"I know where every exit in this room is."
Luna Aura's eyes scan the room, peripherally watching everyone in it as we speak just inside the door of Jobot Coffee on a particularly blistering day. You'd think it would be a distracting trait, the indication of someone uninterested with engaging, but that's hardly the case. The child of a police officer, and an artist ruthlessly devoted to her work, Luna Aura is simply taking it all in. Professionally, however, it appears she's simply about to take off. The unabashed rap-influenced pop musician has a slot coming up in September at Tempe's Summer Ends Music Festival, and she will release on August 26 her self-titled debut EP, which was recorded, mixed, and mastered at legendary Capitol Studios in Los Angeles. Though these events are happening soon, 21-year‑old Luna Aura comes across as collected, unfazed.
Phoenix, as a rule of thumb, doesn't breed bona fide pop musicians all that often. With the exception of Jordin Sparks, who won American Idol seven years ago, it's a city better known for its contrast between metal and indie, folk and crusty desert punk. Though it may appear to be a wasteland for a pop artist, it's quite the opposite for Aura -- she knows she's practically one of a kind here.
Born in San Diego as Angela Flores, Aura's family moved to Gilbert when she was 7. Her father, Esteban Flores, is best known as head detective on the infamous Jodi Arias murder case. She's as inquisitive in conversation as the interviewer, countering questions with questions of her own that are less rhetorical than interrogative. She's very much a cop's child in all positive senses of the label, but she hasn't always been as comfortable in her skin as she is now.
It took a life-altering deviation, as well as the obvious name change, for Aura to realize what she was meant to do and who she actually was. After a stint in Gilbert pop-punk outfit This Counts For Everything! when she was 16, she says that everything she wrote after that was "a pop song, was a pop chorus."
Let it be known that songwriting is where Aura's strength lies: It's evident on the upcoming EP, having only been honed over time. It's so strong, in fact, that it landed her acceptance to the songwriting program at the prestigious Berklee College of Music, where she also made it in for her vocal prowess. With a scant 19.2 percent acceptance rate, it's no small feat to gain entry to Berklee on one medium, let alone two, but she just couldn't bring herself to go. It was a decision that didn't come from a place of fear or unsteadiness. On the contrary, she felt that she was meant to grow grassroots in Phoenix.
"I sold my car, got an apartment, everything, and then a week before I left, I had this feeling that I needed to just stay," she says. "I didn't want to follow it at first because I had gone through the whole audition process. Everything was like, 'Just go.' I just had this weird feeling to stay and not go, so I just stayed. It was the first time I listened to my gut."
As she recants the story, Luna Aura gets quieter, more pensive, and a little less guarded, twirling her coffee cup on the countertop. Her reaction is justified, as that pivotal event happened a little less than two years ago, and she's well aware of the weight her decision carried. Even in the moment, following her instincts was as conflicting as could be.
"The day I decided I wasn't going to go I was just bawling about it," she says. "I've never had a feeling about anything before. It just all came over me at once, that I'm not going, I'm not going to do it. I knew I wanted to stay. I just don't know what I'm staying for."
With time, Aura began to see the logic behind her decision, even if its meaning wasn't clear to begin with. She realized that pursuing music from a traditional academic sense was contrary to her personal approach to everything else, and that the only way she could make a splash was by staying close to home. It took two months and a dark place to make her see the light, a self-described depressed period that ended in a cathartic moment that bucked tradition.
"I was so sick of trying to be that singer-songwriter girl, so I was like, 'Fuck it. I'm going to produce hip-hop, indie -- whatever -- pop, and that's my new project,' so that's where I came from," Aura says. "I changed my name and everything, and it was just kind of this reinvention of myself."
It also was a chance meeting at a Super Bowl party and a karaoke session that led her to Travis Alexander, her current manager. Taking the songs she and co-producer/programmer Sean Chris had demo'd, Alexander booked her time enough at Capitol to lay down five tracks, two of which Aura completed just hours before the session. His faith in her, however, was steadfast from the get-go.
"It was just the element of her voice and how capable she is at singing and the lyrics on top of it," Alexander says. "She is just a powerhouse, and that's one of the first things I noticed: her charisma, drive, independence. There's nothing about her that's a 21-year-old in any sense."
Within that reinvention came a love for producing, a trait that's as much a hallmark of her EP as her vocal work and writing, as she produced all five tracks herself. Unapologetically slick and hooky, with a touch of Southern and trap-based influence, the EP is a melding of Luna Aura's stylings, rarely coming off as contrived.
"The EP has each song that hits in its own way, leaning toward radio," Alexander says. "[There's] 'Blow,' definitely the hard hip-hop track, where 'Eyez' is kind of a dark pop thing." In short, it doesn't sound like anything out of Phoenix.
"I'm sure there's people out there doing it now, but to the degree that I'm doing it, it's very different," Aura says. "I feel like if you want to get anywhere, be anybody, you want to separate yourself from the crowd."
Unique she is, at least in Arizona. Yet as she's promoting her music to other markets, keeping as watchful an eye on the business side of her brand as on her sound and production, one can't help wondering how she'll fare in the big picture. Based on talent alone, the prognosis seems positive.
Summer Ends will be the proof in the pudding, and critical reception to the EP thus far has been promising, but it's a sense of reasoning and drive that is Luna Aura's defining ethos.When asked about any limits to her craft, Sean Chris just laughs for a moment before briefly summarizing her trajectory.
"It's uncharted territory here, man," the producer says. "She can do whatever she wants."
Luna Aura's self-titled EP will be available on iTunes on Tuesday, August 26. She is scheduled to perform Saturday, August 30 at the Hotel Palomar in downtown Phoenix and Sunday, September 28, at Summer Ends Music Festival in Tempe.
Find any show in Metro Phoenix via our extensive online concert calendar.
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