The soft, ethereal, contemplative duo Junaco was born in Los Angeles, California. The term “Junaco” means to live in the present, to live with intention, and it is a term that the duo is constantly influenced by. The band—which has been featured by American Songwriter—released its first EP, Awry, in 2019, and has another record set for a release on July 30. Read on for our interview with Junaco members Shahana Jaffer and Joey LaRosa, where we take a deep exploration of the duo’s songwriting process, inspirations and aspirations.
I wanted to open this off by giving you a chance to talk a bit more about the essay you wrote, titled Imaginary Lines. More specifically, what has music meant to you throughout your life; what inspired you to get into songwriting?
Shahana Jaffer: That essay was really specifically about me being a woman of color, a child of immigrants growing up in America and deciding to pursue art; how it isn’t a conventional thing for a child of immigrants and my experience in that. How, realizing, later in life, that music has really been such a big part of my life and part of all of our lives—my family and my community—and it has such a big impact on everybody and it really brings all of us together. I think, coming back to that now, I realize how important it was; it really made me want to give back to that and create something that, for me, made me feel less alone in feeling outside and feeling other and feeling like I didn’t fit in. Music was so important in that way.
Junaco, the term, means to live and work with intention, to roll with the pace of life and enjoy the present—how does that term and that mentality influence the kind of music you make?
Joey LaRosa: We created this project to be that for ourselves. We were both in school and finishing up school and trying to see what it is we wanted. We were just good buddies that were trying to figure that out. “Let’s write some tunes and see what happens, I don’t know what else to do.” And then we did that and ever since then, it was just kind of working within the moments of, “Ok, what is it you want? Do you like what you’re doing?” Every day, looking at everything I do and trying to define it more and more to make everything else in my life clear, is what the goal and purpose of this, for me, has been. Just clearing everything else out. Just to be able to live life a little bit easier.
Jaffer: I think at that time when we first wrote together, it was really us trying to take control of how we were feeling and trying to really create something to describe that, or try to. And I think that that has really carried over in everything we create. If everything else feels chaotic, there’s something we can control in the music we create, and that feels very comforting and I think that’s what we hope to express.
You recently opened a line of ethical merch—can you just talk about that project and why it was important to pursue?
Jaffer: I think, for both of us, doing just the music with intention is so important. When it came to creating something physical, that was just as important. I am very interested in fashion and sustainability and what that really means and the impact that the fashion industry does have on the planet. It’s so important to keep things local and use the materials we have. And we really have intention with that creation, and so it felt like a no-brainer that we would do it that way, just because that’s how we live our lives.
LaRosa: We’re still figuring it out. We only have that bag out; we’re just now trying to figure out how to get an ethically made t-shirt. It’s a process. It took a month of emails trying to figure out “where does this come from;” “where does that come from;” “what is the fabric?” I think if we help figure it out, it might help another band that wants to do it. We’re not necessarily trying to be the first people that do it, it’s just who we are.
In terms of songwriting, how do you get inspired and find ideas, and how do you nurture those ideas to produce a finished song?
LaRosa: That first EP, it took a long time. It was the first songs we ever wrote together and it took a year of us recording stuff and it not working. I think we really learned from that experience for how we wanted the creative process to work the next time, which is what we have been releasing. That process totally defined the next one, of whatever the idea is, live with it, trust it and work with the right people.
Jaffer: It really helped us figure out to make sure that we know what we want when we are creating. The first songs that we wrote together, it was such a new playground for us, and going in the studio and recording it and not knowing exactly what we wanted it to be was the reason it took so long. That process was such a learning experience. After that, we were like “ok, we need to know exactly what we want it to be before going into that.” I think that some bands have the ability to write as they’re recording. We learned that that’s not who we are. It was really a great learning experience, because after that we were like “we know how to do this. We know what we want it to be and we know how we can do it well.” I think a lot of the time with the ideas, it usually goes with how the song is. We usually just write the song bare-bones—just a guitar and a vocal—and try different things to see what lends itself to the song the best, what really supports the song.
It’s less storytelling writing and more “this is how I feel and this is how I felt when I wrote it. This guitar part needs to support that feeling.” Chasing this feeling that we were feeling when writing it. Every part has to have that feeling in it.
LaRosa: It’s like creating a little vacation in your mind and then trying to color it, I guess, is how it works for us.
With that, is there a general theme that you were trying to capture with this upcoming EP?
Jaffer: Yeah, I would say it was escapism, honestly. I think this story’s already getting old, but the last year, when we were writing the songs was the beginning of the pandemic. We were really using that writing process as a way to escape the feelings that we were feeling. That’s where the songs were born. With the artwork and the virtual space and that element of “this is somewhere to go, this is somewhere to be where you don’t have to think about what’s happening in this reality. This is somewhere else.”
LaRosa: The whole theme that we figured out was trying to live in the beauty and simplicity of a sunny day. That was basically what the whole goal of it was. Every song was “ok, it’s beautiful, everything’s ok.” It sounds silly, but it turned into something cool.
Your voice has a very interesting, ethereal quality to it, which works really well with the kind of music you create—has your voice always had that quality to it, or is that something you’ve had to work toward to intentionally find and pursue that sound?
Jaffer: I definitely wasn’t trying to do anything with that. I think that’s just my voice. I wasn’t trying to sound a certain way.
LaRosa: And I feel like the second time we wrote songs together, it was like “this is the voice, let’s write within the voice. Every key that we’re in, it is this voice, so let’s make sure that we’re honoring what’s portraying this message.” Writing melodies that work with the voice, living in that world. With Shahana’s voice, you can just tell how it’s gonna work immediately. When you’re writing a song and the melody just isn’t catching you, it’s like “it ain’t right, all right, cool, let’s move on. We do not need to waste anymore time, ‘cos we’re not gonna get there.”
The first track of the upcoming EP, “Hello” is this short instrumental piece—can you break down the track a little bit? Why did you decide to open the EP with this soundscape?
LaRosa: Yeah, I mean honestly what happened was, for my birthday, Shahana got me this drum machine and I was like “I’m gonna make a song for the record. I don’t know how to use this thing.” And it was experimenting with sampling for the first time. It was trying to learn that and trying to make our world within this little machine, was really the goal of it. It’s kind of trying to make a composition or an orchestral piece within a drum machine, and then just organic elements surrounding it. The running water—the studio we were working with had a bathroom connected to it, and one of my roommates was taking a shower and I was like “that sounds pretty cool.” It was made very quickly.
Jaffer: And I think within the world that we wanted to create with this record, it was a nice little introduction. Here’s the foyer of the place. Welcome, buckle up.
“Weight Of The World” seems very lyrically purposeful in the story you’re telling, especially hearing you talk about creating this alternate reality and alternate world within this album—what inspired this song, and what kind of purpose exists behind the music and the way you affect the instruments to further the story of this song?
Jaffer: We were actually listening to a podcast, it is the Time Sensitive podcast, and they really align with what we’re all about. And it’s really about slowing down and having intention with everything you’re doing. The podcast specifically was really about being precious with your time and making sure that everything that you do really aligns with who you are. Part of that is you being a part of society where everybody is helping each other. A lot of this podcast really sparked something in us where we feel like in this current society, we’re kind of missing the baseline human connection, and it’s something that maybe before technology we all had that community. We were kind of exploring how we get back to that in this current world. We were listening to that podcast and immediately started writing this song. And it was this somber piano ballad, and we really weren’t sure what it was gonna be. When we took it to the studio, it kind of became this other thing. It felt like as we were building the song, this message was leading the way.
LaRosa: The world is so quick and we really wanted to remember what we were trying to do.
From that point of that song being a very smooth process, is there a song on the record that was a more turbulent process to finalize?
LaRosa: No, I mean honestly, after we made the first record, that was that the whole time. Trying different everything, the whole time doubting. The second time, we were like, “no, these songs rock. I like this.” The producer was the perfect fit for it, and he liked it, which just made a world of difference. We didn’t have any doubt for some reason. It wasn’t crossing our mind.
Jaffer: We wrote a bunch of songs at the beginning of the pandemic. We were like “we want to choose the ones we want to work on with our producer, so we all feel if he’s inspired by this, let’s go for it.” That was something we had never experienced before, where you choose songs to record. I think because of that, we just kept churning them out, we were exercising that muscle, and were just feeling really good about writing at that time. The way we did it, too, because it was the pandemic, it was sending it back and forth to each other. We weren’t in a studio. It was cool, because you had a moment to live with the sounds as you go. You listen to things and come back. I think because of that, there was no uncertainty of what we were doing. We had the time to be away from it and then come back.
In the way you write music—where it’s more capturing a feeling than telling a story—does that serve a therapeutic outlet for you?
Jaffer: Yeah, definitely. For me, it’s a point where I have a hard time sitting down every day and trying to do it. I think for me, things are building up within me, of different feelings or different things I want to convey, and then it’s ready to happen. I think that, as I keep doing this, I should probably get better at sitting down and doing it everyday, but when it comes to the therapeutic aspect, I think playing live is definitely at the top of the list. It’s that human connection and human interaction. There’s no limit to who anybody is. It’s the energy of people connecting and that’s just so lovely to me.
LaRosa: It’s an immediate thing, rather than a number on a screen or something. You’re watching reactions and having a moment with a person rather than you on your computer. If you have a bad show, that was funny, only these 20 people saw how weird that was.
Jaffer: And even that is an experience with the band that you share.
LaRosa: The band and these random people from wherever you are. It’s a moment for everybody rather than an analytical thing.
Jaffer: Writing feels like I’m turning my brain on and honing in on something. And performing is turning my brain off. They work hand in hand in that way. I’m so excited to finally get that other side of it.
Junaco is a relatively new project—your first EP came out in 2019—where do you want this group to go?
LaRosa: Right now, we’re just making as much music and as much stuff as we can to just keep going. I think we just want to play live as much as possible, make as much music as we can and just live a good life.
Jaffer: I think if there’s anything we learned from the last year is that—I think I speak for both of us when I say this—that we are most happy when we are creating in any sense. When there’s that off-time or that downtime, it’s hard to remember why you are here and what you are doing. I think just continuing to do that is all we want.
The new EP comes out July 30—with the pandemic lifting and new music on the way, what’s up next for Junaco?
Jaffer: Well, we want to be playing as much as possible. We are gonna just keep putting out music. We were working on a record last month and we’re just finishing that up, and hopefully that’ll be out by the end of the year.
LaRosa: We’re just gonna keep doing the damn thing.
You can check out Junaco’s music and ethical merch line here.