Vancouver musician Aza Nabuko never had a title track in mind when she recorded her acclaimed Indigo album in 2021. But as the 20-year-old Vancouver resident looks back, she says it would probably be “Blue”.
“I was 17 when I wrote that song,” Nabuko tells Pancouver by phone. “I was feeling really, really isolated from a lot of people.”
Even though the lyrics speak of her demons closing the door—and shutting herself away from friends—“Blue” opens with an upbeat tempo.
U.K.-based music writer Amelia Vandergast described the song as “a flawless feat of panoramic pop that will be a hit with any fans of Pale Waves, Wolf Alice or the 1975”. Another music writer, Rebecca Cullen, praised the songwriting in Indigo as well as “the unpredictable, characterful intricacies of Aza’s performances”.
Nabuko credits Blue Light Studio audio engineer Kaj Falch-Nielsen and her fellow musicians for creating the “really interesting mix of sounds” in “Blue”.
“I walked in with a chord progression and lyrics,” Nabuko says modestly. “They helped build everything.”
She tackles big themes on the album, which was released by JumpAttack! Records. One song on Indigo, “Back Seat Driver”, is about struggling with mental illness. Another track, “Zee”, shares what it feels like for a teenager enduring the pandemic, seeing wars break out, and witnessing all of her friends starting to shoot up amphetamines.
“I think ‘Vertigo’ follows along with that same kind of idea of just being scared of walking into this whole new world,” Nabuko says.
On Sunday (August 6), Nabuko will perform in Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park as part of the Powell Street Festival. Now in its 47th year, the two-day event celebrates Japanese Canadian culture with live music, Japanese food, and other attractions.
Watch Aza Nabuko’s video for “Blue”.
Nabuko called an indigo child
It makes sense for Nabuko to appear at the festival, given that her father is of Japanese ancestry. Her grandparents, like so many other Japanese Canadians on Canada’s West Coast, were interned in camps during the Second World War. Family members settled in Revelstoke after the war ended.
According to Nabuko, they faced tremendous hardship in the post-war era, including racism that came from being recently considered as enemy aliens. This was despite the family owning and operating businesses in Vancouver prior to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
The Canadian government subsequently seized all of the family’s assets along with those of other Japanese Canadians. More than 40 years later, in 1988, then-prime minister Brian Mulroney issued a formal apology.
“Generational trauma definitely did affect my family in that sense,” Nabuko says.
She describes her father as being raised in a “very westernized” way. That wasn’t uncommon in those days as many Japanese Canadians tried to assimilate to avoid further stigmatization.
“The family didn’t really talk about the things that happened that much,” Nabuko says. “It wasn’t just the internment camps. It was the acts of hate—like, you know, violence and assault on the street.”
There’s also a story behind the naming of her album Indigo, which followed her 2019 self-titled EP. Nabuko says that her parents always felt that she was very observant, but their friends labelled her as an “indigo child”.
This term describes creative, rebellious, intuitive kids who are highly empathetic or even telepathic. According to the gaia.com website, indigo children can “become easily frustrated with society and others who are not shifting quickly enough”.
“I just always knew things that people hadn’t told me yet,” Nabuko says.
Aza Nabuko sings Liily’s “Toro”.
From cardboard cheese to Valley Voices
Nabuko laughs as she recalls how her musical career began in her hometown of Revelstoke. She was in the fourth grade when she was cast as the lead character in a school play called The Cheese Stands Alone.
“I was the Cheese,” she says. “So, I was dressed in a carboard cheese costume and I had a solo.”
A parent sitting beside Nabuko’s mom said that the nine-year-old had a good voice, and urged Nabuko’s mom to enroll her daughter in vocal lessons.
“At that point, I was already in piano,” Nabuko says. “I just started taking lessons. Small-town gig offerings started piling up and I kind of went with it.”
At 10 years of age, she entered the Valley Voices Vocal Competition in Abbotsford for the first time. The following year, she made the semi-finals and was recording music professionally.
Her grandmother is a classically trained pianist and music teacher. Nabuko, on the other hand, is more freewheeling.
“I’m not a theoretical musician,” Nabuko says. “I play mostly by ear.”
Watch Aza Nabuko’s cover of “Billie Jean”, which was recorded four years ago.
Aza Nabuko will perform at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday (August 6) on the Diamond Stage in Oppenheimer Park. It’s part of the 47th annual Powell Street Festival, which takes place on August 5 and 6 in Oppenheimer Park and surrounding areas. See the full schedule of events here. To learn more about Aza Nabuko, visit her website. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.