From Absence to Return

By Brett Levine

The cliche may be that there are no second chances in music, but it seems like the members of Juna didn’t get the memo. The band formed, recorded their debut album Heteroglossia, added a member, recorded their sophomore album On Courage, worked through a member’s departure, toured, and took a hiatus—only to be back again, feeling stronger than ever and ready to perform and make new music.

Then again, Juna also isn’t a typical band. Hunter Whitehead, Sasha Schilbrack-Cole, and Garrett Knighton have been friends since childhood, and have been making music together since high school. College found them in Athens, Georgia with Kenny Driggers. Add to that the shared grief surrounding the loss of a friend, and all of that history plays into to the distinct sound of Heteroglossia.

Juna provides the perfect platform for honest, emotionally driven music couched in a combination of humor and self-reflection. “We’re not melodramatic people,” Schilbrack-Cole remarks, to a chorus of laughter from his bandmates, “but emo is a way to do the music.”

“It may be over-the-top emotional,” says Driggers, “but at least the melodrama is authentic!”

This tendency toward acknowledging the heart of their music results in compositions that veer between delicate, quiet, and open, to soaring, hard, and almost angry. Taken in total, their records explore the continuum of life, from the challenges of the college years to the transitions to adulthood. Listen to “Camus,” from Heteroglossia, for example. Hunter Whitehead explains that “it was the last song for the first record, so it was a little more open. Then ‘On Courage’ was more about how we thought adulthood might be, so it marks the transitions between the two.”

Also marking the transition was the addition of a third guitarist, Mikey Heptinstal, adding a layer of sonic exploration that meant even more nuanced layering for their new songs. “We often work with Kenny bringing a musical idea,” they explain, “and Mikey adding rhythm. Then, Garrett, who studied classical guitar, comes in and adds the layers of dynamics on top.”

The lyrics can often be the last element to manifest in Juna’s songwriting approach. “Sometimes,” Driggers explains, “we actually let the musical mood of a song inform the lyrical content.” However they approach this element, it works, when they write simple, subtle lines like “it’s a dull ache, not a sharp pain/And it won’t go away,” from “A Passage” on Heteroglossia, or the more esoteric, “Our hands are stained/what  do they see anyway?” from On Courage’s “Colorwheel.”

For Juna, On Courage represents personal, musical and creative growth. For Heteroglossia, Knighton and Driggers each wrote half of the songs, while Schilbrack-Cole recounts the challenges associated with driving himself to become a more-and-more technically skilled drummer. With On Courage, an all-hours practice space led to 12-hour studio sessions, a process that they best describe as “grueling and painful.”

Maybe the most intriguing aspect of Juna is how they keep their intensity for the stage. Speaking with them, their lightness, openness, and humor shine through. Driggers could not be more forthright when talking about the decision he made to leave the band in 2015: “There we were working on an album that was written around ideas of adulthood, and a series of events made me think that the most adult thing I could do was move on.” Then, to hear Schilbrack-Cole describe it, Juna is together now because five creative individuals realized that they weren’t done creating their musical story, and that they believed they still have something new to say. “We’d all started other bands,” he pauses, “but then we realized this was something we all still love.” There is Heptinstal, who adds the new voice, and who talks about how the first and second album “emotionally and sonically occupy the same space.” And there is Whitehead, who talks about how when they were recording On Courage, being able to choose equipment and sounds made it all seem achievable. Or, as Schilbrack-Cole puts it, “there was a moment at Glow in the Dark (the studio in Atlanta where they recorded On Courage) when it felt like we were onto something.”

So now, three years later, Juna is onto something again. Rather than walk away from friendships and music that each believes in, they are on stage and in the studio, creating new sounds and constructing new ideas. An EP is in the works, and there is hope that a full-length is in the not-too-distant future. For now, Hunter Whitehead, Sasha Schilbrack-Cole, Kenneth Driggers, Mikey Heptinstal and Garrett Knighton are content to listen to their own guidance in songs like “on absence/on return,” or “patience.”

It’s as though Juna’s album On Courage has always been a sounding board for a band that knows just what to do. 

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