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Jun Bustamante: Fiery folk singer brings communities together

Jun Bustamante plays a variety of instruments in her various musical projects.
Jun Bustamante plays a variety of instruments in her various musical projects.
Published Apr. 19, 2013

(Welcome to tbt*'s Ultimate Local Music Guide! All week we're spotlighting 10 of our favorite local artists of the past year. Today: Folk singer and community activist Jun Bustamante.)

Here's a fun bit of trivia: In college, Jun Bustamante produced an official remix of John Legend's Ordinary People.

While studying music at New York University, her primary interest was electronic beats and sampling — and the right person happened to dig her vibe.

"One of the men taking the classes had a connection to John Legend before he was even anything, and was like, 'Could you do a remix?'" said Bustmante, 27. "That was at a phase in my life where I was like, 'Sure, whatever!' I never asked, 'Can I get a copy of that?'"

Instead of becoming the next Timbaland, Bustamante came to St. Petersburg, where she's become known for fiery, heartfelt folk music, performed with punk aggression and more than a hint of jazz.

In nearly every respect, it's tough to pin Bustamante down. As a solo singer, Bustamante performs around town and hosts a Monday-night singer-songwriter night at the Ale and the Witch in St. Petersburg. With her jazz trio La Lucha, she re-interprets pop songs and standards. And her experimental project Noctambulo is a fusion of garage punk and downtempo electronic beats.

In addition to samples and keyboards, she plays a variety of string instruments, from guitar and banjo to Asian instruments like the sitar, tambura and a gnarly-looking Thai instrument called the phin guitar. And she cites influences as far-ranging as Bjork, Gretchen Wilson, Rage Against the Machine and Tupac.

Born in Japan and raised in Venezuela and the United States, Bustamante began writing songs at age 7, finding music the best way to express her developing emotions about racial and sexual identity. While studying in New York, busking on the streets and living in a tiny apartment, Bustamante dabbled in samples and electronic music and dived into politics.

Since moving to St. Pete, Bustamante has become a local activist and scene booster, both for local music and environmental issues. In addition to her showcase night at the Ale and the Witch, for the past few years, she's organized the biennial Roots Seed and Plant Swap, an event that also features local music. For the first few years she lived here, she performed frequently around town, "sometimes double- and triple-booking myself in a day, just to get myself out there."

But last year, while on tour with folk singer David Rovics — whose forthcoming album will feature Bustamante — she began to develop a keenly realistic worldview about music as a career. No longer does she perform for exposure, "barely being compensated," she said. Instead, she's decided to perform only at venues that she feels are completely comfortable with who she is onstage — and that are willing to pony up a little compensation. La Lucha helps pay the bills, but increasingly, so does her solo music — last year, she was commissioned to write a song for I Am Choice, a national women's rights campaign.

While Bustamante loves performing for young, politically passionate audiences at benefits, she prefers to focus less on politics and more on issues — particularly those related to race, the environment and the LGBT community. (Bustamante shies from the term bisexual, but said she has had long-term relationships with both men and women.)

"I like to be in tune with what's going on, but I don't consider myself anything, really," she said of her political agenda. "I guess if somebody were to label me, somebody would probably label me as independent. I'm sure someone would throw in liberal. Some people might call me a communist or a socialist," she added with a huge laugh.

The key, she said, is to eschew all labels and keep changing minds through her music.

"I'm not a big screamer," she said. "I should be able to sit with someone who's extremely conservative and have that conversation with them and get them just as excited as some crazy leftist. I should be able to do that just by using certain language and communicating with the core of who they are."

-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*