Meet Juno, the guitarist for Fifth Harmony and Bruno Mars

Photograph by Mazelle Etessami

Photograph by Mazelle Etessami

Best known for accompanying Fifth Harmony and Bruno Mars on tour, legendary guitarist Juno is now starting to create her own original music. Here she talks to PHASER about inspiration, honesty and authenticity.

Juno is a presence. When she walks in, I am immediately struck by the way in which she fills a room. Wearing rainbow striped socks and a matching bandana tied around her arm, she is not one to blend in.

Before I can get to asking any questions, Juno plays me a demo she has been working on, ‘I Went To Church’. Stripped back, raw and painfully real, the song recounts Juno’s negative experiences with the church since coming out as lesbian just a couple of months ago. She explains that she wrote it in “literally two minutes” and recorded it in one take. “There was no editing, no cutting, except for me going back and doing the harmonies – but even the harmonies weren’t planned. And that doesn’t really happen very often, and so it feels so special. Right now I’m just in such an honest place with my art and with my music. Instead of trying to write a song, the songs are making me write them. I’m living the songs and the music is effortlessly coming out.” 

This authenticity and honesty comes through in Juno’s social media as well. Just recently, at the age of 31, Juno decided to come out as lesbian on Instagram. When I ask her why she chose this platform, she claims that Instagram is like her diary. “If something important happens to me I’m going to put it on Instagram. I’m so busy sometimes I look back and I literally learn about my life through looking at my own Instagram page. More for anyone else, I came out for me. I wanted to prove to myself that I was brave enough to add this to a list of things that is significant about me. I’m gay, I’m a guitar player, I’m black, I’m a woman, I’m awesome. I’m a lot of things. Gay is one of them. To hide something, in my opinion, gives it power. A negative power. That’s what it was beginning to do to me.” 

Coming out, even in this day and age, wasn’t without its difficulties. Juno reveals that she lost family, friends and around 2000 followers after she made the announcement. “A lot of my community was church people.” Juno grew up in a religious community in Chicago, in a setting she describes as “close-minded”. It is visibly difficult for her to compute how these people, who have had such an influence on her life and her music, regard her lifestyle as sinful. “I just love women and I can’t imagine that this is wrong. It feels so right.” She has never felt so comfortable or happy with another person as she has with her current girlfriend; they have been together for around a year. “How could that be wrong? And how could anybody not want me to feel like that? I can’t understand it!”

Although new to the gay community, Juno already feels a sense of belonging that she has struggled for throughout her life. “Every single other gay person I’ve met… I’ve felt that they were my brothers and sisters. They are so cool. For the first time I feel like I belong somewhere and it’s really hard for me to hide that. I’m gay as fuck. I’m pretty sure. I feel free and liberated after coming out because at least now know where people stand. I know who’s in my corner and who’s not.”

“If I pick up my guitar, I’m trying to talk. I’m trying to say something, I’m trying to express something.”

It’s clear that Juno is a people person, and the connections she builds with others in her life are so important to her. How she first learnt guitar illustrates this perfectly. She didn’t even pick up the instrument until she had graduated college. “I was working for a drug rehabilitation facility for teenagers, and I had a client who was a 15-year-old heroin addict. His parents started doing drugs with him when he was 7 or 8, so he was hooked. I’ve never seen anything so sad in my life. He didn’t even talk or anything. All he wanted to do was play his guitar. It was the only thing that made him come alive. And I had never seen a guitar in person, really. So there’s this kid, he’s got this guitar, and I’m trying to save his life to be honest because I thought he was going to die.” Juno managed to convince the boy to teach her one chord, which turned into four, which turned into 3 solid days of teaching, singing and playing together. “And then he had to leave the programme, and I never saw him again. But I have never stopped playing since that day. I was 23 years old when I first touched a guitar. At 23 people think that if you haven’t started something it’s too late. No! It’s never too late. I knew I was behind and that’s what made me go faster.”

Particularly inspirational to Juno was Jairus Mozee (“I’ve never seen anybody play a guitar like that”), John Mayer (“He really taught me about tone and intention”) and B.B. King, who she felt was “talking” to her. After all, spreading a message is what Juno’s music is all about. “I don’t care if it’s for 10 seconds, if I pick up my guitar, I’m trying to talk. I’m trying to say something, I’m trying to express something. I’m never just trying to be cute. I used to do that, and it’s so stressful because you don’t know what’s relevant at the time. So the best thing is just to be yourself.” Music for Juno is a way to make a difference in the world. “Listen, I’ve made so much money. Money is not shit. I’m not chasing money. I’m chasing a mission, and that is that every human is equal to each other. That’s what I really want. I don’t think I can change the whole world in a lifetime, but I think I can make a dent enough to matter.”

Style is also crucial to how Juno expresses herself. “I’m starting to really own my outfits. Everything I pick out means something to me. The way I dress will tell you how I feel that day. If I know I want to write a song, I will wear something that makes me feel how I want the song to feel. If I want the song to feel open and honest and real, I’ll wear pyjamas. If I want the song to feel real swaggy, I’ll dress like Juno. If I want the song to be a singer-songwriter vibe, I put on glasses. My clothes literally are how I want to feel.”

Juno has also coined the hashtag #girlsCAN, which she uses in almost every Instagram post. “When I came up with it I was trying to come up with a hashtag that implied how I feel all the time.” It’s her way of interacting with and inspiring her young female audience. “I have a lot of young female followers that I think admire me and I think that’s awesome, but I really want to take all the energy that they give me and give it back to them. #girlsCAN was the first time I realised I had a voice in the world. That really took my breath away for a bit. And then I thought, if I had the opportunity to say something to that many people in one room, what would I say? What do I want to stand for in my life? And I think that’s the thing I feel most passionate about. Inspiring and empowering women. I’m not giving them anything they don’t already have. What I want to do is help redirect them to the power that’s already in them. Because the things that we can do are immeasurable. Immeasurable.”

“I don’t know anyone else braver than me”

Certainly towards the start of her career, however, Juno was often taken less seriously because of her gender. “In the beginning there were definitely producers trying to have sex with me.” She would be invited to the studio in the early hours of the morning, supposedly to record, only to find out that there were other expectations placed upon her. “I doubt men working with men have to wonder if the other guy is trying to sleep with them or if this is a real session.” Additionally, she was often written off as incapable. But Juno admits that this has happened less as she has been taken more seriously as an artist, and she has also learned how to assert herself. “I’m the rudest person in the room at this point. I don’t know anyone else braver than me.”

But Juno admits that gaining this kind of confidence, especially for women, is a journey. And so when I ask what advice she would give to women who are struggling to assert themselves, or musicians who are trying to break into the industry, she tells me this: “I think wherever you are, be honest with yourself about if you’re doing the best you can. And if the answer is yes, great! But I’m willing to bet that if any human asked themselves that question on any given day, they’ll always be able to think of something they could have done better. When we speak out and are honest about where we are, not only does it free us but it frees other people. Whatever you put out, that’s what you’re choosing to give the world. Are you doing your best or could you be doing better? And if you could be doing better, then do it! If not, shut the fuck up and stop complaining.”