11 Questions to a Nashville Musician: Juni Ata

Juni AtaWell, what can I say? Maybe it’s all in the numbers. Juni Ata (a fresh new moniker for this debut project by Jesse Daniel Edwards) had an awful lot to say in response to my 11 Questions. I’m sure glad that he did since it’s a scintillating read that I know you will enjoy. Likewise, he also has a lot for you to hear in his super-fine 11 Song Collection titled “Saudade” (SOW-DA-DAY is how you say it) that drops today.

After a long time in its making and then letting it sit for a few years, the current pandemic gave Jesse a break from managing on the road for the likes of Morrissey and Lucinda Williams to let this record see the light of day. Listen to the lovely sound of “Philadelphia” from the new record to see why this record is getting such rave reviews.

Sadly, as we know, there’s no place for Juni Ata to play live right now, but you can get a taste of his delicate tender piano style at this Sofa Sessions courtesy of Radio Woodstock. Hang in there Juni and we hope to see you soon.

Where are you from originally, when did you move to Nashville and why?

I am from a small town in the mountains, Cuyamaca, CA.  A community nestled between two mountain peaks, overlooking the border to Mexico on the left, and on the clearest of days, the mighty, glistening Pacific Ocean to the right.  I first came to Music City in 2008 and have been in and out ever since in some capacity or other; not always pleasant, not always peaceful.  Back for some pie-in-the-sky quixotic charge at a windmill or other, or simply because someone I have once known has died.

Growing up in California, people always said my brother and I (when we would perform together at flea markets and nursing homes, the only gigs we could get) sounded like we “were from Nashville.”  We had never been to town at that point in our young lives but decided to make a stopover during our big busking road trip of the US to see what all the chatter was about. What started initially as a three-week trip turned into 13 years. And the first week we got to town, everyone invariably said “ya’ll sound like you’re from California!” Lesson One: apparently places have sounds. We are just instruments, playing instruments, singing the voice of God. Haven’t you ever wondered why we can hear music in our dreams?

What are the first and the last records you bought?

Last first. The last record I purchased was from Southern Thrift in Donelson.  That record was Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23.

The first ever vinyl I purchased, was London Calling by The Clash.  In those times, before the prevalence of the internet, access to music was not as available as it has now become. Listen: I rode the Rural Bus, which ran from my small mountain home down to the city (a two-hour trek considering the way my mom drove, three and a half hours on the bus) to the nearest vinyl shop, Record Trader.  It was a dim, murky outpost from a bygone era. You know the type: a fine layer of ancient dust, laying in a languid film over everything and everyone who worked there, the ubiquitous and pungent musk of cardboard sleeves and stacks of vintage records, a few threadbare faded band shirts on a forgotten rack in a back corner.  And my favorite part, the quirky handwritten signage for each section, each of which seemed to favor the purveyor’s eccentric sense of style over any alphabetization or genre, i.e. “Music for the Soul,” “Start Here,” or “Are You Worthy?” Are we ever worthy, I wondered? I was 14.  I had picked out the definitive record by The Clash after much perusing. After all the, Rural Bus only made one daily round trip and it would be another four hours until it returned to bear me back up the mountain and home.

And merely because (a) I was trying my absolute damndest to impress a punk girl at school, who I’m sure STILL knows more about music than I ever will, was cooler than I will ever be, and who casually informed me at age 14 that “vinyl is the only true way to take the punk energy into the depths of your soul, and this digital shit (CDs) is just a cheap, plastic symbol of our collective corporate greed” and (b) the iconic record cover of Paul Simonon moments away from breaking the neck of his Fender P Bass guitar live and on stage somehow seemed to agree perfectly with my nebulous, budding angst, and the poignant depiction furthermore seemed to accurately agree with the sentiment so dearly let fly by the snarling, heavily eye-linered object of my adoration in her fit of teenage anarchist revelation. I was unclear as to the meaning behind her words, but the attitude! I wish you could have seen the snarl. I had never been exposed to punk music, not really.  It certainly had not descended to the depths of my soul. I was not even at that point sure if my soul was ever to accrue any sense of depth at all, or if, in fact, I would ever kiss a girl or know how to do so provided I even ever got that close.  Poor little 14-year-old Juni Ata. It would be many more years before I would get that close indeed.

I had never heard music of any kind on a vinyl record, having grown up without one in the home, and with a strict complementary regimen of what sort of music was “allowable” in the first place. Punk would never have made my parents’ list.  My first impression of vinyl was that it was unwieldy and expensive. The pursuit of romance ever has been, from that moment on, and how much more so than simply financially, exotic, and somehow mystical.  Certainly, compared to CDs, which had all the soul of a hot beverage tabletop coaster.

So, the next day, I was exhausted from the previous day’s sojourns around the county on the bus and bankrupt. I had used my meager earnings from bailing out rowboats on the dock at the little fishing lake across from my childhood home, a job I had proudly held since I was 13. Even though the monetary gains to be had certainly never factored in a burgeoning vinyl collection, but for all that I was eager.  Overwhelming eager.  Smug even!  I held in my possession the key to unlocking the icy exterior of my future sweetheart’s bitter heart.  Would she reward my endeavors, my keen artistic judiciousness, with a startled, breathless endearment?  A kiss even?  I didn’t dare hope, not for lack of imagination, feeble as it was, but merely lack of confidence. That would arrive even later in years than my first kiss, alas sometimes I think I am still waiting for its arrival.

Upon presenting her with the record, its lavish price tag of $19.99 still intact, in the four and a half precious minutes between home room and gym, she did not even take it from my outstretched hands!  The only startled breathless shock, was my own.  Confusion, another sensation I would learn to equate with the pursuit of romance, and utter bewilderment took over and knocked the wind from my sails and the gravity from my knees in one fell swoop.  She simply stated, unequivocally, “oh all that Brit shit is the same, it’s conformist and imperialistic.”  I left The Clash sitting unceremoniously in the overflowing trash bin in the lunch yard, settled precariously above crumpled Ding Dong wrappers, crushed Pepsi cans, and crushed dreams.

I would not hear The Clash, whether London was indeed calling or not, until many, many years later beyond my first ill-fated kiss, beyond even establishing some small modicum of confidence to take that kiss further.  And certainly NOT on vinyl.

First and last live concerts that you’ve seen?

The first live performance I can recall attending was the US Marine Corp Brass Band, presenting An Evening with the Music of Glenn Miller. I was perhaps no more than five years old.  There were many Army, Navy, and Marine bands supplying the soundtrack of my most formative years.  I would in time come to acquaint their pervasive presence in my childhood and their sonic walls of proud and comforting fanfare, as a stand in for my father, who was often deployed.  I pictured him immortalized in my youthful fantasies enacting feats of courage and prowess upon the distant bone-dry battlefields of the world. Acts of such derring-do that they could only be duly canonized in the sharp staccato reports of trombones and saxes emulating artillery fire and rifle salutes.

But not upon that eve of my first ever exposure to live music.  No, that night that concert was all about me.  And all for me. I discovered, fervently, that my body was capable of all manner of new, heady sensations, new prickles, tingles, shudders of joy, shivers of ecstasy.  In short, I was completely and profoundly enraptured.  During the final crescendo of “In the Mood” (I will never forget the paramount elation.) I physically felt my spirit’s every fiber soar alongside the triumphant trumpets to that resplendent and glowing high “C” in the concluding bars. It was a sense of victory and sheer, unadulterated bliss to feel the soul rise, and leave the Earth somewhere far behind in the darkness of silent space.

The last concert I attended was in Knoxville, TN on the afternoon of July 4th.  There were two teenagers busking in Market Square, a redhead crooning into a throwback radio style mic, and his lively counterpart whacking away on the drums with a supreme balance of wild abandon and attentive control.  All as the dining and drinking public (scattered, spare, and scarce as we were considering the lockdown) listened and cheered on from the patios and wide-flung bar windows bordering the square. The sense of irony ran thick, the notes hit hard and hung heavy, the reflections and echoes bounced and skittered around the crackling brick walls of the old-Southern facades, shotgun barrooms, and ivy adorned boutique hotels.

Such an anachronism, for these two kids (for that is what in fact they were, only children no more than 16 or 17 years of age) were replicating PERFECTLY the truly great rock n’ roll hits of the early 50s.  And not the obvious popular chart climbers, no.  The deep, deep cuts too.  I mean, their parents were not even at that time glistening and lascivious twinkles in their GRANDPARENTS’ eyes when these songs reverberated from tube radios and foundation-shook dance halls. The teens’ efforts, energies, and attention to the most minute details and nuance was noble, impressive, shocking, facetious, innocent, pure, and absolutely rocking’ in the true spirit of Rock n’ Hallowed Roll.  All the way down to the laboriously studied retro Levi’s 501s with the cuffs painstakingly rolled up to crisp perfection, the pressed white muscle tees, the slick shiny pumps, the tortoise shell FAOSA horn rims and the songs!  Oh my god, the songs.  All the Legends were there in attendance that day: Fats, Buddy, The King, Lil’ Richie, Jerry Lee, down the line to Big JT, the Fontane gals, Link Wray and the Coasters. All were in a fantastic phantasmic display, a panoplied parade of exultant bops and doo wops, falsetto reaches, spanky Rickenbacker licks, bombastic aural fireworks of rocking to the downbeat and then rollicking and roiling back up with the smart attack of the snare (stick held trad style of COURSE).  It was immersive, it made the heart swoon in a way that only the golden boys and girls of the Golden Age could achieve with effortless, untroubled ease.

I pondered for days afterward, the provenance, whereby two kids in East Tennessee would devote themselves to what has become a faded, lost-in-time art form. I believe by practicing so devoutly, listening so closely, and striving so yearningly to hit the nail so deftly on the head, well, they did just that and they succeeded in opening up a time portal to 1952, allowing us, here in a different time and place, to catch a live jive glimpse. Nay to SMELL the very air from a nigh forgotten era.

All I could do was whisk my three-year old niece up out of her high chair, pimento cheese ball still in hand, and dance madly in the Square, in the old way, to the electrifying rhythms and melodies, the sacred lines that go, “A-wop-bop-a loo-bop,” until the sun set over the city and we were too consummately and wonderfully exhausted from laughing and spinning ’round to even walk back to the restaurant, but could only sit, catch our breath, and hum along to the final refrain of “You Send Me” by the inimitable Sam Cooke.

Whose star should be added to the Music City Walk of Fame? 

I am proud to say I have been in Nashville for something more than a mere handful of years now, but must confess I was never made aware that we had a Walk of Fame, perhaps not so famous as all that then?  To be fair, I rarely escape the confines of the East Side, and the only walk of any renown over here to my humble ear and heart is the 1300 block of Chapel that once held a stucco home purportedly filled with so much mojo that it was therein that the much-storied careers of songwriting heavyweights Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt were birthed.  Perhaps a small shrine in the shape of a humble pounded tin star could mark where they walked, paced, and perambulated someday. Perhaps the inscription could read:

Play it for me just one more time now
Got to give it all we can now
I believe everything you’re saying
Just keep on, keep on playing

Where do you go in Nashville for coffee and pizza?

Nashville has what a friend of mine in no uncertain terms deemed a “somewhat dubious and unflattering albeit fattening foodie scene.” I hate to say that I am mostly in agreement with this astute, if not, savory, review. But, c’mon, we all know it’s glaringly true.  Many establishments shamelessly cater only to the pallid palettes of the tourists who arrive in an endless onslaught.  It’s not a good look. They drunkenly debate who has the hottest chicken and why are the drinks so goddamn expensive. They stand in line for lifeless unimaginative “down home” biscuits and other parodies of country-style cooking and Southern comforts. Then they venture to the East Side, ya know, to slum it up a little, start shit with the disenfranchised mopey resident hipsters, and then imbue our sidewalks with their putrescent puke.  I’ve actually been midway to stumbling home, up through Five Points and slipped, skidded and sloshed through it, and NOT just once. And most of it looks about the same as it is coming back up, as when it was being shoveled down. Ugh.

My friend continued. I guess what I’m saying is, the Nashville culinary scene has largely sold its soul to serve up what a horde of drunk out-of-towners have been told by Country Music, Inc. they should be served.  And the rest of us have learned to cook. I make a good strong arabica myself via French Press, the only civilized way to brew a cup, and pizza from scratch with herbs from my own patio garden. One day perhaps there will be a reason to venture further afield than that. Anyone is welcome that wants some seriously on-the-level eats, some porch hangs smoking robust cigars and drinking strong drink, trading songs by fading daylight.

On occasion, I do enjoy Two Ten Jack, primarily for the excellent Japanese whisky selection and decent ramen as well. I would not regret making that recommendation).  The menu at Lockeland Table can be inventive and surprising at times. There are numerous watering holes where you can get a well-made cocktail and some pub fare while imbibing a wide range of fine Tennessee whiskies.  Other honorable mentions: brunch at Marché (RIP), pimento burger at Herban Market in Franklin, and possibly Husk.  I’ve crossed the river many a time simply for the fried pickles.

Fuck coffee and pizza anyway. This is a drinking town. See ya at The 5 Spot sometime.

What’s your favorite record to ever come out of Nashville?

Hands down, anything that Elvis did from the “marathon sessions” at RCA.  From the original release of Elvis Country, side two, “There Goes My Everything.”  You will weep. It hit Top 10 in 1971, ‘nuff said.  Git it in yer NACK.

Where’s the best place to eat late night after a show?

Well, truth be told I used to always go to Waffle House off Trinity.  Then…

One night, I was positively PISS blind drunk after mixing Valium with a water bottle full of Margarita mix and Mi Campo (with a few slivers of fridge-hardened musty lime thrown in, ya know, for class). I got kicked out of my own show, left my guitar at the venue after dropping it off the side of a stage. A waitress ran out in the rain as I was about to leave, in truth already in the car shifted in “D” for “Drive” and knocked on the Uber window, “scoose me mister, ya forgot yer gee-tar.” Just the acoustic, I never saw the guitar case again. I got in a car with two 22-year-old girls I had never seen before but who kept putting things in my mouth, and I decided in that moment of clarity that Waffle House was the only place to be. It was also the only place open.

So, we scurry up there, sit down in a grubby booth. (This is when you could still smoke inside.) The grill cook is smoking, he’s got a full 12-layer birthday cake of ash precariously wobbling at the end of his stubbled chin and chapped, peeling bottom lip, with occasional flurries of ash drifting down to sizzle amongst the grease and bacon. I order what I always order. Years and years, the order has remained the same: T-Bone & Eggs, Bowl of Grits, and Hash Browns: Smothered, Covered, Chunked, and Peppered. Tabasco on EVERYTHING.

The food arrives, shoved unceremoniously to the tune of “Order UP!” with an over-easy egg, easily sliding off onto the grungy countertop next to the register. I dust off the cigarette ash that has settled onto the congealed surface of the bowl of grits, and dive in with my appetite at maximum intake. I could feel the grease oozing from between my teeth, slithering down my chin, hearing it splattering dully and sloshing onto the yellowed table, with some oozing further down onto my jeans and the molded plastic booth bench seat, seeing it coalescing with drops of grease oozed from previous patrons and booth mates.

Well, at about this time when the rainbows in the grease in my lap have begun to dance around a pagan fire cast by the reflecting fluorescent tubes overhead, I feel something moving around on the top of my shoes. The girls are passed out. It is no coy play of footsie, that is assured.  I gaze down and recoil in instant horror, for what I feel moving under the table, what I now see before my very eyes are cockroaches, maybe five or six BIG mothers, all feeding on grease and droppings underneath the table.  And get this: the two on my shoe? They are like, wildly copulating, like, MAKING baby cockroaches.  ON ME!  If you have never seen two cockroaches doing this, here is a study (who studies this shit, and why God?) elaborating further, for your benefit and the benefit of your nightmares:

“In order to get a mate, male cockroaches have to lure females into a mating position. They do this by secreting a sugar-rich substance from a gland in their abdomen. The male exposes his sugar glands by lifting his wing covers and turning his rear toward the female.  The female crawls onto the male’s back, and if she sits still for long enough, they can mate, which she will if his secretions are sweet and tasty.”

“Sweet and Tasty.”  It’s a good title for a memoir, honestly.

So, I don’t go to Waffle House much these days.  Nowadaze, after a show, I go to my very sterile, obsessively clean and rodent-free home.  Straight to bed and straight to my nightmares.

The Bluebird calls and asks you to host a round. Pick three local songwriters to join you.

I don’t care for the Bluebird. I have to be brutally honest at this point. No vibe. It’s like the food scene in Nashville, all hype no filler. Every time I’ve been in there it’s a bunch of wannabes getting other wannabes off, usually in full view of their poor sucker family members and close friends who waited in line like it’s Disneyland to go and get charged eight bucks for a warm Miller Light.  It’s a tourist trap, and why would serious artists appear there when this town is full to brimming with legitimate venues?

Alternately, I would request a shared stage at The Basement (best venue in town) with Matthew Ryan and Lucinda Williams. Dream team. Check out the duet they did together once. Jacob Rosswog, my friend and producer, saw me play my first gig in town ever, apart from busking downtown during Fanfare, at The 5 Spot the week Todd and Travis took the helm over there, at midnight on a Tuesday, as a favor to a friend. THAT Jacob Rosswog, turned me onto this sublime duet. He has in fact turned me on to much of the good music I now enjoy, point being. We all need a friend to tell us about the truly excellent shit out there. “Devastation.”  Kinda hard to find but go find it.

Midnight now in the city of sidewalks,  
I miss her so much, but not enough to call

Damn.

What are your favorite music venues to play in town?

Please see above.  Other favs may include French Quarter (RIP), the old Family Wash (RIP), and of course The 5 Spot, aforementioned.

Name a musician who you’d like to see move here.

Surely there are enough by now, ha-ha! I keep fixing to pack up my meager belongings and move OUT, personally.  It’s gotten so hip to live here the only way I can afford to keep playing music is by leaving!

So many times, in recent years I have had everything down to two bags, absolutely everything I own and all my world possessions, and my acoustic guitar (with a new guitar case of course). Then something pulls me back.  Remember, I once upon a time came here to visit for a few days.  That was over a decade ago.

I have good friends here, what can I say?  Do you believe in God?  How about destiny?  I don’t personally, but perhaps that could have explained it all more succinctly.  And if you knew how rare that was for me to have good friends, you would know it is nothing to scoff at in the slightest. And Nash is still the most inspiring music town in the land. The word appears to be out.

Oh!  Better answer. My friend Jaime Wyatt moved here not long ago. She was staying at my place for a hot sec.  She’s about as bad to the bone as they come.  I’m glad she is here.

Finally, what’s in your musical future?

So now I can see the future.  All it took was me letting go of my past.  But isn’t that what writing a song is meant to help us do?  For me, that is the case.

We’ve got an album coming out, produced by my dear friend and colleague Jacob Rosswog of earlier mention, and in association with Steve Cropper, the living legend, at RCA.  I’ve already begun looking ahead and have started pre-production for the next album, in Memphis this time, at Magnetic Studios. I’ve been writing a great deal on piano which has taken me down some darker, heavier roads.

Shoutout to 10-4 Studios for always turning the lights on for me at odd hours between sessions to write and play a real piano, none of this Made in China plastic, digital keyboard nonsense.  I like instruments I can hit. It’s behind Rosepepper Cantina where food is two and a half stars at best, on a good day. But the Margarita! Stories will be told about the strength, the outstanding flavor, and to be frank, the COPIOUS amount of sheer liquid (most of which is “ta-kill-ya”) that is the Rosepepper Marg. Extra points if you get it with Mezcal.

And I am looking forward to giving a real, loving relationship another go at some point, hopefully soon.  I’ve been single for almost five years now, and I deeply miss having love in my life.  There is simply nothing more inspiring and motivating than love.  And all songs flow from that wellspring. Without true love (none of this manufactured bullshit), it’s just noise, baby.

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