At age 19, singer and performer Layla Bessito, also known as JuJu Pie, was totally broke and living in North Carolina. The Miami native's mother had passed away the year before, and, she says, “I was faced with all of these emotions that I had repressed my whole life because she was such an anchor for me.” A shy child, she didn't known what to do with herself in South Florida, so she impulsively moved to a farm in Asheville.
Bessito had always been passionate about singing but wasn't sure how to plan a future with her talent. In her new, temporary home, she found a community of supportive, experimental, collaborative musicians she respected. "It was very healing," she says of finding a like-minded community. “I was destitute in North Carolina, but I felt full because I finally knew what I wanted to do."
Her grandparents in Alajuela, Costa Rica, invited her to live and work with them at their busy bed and breakfast and hostel. They also promised her singing lessons. “I was so broken at the time that it made sense to me. I realized that I needed more stability.”
She studied at a conservatory and sang in a chorus. "It was my first time understanding singing as an instrument. I learned how to completely use my body to hit almost any note I wanted to,” she recalls. "It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. It’s such a beautiful place and incredible country." After a year, she felt like she had learned everything that she needed. "I knew that I wanted to find my own local musical experimental community to collaborate and share and support and I wanted to come back to Miami to do that."
The now 26-year-old has been a staple on the Miami weirdo music scene for years now as JuJu Pie, riding the line between musician and performance artist. Back in her hometown, she learned to write music and worked with Eli Oviedo of the band Dracula. She sang while he played the harp or keys on her first album. “I love to collaborate with people so much, almost to a codependent point," she reveals, “When I sing, my eyes roll in the back of my head, and I totally get lost every single time. And I wake up from the trance, and I realize that there’s a rhythm that I have to be following.” She also worked with a full band — Oviedo on keys; Nico Cordova, formerly of metal trio Devalued, played drums; and Chris Bell, who now has an ambient guitar solo project, added guitar.
After seeking different collaborators, she has been performing on her own for now. ”It’s a lot like dating," she says. "You have to test the waters out, and sometimes it doesn’t work and you have to text them, 'Come pick up your gear.'” She adds, "My music comes from such a sensitive, vulnerable, and sad place, I have to find the right partners." She would like to work with classically trained musicians.
Bessito says she stopped being booked for noise and experimental shows locally, and then started realizing how small and isolated the Miami music community is after touring. She needed to find something else to do with her voice, so she started singing karaoke at Gramps' Let's Sang night while the Double Stubble drag show raged outside. With the drag community, it seems, she found her inspiration and her audience.
As JuJu Pie, Bessito's costumes are showstoppers. Her extreme fashions have involved haunting face paint, masks, wings, lingerie, and crazy contacts. They really set the stage for her performance. "Miami is at an amazing place because the drag scene, it's like when you strike oil and it’s spouting. It’s gold. There’s so much creativity and family everywhere," she says. "Drag queens became such an inspiration for me. They’re largely lip-syncing, but they’re creating a character, someone that's living in their heads, it's an expression of what they see in their heads. With costumes, makeup, everything, they’re able to create a character, a vibe."
She says she felt her performance was stale when she was wearing a club outfit. “I wanted it to become a totally immersive experience, and a lot of that came from how people feel when I perform. When I perform, I grab people’s attention," she says. She's been told that people feel transported to another time when watching her. If she can do that with sound and costumes, she feels satisfied.
“These are characters or visuals that have always been inside of me. There really is no reference point; there’s no mood for it. It’s how I feel," Bessito explains. “I feel like I have a gift of coming off angelic but looking demonic. It feels organic; it’s not contrived or based on what anyone else is doing.” It took her awhile to speak about her art directly and confidently. “As soon as I took ownership of it, the visual part came out,” she says. And this is only the beginning of her creative endeavors. Bessito has been singing Spanish covers of songs like “Blue Bayou" over an instrumental track made by her old cohort Oviedo on harp. “I’m technically performing with Eli in spirit,” she says. She also sings her own renditions of Disney songs and tunes by her voice inspiration, 1930s-'40s singer Deanna Durbin.
She has enjoyed touring the East Coast with stops at Brooklyn's the Glove and Super Cheap Gallery, and Baltimore's the Bank — a long-standing venue in an old bank vault. She stayed in a haunted Victorian mansion where a bunch of punks live while in Maryland. "The best part of touring is that every person at the show has never seen me play," she reveals.
Bessito expects to release new original music by the end of the year and is working to hone her look. “Now I feel more confident and secure in terms of my expression and aesthetic. I finally feel like now I know what I’m going to be building off of,” she shares. However JuJu Pie evolves, it'll be a next-level project worth the wait.
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Liz Tracy has written for publications such as the New York Times, the Atlantic, Refinery29, W, Glamour, and, of course, Miami New Times. She was New Times Broward-Palm Beach's music editor for three years. Now she plays one mean monster with her 2-year-old son and obsessively watches British mysteries.