Good Old War/ Justin Nozuka

Justin Nozuka

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.”

Good Old War

A group formed during a hiatus of the band Days Away, Good Old War -- named with a selection of "parts" of its members' names -- was launched by Days Away's Keith Goodwin and Tim Arnold. Joined by Daniel Schwartz of Unlikely Cowboy, Good Old War began recording its debut in Los Angeles in 2008. The album Only Way to Be Alone was released on Sargent House later in the fall. That same year, Good Old War acted as the backing band (both live and in the studio) for Anthony Greene's album Avalon, and embarked on a tour in support of the Circa Survive vocalist. Good Old War's eponymous 2010 sophomore outing peaked at number 150 on the Billboard 200. Come Back as Rain arrived in 2012, followed by the concert album Live from the City of Brotherly Love in 2013. Preceded by the single "Tell Me What You Want from Me," the band's fourth studio long-player, Broken Into Better Shape, arrived in 2015 via Nettwerk. Returning in the summer of 2017, Good Old War delivered Part of Me, the first of a slated trio of EPs.

River Mathews

Underlying his work is a poignancy and sincerity that places him - though he would be too modest to say so himself - directly in the lineage of some of his biggest inspirations. “Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Nina Simone and more recently artists such as Amy Winehouse and Ben Howard… they all feel like honest artists to me,” he says, “which is one of the reasons why I love them. My own music doesn’t feel right if I know I'm not being honest with myself about something".

Born and raised in Woking, Surrey, River’s initial forays into the world of music came early; at the age of 7, to be precise, when he began learning classical guitar. Not out of any special interest in classical music, but because his mum found a teacher that lived around the corner and that’s what she taught. “I really enjoyed it,” he says. “It felt like a pretty cool thing to be doing at the time. I only really lost interest in it a few years later when I was approaching my teens…”

By that time River was more interested in exploring his parallel musical education: the ‘60s and ‘70s pop his Mum and Dad played around the house and during family road trips, the likes of The Beach Boys, Cat Stevens, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones…“Whenever I hear ‘Sloop John B’ by The Beach Boys, I still think of Somerset, camping with my Mum, Dad and Sister,” he reminisces. “My parents were very cool in the sense that they loved music but never pushed their tastes onto us. They just quietly encouraged us to follow our own musical instincts, but I think they were pretty happy when I started to do cover songs of the bands and musicians they loved.”

Using an old forgotten steel-string guitar his mum had stashed in the wardrobe, and with the help of another local guitar teacher, River started to learn the styles and techniques his classical education hadn’t covered. By the time he was 17 he had not only learned to play the hits from yesteryear, but also by then-current rock bands like Radiohead, Ocean Colour Scene and Oasis.

Soon after, armed with this ever-expanding oeuvre, he formed a duo called ‘The Cords’ with a friend and began performing in local pubs. Yet it would be another decade before River finally wrote something he was happy with -- and even longer before he finally entered a recording studio. “I genuinely loved covering the Beatles and the Stones, Bob Dylan etc. It felt like there was no end of amazing music out there and I was really happy to be playing and singing it. But looking back, I was also scared - scared of putting my feelings down on paper, let alone singing about them to other people.”

His songwriting breakthrough came via the emotional roller-coaster ride they call Love. His first recorded song, “Catherine,” was written for a girl he’d fallen for. “One night we were due to meet, and it was the last chance to convince this girl that we could make something more of what we had. I started writing everything down that I wanted to say, so I wouldn’t forget anything! An hour or so before I had to leave I thought I’d try and write a song for her. So I wrote this tune, picked her up, and she listened while I went through all the things I wanted to say. Then I played her the song in the front seat of the car!”

The relationship was saved - for a while at least. River didn’t write any more songs all the time they stayed together, but he did form a deeper relationship with music via working at The Park School, a Special Needs School in Woking, using music to help build self-esteem and confidence in the students. “The energy and care all the staff put into building the lives of the students is quite incredible. I can honestly say I owe a huge amount to that place, for so many different reasons.”

A music studio was built to develop what River and his colleagues were doing with the students, and this in turn encouraged River’s own music career. But although he would spend many a night there practicing songs, it was only when he finally broke up with his girlfriend at the time that his songwriting really started. “I felt pretty low emotionally” he admits. “I also felt massively frustrated that I’d been dreaming about songwriting for so long but had been too scared to do anything about it. That’s when I started to write ‘Over,’ and decided that I just had to do it.”

The universe often has a way of sending gifts to those who approach their life with passion and positivity. Soon after River had made a real decision to move his life forward then he met a fellow musician, songwriter and kindred spirit, Mike Needle, who introduced him to Jamie Scott, the singer, songwriter and producer who has worked with everyone from Michael Kiwanuka to One Direction, Ron Sexsmith to Jessie Ware.

Jamie invited River to play him his music. “I was pretty nervous,” recalls River. “I only really had ‘Catherine’ and a bit of ‘Over’ and a few ideas I’d been working on. But he said he loved what I had, and my voice, and soon after offered to sign me to his label. He’s now produced my debut EP Feels Like Morning and has been involved creatively along the way.”

The EP in question features “Catherine” and “Over” - two beautiful ballads capable of bringing giants to their knees - as well as the poetic “Stars”, which was inspired by observing a clear night sky during an overnight stay outside of Inverness, and was written about his family. The title track, the soaring, upbeat “Feels Like Morning” also started out as a slow song but took on a life and tempo of its own when he realized it was all about new beginnings; a perfect soundtrack for kickstarting a new career, you might say.

As to further insights into his musical vision, River remains characteristically modest – and authentic. “I really don’t have any set theories about how my music works,” he concludes. “I just need it somehow to feel right to me, that’s all. Nothing much more than that.”

General Admission: $20 | $3 increase day of show


Tickets are $20 | $3 increase day of show

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Tickets are also available at The Runaway or by calling 877-987-6487.

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