Justen Howard, known now as Duke Justice, thinks it’s important to have a stage name. He got his from a drunk man outside a venue he was performing with his old band, All Chiefs. “You’re the duke of Denver, man,” Howard remembers the man calling. Although not by blood, there is royalty in Howard’s prowess as a musician. To listen to him speak and hear him perform is to witness the perfect balance of talent, confidence, humble indifference and pragmatism. He knows exactly how music is digested these days, and he fully embraces the fluidity of the song-on-a-whim Spotify culture.
“I think that’s the cool part about music now,” Howard said. “It doesn’t have to be that you’re just this hip-hop artist, or this pop artist. You can do whatever you want — and I love that.”
Howard became Duke Justice because he could. After All Chiefs split, a local favorite, whether to continue making music wasn’t a question — he would. And he already had everything he needed to make it happen. Howard plays multiple instruments, knows production and has a history of writing songs. “It became an exercise in getting out of my own way,” Howard said.
“The Turn” was Howard’s debut as a solo artist, released on Dec. 22. “The Turn” is a synth-pop pivot away from other work of Howard’s some may be familiar with from his All Chiefs days. It’s incredibly catchy, grunge and clean — it serves a purpose in music Howard talks about matter-of-factly: relatability. The song may be loosely boxed in as a break-up song, but Howard wants you to come to your own interpretation.
Denver is only Howard’s most recent stop, and he’s been here for eight years. Previously, Howard lived in Florida, Texas, Atlanta, London and his home state, New York. Like many of his peers, Howard describes Denver’s music scene as warmer and more collaborative than those in other cities. Howard speculated that some of Denver’s receptivity to new music may be that it is relatively fresher than places like New York City.
“The coolest band in New York is like a guy in a basement of a laundromat with a tuba,” Howard joked. But if that’s what an audience asks for, and if an artist is willing to do it, Howard is for it. He wants his music to be understood and enjoyed.
“It’s so much more about this association you make with it in your mind — and how it hits you in that way — that really makes it stick in your heart as a song,” Howard said.
You can expect a lot more from Howard — including another single, “Startup,” dropping Tuesday, Feb. 22. Right now, he said, he’s focused on establishing versatility. There is a savviness to Howard that matches his talent, and he won’t be slowing down anytime soon — in fact, he is precisely one of those artists that continues to gain momentum and propel off of the time. Howard sees the events of the past year as an opportunity to see past our tendency to be “complacent,” and he views the pouring of art coming from everyone as a worthwhile risk.
“If you do have something you want to have happen, you have to fight for it,” Howard said. “It”s gotta be a little bit scary, it’s gotta be a little bit risky, and that uncomfortability is what pushes you forward.”
Keep up with Duke Justice on his Facebook page.