juan karlos Is Not Done Yet

When Juan Karlos “JK” Labajo released Buwan, he didn’t know it was going to be a hit single—the kind that would play inside taxi cabs and mall establishments on loop; a karaoke anthem collectively sung by Pinoys all over. The year was 2018, and his life was about to change. Inspired by Kundiman blues, which traditionally revolves around love and despair, in the beginning, Buwan was a ballad between lovers.


“I was just making a song. I was just putting melodies into these words that rhyme. These thoughts that I put on a piece of paper and, you know, I put the vibrations on the strings of the guitar…and it all blended into this whole thing that turned into a song,” recounts juan karlos during a more-than-candid interview while occasionally taking a drag from his e-cigarette. “I didn’t have any expectations, I was just making a song that I could play for my girlfriend at the time. It was as simple as that. I remember when I was the only one who knew about Buwan’s existence and my girlfriend [then]; it was just the two of us out of everyone in this whole world. And then obviously, it turned into this big thing.”

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Having a hit song is one thing, but the pressure of creating the next one is another. Was he going to be a one-hit wonder, achieving mainstream popularity for a moment, but never really sustaining his momentum? Was his best work behind him? These are thoughts that ailed the 22-year-old, and the noise was deafening. He had to turn inward and revisit his purpose for making music. “I’ll never be able to make another Buwan because it’s already been made, right?” That revelation was so simple, but elicited something in me; I was talking to a genius, and I caught on very quickly.


“Making your first hit song isn’t the hardest part; it’s making the second one because all of a sudden, it became so big. It basically became the national anthem for most people! All of a sudden, there [are] these crazy expectations from people. ‘When are you going to make another Buwan?’ There was a lot of pressure from everyone else around me, but also from myself, like, ‘Fuck, I got to make something at par, if not better.’ But then, I caught myself, thankfully, ‘Wait, I wasn’t making Buwan, I was just making a song.’”

This mindset shift, which happened during the pandemic, allowed juan karlos to be present and enjoy the process rather than become paralyzed by the potential outcome, which, let’s face it, he had no control over. “Looking back, why was I so fucking stressed with the outcome when I enjoyed the process?” He adds further, “At the end of the day, as an artist and as a songwriter and as a musician, what I have to focus on is giving my love and attention [to] the process of creating instead of what happens after the fact.”


With this headspace, he made his next hit singles (yes, plural), achieving new heights and gaining unprecedented success. In October of this year, ERE, from his album Sad Songs and Bullshit Part 1, topped the Philippine charts simultaneously on Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube. It also had the biggest single-day streams for an OPM song on Spotify Charts Philippines with 1.1 million streams, a feat never done before by anyone from the local music landscape. The single was also the first from a Filipino to make a significant dent on the global Spotify charts.

Videography and Editing Pao Burgos

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But the fact of the matter is, juan karlos made a lot of what he candidly describes as “shit music” before finding the ones that linger and stay on your radar. “Sometimes, you gotta make 10 songs in order for a good one to come out. It’s not about [me making] a good song; I’m just making a song. That can be good for someone and that can be shit for someone else. That’s the thing about music and art in general—it’s so subjective. Even Buwan, a lot of people don’t like it and a lot of people love it.” He made 18 break-up songs to be exact; a form of therapy that he now presents to the world and, more importantly, para sa mga malalamig ang Pasko (for those with a cold Christmas).

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Tatlong bilyon, ikaw lamang ang aking gusto (3 billion people and you’re the only one I want). Sad Songs and Bullshit Part 1 (SS&B) is what juan karlos dubs his “quintessential breakup album” during his “sophisticated sad boy” era, which he made for himself. After going through a very public breakup, creating music was his way of sitting with his grief and making sense of it. “I was heartbroken—I was going through that whole thing. I’m going to make fucking songs about you.


He went through a cycle of grief. You get lost in this black hole until, one day, you realize you’re okay; that weight you once carried gets lighter, and grief simply becomes a part of you. After releasing an album about the losses that we share and have become part of us, he’s ready to move forward. “On a personal level, I’ve moved on. I don’t even know what the fuck moving on means. But I’m happy—I’ve accepted it, and I’m happy for her. That’s when I found out that I’m really okay na.” He adds, “The most painful part about a breakup is not necessarily all the memories that you’re going to let go of, but all the plans for the future that you’re gonna let go of. I don’t believe in forgetting the good and bad memories. It’s part of your life’s book; it’s like a chapter. I put that in ERE—’Tayo ay papunta na sa ating bagong yugto,’ we’re going to our new chapter.”

During this new chapter, he’s still creating with intent. He just released Maligayang Pasko, which he refers to as “soft boy Christmas music.” He also plans to release the second chapter of SS&B in February, which talks about acceptance and new beginnings. “The second part of the album is where you can really see juan karlos going through that process of slowly accepting and slowly letting go…up to the point where the album talks about new beginnings.”


juan karlos wears other hats, too, notably as the co-founder of raket.ph, the Philippines’ largest independent talent marketplace. The Voice Kids alumnus also acts, starring in a teen drama television series called Senior High with Andrea Brillantes. He also gained praise in the film When This Is All Over, a Cinemalaya entry that discusses privilege in the pandemic.

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Greater things are happening in 2024, and he lets us in on his plans to create songs in English and Bisaya. As a proud Cebuano, juan karlos knows this is his next challenge. “Next year, I’m looking into [making] English and Bisaya songs. I want to release Bisaya songs; it’s a beautiful language in itself. 60% of our population [in the Philippines] are Bisaya speakers.”


Now that 2023 is coming to an end, juan karlos wants nothing more than peace and quiet. After hustling all year, he wants to be “in the middle of nowhere for my sanity.” He is most grateful for music, the “one constant thing that’s always there in my ups and downs,” and is ready to create more to drown out the noise. “My headspace now is I want to move to a farm that’s off-grid and put up a studio there and learn how to plant and harvest rice and just record songs with nothing but my acoustic guitar,” he tells us with a deadpan face.

Experiencing grief and loss can feel like such a solitary experience, but once the pain settles, we’re reminded that these emotions are quite universal. Vulnerability has a way of yielding connections, something that juan karlos has mastered. At the end of the tunnel, gratitude can be cultivated. You learn to get back up and try for something again.

juan karlos
juan karlos

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Photography Renzo Navarro assisted by Alexis Wang and Yel Dela Paz

Art and Art Direction Alexandra Lara

Interview and Cover Story Elisa Aquino

Fashion Direction Sarah Santiago

Styling Jana Silao assisted by Sophie Silao

Beauty Direction Elisa Aquino

Makeup Raffy Mendiola

Hair Vannie Claveria

Set Design Paul Jatayna

Production Wonder

Location Secret Studios

Special Thanks Island Records Philippines and UMG Philippines Inc.