Just two years ago, Justin Nozuka was recording an album, performing in Europe, and…being a teenager? Born in New York City and raised in Toronto, the 20- year-old singer/songwriter has already accomplished what many simply dream. His debut album, “Holly,” was released in the U.S. this past April, and his first single, “After Tonight” has quickly sold over 125,000 downloads. What’s more, his music video for the single was the most played video for nine weeks straight on VH1, where he has also been named a You Oughta Know: Artist On The Rise. He has been nominated for a Best New Artist JUNO award (similar to a Grammy, but Canadian) and won the Emerging Artist Award this past summer from the Canadian Organization of Campus Activities: Campus Entertainment Awards. Justin has even shared the stage with John Cale, Crowded House, and Ziggy Marley. Without a doubt, he is one busy and buzzworthy guy. VH1 got it right when they said he was an artist you oughta know.
It’s a sunny day in California as I wait in the Glass House — a live music venue in Pomona. Justin saunters into the room wearing a baseball cap, a green t-shirt, and shorts. He carries such an easygoing, down-to-earth presence that one could almost mistake him for any other guy at the venue. But his delicate half-Japanese, half-American features, charming, coy grin, and piercing, hazel eyes give him away.
We move into the lounge area of the venue, where we jump right into talking about his first album, Holly. “Well, I recorded it two years ago with the producer, Bill Bell, and basically, the idea behind the album was just to let it happen organically. A lot of the tracks were done without click (a metronome) and in one take,” he explains. “It’s an independent album so I did it independently without label support. And really [I’ve] just sort of been building my career thus far around that album, using it to sort of establish something.”
When asked how he would define his music, it’s difficult for Justin to clearly label it. “I don’t really know,” he muses. “I mean, for me, I just try to put as much passion into my music and as much soul as I can. I try to keep it as honest as possible.”
He goes on to explain one song off his album called “Golden Train,” mostly because I talk him into it. “Golden train,” he repeats reflectively. “The train is just like a metaphor – almost – for something bigger and greater. Something more shiny,” he says with a mischievous smile.
“It’s like saying I’m with someone and then something comes by that’s—,” he stops to think of the right word. “—fabulous. And, let’s just say it’s a guy – and it’s a strong guy – and he’s handsome as hell,” he says with a grin, “and he’s got a lot of money and he can sing better than me and write songs better than me. So it’s just saying, would you stay or would you go?”
We get into other elements of his album as well. Apart from relationship songs, Justin also writes songs with a narrative. “I try to write from a different point of view and put myself in situations that I may not have ever been in. I try to tell a story that hasn’t been told before, write a song that hasn’t been done before. So, story songs are important to me.”
He looks over to his worn, silver water bottle. “You know, you can write about this water bottle, even. I mean, if you really just look at it—and study it,” he says, holding up the bottle, “and you can build a story around it. For me, I try to practice that in song writing and really just try to look at things from a different angle.”
And has it been difficult for this half-Japanese, half-American artist to break into a predominantly white music industry?
“I think it helps,” he says of his Japanese heritage. “It’s cool, and I think a lot more artists are coming out that are Asian, half-Asian, and multi-cultured because I think society accepts that.”
He speaks of what it was like being brought up both Japanese and American. “I was raised in more of a ‘white’ surrounding. I went to Japanese school when I was really young, but my parents divorced when I was really young, too. So, I lived with my mom who is not Japanese. Sometimes, I’ll look in the mirror and I’ll be like—,” he gives a confused frown and chuckles.
His mother, after whom the album is named, raised Justin along with six other children as a single parent, and moved the family to Toronto when Justin was only 8 years old. And while Justin did not grow up with his Japanese father for most of his life, he still remains very much interested in that part of his heritage.
“Of course, man,” he says, keenly, “Japanese culture is something that I really want to get into. And it’s really hard now because I’m so busy, but I was trying to learn Japanese again. I definitely want to learn [the language] and reach back to my roots, because that to me is like my core. I think I would gain a lot [from] that.”
As far as what he hopes to accomplish with his career as a musician, Justin almost doesn’t know where to begin. “I want to,” he hesitates and gives a shy laugh. “I want to do it, you know? I want to break internationally and I really want to be on top. But I want to do it under my terms and do it organically and right. I don’t want to force things down anybody’s throat. And I want to make good music,” he stresses. “I just want to make music that is different and new and pushes the boundaries and [with] lyrics as well. I just want to be a good songwriter and bring that to people.”
There is something very genuine and earnest about Justin’s confession. For that moment, there appears to be a different side of him. The smile from his shy laugh disappears, as he leans forward and carefully thinks through his words. It is a question that he takes to heart and answers sincerely. Afterwards, he slips back into his casual stance, occasionally fiddling with his fingers or taking sips from his water bottle. But it becomes clear that underneath the relaxed exterior is someone with big plans and a willful determination. That, along with his knack for songwriting and soothing voice (the kind that can prompt goose bumps), makes Justin a force to be reckoned with.