5 Questions With: Justin Nuñez
The New Mexico singer/songwriter stops by to talk about living the artist life in New Mexico, his latest record, and where he's traveling to next.
Today we’re talking with Albuquerque-based singer songwriter Justin Nuñez
It’s only about 135 miles from Gallup, New Mexico to Albuquerque, but it might as well be a world away.
Like many of us, Justin Nuñez couldn’t wait to leave his hometown behind. The bad outweighed the good, and there wasn’t much in the way of community there that he felt drawn to. As a kid, he had a chance to spend weekends/summers in the “big city” of Albuquerque and saw the possibilities unfold before him.
As soon as he was old enough, he jumped and never looked back.
“After traveling so many places and living so many lives, I always find myself back in Albuquerque,” he says. “I’ve spent time in Mexico and Brazil and have been to seventeen countries, but then I’m back driving down Rio Grande Boulevard, and the Sandias are still always there.”
For Nuñez, a huge part of that attraction is the relationships and connections he’s made. In many ways, it’s the community that Gallup was sorely lacking-especially when it comes to music. The Land of Enchantment is the home base for a small but thriving ecosystem with people working together to lift the scene up.
Most artists/bands are consistently playing shows, and there is a lot of overlap with people playing on one another’s records. In the case of Música del Corazón, fellow New Mexico artist (and On Repeat favorite) Lowmello plays bass on much of the record and produced one of the tracks.
In many ways, the record chronicles the roads Justin Nuñez has taken; traveling to distant lands, down the path of love found & lost, and down the road of bar room troubador playing to buzzed crowds looking to hear familiar covers.
On Música del Corazón Nunez pulls back the curtain a little bit to share the songs he wants to play— the ones that make up his own story.
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I recently had a chance to catch up with Nuñez via email. In a wide-ranging chat, we talk about growing up in Gallup, the serendipity that often comes with world travel, and of course about the music.
And with that, I'll get out of the way and get right into the interview.
Our chat has been lightly edited for clarity/flow.
KA: Can you fill in a little bit of your backstory? Walk us through what made you get started playing. Are there any other bands that you are/were involved in?
JN: I remember being interested in music since childhood - you could often find me singing along to music playing in the car, shower, etc. My family wasn't particularly musical, but my mom had a lot of Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Bob Marley, and various eclectic CDs and cassettes playing when I was a kid.
I remember Bob Dylan, in particular, really stood out to me. My dad was a rodeo cowboy, so when I was with him, we listened to many 90s country artists like George Strait, Garth Brooks, etc. He never played guitar, but I remember him buying a little guitar for me when I was a kid that I would mess around with.
As I got older, I remember my mom taking me to a Buddhist retreat that was hosted on the property of some hippies who grew up in the 60s and 70s. They would have jam sessions, and I remember that one of the owners of the property, Stanley Giser, would teach me basic bass and guitar lines so I could play along. I remember him teaching me "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" by Dylan, and he also liked to play tons of classics from that era.
As a teenager, I got into Punk Rock and had a few short-lived bands, where I mainly did vocals. We would sing songs based on stuff by The Subhumans and The Casualties and write our own songs, often poorly, but we enjoyed ourselves. That soon evolved into me getting into the folk punk scene, and for a while, I had a band called Fuego. We would play house shows and even released an album we recorded on a USB Yeti mic on that old free recording program Audacity.
I was increasingly influenced by old-time country music like Johnny Cash and Hank Williams during this time. It was a chaotic time, for sure.
After that phase, I got my life together a bit and went back to college after dropping out to study Spanish, and also eventually learned to speak Portuguese. I lived in Brazil on multiple occasions and traveled to Colombia, Mexico, and a large swath of Western Europe.
Brazilian and Mexican music, in particular, became a huge passion of mine and opened my eyes to the stylistic variety of music there is in the world. I've been focusing again on Americana and Roots music more heavily lately. That's where I find myself now, working on incorporating all these varied influences into my music.
KA: You’re from Gallup, NM, but got out of there as fast as you could. Why?
JN: Gallup was a rough place to grow up. It's an old mining town that sits right on the border of the Diné reservation, so there's lots of collective trauma around colonialism that lingers there. Although I didn't grow up in deep poverty, I could see and feel its effects all around me. There was lots of drug and alcohol abuse that began at a young age, and for me, there wasn't much community that I felt drawn to.
My dad had remarried when I was about seven and had been living in Albuquerque, so I had the opportunity to spend the summers and some weekends there. That gave me a glimpse of the "big city" and made Gallup seem limiting. I would go to shows at the Launchpad and meet the local punk kids, and I knew that's where I wanted to be. Once I was 14 and going into high school, I decided it was time to make the transition.
KA: After traveling the world, Albuquerque keeps calling you back. What’s pulling you in?
JN: I would say relationships. Despite my world travels, I've been firmly planted in NM all my life. My dad still lives here, so that definitely keeps me around. I also have friends in Albuquerque that I've known for many years, which keeps me coming home. Community is hard to reestablish the older you get, I find. Knowing I can come back and not feel like a stranger is comforting.
KA: I read that you have the Buddhist phrase “Om mani padme hum” tattooed on your arm. If you’re comfortable sharing, is there a story behind that?
JN: Definitely cool with sharing that story. As I mentioned previously, my mom would take me to Buddhist retreats when I was a child. She practiced Tibetan Buddhism closely since before I was born, so that mantra was ever present in my life. When my mom passed away in 2016, I got the tattoo as a tribute to her to honor the philosophy she passed down to me.
KA: For someone hearing your music for the first time, what do you want them to take away from it?
JN: I want my listeners to see that you don't have to fit into a particular genre mold and that they can hear and relate to my story through listening to my music. I want the listener to walk away and feel they listened to something unique and authentic.
KA: We’ve spoken with Lowmello and Hubba previously, and both spoke of how close-knit/cooperative the NM music scene is. Do you find that proximity influences your sound? If so, in what way(s)?
JN: The cooperative quality of the NM music scene definitely has influenced my sound! It's funny you mention Lowmello because he plays bass on most of the album and also fully produced the track "May The Rain Fall Down," so you can really hear how that influences the sound, both subtly and apparently.
The album was also co-produced by Edgar Wonder, a cornerstone of the ABQ music scene, and by Josh Lee, the lead guitarist of Hooks and the Huckleberries. It's really cool to see how the songs came together working with both of them. I generally just write a basic acoustic guitar piece with some lyrics, so everything you hear besides that is all a collaborative creation that I think turned out really special.
KA: What’s next for you? What’s the rest of 2023 look like?
JN: Now that the album is released, I'm focusing on finishing the gig season this year, which for me is through the end of October. I currently do music full-time, so I'm usually gigging 4 to 6 times a week on average. It helps to promote the album and to improve my craft. I'm also working on new material for a future album. Come November, I will head down to Costa Rica and spend some time there to rest and spend time in nature.
Justin Nuñez | Música del Corazón, 2023
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To connect with Nuñezor purchase his music, click here:
1. Describe your music style in one sentence.
Like if Johnny Cash went to South America for a couple of years
2. What music played in your house(s) growing up?
Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Bob Marley, Talking Heads, George Strait, Tim Mcgraw, Dolly Parton, Eminem.
3. What are you listening to these days?
Sierra Ferrel, Luke Bell, Kassi Valazza, Justin Townes Earl, Tyler Childers, Townes Van Zandt, Kevin Morby, Ian Noe, Sturgill Simpson, Femina, Danit, Simrit, Whitney, Rodrigo Amarante, Charley Crockett
4. What are your 5 Desert Island Discs?
Bob Dylan- Desire
Sierra Ferrel- Long Time Coming
Novos Baianos - Acabou Chorare
Johnny Cash- Greatest Hits
5. If you could collaborate with any artist/band, who would it be?
So many good choices….. I think at this moment it would be really cool to work with Sierra Ferrel.
Thanks to Justin Nuñez for stopping by, and thank you for being here,