‘Juniper': an album that is retro, and right now
Released June 1
Marshall Crenshaw; Dennis Diken (Smithereens); Chris Geddes (Belle & Sebastian); Jay Gonzalez (Drive-By Truckers); Steve Goulding (Mekons, Nick Lowe, etc.); Ira Kaplan (Yo La Tengo); Chris Collingwood (Fountains of Wayne); Mark Spencer (Son Volt)
Greg Townson (Los Straitjackets)
Produced by Michael Shelley; mastered by Greg Calbi
By GWEN OREL
Lots of teenage girls love to sing.
Some daydream about making an album.
Not so many make their first album with ’80s pop star Marshall Crenshaw (“Someday, Someway”), Fountains of Wayne frontman Chris Collingwood, and the Smithereens’ Dennis Diken.
Oh, and Dad.
Dad was a big part of it all. Cue the dad jokes?
Not for Juniper Shelley, 15, who will be a sophomore at Montclair High School this fall. She loved working with her father, singer-songwriter and WFMU DJ Michael Shelley, who runs the music website PleaseKillMe.com.
“It brought us closer together,” Juniper said. She wrote or co-wrote eight of the album’s 12 songs; the new CD, “Juniper,” dropped on Monday.
Some of the musical luminaries who worked on it, like Montclair’s Megan Reilly, who sings backup on some tracks, are family friends.
“I used to baby-sit for her kids,” Juniper said. “I’ve known Greg [Calbi] forever.”
Calbi said he was impressed with Juniper’s singing, which he found both knowing and innocent at the same time.
Grammy Award-winning engineer Greg Calbi, who’s worked with Dylan and Springsteen, mastered the album.
“The concept for the record is diabolically interesting,” Calbi said. “It’s not what it seems. She’s 15 years old, but it’s 2020. The crush song (“Everybody Got a Crush on Chad”) is like a Betty and Veronica, Archie comics kind of thing, but it’s 2020. There’s a different perspective.”
Poprockrecord described the CD as a “lovingly crafted collection of retro-infused, chaperone-approved, catchy teenage party tunes.”
The new CD’s 12 songs do seem to evoke the ’60s girls group era, with songs about boys, other kids, crushes, a ride in the amusement park.
Just as Lesley Gore minds another girl wearing Johnny’s ring in “It’s my party,” Juniper sings in “Gotta Draw the Line,” by Richard Barrett, “Sydney, we’ve been friends, a long, long time… but when it comes to my guy, comes to my guy, I’ve just gotta draw the line.”
Of course, Sydney as a girl’s name is a 21st-century touch.
Smithereens drummer Diken admires Juniper’s straightforward singing style.
“She’s not over-singing, which I think is a trait of a lot of popular singers. There’s no auto-tuning. No affectation of any kind. It’s ‘As Is,’ straight from Juniper. It’s very refreshing,” Diken said.
Though making the album took five months, the first song, “Boys! Boys! Boys! Boys! Boys!” was released last July.
“People liked it, so we thought we’d do more,” Juniper said of the song she co-wrote with her father and Bucky (the two men who form the English group Bucky).
The song has a driving beat, and wit:
All the wars, we know who started ’em,
All that trash, left on the lunchroom floor,
So frustrating, keep you waiting,
Can’t imagine why we’re dating
Boys, boys, boys, boys.
“She hums all day,” said Michael Shelley. “She inspired me to write that first song. I never thought it would permeate outside of the grandparents and friends.”
Then they made a few demo CDs, and the song got some airplay.
Shelley did not set out to make a CD evoking girl groups. “At a certain point I was imagining in my mind a greatest hits record of a girl who was a teenager, starting in the early ’60s, who experimented in the ’60s and ’70s, made one record in the ’80s and then retired,” he said.
‘HOW KIDS ARE TODAY’
This is Juniper’s first CD, but hardly her first recording: She’s been making Christmas songs with her dad since she was 9. Those still exist on YouTube.
“Juniper” grew out of her desire to do something more. Juniper plays the organ on the CD as well as sings. She also plays the flute, which she took up to play in the Glenfield Middle School Orchestra; she plays it on the album’s closing song, “I Don’t Want to Dream About You.”
The whole process took about five months. It was mostly recorded in the family basement and in Storybook studios in Maplewood.
The songs recorded in the studio with others were recorded live, with nothing added later, Juniper said.
Shelley asked his daughter questions, and kept a notepad of ideas and song titles.
Juniper rejected a few.
“She was the lyrics editor of the whole album,” Shelley said. That way, the songs stayed authentic. “We had two rules: Let’s have fun, and no songs about technology, or ‘how kids are today.’”
Technology is “not what is worrying kids,” Juniper said. Kids are more worried about just growing up, she added.
One song was written especially for Juniper: “Poke Your Eye Out,” co-written by the late Muffs frontwoman Kim Shattuck and Cub’s Lisa Marr.
One of its lines is like every parent’s admonition to a teenager:
“It’s always fun, until someone gets an eye poked out…”
“It’s interesting to see how other people who weren’t 15 thought about the 15-year-old girl experience,” Juniper said.
Shelley found some of the musicians, like the flamenco guitar player Jose Luis Ushiña on “Poke Your Eye Out” and the harpist Mercedes Bralo on “Girls Just Want a Boy to Rest Their Head Upon,” on Fiver.com; they then collaborated on the internet.
But most were friends and songwriters Shelley admired.
“One of the most exciting things is getting an email with four demos of songs written by someone you love, and you are the first person in the world to hear those songs,” he said. He has written and produced records before, but never in his basement. Learning to use the technology was a challenge, he said with a laugh.
“A lot of things got deleted,” Juniper said.
Dad agreed: “We would work on something for a day, and then it would glitch.” Like his daughter, he found working with her brought them closer together.
THE SHELLEY GANG
Dad and Juniper wrote “Girls Just Want a Boy to Rest Their Head Upon” together, and the ballad-y song is a favorite for both.
Juniper is an only child. Mom, though not a musician, participated in the hand-claps. “It was a whole family affair,” she said.
Of course, taking criticism from Dad was not always easy.
“The most frustrating thing, I would sing it and he would say ‘That’s not quite right, sing it again.’ He would say be louder or be more in character, feel more what the character of the song would be feeling,” she said. She did have to do some acting to get in the mind-set of some of the lyrics, she said: “A lot of the songs are of a different time, like ‘Punk Rock Boy.’ I wouldn’t be into that type of boy.
“There were definitely times I felt sick of it, and didn’t want to do it. But I figured out it was not personal. He made me so much better.”
Getting the album out felt amazing, she said. She played a show in Jersey City in December, with four other bands.
And she’s starting to think about the next album.
She hopes that since she learned how to be patient on a project she cares so much about, she can apply that to other things in her life.
Music may not turn out to be her career choice — a decision her dad is totally onboard with, he said with a laugh.
At MHS, she focuses on Mock Trial and Mock Congress. She loves her architecture class. She runs a young adult book blog, the-juniper-journals.webnode.com, and interviews authors. She writes, too: her story “Walking” was a winner in the inaugural Anderson Park Short Story Contest last year.
But music will always be in her life.
“A lot of things you think in your head, ‘I’m not old enough, you can’t do this yet, you don’t have the materials’… if you love something just work at it,” she said. “Even if it doesn’t seem like you know what you’re doing.”