St. Louis artist Justin Ra has been playing music since he was a kid. As a child, he inherited his grandfather’s love for classical music and jazz. He sang in her local choir with her mother and took piano lessons at her urging. He spent high school listening to hip-hop and writing rap. He soon found his way into rock and started a small band, the first of many.
However, even after years of making music, Ra couldn’t shake the feeling that there should be “more to music”, so he decided to create something of his own.
Ra, 38, calls the genre he has created for himself “galactic jungle music.” The music of the galactic jungle is doubly inspired by “earth tones and celestial sounds”. For Ra, it reflects the way humanity is deeply entwined with both the cosmos (the “galactic”) and the Earth (the “jungle”). He employs an eclectic variety of instruments to create a sound that is as captivating as it is unique.
Ra describes his genre as “an understanding of the past and an enthusiasm for the future to bring about a humble present,” which is reflected in both his sound and his lyrics. He is deeply interested in and frustrated by the “messy” history of mankind. At the same time, he is doggedly optimistic about our future and refuses to succumb to apathy and misanthropy. Instead, he tries to live as intentionally as he can in the present: he exercises constantly, enjoys time with friends and family, and frequently takes off his shirt and shoes in an effort to feel more grounded. He has focused his life on maintaining wellness “mentally, spiritually, and physically.”
It is this commitment to appreciating and intentionally living life that Ra hopes to share with his listeners. Her vision, as stated on her website, is to “bring a new feeling to the art of music.”
“What I want to do with my music is manipulate your emotions in a different way,” he says. “I want it to upset your spirit so much that it makes you feel something you didn’t even know you felt.”
On his debut album, Age of the Spirit (Lotown Records, 2019), Ra aimed to achieve this through soulful vocals and deep lyrics centered around themes of transcendence and unity. The didgeridoo and the djembe have a great presence, merging with their lyrical components to form what was once RFT writer Christian Schaeffer described it as a “psychedelic folk soundscape”. With his upcoming second album, Heavy Fog, Ra plans to reduce the role of the djembe to a cameo and amplify the presence of electronic percussion.
The album begins with a poetic tribute to Mother Earth, but continues to explore the struggle to maintain a positive mindset in a discordant world. Thematically, Ra describes Heavy Fog as a kind of “playbook” for dealing with anxiety and other mental health stresses, a topic that became particularly important to Ra amid COVID-19 and the political and social upheaval of the last few. years.
The “heavy fog” in question, which is also the title of the album’s second track, refers to intrusive negative thoughts that can cloud one’s judgment of their state and that of the world. Ra hopes the album will help people learn to shake off that fog and “remember to stay focused, disciplined and positive.”
Ra feels his upcoming album has coincided with a “spiritual shift” towards deliberate positivity among people. “Everyone is tired of being upset,” she says. “Everyone is tired of being depressed. Nobody likes it, so why do we keep feeding each other?
Weather Age of the Spirit captures the mystical essence of Ra’s work, the singer laments that he was rushed and did not translate his ideas as he had envisioned them. He trusts Heavy Fog to rectify that.
“I’m in a space now where I can be completely creative,” he says. With Age of the SpiritRa’s top priority had simply been to get his work “out there.” This time, he has been much more meticulous.
“I’ve been listening to it over and over again, just to make sure this is what I want, this is how I want it to sound,” he says, his voice full of passion and enthusiasm. “I’m taking my time on this.”
Ra has been working on Dense fog for almost two years. He and producer Zagk Gibbons finished their first recording session on Wednesday at Phat Buddha Productions and hope to release the album in mid to late August. In the meantime, fans can listen to Ra on most major streaming platforms.
Catch Justin Ra in the riverside times Art A’Fair on Thursday, June 23. Tickets are $25 online and at the door. Read more about it here.