He’s been stuck in a cold dirty well, his life flashing before him. He’s imagined his mischievous actions have led to a criminal charge and hiding out in Mexico. He’s put himself in a neighbouring apartment to an abusive household. JUSTIN NOZUKA has quite an imagination and uses it to write gripping, soulful songs that belie his age.
On his debut full-length album, Holly, due out this fall, the 18-year-old Toronto-based singer-songwriter has fleshed out many of the songs he’s been playing on acoustic guitar the past year for intimate audiences. Now, with recent opening slots for Ziggy Marley, Sam Roberts, Xavier Rudd and The Philosopher Kings, he is poised to build his audience one fan at a time, impressing those with his engaging personality, ear-bending lyrics and a rugged soulful voice.
Two songs in particular truly stun the listener into wondering how a person still in his teens can spin such tales, and in a way that is fully formed and far from run-of-the-mill.
“Criminal” is a gripping, teeth-clenched acoustic rocker that could easily become a massive teen anthem.
The lyric is self-explanatory. Justin was hanging out with his buddies on the street, smoked pot for the first time, and for fun threw a bottle in the air, which smashed on the ground. The boys scattered. When he got home, paranoia took over and he envisioned the next morning a child playing and falling on the glass.
“I woke up and the guilt was gone…turned on the television screen /emergency / news team / little girl crying on the street / saying glass made my feet bleed…tell me, what am I gonna do?..I have no choice but to run / ‘cause I’m a criminal,” he sings, leading into the catchy chorus.
In “Save Him,” the stunning story chronicles the binding love of a couple whose public face is very different than what goes on behind closed doors. It is almost difficult to listen to and quite paralyzing for those five-and-a-half minutes.
“Deep at night I am awakened from my dreams / Next door, yelling cries mercy / she is begging ‘Please. Don’t end my life; you’re all I need.’… She said, ‘Save him, save him from the hand that he beats me on,’” Justin sings with conviction.
The album opens with the bluesy “Down In A Cold Dirty Well,” an ominous acoustic song that Justin inexplicably wrote about falling down a well. “You’re helpless. No one’s ever gonna find you and you’re thinking, ‘I’m never gonna see my mom, my best friend, my brothers and sisters, the stars, you know what I mean?” he explains. “I’m never gonna see these things that everyday I take for granted.
“But it could also mean being in a terrible place in your life and nothing is gonna help you. For me, I wrote it actually as the story says, but my sister was like, ‘Oh, I thought you meant emotionally.’”
Not all Justin’s songs are fiction, made up stories he has not experienced first-hand.
Love songs like the gorgeous “Golden Train,” pained plea “Mr. Therapy Man” and starry breakthrough “After Tonight” are from the heart of a true romantic who has had his share of good and bad relationships. While love is an age-old theme, Justin’s lyrics read like poetry, as if he’s the first person to ever express such things.
“How can I look at the moon, when I know that moon shines upon you / through that window in your room,” he sings in the heartbreaking lament “Supposed To Grow Old” and “It seems like just yesterday / when you stole my breath away / you walked into my life / you completed my soul,” he sings in “I’m In Peace.”
Then there’s a love song that many teens would shy away from expressing — “Oh Momma,” written for his mother, Holly, after whom he titled the album.
“We’ve all been through a lot in our family and my mom, she’s always stuck there and she’s been taking care of all of us. Without her, we’d all been dead,” Justin laughs, speaking of himself and his four brothers and two sisters. “She provided us with everything and at the end of the day she’s the reason why I’m here and I just love her.
“That song is me just telling her ‘Thank you so much.’ She’s been through so much in her life and I think she’s happy because everybody has grown up to be great people, all my brothers and sisters. Nobody’s crazy; nobody’s messed up.”
Born in New York to a Japanese-born father and Canadian-born mother, Justin moved to Canada at age 8 with his mother and siblings after his parents’ divorce. He attended St. Andrews College, a boarding school in Aurora, ON, where he learned to play guitar in grade 8 from his Mexican friends and began writing songs at age 12. He also appeared in two musicals, which ingrained in him his love of performing. “I loved the rush,” he remembers.
The next year, he switched to Toronto’s Etobicoke School Of Arts, a very different kind of public school where he could properly develop his musical skills. He has never been in a rock band, but used to sing in an R&B group with his brothers. It was in 2005, while attending a four-day songwriting workshop at Humber College, that he met a couple of established Canadian artists that would introduce him to key people in the music industry.
Jacksoul’s Haydain Neale, one of the artists who led the workshop, gave him a free demo session, which yielded one of two co-writes on the album, “After Tonight,” a near-finished song he brought to Haydain and they worked on it together. It is now the most popular track on his MySpace site and a crowd favorite. It recently took top spot in a vote-for competition on BMI’s web site.
The other co-write is with a local songwriter Pete Cugno, who also attended the workshop and helped with “If I Gave You My Life.”
But the main person from the workshop who got things rolling for Justin was singer Damhnait Doyle of Shaye (she guests on “If I Gave You My Life”), who told Allan Reid, senior vice-president of A&R at Universal Music Canada, about him. After coming to see Justin’s very first solo show at Mitzi’s Sister in Toronto, he offered to fund some demos (“no strings attached,” says Justin) with producer Bill Bell (Shaye). Those initial demos led to Bill doing the whole album.
“He was just very organic,” says Justin of Bill’s approach. “We tried things. Some stuff didn’t work; a lot of the stuff did. We just fooled around basically and just let it happen smoothly. We didn’t rush into it. We were both open. He doesn’t take too much control, but he takes enough. At the end of the day, he was like, ‘This is your song. I want you to be happy with it.’”
“Mr. Therapy Man” underwent a complete change, he says. “Before, we were playing with acoustic guitar and the band was all in and Bill started stripping it away and he took a ukulele and played the chords so it wasn’t as loud but it still had that edge, and then he put in the horn and the slide guitar.
“For ‘’Save Him,’ we didn’t want so much stuff in there. It doesn’t get as crazy with the production and the main reason for that was to get the lyrics across.”
Justin has one year left before he graduates from the Etobicoke School of Arts, but it’s the type of school that encourages and supports his music career. He has started playing as much as possible, club gigs, festivals, colleges, anywhere he can. “I want to start touring, gaining experience in playing in other places other than Toronto. I want to see what the vibe is like.”
— Karen Bliss