Justin Ra’s Galactic Jungle Music Will Unhinge Your Spirit

Jun 16, 2022 at 10:25 am
Justin Ra will play at the Riverfront Times’ Art A’Fair on Thursday, June 23. - Courtesy Justin Ra
Courtesy Justin Ra
Justin Ra will play at the Riverfront Times’ Art A’Fair on Thursday, June 23.

St. Louis-based artist Justin Ra has been playing music since he was a kid. As a child, he inherited his grandfather’s love of classical music and jazz. He sang in his local choir alongside his mother and took piano lessons at her behest. He spent high school listening to hip-hop and writing rap. He soon found his way to rock and started a small band — his first of many.

Yet, 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 carved out for himself “galactic jungle music.” Galactic jungle music is dually inspired by “earthy tones and celestial sounds.” For Ra, it reflects the way humanity is deeply intertwined with both the cosmos (the “galactic”) and the Earth (the “jungle”). He employs an eclectic array 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 a zest for the future to bring about a humbling present,” which is reflected in both his sound and his lyrics. He is deeply interested in and frustrated by humanity’s “messed up” history. At the same time, he is doggedly optimistic for our future, refusing to succumb to apathy and misanthropy. Instead, he tries to live as intentionally as he can in the present: He exercises consistently, savors time with friends and family, and frequently sheds his shirt and shoes in an effort to feel more connected to the earth. He has centered his life around maintaining wellness “mentally, spiritually and physically.”

It is this commitment to being appreciative of and intentional about life that Ra hopes to share with his listeners. His vision, as stated on his website, is to “bring a new feeling to the art of music.”

“What I want to do with my music is bend your emotions in a different way,” he says. “I want it to unhinge your spirit so much to where it makes you feel something you didn’t even know that you felt.”

In his debut album, Age of the Spirit (Lotown Records, 2019), Ra aimed to accomplish this through soulful vocals and profound lyrics centering themes of transcendence and unity. The didgeridoo and djembe feature heavily, coalescing with its lyrical components to form what former RFT writer Christian Schaeffer described as a “psychedelic folk soundscape.” With his upcoming sophomore album Heavy Fog, Ra plans to reduce the role of the djembe to a cameo and amplify the presence of electronic percussion.

The album opens with a poetic tribute to Mother Earth but goes on to explore the struggle of maintaining a positive mindset in a discordant world. Thematically, Ra describes Heavy Fog as a sort of “playbook” for dealing with anxiety and other strains on one’s mental health, a topic that became particularly important to Ra in the midst of COVID-19 and the political and social turmoil of the past several 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 ones’ judgment about their state and that of the world. Ra hopes the album will help people learn to shake that fog and “remember to stay focused and disciplined and positive.”

Ra feels that his upcoming album has coincided with a “spiritual shift” toward deliberate positivity among people. “Everyone's tired of being upset,” he says. “Everyone's tired of being depressed. No one likes it — so why do we keep feeding into each other?”

While Age of the Spirit captures the mystical essence of Ra’s work, the singer laments that it was rushed and didn’t translate his ideas as he had envisioned them. He is confident that Heavy Fog will rectify that.

“I’m in a space now where I can be fully creative,” he says. With Age of the Spirit, Ra’s biggest priority had been simply getting his work “out there.” This time around, he’s been far more meticulous.

“I've just been listening to it over and over and over, just to make sure that this is what I want, this is how I want it to sound,” he says, voice full of passion and excitement. “I'm taking my time on this one.”

Ra has been working on Heavy Fog for nearly two years. He and producer Zagk Gibbons finished their first recording session 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 at the Riverfront Times’ Art A’Fair on Thursday, June 23. Tickets cost $25 online and at the door. Read more about it here.