Hitting the right notes: ISU alum JUNO took up music to better connect with people
Ashlee Juno ’09 has a personality that might be even bigger than the following she’s rapidly accruing. Better known today in the music industry as JUNO, she is fun and outspoken. At her core, that’s always who she’s been. JUNO is also a risk-taker. Thanks to a leap she took a decade ago, she has created a significant platform to express herself in the only way she knows how.
JUNO—who has played guitar for artists such as Bruno Mars, Machine Gun Kelly, Camila Cabello, and Fifth Harmony—recently released her first album, Help is Not on the Way. As a black, LGBTQ woman, JUNO has used her charismatic voice to reach listeners who need an extra push coming out of their own shells.
“I felt I had a responsibility to give back to that community of underrepresented people,” she said. “I never saw it any bigger than that.”
Growing up in a single-mother household, JUNO never took for granted the programs and philanthropy that she and her family used for basic needs. She always had intentions of paying it forward. But she didn’t quite know the best path to execute that plan.
JUNO, a Chicago native now based Nashville, came to Illinois State University from Rock Island High School to pursue a teaching degree. She quickly found herself gravitating to social work, and before long, she was an active student in the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences. She began interning and practicing at schools, as well as the YWCA, throughout Bloomington-Normal.
While JUNO brought energy and enthusiasm to every client she met with, it was a 15-year-old boy who forever altered the trajectory of her life and placed her on the path she walks now.
This young man, whom she met while working at a drug rehabilitation clinic in Bloomington, kept his thoughts in a bottle. According to JUNO, he was addicted to heroin at a young age and was subsequently scarred emotionally. JUNO was determined to reach him, and a guitar seemed to be the only thing lifting his stoic exterior. She asked him to teach her a few chords. That way, they could connect and build a relationship.
“I watched it transform his experience from growing up trying to survive every day and then feeling passion for the first time,” JUNO said. “I wondered what would happen if I shared this experience.”
At age 23, it was the first time in her life JUNO had played guitar. But this experience resonated with each chord she learned during their sessions together.
JUNO felt the power of music firsthand. While she was helping the boy find his footing, he in return showed JUNO how much more she could express herself.
Less than a year later, JUNO’s grandfather went to the hospital for an operation, and she didn’t know what to say. So, with the bit of knowledge she had gained, she wrote him a song.
“It was just how I felt about him, and I played it right before surgery,” JUNO said. “It had the three chords I knew at the time. That was the first song I ever made.”
The song, “How Much You Mean to Me,” would hardly be her last. JUNO began writing songs for friends’ birthdays and other occasions, and her creativity eventually ranged into more serious topics.
JUNO was still working throughout Bloomington-Normal teaching bully and sexual assault prevention at local elementary schools. She started bringing her guitar with her to make those lessons more relatable for kids. She was also making her own music. She felt this was the clearest path for her to help people. JUNO used YouTube to market herself, uploading songs and spreading the links to the right people. With her infectious energy, enough people in the music industry took notice.
She began touring with household names, developing a strong reputation as an R&B guitarist. Despite a lifestyle that would eventually lead to overseas shows with some of the most recognizable brands in the industry, JUNO has never wavered from her purpose to serve.
“I started to develop a culture around the way I play,” said JUNO, who performed at the LGBTQA Cultural Dinner at Illinois State last September. “But the one thing I have in common when I play music is that it’s from my heart.”
That much is clear in her new album. The songs in Help Is Not on the Way revolve around overcoming obstacles and staying true to oneself.
“JUNO is an artist whose story is all about courage, inspiration, fearlessness, and hope,” a review on BuzzMusic.com said.
She’s also learned to navigate the business scene thanks to involving herself as a student at Illinois State. JUNO frequently visited the Career Center for advice and gained skills that taught her how to conduct herself in a professional setting.
Illinois State is a significant chapter in her ever-evolving life story.
“I was just fully present each step,” said JUNO, who was a LeaderShape participant as well as night operations staff member for University Housing. “When at ISU, I participated in extracurriculars, and that prepared me to try something new. So shout-out to Illinois State for a well-rounded education.”
Nowadays, she has nearly 200,000 followers on Instagram, and her YouTube channel has just under 83,000 subscribers. She feels an innate responsibility to serve as a role model to underrepresented groups of people.
Not everybody has the same energy level JUNO has. But she wants people to know, including Illinois State students, that they all have a right to bet on themselves and push the boundaries to find their true passions.
“You have the power to get up and change your own life,” JUNO said. “With that comes risk, sacrifice, hard work, the grinding, the insecurity of not knowing what’s next. But after going through the jungle, you come out stronger.”