Indie-rock stars help Montclair teen Juniper make striking debut album

Juniper interview

JUNIPER

First things first. Before you read any further, please go to the bottom of the page and watch the three videos there, or at least the first one, “Kids on My Corner.” I’ll wait.

Okay, welcome back. I did that because I feel “Kids on My Corner” is one of the catchiest and charming pop songs I’ve heard in a long time, and that if you listen to it, you’ll want to read more about the people who made it. (The home-made video is pretty cool, too.)

The singer and co-writer is Juniper Shelley, a 15-year-old high school sophomore from Montclair. Producing the track — and the rest of her recent self-titled solo debut album — is her father, Michael Shelley, who has been part of the New Jersey/New York music scene for decades as a singer-songwriter, a WFMU-FM dee jay and a music journalist. He wrote or co-wrote eight of the songs “and we asked other folks to write songs specifically for Juniper, or to write them with us,” he says.

While Juniper receives only two co-songwriting credits, Michael says “she was kind of the lyric editor of the whole album. She had a few great suggestions on almost every song: ‘Why don’t we change this lyric?’ She made all the lyrics better, and that was sort of a good sign of the songwriter to come, perhaps.”

Juniper says she did have some basic ground rules. “It was important to me that it wasn’t making fun of my generation,” she said. “Also, in that same vein, I didn’t want to talk about cellphones or technology, certainly not in a demeaning way.”

In other words, she rejected songs in which she, as a teen, would be defending her generation’s use of technology. Songs that would be “anthems about how ‘our generation’ is misunderstood because of our technology,” as Michael said.

“It’s such a cliché,” Juniper said, adding that “it’s so normal for me, having technology,” that she feels no need to defend it.

Michael Shelley and Juniper.

Michael Shelley says some of the lyrics he wrote for the album “are just ideas that came to me, thinking about Juniper’s experiences, or things that she told me, or complained about, or passed along as funny observations on what was happening in school at the time.”

Michael enlisted a impressive array of musicians to play on the album or write for it. Steve Goulding, a co-founder of Graham Parker’s band The Rumour, plays drums on “Kids on My Corner.” Teenage Fanclub member Francis MacDonald, who has worked with Michael in the band Cheeky Monkey, wrote another one of the songs, “Punk Rock Boy,” which features Goulding on drums, Chris Collingwood of Fountains of Wayne on backing vocals, and a sizzling guitar solo by Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo.

Other contributing songwriters include Kim Shattuck of The Muffs and Tommy Dunbar of The Rubinoos, and musicians who play on one or more tracks include Marshall Crenshaw, Dennis Diken of The Smithereens, Chris Geddes of Belle & Sebastian, Jay Gonzalez of Drive-By Truckers, Mark Spencer of Son Volt, Greg Townson of Los Straitjackets, John Lee, Don Fleming, Dave Amels, Rebecca Turner, April March and Megan Reilly.

The album was recorded at the Storybook Sound studio in Maplewood, but its story starts in the Shelleys’ basement. For years, Juniper recorded Christmas songs there, to send to her grandparents. But last year, she asked Michael if she could do a non-Christmas song.

He wrote “Boys! Boys! Boys! Boys! Boys!” (see video below), she sang it, and they released it as a single, getting some radio play and thousands of YouTube views. That led to them making an entire album.

There’s a deadpan quality to her singing — a touch of sourness — that, I think, works well with the innocent simplicity of the music, keeping it from seeming overly sweet.

The cover of Juniper’s self-titled debut album.

“Originally I kind of sang whatever came out of my mouth,” Juniper says. “That’s pretty close to what we got on the record. But the songs have different tones in there that I thought about a lot, and wanted to see if I could bring that out. But I think in general I have sort of a melancholy-sounding voice.”

Juniper performed at Monty Hall in Jersey City in December with her father and Sam Elwitt on guitars, Goulding on drums, Lee on bass, and Reilly and Turner on backing vocals. She hasn’t been able to perform live since the album’s release, this summer, due to the pandemic.

“It is frustrating, just to think about the possibilities of what we could have done,” she said. “We could have done some shows. That would have been really fun. We’re still hopeful for something, when things get better, or something socially distanced. It’s definitely disappointing to think about what could have happened.”

She enjoys listening to some pop and rock from previous generations, by bands such as The Beach Boys, The Zombies and NRBQ. “I also like more silly things, like Taylor Swift,” she says. She isn’t really thinking about music as her eventual career, but is continuing to work on more music, with Michael.

One more thing. Her name really is Juniper.

Before she was born, Michael says, “We just kind of started writing down names, and we sort of wanted something that was a little nature-y, but not too crazy. Not ‘Apple.’ And (Juniper) sort of seemed like a real name, but it was nature-y.

“Then we just made a list and narrowed it down. And then we thought, ‘We’ll just wait till we look at her, to make sure.’ ‘Juniper’ was the No. 1 choice, but we wanted to make sure that it fit her. It did … and now it just seems right for her. It’s perfect.”

For information, visit junipersongs.com. The album can be heard at Soundcloud or Bandcamp.

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