Justin Nozuka

On his well-crafted new Glassnote Records release, High Tide, Nozuka has chosen to look inward, to lovely effect.

Singer-songwriter Justin Nozuka had a hit album at 17; by the time he’d turned 21, he’d opened shows for Stevie Wonder, Mary J. Blige, John Mayer and Jason Mraz, appeared on Letterman, Kimmel and “Good Morning America” and earned his second Juno Award nomination — competing against Neil Young for Adult Alternative Album of the Year honors in Canada’s equivalent of the Grammys.

Not long after, Nozuka made a radical move: he stepped off the merry-go-round to replenish his creative juices and consider his future.

It turned out to be a wise decision. The time off gave him a chance to grow personally while exploring where he wanted to go artistically. On his well-crafted new Glassnote Records release, High Tide, Nozuka has chosen to look inward, to lovely effect. Produced by Chris Bond (Ben Howard), its three songs reveal mature, thoughtful lyrics and beguiling melodies, while hinting at what’s to come on an album unfolding in three stages.

“When you make a record, you live in that record for a few years, and potentially many years,” Nozuka observes. “I wanted to make something that I felt I could live in; something honest that I could be proud of and enjoy touring.”

High Tide reflects his evolution from the youthful passion and funky, bluesy pop rhythms that permeated early songs like “After Tonight,” to a quieter, more contemplative sound that’s just as exciting — and perhaps more lush.

Its songs share a sunny, yet nostalgic vibe, while conveying the kind of intimacy that comes only through the understanding of experience. They’re gentler, folkier, inspired by artists such as Simon & Garfunkel, Neil Young and Howard — though of course, they still exhibit the gorgeous high tenor voice and singing style Nozuka developed as an adolescent listening to artists like Lauryn Hill, Marvin Gaye and Boyz II Men.

And the response, so far, has been positive, with fans expressing excitement and praise for the new music.

Such feedback resonates deeply because, he admits, getting to this place wasn’t easy.

“I had started touring and releasing music when I was 16,” explains Nozuka, “My team and I had been working for five years pretty heavily, building momentum, and we had been growing pretty well, but at the end of the day, I had to stop touring and have a breather to take care of my well-being and my creativity.

“I just wanted to press ‘refresh’ and spend some time at home, get grounded, and make music that I was into,” he says.

Not that he regrets his earlier output or the success he achieved — 2007’s Holly (named for his mother) and 2010’s You I Wind Land and Sea both reached gold status in France, and the latter hit No. 1 on Billboard magazine’s Heatseekers chart — but Nozuka also recognized that fame at a young age can mess with one’s psyche.

So he got off the road and returned to Toronto, where he spent the second half of his childhood; his Canadian-born mother had moved the family there from New York.

“It was a pretty stressful time,” he says of his decision to stop touring. “I was letting go of everything, but I really needed to in order to nourish … had to take a step back from it all for a minute.”

After releasing an experimental album, Ulysees, in 2014, Nozuka reset his musical compass. He knew he was ready to get back on the road and tour, which meant crafting music conducive to playing live. But he confesses, “I had to kick myself in the butt and get serious about reaching a certain standard. It was a long and windy road.”

He also spent time searching for the right producer. That turned out to be Chris Bond, of Devon, England, best known for producing, arranging and performing on U.K. artist Ben Howard’s albums, as well as backing him on tour. On High Tide (and its follow-ups), in addition to producing, engineering and mixing, Bond played bass, drums, guitars, organ and percussion and contributed backing vocals. Also accompanying Nozuka, who played acoustic and electric guitars and percussion, were Chris’ brother “Bear” Bond who played keys and engineered in England, Alex Beamont on cello and Alex Jamaima on backing vocals.

Nozuka tracked down Bond after hearing a couple of Howard’s albums. “I just really loved the sound. It had an exciting energy, and felt very natural as well,” he says. “I really enjoy when music has this element of organic breath; you can feel nature in it.”

Nozuka’s music also has that feel — a warm, uplifting vibe he describes as “a summery, nature-inspired, youthful-type energy.”

“All I Need,” the first single and video, particularly evokes that carefree spirit. “It’s about a moment in my memory of being by a lake in the summertime with a companion. That warm memory brings me comfort in times of the contrary,” Nozuka says, “and during our long Canadian winters, just thinking about summertime can bring warmth.”

The gently contemplative “No Place in Mind,” deals with embracing the unknown. Specifically, Nozuka says, “It’s a traveler’s song, about having this desire to leave it all behind and hit the road — not with a destination, but just taking a chance. Getting out of the comfort of knowing where you are and where you’re headed and just going with the flow.”

In contrast, “Hourglass,” has to do with taking charge. Set to a sun-kissed melody, its lyrics, Nozuka says, are about “acknowledging that we’re not here forever … and really doing something with this life.”

Not surprisingly, all three songs include action verbs: walking, running, jumping, swimming. But there’s also a stillness, allowing in moments where songbirds sing and star-gazers dream.

Listeners also may detect a watery theme of sorts, though Nozuka swears that wasn’t intentional — at first. But as recording went on, it slowly unfolded, just as the album itself is doing now. He promises it will all tie together when the full album is revealed.

 I think it becomes an exciting thing for people to get into this whole world, bit by bit,” Nozuka says. And this way, listeners can focus more on each song, instead of trying to digest them all at once — even though Nozuka is eager for them to be heard.

“I’m really charged up,” he says cheerfully, just before a string of European dates. “I feel really motivated to get out on the road and play.”

Based In: Canada
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