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“What does it mean to be home? Sarah Jane sat on the edge of a cliff asking herself this question as she listened to the wind carry whispers of new places through Juniper Vale. She knew the answer lay beyond the boundaries of her village, so for the last time she said farewell and hopped atop the shell of Senalala, her turtle companion, her place of rest. Together they venture through a world overgrown, searching for a sense of home.”
– from The Traveler’s Tales Through Juniper Vale
One of my favorite new music discoveries is Through Juniper Vale, an artistic collaboration between singer/songwriter Sarah Wood, songwriter/producer Vian Izak, and visual artist Hein Zaayman. The music is catchy, percussive and joyous, but what fascinates me all the more is the way that the journey is presented across different forms of media. In addition to the thoughtful songs and their beautifully imaginative album art, there is an online comic and a series of audiobooks, fleshing out the world of Juniper Vale beyond the music.
Because Juniper Vale is vast, there are a lot of web links to share. For your convenience, I have collected them here. Once you’ve had a taste of the art and music in this post, dive in for more at these links:
It was a joy to interview Sarah, Vian and Hein and hear their insights on the project. My questions revolved around two things: the project’s preoccupation with the concept of home and the collaborative process that brings it to life.
Before we get started, can you each introduce yourself and describe how you got involved with your chosen creative field?
Sarah: I’m Sarah Jane Wood. I grew up in Pueblo, Colorado and my dad has always been very musical. Growing up, he and I would sing and jam together, and when I got into high school he helped me start playing gigs all over town. I moved to Nashville in 2013 to attend Lipscomb University, and during my time at Lipscomb, I started a folk band called The Arcadian Wild with a couple guys from my choir class. We spent all four years touring and playing house shows all over the country. It was truly such an unforgettable and invaluable experience.
It was through the band that I met Vian and Hein. Vian ran sound for one of our shows and ended up producing our first album for us. After that album was released, Vian and I started co-writing and creating pop songs, and Hein’s illustrations are just so phenomenal we decided it would be a neat idea to pair his artwork with the music. And so Through Juniper Vale began! I learned how to play banjo with The Arcadian Wild, and now we use that folksy banjo as a driving percussion element in our music. We have so many fun plans for this year, new singles, comic books, and fan focused projects! I am grateful and so excited. And working with these guys is always such a blast and a blessing.
Vian: I got started in music at a young age and played in bands all through school. I studied audio engineering and opened a studio on Music Row in Nashville after graduation. Since then I have been producing artists like Through Juniper Vale and releasing my own music. About a year and a half ago I launched Vohnic Music, a digital label, to promote these talented indie acts. It’s been very exciting for us to create every month and to engage with fans.
Hein: I got started when I was in middle school, just drawing and sketching characters. Before I knew how to draw, though, I built all sorts of fantasy worlds. Worlds with moving sand oceans, god-like robot people, or flying machines. These were sort of primitive and played off of a lot of fantasy tropes. Through school I learned to build worlds that cultivate dramatic stories and are now more commercially focused as well. So the world surrounding the Through Juniper Vale project is focused on the concept of home, just like Sarah’s music, while also creating opportunities for dramatic stories that reflect things in Sarah’s life. I am now always playing this game of how to meld the art and music in a meaningful way.
Vian, you have your own catalogue of music, also illustrated by Hein. Is this mix of music and visuals a staple of your Vohnic label?
Vian: Absolutely. Vohnic launched initially as a label focusing on my friends’ music and my own music, but over time it has evolved into a “Concept Art meets Music” label—the folks at Spotify, for example, are starting to see us as the “comic book” label. Through Juniper Vale and the Vian Izak project have definitely been at the forefront of developing what we are about. We recently signed new acts that are also developing their own concept worlds. It’s something we enjoy immensely and are starting to focus on more and more: concept worlds and music merging so that fans can explore. Hein is such a talent when it comes to creating captivating landscapes so I am so excited for what is to come!
Sarah: We are always trying to come up with cool, out-of-the-box ideas to create a unique experience for our fans. Vian is about to create something very similar to the Tales Through Juniper Vale audiobooks for his own music, and we are also about to start doing a little more with platforms like Youtube and Twitch. We just launched a Vohnic Instagram, in addition to the blog posts on the Vohnic website, and we are about to launch a Patreon that we are hoping to make the main hub for each artist with exclusive artwork, music and news. We are trying to come up with the most creative ways to connect with our fans and to give them a chance to really step into these worlds and almost have a voice in the work we are creating.
Hein, how much direction are you given on your illustrations? Do you have free reign to experiment or is it a collaborative effort?
Hein: It really depends on the project. For some I take direction from the artist and try and bring their vision to life. For Through Juniper Vale, I start with some direction and then Sarah is really awesome about just letting me work. This usually leads to the best stuff. With the Vian Izak project I am given complete creative control, which is daunting at times. I usually check with the artist once I have a sketch, and then again when the line work is done, just to make sure they like it.
Sarah, what led you to build this project around the concept of home?
Sarah: While I was at Lipscomb, I was in a lot of incredible Bible classes through the Theology department, and I was reading a lot of books on the eucharist and thanksgiving. I think that season of growth was really what sparked this search for home. I was taken aback by the idea of heaven existing in the moments that we give thanks and commune together. I think it really hit me that we are truly created for the giving thanks and the being together, and when we are participating in those acts we are the closest to being who God created us to be. Around the same time, I was moving out of the dorms into an apartment with some friends, and my family was uprooting from Colorado to Murfreesboro, so there was this questioning of home inside of me.
How many different types of “home” feelings are there? Maybe, like the Greek language has multiple words for love, home can also be defined in many different ways. And is it our “homes” that bring us together, that connect us? And what would happen if we really leaned into what is “home” to us as individuals? What would we learn about ourselves or how would we connect with others? Maybe we all can find home in every person and every place we go. If the grace of God is in every corner and in every face, I believe that home may be be found everywhere and in everyone. What would happen if that “home feeling” is the first thing we recognized in strangers or odd places? Maybe the more we find this grace and seek out the comfort of home the closer we are to being fully alive and fully who God created us to be.
Do you deliberately focus on the idea of home while writing the songs?
Sarah: The way that I have been writing music has started to change as the project becomes a little more developed. Recently, instead of sitting down with the banjo or piano and writing a song all at once, I have been bringing Vian some hook ideas and we have been writing the songs in the studio. So Vian will make some cool dance beat on Logic and then we will mess around and sing over it and try a bunch of crazy ideas until we find a melody that fits. Then we will usually have deep talks about what is on our hearts and the lyrics will stem from those talks. And because my mindset is sort of stuck on thinking about home all the time, the songs usually have something to do with this home idea even if we don’t realize it at first. It has been such a blast, just a lot of trial and error until we find exactly what the song needs to be!
Vian and Hein, as Sarah explores the concept of home, how has that focus affected you? Do you find yourselves bringing your own ideas of home into the project?
Hein: It has definitely affected how I approach the project. The entire world has a calling towards home in it, and I try to reflect aspects of home in the album covers. As far as character design, the fact that she rides a giant turtle (who carries its home on its back) came out of Sarah’s focus on home. As for how my thoughts of home have made their way into the project, I don’t really know. I am sure they have. I mean, with art, your subconscious really becomes the loudest voice. So I am sure if I reflect back on all the work I have done for the project there is probably a ton there—like how I immediately came up with a traveling home rather than a stationary one for the characters probably says something about me.
Vian: We are both (Hein and I) originally from South Africa, so I think moving countries and re-learning how to create a home in a new culture plays a role in how we see this project. I think that finding home is a journey undertaken through a lifetime. For example, I’ve noticed lately that life is a series of resurrections. Every moment of learning new information is a moment where the old must die for the new to take root. And that process of deaths, if they lead to truth, is a daily process of slowly learning what home is. So with Sarah’s project I have lately tried to listen more than steer the ship, so to speak, and learn from her perspective. She is very perceptive and has changed the way I think about home and life quite a bit. So the Through Juniper Vale project has been vital in how it has shaped my life concerning home. I’m grateful and can’t wait to learn more as we dive into this very layered concept.
That’s awesome. I love how the collaborative process helps perspectives grow!
Vian: Absolutely. It’s wonderful when people come together in the pursuit of truth. We’ve all been challenged in the last year in the best of ways. I’ve learned that there’s nothing better than being challenged on your previous assumptions about the world. “I might not be right about this” is a great place to live as it seems like that’s where creativity and connection through vulnerability thrive.
The songs clearly influence Hein’s artwork, but does the artwork ever influence the music in turn?
Sarah: Awesome question! With the latest single we kind of decided to take more of a 1920s feel with the art and the music, so we sample a song from 1918 in “Everything Is Color.” But then Hein made the album art and I think just seeing the Art Deco design is influencing us to take more of a jazz approach to the upcoming songs. We are also going to be focusing on more comic book type projects with the releases, so the art and music will definitely continue to play off one another.
I have to know—what is the song from 1918?
Sarah: The song is called “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows.” Once we started writing “Everything Is Color,” we looked up songs from 1918 and this one fit perfectly. So the sample at the beginning is from that tune and then throughout the song we say “I’m always chasing rainbows” to point back to that sample throughout the song.
One final question: Where did the name Juniper Vale come from?
Sarah: I really wanted to find a band name that payed homage to my hometown in Pueblo, Colorado. There is a lake in my town that is surrounded by Juniper trees, so that aspect of the name eludes to the Juniper Breaks on the lake. My hometown is also located in the Arkansas Valley and the word “vale” means valley. So Juniper Vale is home to me, but then became the name of the world that these characters Senelala and Sarah Jane live in.
You can listen to “Everything Is Color” here:
Jonny Jimison is a talented cartoonist and graphic novelist. In addition to a long history of web-based cartoons, he's the author of Dragon Lord Saga series of graphic novels, including Martin & Marco and The River Fox. Jonny lives and works in Jacksonville, Florida.