“Definitely happy,” is how Junia-T describes his reaction to being short-listed (in the Top 10) for the 2020 edition of the prestigious Polaris Music Prize. The multi-talented producer/engineer, songwriter, and MC celebrated the CBC Music announcement recognizing his suitably titled Studio Monk album with a glass of champagne, fittingly surrounded by a group of friends.
After all, it was a collective approach to making the 13-song album – incorporating the talents of a horde of artists into his creative vision – that made the project such a success. Featuring critically-acclaimed colleagues like Jessie Reyez, River Tiber, and Sean Leon, as well as breakout appearances from Toronto singers Faiza and STORRY, and contributions from artists based in the U.S. (Elijah Dax, Miloh Smith) and the U.K. (Benjamin A.D.), the album maintains a remarkably cohesive feel that stems from his consistent recording process.
The recording of Studio Monk came almost a decade into Junia-T’s producing career, a journey charted in a new, as-yet-unreleased, mini-documentary about his creative process. Culling footage from very early in his career, when he had the opportunity to visit Bob Marley’s legendary Tuff Gong Studios, to the free-for-all jam sessions he attended at the Flock House studio in Chattanooga, Tennessee, it shows that Junia-T’s collaborative approach is the common denominator throughout.
He honed that method in 2017 while at an invite-only Riot Club session at a house in Los Angeles, which pooled like-minded artists who never seemed to be able to synchronize their schedules enough to work together. One example of the laid-back vibe was when he worked with his now-longtime collaborator Jessie Reyez (for whom he serves as the MC/DJ in her live/touring band), just as her “Figures” single was beginning to buzz.
“She showed up at the crib, it was like two in the morning,” says Junia-T. “I’m sleeping on this beanbag chair, I’m trying to stretch out my back to fix it. So I’m, like, laying on the floor in the living room and Jessie just walks in and looks down at me and is, like, ‘Yo, Junia? You dead yet?’ And I’m, like, ‘I’m alive,’ and she says, ‘Are you ready to cook, or what?’”
By 7:00 a.m., the duo had almost finished what would become “Sad Face Emojis.” “Complicated,” Junia-T’s tag-team rhyme display with Adam Bomb (of Freedom Writers and Natural Born Strangers), was another Studio Monk track that arose out of these sessions. Energized by the experience, he realized he’d need to replicate that creative environment to make the best music. So when Junia-T was presented with a recording contract from Pirates Blend, he made it a stipulation of the deal to have a dedicated studio space.
“I needed to have a studio to create in, because of how frequently I would be in the studio,” he says. “Because if I’ve got to stress about making money to be in a spot, I’m not going to be creative. The liberating feeling was in L.A., when I had the studio, and all I had to do was just bring people in. And I didn’t have to rush them out… that’s when the music got good.”
“All I had to do was just bring people in, and I didn’t have to rush them out”
With the creative space secured at what was then known as The Hive (now Soleil Sound), Junia-T ensured that there was a consistent approach to creativity. This often meant doing nothing, except sharing food and conversation for a couple of hours. “Sometimes it would take four hours to make a song, sometimes eight,” he says. “But it wasn’t eight hours of toiling on songs, it was four hours of really grounding, being humans, and the music part was hella quick…”
Singer Faiza, who appears on three of Studio Monk’s 13 songs, first connected with Junia-T in the studio after a creative sojourn in Atlanta left her feeling dissatisfied. Within 30 minutes, they’d already recorded Studio Monk’s “Make It,” introducing Faiza to a new way of working. “He’s really big on you just going in the booth without necessarily writing anything down, or not spending too much time writing, or over-thinking,” she says. “He’s not interested in a million-and-one takes, just, like, the first couple [of] takes is usually where he feels like you get it.
“[He] kind of helped me through some of my own battles as a songwriter because I feel like, up until that point, I was really trying to fit into a mold. Because I didn’t feel seen, I didn’t feel heard… [But] the music that we made felt like it was really true to who I was.” It was this attitude that Faiza brought to “Puzzles,” a song that unapologetically distills her experiences as a Black woman, in a songwriting tour de force. Faiza says it “just came pouring out,” and Junia-T, typically, captured it in one take.
Following videos for “Know Better,” “Ooo Wee,” “Thinking Over,” and “Home Team,” there’s now a visual accompanying “Puzzles.” The clip, directed by Dan LeMoyne (The Weeknd, k-os, Diplo), features Faiza walking around the deserted streets of Toronto as a mystical figure, evoking the lockdown era that’s endured through most of 2020 so far.
Junia-T’s perspective on the song’s larger meaning brings him back to the collective focus of Studio Monk as a whole, where he views himself as a member of a team. “It’s my responsibility to stand by that in support of my sister, and that message – not only because she’s my sister, but because I believe in the same thing,” says Junia-T. “I feel honored to be a contributor and a supporter in the message.”