By Poppy Tohill
No stranger to live performance, Auckland songstress Junelle has decided to embark on a more intimate journey releasing her first collection of original tracks in the form of a debut EP, titled 'Just This Sky.'Released this morning - Friday 6th June, I had the privilege of catching up with the wonderfully talented Junelle for a chat all about the EP, prior to its anticipated release.
Hey! How are you feeling about the upcoming release of your debut EP, 'Just This Sky'?
I think I'm a mix between nervous and excited (laughs)
How would you best describe your sound to somebody who had never heard it before?
I've been saying ambient pop. Probably ambient, electronic pop would be a little bit more closer.
You recorded the whole EP in your home studio, can you tell us a little bit about that process?
We didn't actually have the studio set up when we were doing the EP, so we would just get all the gear out in our bedrooms everytime we'd record and we would kind of make it a little vibey and try make it feel like a studio. But now we have an actual studio separately, but for the EP we just set it up everytime we recorded a track.
Do you have a particular favourite song on the EP?
Yeah I do, Refuge.
Although this is your first solo release, you've been gigging with some of the top jazz musicians in the country for more than a decade now, was there an inspirational person or experience you went through that encouraged you to create and release your own music?
The most inspirational person was definitely Abraham Kunin, because I was happy having my songs exist privately before he came along and said "You need to record these." But in the early days definitely Alan Brown, he's quite an amazing jazz pianist and he was a huge influence in that regard as well as writing my own material.
So have you always written your own material anyway, as you've been performing with these other musicians?
Yeah, but I haven't necessarily performed them before. I've just awkwardly pulled them out at times and said 'let's just give it a go,' but otherwise I've kind of just played them for my friends and family.
What's it like to go from gigging with numerous musicians, to suddenly doing your own personal, solo thing?
It's a whole different thing. That's a really good question actually.. Because all of a sudden there's a whole lot more to contemplate. You no longer have an original song to reference and perhaps work with, cause you've built it from scratch. It's also equally more meaningful because you get to explain where they come from and then have people a little bit more engaged and on board with you, emotively as well. So that's been a really nice transition I've really enjoyed. I'm working with the same musicians that I've worked with for a while too, so probably transitioning to having something that's way more meaningful and feeling them actually come on board with that as well has been really, really rewarding.
Having performed with so many top notch musicians already, is there one artist you would love to maybe either support, perform or write with someday?
Somebody I really admire as a vocalist in New Zealand and who is a sincere performer is Esther Stephens. She's amazing. Skilfully she's just an insane vocalist but her presence and her integrity when she sings, like she's very deliberate about singing with conviction. So yeah, I have a lot of admiration for Esther and we know each other quite well, but I've always wanted to actually work with her. I'd love to co-write and maybe sing with her some day.
As a practicing Budhist, do you believe a lot of those beliefs and ideas are portrayed throughout your music or do you try to keep them both separate from one another?
No, they definitely are in my music. I actually tried to part music for a while because initially when I first got into Buddhism I didn't think it was necessarily a virtual path and so I was feeling a bit conflicted. But then actually it got to a point where, one it's coherently part of me so it felt like something I was sort of suppressing and then secondly, my teachers really encouraged me to continue with music because it benefits people so much, and also my own mind. So on that basis they were like, "music is your practice." So I was like, 'aww cool!' (laughs), and now they've become one in the same and it's been a perfect combination. They're inseparable now.
You recently got to go to India where you met the Dali Lama and gave him a track which you made for him.. What was that experience like?
I've been very spoilt and met him a number of times. It's never an ordinary experience, but as far as actually giving him a song that I wrote privately, in my room when I was in a particular headspace and had been reading his texts and books, and going to the teachers in Auckland, they really had that wisdom that truly carried me throughout a dark patch and the song just came out. So it was such an intimate track for me and of course Abraham made it and recorded it on the EP and rearranged it too. But actually giving it to him, I never thought I'd be able to do that. It was amazing and it really was my dream come true, to give him a song that I had written for him, it was just insane.
How did the whole experience actually come about in the first place?
Because I look after him when he comes to New Zealand, his office is so kind. (I never ever actually have the expectation that I'll see him, because he's extraordinarily busy) but we were going to India anyway to visit friends in his little village and his office knew that I was going there and they kindly said (because Abraham hadn't met with his holiness before) 'we'll organise for you to meet with him.' It was actually an after thought that I had about 'Oh god, we could actually give him this track.' So we brought a cd there and we printed off a rough cover and actually got it ready while we were over there, because we hadn't gone there with the intention of giving it to him, that was just a massive added bonus.
I also read that part of the song is sung in Tibetan, did you team up with someone to help you with that bit, or can you speak Tibetan?
It's a Tibetan prayer that is part of my daily practice and so I say it in English and Tibetan privately.
Is 'Just This Sky' going to be a one off release, or can we expect more music from you in the future?
Definitely more. We've already started writing actually, when we were in India. We've got a couple of new tracks underway already. So we're kind of on a roll now (laughs).
Would an album maybe be on the cards at all in the future?
I think for the next step definitely we'll do an album. This wasa massive hurdle for me because I was just so nervous about recording music for so long and playing live was easy for me, but transitioning to original material and actually going into a studio and having somebody critique and co-write and have that criticism. That risk in recording was a big fear factor for me, but now that we've done it, I'm like- "Oh, it's not that scary." I definitely want to keep writing and we'll work something into an album next, I think.
You've got a show coming up for the release of the EP, can we expect any more shows soon following that?
Yeah definitely, I just wanted to get that first show out of the way (laughs) because with the EP and touring, it's all new for me, but 100 percent we'll definitely do more.
What does the rest of 2014 have in store for you, musically?
Musically, definitely writing. Lots and lots more writing and original shows. I'll plan some more original shows, maybe I'll do something at Golden Dawn and the likes...
With the song writing, do you have a particular writing process that you adhere to?
Yeah, that's a good point. Abraham and I have been working together for a while and how it works is, he's really productive (laughs) and it really puts a lot of heat on me to produce material. But he basically writes tracks and then I hear them and often write to them. But often I go away and I'm writing lyrically all the time anyway, I also write a lot of poetry, so I'm always building that library of material and then the melodies kind of come separately. So I'll go away and just write on piano or guitar, and then fit those tracks over what he's made, so that's what we've been doing and that seems to be working quite well. I'm also working full time at the moment so as that goes, it only happens when I've got time, so that's a bit challenging at the moment, but I've just got to make time to be honest.
So obviously music has been a big part of your life for a while now, how and when did you kind of decide that it was a really big part of what you wanted to do?
I've been singing since I was 5 (laughs). I just got put on stage and was told to sing infront of people. The singer didn't turn up for this ederly, Christmas dinner convention thing and I just got put on stage, and I think somewhere in my head I had this belief that that's what I was, and it's always sort of stuck, I just thought that's what I did. So at school I would just sing because that was my protection. So ever since I was very little. I don't think you could really pin point a time, it's actually genuinely just been something I've always, always, always wanted to do, which is why it's been ironic it has taken so long to record.
Just to finish off, whose hot on your ipod that you're currently listening to?
FKA Twigs. She is genius. We've actually referenced her quite a bit in the production as she's influencing how I'm writing now too. She isso, so clever, definitely check her out!
Just quickly talking about influences, who would you consider are your biggest musical influences?
Well I grew up with the likes of Jewel (laughs). So lyrically it would be her because she's quite an amazing poet, and then musically it would be a lot of old artists like Billie Holiday and Sam Cooke who are big influences. As far as contemporary artists goes, I don't really have any references to be honest because I don't listen to a lot of contemporary music (laughs). Unless I come across something and then I really love it like FKA twigs, but I prefer older music.