At this point, during her late February chat with Billboard, the 28-year-old singer-songwriter, actor and former Victorious lead is two months deep into her musical return; a process that’s been many years, many songs and a few false starts in the making. Currently, only two independently released tracks, “Treat Myself” and “Stay,” make up her new portfolio. Getting those two out there, though, took a great deal of patience -- as Justice held onto them, patiently waiting for the right time.
From the way she lights up talking about her music, it seems she’s found her footing. During our chat, Justice says she feels like she’s in a great spot in her life, with every aspect of the creative process now under her gaze. But despite how it may appear, she doesn’t consider her musical return a comeback.
“When people were like, ‘Oh, it's like her comeback,’ that sort of freaked me out,” Justice says. “I just want people to hear it. I’m just flattered that people care in general that I'm making music.”
Instead, she’s happy to highlight it just as she sees it: She’s a songwriter with a message to share, and she’s finally organically releasing music -- something that’s been a constant in her life since her last commercial release in 2013 -- once again. “I was definitely writing throughout that time, sometimes more than others,” Justice says of her break from releasing music. “I was really like, ‘OK, I need to be making music again.’ Like, ‘I really missed this, I want to make more, I want to be creative, I want to be writing, I want to be in the studio.’”
Of course, there was once a time when Justice’s studio presence was intertwined with her acting roles. After getting her major start on Nickelodeon’s Zoey 101 as Lola Martinez from 2005 to 2008, Justice landed her first main-character television gig on Victorious in 2011. The show introduced Justice to the masses, as she starred as protagonist Tori Vega -- a teenage singer looking to pursue her dreams while enrolling in Hollywood Arts, a performing arts school in LA. Thanks in large part to Justice’s eight-plus years of acting experience at that point, and her ever-catchy theme performance on “Make It Shine,” Victorious was an instant success -- at one point earning over six million viewers when its most-watched episode aired.
Justice’s manager of 10 years, Jonathan Shank, was able to oversee much of her work on the show, which he says was an early opportunity for Justice to show off her songwriting chops as a teen. Justice is credited as a songwriter on a handful of songs off of the show’s three soundtracks, two of which charted on the Billboard 200. “Music has always been part of her and what she does, even going back to when she was doing Victorious,” Shank said. “She was writing a lot of that material at that time. I think that that's really impressive. And, you know, being a songwriter and being an artist is and has always been part of who she is.”
As a result of her studio grind, Justice earned three Hot 100 hits -- the biggest of which was 2011’s “Freak The Freak Out,” which peaked at No. 50 -- with the Victorious soundtrack album itself peaking in the top 5 on the Billboard 200. For the next two years, Justice caught the attention of a generation of Nickelodeon fans as she made it shine until the show’s dismissal in 2013.
Friend and former Victorious co-star Leon Thomas III is now half of production duo The Rascals, who worked on fellow co-star Ariana Grande’s latest chart-topping album Positions, along with some of her other material. Thomas tells Billboard that seeing Justice, his friend since their Zoey 101 days, release new music is truly a testament to the talent of the cast.
“Collaborating with Ariana on her last album, and just seeing the growth that she's made musically -- and seeing Vic take her steps into music in a very serious way -- just kind of shows that it wasn't just another side to our talents; It's one of our best attributes,” Thomas says.
It wasn’t until 2013’s “Gold” that Justice first showed signs of who she was outside of her titular character on the show. The shimmery pop track didn’t make the Hot 100 like her debut Victorious track before it, and ended up being Justice’s only effort with Columbia Records before cutting ties with the label just a year later. That’s when, Justice says, she prioritized film and television.
“Life, things would get in the way,” Justice says. “I was putting my focus more on acting, and I did another TV show for MTV, and a few movies and guest spots, and I was traveling a lot. But throughout all of that, music has never left me. It was always something that I knew I was gonna come back to.”
It’s not like Justice’s 20 million Instagram followers and 10 million Twitter supporters haven’t seen her in action since the first single’s release, either. She’s kept busy with a lead role on MTV’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show Event and another in the upcoming film Trust, which releases this month. Still, Justice’s filmography never stopped fans from inquiring about her future in music. “I would have fans constantly asking me like, ‘When are you gonna put out music again?’” Justice says. “And it was something I always intended to do,”.
Once 2020 rolled around, Justice promised her fans that their wishes for new material would come true within 12 months. And she still fulfilled that promise, right at the tailend of the year, with the most timely track in her arsenal to start her rollout with.
“The timing with the pandemic, and having ‘Treat Myself,’ I just sort of felt like, this is the perfect time for me to put the song out,” Justice says. “So many people are struggling and so many people are alone with their thoughts more than ever. And so many people don't talk themselves well and feel like crap and I've been there too. I just wanted people to know, you're not alone. And we can get through this together."
“Treat Myself,” the gentle, guitar-plucking self-love pop anthem with a bridge pretty enough to melt its listeners, was an easy track to pick as Justice’s first. She wrote the single months before the pandemic, but it’s simple message has been a guiding light for many of her fans since release: Regardless of what you may be going through, it’s essential to prioritize yourself. “Because in this life, all we have is ourselves,” Justice says. “We wake up every day, we go to sleep every night with the same person, which is ourselves. And we need to be kind to that person.”
Self-releasing her first single meant nothing was promised. Justice didn’t expect the song to be a success on the charts, and truthfully, she doesn’t care if it ever is. As she celebrated the track's release with a few friends and her mother back in December, however, she says she was near tears when she noticed it made it onto Spotify’s New Music Friday playlist.
“It's a lot of work. But I think it's worth it because I'm really invested in every single step of the process,” Justice says. “Obviously, I'm not getting the same marketing push, or that sort of thing, you know, if I was with the label. But I think for now, that's OK. I feel like with ‘Treat Myself,’ my goal was not to get to No. 1 on the charts and be on pop radio and all that stuff. My goal was to just share music that I loved and to put it back out into the world.”
After her first go ahead with her debut single in 2013, Justice says she’s been able to mature, learn who she is and truly understand what she wants from her music. After all, she was only 21 when she released “Gold.” Now, completely independent, she feels happy being the one calling the shots.
“It's just nice to be the captain of my own ship,” Justice says. “And there isn’t anyone telling me like, ‘You have to write this kind of song, or we're only going to put money behind this kind of song, or we have to make this kind of video’ or anything like that. It's like, I just get to do, creatively, whatever I want. I'm not on anyone else's timeline, I'm on my own timeline. And it feels very liberating. “
Shank has been seeing a change in Justice on his end, too. After watching her build a following with Nickelodeon, try the major-label route and work on her independent material for the last few years, he insists that this is her moment to truly be authentic to herself. “Having seen her grow up over the last handful of years, you really see that reflected as the sessions and as the songs started to develop,” the manager says. “And I think that this is her first real chance to show people who she really is as a writer and as an artist, and as a person.”
And Listeners have embraced Justice as a result, too. From seeing both Thomas and other fellow co-stars like Grande supporting her single online, to watching reaction videos from fans and having her phone blow up with congratulatory texts, she admits it all felt a bit surreal. “It was like, ‘Man, I really did this, I put a lot of work into this,’” Justice says. “And it’s just a pat-yourself-on-the-back moment.”
Thomas explains that what Justice has been able to accomplish isn’t normally the case for most who break out of the Nickelodeon or Disney molds. So for him, seeing “Treat Myself” earn 2.5 million streams on Spotify and 3.5 million views on YouTube hits a lot closer to home. “That show [Victorious] was all about making your dreams come true,” Thomas says. “And that's not the story for a lot of other child actors who worked really hard to climb their way out of the Nickelodeon and Disney system, so it's just really great to see all my homies succeed.”
Now, as Justice looks to songwriters like Julia Micahels, Sasha Sloan and Taylor Swift as those pushing authenticity in the most admitable ways, she’s continuing to do the same with her recent single, “Stay.” The follow-up to “Treat Myself,” she shares, was one of the first tracks she wrote when she started getting more serious about recording again. “I just remember as soon as I wrote that song, it had such a nice vibe and I just loved how romantic it was,” Justice says. “And it had this throwback feel. Whenever I would play it for people, that was usually the song that people would gravitate toward the most and was their favorite.”
Justice isn’t sure whether the new songs will lead to an EP or an eventual debut album, saying that she needs to get back in the studio first before making any promises. (“Which I'm planning on doing now,” she adds.)
Until then, Justice is hopeful about the future of her music career after her seven-year hiatus. Whether she sees more New Music Friday entries or not, or whether she eventually signs with a major label, the possibilities are endless. She’s happy with where she is, the pressure is off and fans are listening. But above all, she’s learning to treat herself better.
“I feel like there are so many possibilities and opportunities in the future,” Justice explains. “And I feel good about the music I've put out so far… I feel like I am where I want to be right now on it. I'm in an exciting place.”