash continues. “I ran the kick through an Electro-Voice RE20 mic, the snares through a Neumann KM84, the hats through a Shure SM81, and the overhead was an AEA R84 ribbon. I ran all of those through my True Systems mic pre and then also the kick and the snare through two API 550b EQs for a little tightening up.”

 Splash also did some drum programming via a 1967 Ace Tone Rhythm Ace FR1 Drum Machine, and for further drum programming and overlays, he used his Emu SP1200 and Akai MPCX.

“This first phase was just Valerie and I almost all the time, but at one point, I also had my friend Ryan Spraker do some overdubs of bass and electric guitar, which we took direct through my Avalon U5 into Pro Tools,” Splash says. “Then I used various plug-ins inside Pro Tools for some fun amp effects.

“During this phase we were realizing and expanding on things Valerie had recorded in the original demos that she made in Logic before she came to L.A. And in a few cases, we did actually keep parts of those original demos. For example, there was a track where she had a [Roland] 808 drum program. It was weird and looped kind of incorrectly, but it was so cool. It gave me the vibe of something Bjork would do. She wanted me to redo it, but I said, ‘This is the vibe. Let’s not fix it. Let’s build from it.’” 

Building Tracks in Miami and L.A.

Splash created rough mixes of the songs that he and June worked on in Fresh Young Minds before the project moved to one of his favorite commercial facilities, Criteria, in his former home of Miami. 

“When I’m producing a session with a band, I don’t engineer,” Splash says. “So I brought in Ian Mercel—a great engineer who I love to work with in Miami—as well as some great musicians from there. We did a bunch of new organ parts, piano, Rhodes and horns. We also redid a lot of my drums and some of Valerie’s vocals, added more electric guitar, electric bass, Latin percussion, too, which was so awesome because you have the whole diaspora of Latin America in Miami.”

“We worked in Studio A, which is the largest at Criteria,” adds engineer Mercel. “We would set up individual stations and break them down as we went, because most of the musicians were only recording for a few hours.”

Musicians who rotated in and out of Criteria’s SSL 9000-equipped Studio A included Dwayne Bennett (Hammond Organ, piano, Rhodes, synths), drummer David Chiverton, electric guitarist Eric Escanes, bass player Carlos Guzman, percussionist Humberto Ibarra, and horn players Wayne Perry (trombone), Ted Zimmerman (trumpet), and Scott Klarman (tenor and baritone sax, and flute). 

“The first sound lock before entering Criteria’s massive live room was where we set up Valerie,” Mercel explains. “Her setup always included her acoustic guitar, as well as vocals. Finding a balance between her voice and guitar along with a decent amount of isolation was critical. We did something somewhat unorthodox, and it came out pretty interesting.

“Valerie brought her Manley Reference mic for her vocal, which we ran into a Neve 1073 and a Tube-Tech CL-1b compressor. We usually use a Neve preamp for vocals, but we don’t typically use a compressor. However, Valerie’s voice is very dynamic, and having a nice tube compressor really smoothed things out. I used two AKG C414s in a quasi-ORTF stereo configuration. I placed all three microphones very close together and pointed the vocal mic up toward Valerie’s mouth, which rejected some of the guitar, and pointed the mics for the guitar down, away from her mouth, which helped reject her vocal. I was a little concerned that things might get a bit hairy, but it ended up sounding great.

Co-producer Jack Splash, left, with June and engineer Ian Mercel in Criteria Studio A. ‘We did something somewhat unorthodox, and it came out pretty interesting,’ Mercel says. Photo: Ian Mercel

“There is another, smaller sound lock that we crammed the drummer, David Chiverton, into,” Mercel continues. “He’s used to us putting him in small, dry rooms with just four microphones. We love the sound of a mono ribbon mic for the overhead. We close-mike the snare drum on top and mike the kick drum, and typically use a nice condenser on the hi-hats to add some crispness; there we ended up using another one of Valerie’s mics, an AEA R44C.” 

Mercel set up the three-piece horn section against a wall in the live room and used gobos to help contain the reverb of that large space. He captured the horns with a pair of Coles 4038s for the brass instruments, and a beyerdynamic M160 for woodwinds.

“I also built an isolation booth of sorts in the main live room for the percussionist, Humberto,” Mercel says. “We used a single Neumann U47 FET as an overhead for a vintage sound. We also put up Valerie’s R44 as a spot mic for tambourine.

“With the guitarist, Eric Escantes, we almost always record directly out of his pedalboard into a nice preamp. He has a lot of standard pedals, along with some tasty boutique pieces that he likes to get wild with! We do the same with the bass, direct into a Neve 1073.”

On the grand piano in Criteria’s live room, Mercel set up a stereo pair of Neumann KM84s above the hammers and a spaced pair of AKG C414s outside of the piano with the lid open. Bennett also played B3 with a Leslie cabinet and created some electronic parts with a MIDI controller hooked to his laptop.

“I used the SSL’s channels for almost everything,” Mercel continues, “the exception being the bass and vocals through that Neve 1073. The SSL has a great sound, and the EQ is fantastically simple and silky.”

Before long, however, Splash was due back in L.A., so phase two of The Moon and Stars  continued at Eldorado Studios in Burbank, Calif., with engineer Phil English at the Pro Tools HDX and an SSL Duality console. Splash assembled yet another outstanding group of musicians: Spraker on bass and electric guitar, keyboard player Alfred Rutherford Jr., electric and upright bass player Kaveh Rastegar, drummer Carlin White, banjo and electric guitar player Justin Lucas, percussionist Davey Chegwidden, and horn players Phillip Lassiter (trumpet), Alex Wasil (trombone), and Leon Silva (tenor and baritone sax).

“Eldorado is a really cool space, and I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to call the ‘B’ room home for the last few years,” English says. “The two control rooms are either side of the shared live room, so for this session we rented the A room and turned my control room into an additional recording space. I set both the drums and the horns up in there—on separate days—which is how we got a really controlled and focused sound. The actual live room was set up with stations for keys, guitars, bass, et cetera. so we could move easily.

“Jack is very artist-focused and always wants to be ready to capture anything that is happening,” English continues. “If a sound is too specific as it’s dialed in, that can hamper that process. That’s why I am careful to keep the chains simple and clean for him.”

Co-producer Jack Splash was glad to get percussionist Humberto Ibarra involved in June’s Miami sessions. ‘You have the whole diaspora of Latin America in Miami,’ he says. Mercel baffled off an iso ‘booth’ within the live room for Ibarra.

Finishing Touches

Among the last puzzle pieces to be added to The Moon and Stars were the strings, arranged by Lester Snell, which Splash postponed until near the end, sensing that arrangements and even songs might keep changing. 

Another late addition was vocals by legendary soul singer Carla Thomas, who provides backgrounds on the single “Call Me a Fool” and recites the short “African Proverb” in Track 6: “Only a fool tests the depth of the water with both feet.”

“A poem that Valerie gave me with ‘Call Me a Fool’ wasn’t a poem at all,” Splash recalls. “It was that African proverb; the author is unknown. I said, ‘You need to say that proverb before the song, and I’ll create a mystical musical bed underneath it. So she did several different versions of it herself, but in her mind, she wanted an elder to read it, and almost at the last minute she was able to get Carla Thomas to do that [with Boo Mitchell and assistant engineer Brad McCullough] at Royal Studios in Memphis.” 

“Then, right before we got to mixing, Valerie wanted one final little meditation piece to close out the album. She wanted to use a Tibetan singing bowl and play something almost atonal. She was in Tennessee at the time, visiting her mom. She went out in the woods and recorded what sounds like bells, but it’s her playing the singing bowls, and there were actual birds tweeting. She sent it to me and I arranged some very simple piano underneath it. Then I brought the track in where I was working with Tank and the Bangas, and their flute player, Allenback, added a flute part. That’s the last thing we did before the whole album went with Kennie Takahashi to mix. It’s just a short piece at the end, but it meant the world to her and me.”