Toronto-based artist Justin Nozuka is trying to be as authentic as possible


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Toronto-based artist Justin Nozuka is trying to be as authentic as possible

New York-born, Toronto-raised singer, songwriter, and producer Justin Nozuka released his debut album, ‘Holly’, back in 2007. At the mere age of 18, he quickly became renowned for his intimate, acoustic, and emotive style of musical storytelling. Since then, he’s gone on an artistic odyssey, exploring numerous genres from folk to rock and R&B, yet has always battled with his inner critic along the way. Now, he’s ignoring the noise and focusing on staying true to himself.


For his debut A COLORS SHOW, Nozuka delivered a raw, soul-stirring performance ‘Chlorine’. In line with the performance, we sat down with him to discuss writing from lived experience, collaborating with fellow COLORS alum Mahalia, and the constant evolution of his sound.

What is your first musical memory?

Probably hearing Barney the purple dinosaur singing “I love you, you love me.”

Do you remember the first album you bought? 

I remember walking into the record store and seeing a huge station dedicated to ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’. I was only 10-years-old and I didn’t know who she was. I bought the cassette, took it home, put it in the player, and listened to the whole thing. Then I rewound it back and listened to it all day.

You come from a very creative family: your brothers are the musician George Nozuka and the actor Philip Nozuka. Your mother’s half-brother is jazz guitarist Mike Stern, and her half-sister is the actress Kyra Sedgwick.

I guess yes, art runs in our family. My mum is a very big believer in the arts. She wanted to show us that there was this expressive path that we could take if we wanted. We were always encouraged to follow our dreams and get into whatever we wanted.

My brothers and I are all quite close in age, and very competitive, so we were all very influenced by one another. Once my older brother got into something, we all followed suit. That said, because we had such a big family, we also had to figure out how to stand out.

You started writing songs at around 12-years-old. Where did the motivation to write come from?

I played hockey growing up. While I was on the ice I was singing melodies the whole time. Even then, I was training my creative muscle and laying the foundations for writing. I got a little notebook and started writing lyrics, then I got a tape recorder and started taping my ideas. I never really finished a full song at that point—I think I was just mimicking what George, my oldest brother, was doing. He wrote songs for an acapella group we had together with my other brothers. Later, I got a guitar and started learning how to play from some friends at school. That opened so many new possibilities for me.

You started off playing gigs in Toronto’s folk and singer-songwriter circuit. What drew you to this genre?

The guys who taught me to play guitar were really into Dave Matthews Band. They also taught me a song by Lenny Kravitz. This started to turn my attention to projects that used more live instrumentation than backing tracks. My sister also dated a guy who was a a bit of father figure to me. He told me “you’ve got to make music like Ben Harper”. I was like, “ok!”

Around that time, Jack Johnson blew up on the scene. He was so influential for me. He made me want to just write songs on my guitar, travel with it to open mic nights, and just do my thing. I was more interested in doing that than writing on top of more electronic, produced beats.

“I’ve played with a lot of different influences, colors, and techniques throughout my career…

… now I’m just having fun with them.”

Songs that you wrote around this time ended up on your 2007 debut album, “Holly”. The album deals with mature themes, from marital abuse to the story of a drunken man facing the consequences of throwing a bottle into a street “where children play with bare feet”. Considering you were only 18 at the time of the album’s release, and 15 when you wrote much of its contents, what was it that motivated you to address such heavy topics? 

I cried a lot when I was a kid. It was very common for me to go to my room and just cry. I had this deep pain inside of me that needed to come out. When I got in touch with music, it felt like the perfect vessel to express this, so I wrote these really sad, dark songs and toured with them for five years.

The most sensitive song on ‘Holly’ is ‘Save Him’. My mom’s been through some stuff in her life. I wrote this song in collaboration with her about the experiences she’s had. The story was created through her lens.

The album is named after your mum, right? 

Yes. She was a big part of that project. There’s another track on it called ‘Oh Momma’. It’s probably one of my purest songs.

How do you think you’ve evolved as an artist over the 17 years since you released ‘Holly’?

After ‘Holly’ came out, I remember listening back to it and thinking, “fuck, I fucking hate this.” I’d recently discovered Radiohead. I thought, “oh fuck, man, if Radiohead ever heard this they woudn’t think it’s good.” For my second album I decided, “I need to be a real artist now haha. I’m gonna have tons of electric guitar and lean into more psychedelic, rock and roll sounds.”

I have this voice in my head that talks from the perspective of “the ultimate music critic”, someone who knows what is ultimately good and bad. I’ve spent a lot of my time just trying to fulfill what that voice says. Now I’m trying to be a bit more intuitive and not to overthink things. My third project, ‘Ulysees’, was the first time I really tried to connect to myself deeper as an artist. It may be the most experimental project I’ll ever make. Then I made a really folky, Paul Simon-influenced album, followed by an R&B leaning project. I’ve played with a lot of different influences, colors, and techniques throughout my career. Now I’m just having fun with them.

You collaborated with a member of the COLORS family. I’m talking about your duet ‘No One But You’ with Mahalia back in 2020. How did you two connect and what was it like working together?

Mahalia posted a tweet in 2016 saying she liked a song of mine. After that, I dove deeper into her music. I loved and really connected with what she was doing. She’s so prolific—she puts out music so often and tours a lot. I really respect her.

A few years later I was working on a song and my friend suggested that it would be cool to offer it to Mahalia. I’d never spoken to her properly before, so we reached out randomly and she said yes! From there it all happened within a week and a half. I sent over the materials and she was so cool about it. She’s a bigger artist than me, but she didn’t seem to care about that. She’s just a sweetheart.

Do you have any other dream collaborators?

There’s so many people. I’m a big fan of YEBBA. We follow each other on Instagram and have had little chats here and there. It would be really cool to do something with her—it’s definitely on my bucket list. I also like Nick Hakim a lot, who I know is also a COLORS alumnus.

Tell us about the song you performed for COLORS. 

Last summer, I stayed at my brother’s place in a neighborhood north of Toronto. There was someone who lived down the street who I fell in love with. It was this really exciting, cute thing. We hung out a lot, went on nice bike rides, and did some pool hopping. We just had all these lovely summer experiences together. That’s what ‘Chlorine’ is about.

‘Chlorine’ will be part of a full-length project that you’re releasing later this year. What can we expect from that? 

This project’s going to be a little more wild than what I’ve done before. I’m tapping more into my creativity and trying a lot of new things that excite me.

Beyond this project, what are your ambitions for the future? 

I’m hungry for sustainability and health right now. I have incredible supporters —a lot of people who have been with me since the very beginning. I have so much love and appreciation for them, it’s really who I’m doing this for!

Justin Nozuka is a Toronto-based singer, songwriter, and producer whose debut A COLORS SHOW was released on 8th July 2024. You can watch the full performance on our YouTube channel.

Text: Emily May

Photography: Saem, What I Like Studio 


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