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Q&A: Indie-pop band justokay talks music journey and upcoming album

Lifelong best friends Nina Elwell and Johnny Lovelle were both raised to love music. The artists taught themselves everything they know. They joined forces their junior year of high school to form justokay.

Elwell, a 19-year-old Romulus freshman, describes themselves as an indie-pop group with influences of alt-rock. They gravitate toward the lack of expectations in indie, pushing away from the rules and labels of other genres. They follow a musical philosophy of self-love. 

“You don’t need a million years of music experience to make something that you love,” Elwell said. “We’re just two average kids that make music. When you roll with what you make you’ll be just okay.”

justokay has released two singles on Spotify, “monday” and “thursday," as a preface to their debut album - "colorful days." The duo plan to drop the project in June.

Central Michigan Life spoke with Elwell and Lovelle on their relationship and connection with music, along with their goals as a band.

CM Life: How did your relationship with music begin?

Lovelle: I used to perform at my church when I was really little, singing and playing the drums for my pastor and choir. I decided I was really passionate about music when I watched the “This Is It” Michael Jackson film. I was in third grade and was the biggest fan and would always do Michael Jackson impressions. I wrote my first album, “Her”, in seventh grade right after I learned to play guitar.

Elwell: My childhood friend and I would write poetry and songs in my treehouse every single day. We could hardly sing and I could barely talk yet. I’ve been writing for a really long time. I started playing guitar when I was 11. My Papa had a guitar, and he has arthritis, so he couldn’t use it anymore, so he gave it to me. I learned because he really wanted to play but isn’t able to now. We always had music going in the house. My parents are very different in every single way so I got a lot of rock and R&B influence. 

Who do you look up to as your musical inspiration?

Lovelle: Michael Jackson started making me feel music for the first time. Feel it enough to know which body part I’m going to move because he’s hitting a high note. I think for writing music, Ed Sheeran was my inspiration. The “Her” album I wrote was definitely all Ed Sheeran inspired. Further into high school I got a lot more into rock and then indie, which is what our band is now. My favorite artist is John-Robert. He’s another up and coming indie artist right now. Him and his manager have been supporting our music for a while now. 

Elwell: Overall, Paramore has been a really big influence, because they genre-bend a lot just like our band. I grew up with a lot of different music influences. My grandma is really into country, my dad is really into metal and rock, my mom likes hip hop and pop. I’m influenced a little bit by every single genre. Paramore started with rock then got into pop and then they became indie. They were even jazz for a minute. They definitely inspire my writing the most.

How did you come to form justokay?

Elwell: We were writing junior year, although we had been writing together as a duo for years, then one day my mom told us about a talent show at the Wayne County Fair. It sounded great but we couldn’t do it without a band name. I was like, “What do we call ourselves, we’re just okay?” We laughed for ten minutes but we decided it was too good to be changed. It felt like the most clever thing in the whole world. And thus our band was born.

Lovelle: There was not a discussion of a single other name after that. It was justokay. Then a couple days later we recorded a cover for the fair, and now that cover has over 2,000 views. It was our first video on our Youtube channel.

What has been unique about being in a band with your best friend?

Lovelle: At first, it was a lot harder because if something sounded bad we were really fake, but now we’re direct and say no. We were scared of someone leaving the band if we said we didn’t like their song. Musically, our voices shape really well on top of each other.

Elwell: We’ll give each other criticisms now. It's what we need to get better. When we first started the band we were scared of making the other person feel bad so we were writing a lot of cheesy, bad songs. Now there are whole songs that have been cut from the album because one person didn’t like it. 

Lovelle: As friends, I think it’s definitely a very “brains and the brawn” situation. She comes up with the plans and I’ll go do them. 

Elwell: I also think it’s the sociability aspect. I’m super shy and I don’t think I’d be pursuing this dream if we weren’t a unit. 

How do each of your musical capabilities support the band?

Elwell: I sing and write and I can play a little bit of every rock band instrument. Drums, guitar, bass. I taught myself guitar and a lot of other instruments for a long time. I’ve been in a music class every year of school until now in college. Whether it was choir, band, or dance.

Lovelle: Same as Nina, I write, sing, and play drums and guitar. I took two guitar lessons at the mall in seventh grade and basically just learned how to tune the guitar and went on my own after that. I was in choir and jazz band throughout middle and high school as well.

Elwell: But with the two of us we can fill in the blanks. He has a better musical ear than I do when it comes to theory. He can just hear it and understand it better. So I can bring a melody to him and say I want guitar or bass for it and he can figure it out. Then I do the production.

Lovelle: We both play and write equally. It’s half my stuff, half her stuff. If she writes a song then I add instrumentation on it, so we both still collaborate together every single song. She’s the producer and does a lot of the tech stuff. The editing and the art. Whatever can be done from a laptop. We record most of it here in the dorm and it's a very DIY process. We’re not very “front-man” types. It’s an even duet in all of the songs we’re putting out.

How has music allowed you to express yourself?

Lovelle: I think with this pandemic going on right now and being in college, writing for me has been an escape. I know that some people will play video games, watch TV, or do homework, but to me none of it really feels as good as writing music. Even if it's just a quick couple lines that I’m writing down it really helps with being stuck in the dorms or being at work. 

Elwell: It’s been like a diary for me. I keep all my lyrics or my thoughts in general on a note on my phone. It’s a numbered note and I’m almost at a thousand different notes. I like to go back to earlier ones and see my growth.

Discuss the theme of your upcoming album, “colorful days”.

Lovelle: At first, we were writing a month-themed album but switched to our days of the week theme. “thursday” is actually a reused song from the original album that was originally called “november.” Nina actually ended up writing “april” and we kept writing more months until we realized the album was becoming too long. It was going to be 12 songs which is a lot for a first album. We switched to the days theme and it instantly clicked, so we kept writing and used some of the songs that we had before. You can actually find other versions of “thursday” on our SoundCloud.

Courtesy Photo: justokay's "colorful days" album cover

Elwell: We have a song called “colorful days” that’s a central, focal point of all our music. It kind of wraps everything up and I wrote that before we had the album idea. Once we saw the days theme coming together, we decided to call the album “colorful days.” The song “colorful days” is very pertinent and will be one of the last songs to drop with the whole album. The songs on this album have evolved a lot and they just fit the molds of the week days better than other ideas we were trying. I also think it’s easier when you have a themed album, when you're not picking a specific genre like we are, to have it add some uniformity and a common theme.

What other music endeavors are you looking forward to in the future?

Lovelle: The other day we adopted a guy for the band, Zach Gutman, who has a very nice studio. He’s a very big part of our next album. We stopped by for a couple hours and spent a whole day there recording a song. He’s actually another CMU student that makes his own music.

Elwell: Zach is a focal point of our next album. We’ve already written and made this album just the two of us so we’re following through on this DIY, but he fits in the band perfectly. We wrote an entire song the first time at his studio and that’s definitely energy we want to keep going. I’m also excited to meet more music people. That’s my favorite part is meeting new musicians like John-Robert and Zach. We have a few bands that we talk to on Instagram, even some from Europe. I’d love to play with them live one day.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

Lovelle: If music does well enough to pay the bills then that’s what I want to do. If our dream is close enough, we can work harder at it, but right now music is just a hobby that we work extremely hard on. In five years, hopefully we have at least two albums out and we are performing the best hits from them and the people love it and sing along to them.

Elwell: I’m hoping that either way - even if our music is doing awesome and we’re touring - I want to get my degree to have something to fall back on. Either way I’ll still be doing something that I love. I’m an art minor with a psychology major because I want to go into art therapy and work with young kids and special needs kids in a way that’s less traditional than talk therapy. Either way I’m going to be in an art oriented career, but music is the end goal. I’d love to be 30 and dress like a teenager and have the option to get a face tattoo. With a degree, on the stage performing, going around touring.