“My musical journey really started before I can actually remember”, Justene began. “My Grandma used to always love telling this story of when I was about two years old. At the end of a church service, I just walked up to the mic at the front and tried to sing!” Always one to have been involved in after school clubs like choir, orchestra and the pop group, Justene soon found herself singing in church with her brother, Aearon; “But remembering the story my Grandma used to tell really hits home that music was always in me before I knew it was”, she said.
Leicester born, her style has a sultry edge. Four years after making her debut with the well received ‘Love Life’ EP, she released ‘2AM last year’ and has since been described as bringing a distinctively fresh contemporary R&B sound, and an undeniably organic approach, to modern music.
However, it’s not something she’s doing consciously; “I’m doing what I believe comes naturally to me. But I have never been someone that likes to follow trends without adding my own flavour. It wasn’t my intention to try and be different, but if people see that, then I’m OK with that”. She does believe that boundaries in R&B need to be challenged though, adding that that’s how progress is made; “It’s about balance. Because if you then force the boundaries too much, is it still R&B or does it become something else?”
Justene’s four track EP, ‘2AM’, makes for a compelling and infectious listen from start to finish. It’s about her inner most thoughts, conversations she has with herself but wishes she could share out loud. “My mind is preoccupied with a thousand other things during the day”, she added, “so when it’s late at night and everything has quietened down, that’s when I’m able to process a lot of things I may be feeling but not had the time to acknowledge”.
Her debut, ‘Love Life’ was, like this, written from a personal perspective. It’s about her thoughts and feelings, but on a very surface level; “It was a reflection of who I was at the time. A 23 year old graduate, with little experience in love and life”. ‘2AM’ is continuation of this, but with added maturity. “I’m able to draw from my own experiences, rather than abstract ideas”, she said. “It’s simply my thoughts and feelings. It’s very conversational! For me, the EP tells a story of a relationship… From the initial ‘Chemistry’ I feel with someone, to then building ‘Walls’ when I feel they’re getting a little close. From overthinking, feeling insecure and being distant, I’m unable to express my feelings in ‘Hide’. It then goes to feelings of wanting to reconnect after we’ve had all of these misunderstandings. I’m missing that guy, and now it’s ‘2AM’. I’ve held that grudge for a little too long, but don’t really want to be the one to reach out first. I’m stubborn like that”.
As mentioned earlier, the record is about Justene’s inner most thoughts, the ones she wishes she could share out loud. It was playing on my mind because so often we are told to open up and speak about our ‘issues’ regardless of how hard it might be for us… “I know, I’m super weird!’ she laughed. “For some reason, I feel safer expressing myself through writing and singing, than actually talking about it in a normal conversation. I get tongue tied sometimes, other times I’m too embarrassed. But for some reason, I have always been able to express myself better through song, and not be as embarrassed. Apart from when I have to talk about it afterwards!”
Sorry, not sorry.
“I think nowadays, the listener wants to know the person behind the music. Not just the music itself”, she replied when I asked why it was important for her listeners to truly understand who Justene is. “It helps them to connect with me. They may be able to identify themselves in my songs, or from doing an interview like this. I always want to be authentic and relatable. I think that’s all the listener really wants”.
The overall concept of the EP fits Justene well. As the cover suggests, she’s mysterious and private. She’s shy yet strong, she’s black and white. Logical yet guarded. She’s sultry and playful. Where she goes from here, only time will tell; “Whatever story I tell next will always be a reflection of me in that moment”, she said. “And I’m looking forward to it!”
We spoke about vulnerability which was a challenging feat that came with an “OMG, so hard!” when I asked what it was like to learn to be vulnerable. “I think I’ve always been honest when I’m writing for myself”, she added. “But when I’m writing with the intention of releasing it for everyone else to hear? Let’s just say there were a few mini panic attacks! I’m very private. So letting people in on what I’m thinking and feeling was very new. I’m only really about to talk like that with a select few, so doing this EP was very cathartic to say the least”. But how did she learn? “You know what? You really do have to have a great team around you. The producers and writers, plus my friends, were a huge help. They reminded me that sometimes in order to create great music, you have to choose to be honest and open”.
Now that the EP is out in the open, she can feel a sense of freedom. Since the release, she’s been more able and willing to share herself fully; “I felt so anxious and nervous about what listeners would think! Especially family and friends. But being open and vulnerable can be so rewarding. And that’s an awesome feeling!” In the moments where she’s found herself second guessing, or contemplating trying something different, the one thing that always rings true is to unapologetically authentic. “With what ever it is”, she finishes, speaking about the advice she keeps closest to her. “Show people the real you. This is why I admire women like Issa Rae and Solange, among countless others. They are themselves and they are loved for it. So I’ve taken a leaf out of their book, but I’m telling my own story…”