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Moments of Defiance and Finding Your Voice with JUNO

Writing by Kahlia Ferguson

“When you finish this song, come with me”, the venue manager whispered in my ear.

I was halfway through playing a song and his voice made me jump. I was performing acoustic covers at some random RSL club in some random suburb, earning money to pay my bills. The venue manager leaned in closer and said, “After this song okay? Come with me. I have something to show you.”

He’d been hovering around me all night; was he blissfully unaware that he was making me uncomfortable?

“Um, okay”, I croaked.

My stomach dropped and my mind started racing.

Do I say no? Do I go with him and turn back if it starts to feel sketchy? He seems nice enough and there’s plenty of people around.. I need this venue, I NEED this money! I need him to like me so he gives me more gigs. But I don’t know where he’s taking me.. What do I do?

Out of desperation, I finished the song and went with him.

This article isn’t a sob story, and it isn’t me playing the victim. It’s for the little girl at her computer reading this, who has spent the day practicing her guitar and writing songs. The little girl who aspires to sell out shows and hear her music on the radio. I hope the lessons I’ve learnt help her.

I’m the lead singer of JUNO, named after the goddess of femininity and womanhood. When I’m on stage, I exude confidence. I belt my high notes, dance, kick and jump. I speak with conviction and feel powerful and unstoppable. I don’t think anyone would see me on stage and assume that I was once a torn-down young woman, fresh out of a two-year abusive relationship, who had lost her voice and her power and was struggling with religious trauma.

From a young age, I was taught to be nice and to smile and to shy away from confrontation. My Christian upbringing told me to ‘turn the other cheek’ and accept a second slap when my enemy came for me. My parents tell me I never had tantrums in shopping centres, and I can’t recall a single time I had a yelling match with either of them. My voice used to shake when I tried to raise it, and I’d shy away from any sort of confrontation, retreating instead into silence.

I started writing songs when I was six years old. It was the only vessel in which I felt I could say how I really felt. I was instantly obsessed. I wrote Christian songs initially, and I’d perform them confidently during services. Women weren’t allowed to lead in my church, but I was allowed to sing. I think subconsciously it made me understand the power in my music.

I loved Church. I loved hearing my Dad belt the low harmony on my left and my Mum’s angelic voice soar over the crowd with a high harmony on my right. I learnt how to sing through hymns, but it’s hard to find your voice as a woman in a religion that fundamentally doesn’t respect it.

At 14, my siblings and I started a family folk band. I wrote all of the songs and I steered the ship. I was driven and I really loved that band. When things went wrong, we’d pray to Him. When we wanted something, we’d pray to Him. God was the captain of my life, the dictator of my destiny. Only He could make my dreams come true.

That band quickly attracted a very passionate underground following and we performed at Woodford Folk Festival, Bluesfest, New Caledonia’s Live En Aout Festival, the Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony and Channel 9’s televised Lord Mayor’s Christmas Carols. We released two self-produced albums. It was a fantastic whirlwind. At the same time, the band also attracted a lot of relentless bullying at my high school. My attendance record plummeted, as did my mental health, so my parents took me out of school and I started homeschooling. I ran away from them all.

Shortly after, my siblings and I signed up to a large management group in Sydney that shelved us for three years because we wouldn’t agree to go on X Factor. My voice was silenced by a rich man in a suit who didn’t care that he was crushing the dreams of five young people. I was devastated.

During that period of life, my brother Dan and I were invited to a writing session with an Australian Icon who was on the decline and in the midst of a nasty divorce. He wanted to write a song ‘from the female perspective about leaving a small town for the big city’. Despite being a 50-year-old man, he felt his lyrics were more relatable to the young female mind than anything I put forward. He slammed every idea of mine in favour of lines like, “I’m not ready just to settle for wedding bells and kettles, I just want to get in my car and drive”. When I told him I didn’t really resonate with the song, he flew into a wild fit and stormed out of the writing room. Every head on our floor of the building turned to look at me. I was horrified. I stopped speaking up as much after that.

Just before Covid hit, I started a new band with my partner at the time. We met at a Bluesfest Band Competition and I was completely smitten. He was very loud and very tall and he spoke his mind fearlessly. He was everything I wasn’t, and everything I thought I needed to be to find success.

When the mother of your boyfriend tells you to run, you run.

She wasn’t joking. She knew her son was a narcissist. She knew he was dangerous. And she knew I was looking worse and worse as the days rolled on.

The new band was a failure before it even began. I knew I was smart and a good writer and performer, but I let him steamroll every decision and burn bridges every step of the way. I let him make me feel small and weak, and I let him say and do things to me I wouldn’t wish on any other woman. When I was ready to leave, he told me I was nothing without him and that I would never make music as great as what we made together. After two years of mental abuse, I believed him.

By the end of that relationship and that band, I was a shell of a human being. I was ready to give up on my music and I had no faith in myself. I watched him move on and start a new band with a woman who looked just like me. My Mum even commented on it when she saw a photo on Facebook. I felt replaceable and humiliated.

I was Ariel. I had given up my voice for a man I thought cared about me.

If he cares about you, he won’t steal your voice, he’ll only amplify it.

Sam (my partner and the other half of JUNO) was a bassist in that band. During those awful years, he quickly became a good friend and a confidant. There are good men out there, and he is one of them. I helped him leave his full-time job at public housing to become a full-time producer, and he hasn’t given up on my music just yet.

I cut my hair short and bleached it. I started writing again. I shed the old lives, and started a new one. I wanted to look in the mirror and see a clean slate. Sam and I started a new project, and it naturally evolved into one that was full of empowerment and joy and defiance. It started to heal me.

My voice still shakes when I speak up, and I still stutter over my words. Writing sessions are very triggering for me. Most of the time I struggle to voice my ideas and believe that I have something worth saying. I’ve stopped and started this article ten times now because I don’t know if my words are interesting enough, or if anyone will even care enough to read them.

I’m still growing into the woman I aspire to be. But never again, will I allow anyone to dictate my path and speak for me. Perhaps right now your producer or your manager or your partner or your photographer or your parent (etc) is pulling the strings of your own career. Perhaps you’re afraid to rock the boat or lose work because you haven’t yet set up boundaries for yourself.

Don’t be like me and live years under someone else’s thumb. You can wake up today and change the trajectory of your life, one moment of defiance at a time. When I close the door on a toxic situation in my life, another healthier opportunity always comes along. Every single time.

JUNO’s new single i’m the man is a song for my younger self. It’s an anthem for anyone who refuses to be defined by society’s expectations and wants to confidently assert their worth on their own terms. It’s a song I never would have imagined releasing a decade ago.

So, back to the RSL.

The venue manager led me through the RSL, my heart pounding. He showed me an empty room and said,

“This is where I would like you to play next week.”

I peered in, nodded, thanked him and then started quickly walking back to my performance space. My brain raced with all of the possibilities of things that could have happened; that have happened to me in the past. Mentally, I felt like I was back in that vulnerable space where my power was at the mercy of whoever was ‘pulling the strings’ so to speak.

I picked up my guitar and continued my set, vowing that I would never again put myself in situations like that. No matter how much my voice shakes, no matter how fast my heart pumps with anxiety, I will make my boundaries clear.

It’s the little daily moments of defiance that give you back your voice.

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