A 2005 Rock Island High alum, JUNO the Artist has toured the world as a guitarist and has played with everyone from Bruno Mars to Camila Cabello to Lizzo, plus the June 9 CMT Awards in Nashville.
But the 34-year-old Chicago native had not been back to the Quad-Cities until Covid hit in early 2020, and she moved back to her aunt and uncle’s Rock Island house, where she recorded her debut album, “Help Is Not on the Way.” JUNO will perform at 4 p.m. Saturday as part of the Quad Cities Juneteenth Festival, at the Lincoln Center, 318 E. 7th St., Davenport.
“Now coming back is so funny. I’ve toured the world and I had all these experiences, right?” JUNO said in a recent interview. “And all I can think about are the people here — the kids at Rocky, the kids at the King Center, all the people here that are in the same places that I was in.
“I was not aware of how big the world was and all the opportunities out there and so when the pandemic hit, I was in Nashville at the time and my lease was up and the tornado had hit there,” she said. “I was just like, you know what? I’m going to go back home and plant some seeds in this community. We got a year. Everyone was kind of shut down and I really just wanted to plant seeds into the community to hopefully inspire people, to build something, to do something, create.”
JUNO grew up on the south side of Chicago, in a family headed by a single mother, and she was moved to Rock Island to attend high school.
“We were kind of struggling to be honest, and it was just an opportunity for us to be in a more safe, stable choice and we all kind of moved here to just rebuild,” she said. “My uncle works for John Deere, so that’s why he was here.”
Her aunt, Diana Allen, was the principal at Hawthorne Irving Elementary School and Washington in Rock Island, who recently retired.
JUNO graduated from Illinois State University with a degree in social work and didn’t pick up the guitar until her first job after college, as a drug rehab counselor in Bloomington, Ill.
“I grew up with a single mom and we utilized a lot of social services. I always felt a responsibility to give back when I could,” she said. “The best thing I could think of was to make a career out of helping people, that probably needed the same type of help that we needed. And I think that a lot of people don’t realize that a lot of these kids are really talented, very valuable, they just don’t have some of the resources.”
Her first client, a 15-year-old heroin addict, was obsessed with guitar and he lost his guitar privileges for not following program rules. JUNO saw this as an opportunity to convince the center to give Jake his guitar back and asked him to teach her to play. Both their lives changed.
“I literally felt passion go through my body for the first time,” JUNO recalled. “This is something that I’m touching the strings, and I can feel something in my body and I just, I never felt that before.”
“That grabbed my attention and made me want to feel that more and then I started to set goals and maybe I couldn’t change my situation in life, but I can learn this song,” she said. “It gave me a little bit of confidence, and I got really excited and addicted to the passion of how it felt to do something that just moved so many people. I mean, music is so powerful.
“And when you see people like Jimmy Page and B.B. King and John Mayer, Stevie Ray Vaughan, you think I could never do that,” JUNO said. “I noticed that maybe I can’t play those notes, but I can play three of them, real slow. I just started to really take it one thing at a time.”
“It was a very organic experience and I was never trying to build a career. I was just trying to get better than I was yesterday,” she said.
Berklee to teaching to touring
JUNO went to the Berklee School of Music in Boston for two years before being asked by Fifth Harmony in 2016 to go on their world tour, and she’s returned to Berklee several times to speak with students, including virtually over the past year.
“You just have to have the confidence and the work ethic to just keep going, you know, so I’m hoping to inspire some people to do that,” she said.
“Finding your own path means having the confidence to do what feels right for you,” JUNO said. “Even if it’s not popular, that’s what finding your path is — everybody wants to do was popular but sometimes, you know in your heart that what was popular, that’s not for you. You have to be confident enough to say, even though this thing is popular right now, that’s not who I am.
“So I’m going to continue to develop who I am. Because one day, that’s exactly what people will want. Me — not me being somebody else,” she said.
She filled a need by offering guitar classes online and created JUNO’s Guitar Bootcamp – which today has 400 students. The Fifth Harmony tour took her all over the world, and a tour with Bruno Mars and Camila Cabello followed.
JUNO wrote a lot of songs for her 2020 record while on tour with Fifth Harmony, originally intended for Camila Cabello’s album. Cabello convinced her to keep them for herself.
“I didn’t think of that, you know. I wasn’t an artist. I was a guitar player, right?” JUNO recalled. “She said, you sound good. You should do these songs. So that’s why because just somebody telling me that they believed in me. I respect so much saying that – that’s why I’m like OK, you know she doesn’t even maybe even realize how much that inspired me.”
“We all have this awesome, amazing life in us and I just think that the Quad-Cities has so many talented, brilliant people that I’m sure have so many cool visions and ideas and I want them to do them all,” she said.
JUNO titled her record “Help Is Not on the Way,” because “if you wait for somebody else to come change your life, they are not coming,” she said. “I realized that I had I have access to any musician or producer in the world for the most part. But when we talk about something not being right, I knew that no one could get the sounds in my head.
“I have to take the time to lock myself in my room to figure out how to do that,” JUNO said of being back in Rock Island. “I had a message I wanted to say and I wasn’t going to ask anyone else’s permission or wait for someone else to help me say it. I decided that I was just going to do it myself. I am so proud of it because it’s me and I did not just sit there and wait for the world to change.”
“You hear about people putting out albums. You think, well I could never do that,” she said. “But when you have a dream, you just take one step at a time and figure out how did they do it? And take the things that that work for you, take the meat and spit out the bones.”
Special to be back for 1st show
It will be very special for JUNO to play back in the Q-C, in her first live solo show since the pandemic, and she’ll be here into July. One song she’ll do Saturday is called “Rise Up Together,” which she penned before the pandemic but didn’t make the album.
“That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to come back here and you can do well, but it doesn’t feel good until you can come back and bring people with you,” she said. “Like you talk with people who came from where you came from.”
In the song, she recognizes Black leaders like Rosetta Tharpe, who influenced rock pioneers like Chuck Berry and Elvis. “I just want people to see themselves in all their heroes and see that they too are human beings who have the ability to make something happen if they want to,” JUNO said. “They just got to find the right team and find the right way to do it.”
It also reflects the need for all people to work together on tough issues like racism.
“I think everyone needs now is just wanting to come together and come to a solution that everyone can be taken care of, everyone can be seen and heard,” JUNO said, noting even though she’s a Black, gay woman, she fights for straight white men to do well.
“I don’t want only one group. I want to all rise up together and understand that if I’m in my lane, you’re in your lane and doing well, I should be happy for you,” she said. “You’re not going to disrupt my process. We can inspire each other. In fact, we can collaborate and both of what we’re doing could be more meaningful because we came together.”
JUNO also is proud to be part of Juneteenth, the national celebration recognizing Black Americans’ freedom from slavery.
“It’s a blessing and a privilege as a Black woman that I get to play music as a career,” she said. “I only get to do that because of all that B.B. King and Miles, they did all this. — these sacrifices and went through all this stuff for us. Each generation gets further and further. And so when you think back to Juneteenth, that’s when they were free, but look at all we’ve accomplished since then.
“And I’m here, coming back to show y’all what I’ve accomplished, ‘cause I’m so proud to be Black and I’m so proud that my ancestors didn’t give up so that I can do this and I feel like it’s my responsibility to display that for the next generation.”
The free Juneteenth event (presented by Friends of MLK) will be 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, including food and retail vendors, history and information booths, fun-filled games and entertainment for the whole family. Live music includes the Q-C’s Soultru at 1 p.m.
Jonathan Turner loves music and loves writing, so The Echo is a harmonious marriage of his twin passions. A pianist for 50 years, his undergrad and grad degrees are in music from Oberlin and Indiana, and he’s an accompanist for Zion Lutheran Church, Davenport. Turner has covered the Q-C arts and culture scene since 1995, including for the Dispatch-Argus and Quad-City Times, and for QuadCities.com and WVIK since March 2020.