Naia Izumi opens up about life since winning NPR’s Tiny Desk competition

I begin our phone call with some awkward formalities: “Is it alright if I record this conversation? I feel a bit like a spy when I have to do this,” … Naia chuckles and assures me that it’s cool in a raspy tone akin to his singing voice. Right away, there’s a casual nature to my dialogue with brilliant guitarist, singer-songwriter, and 2018 NPR Tiny Desk Contest winner, Naia Izumi. It’s as if we’ve already been friends for a while; I don’t bat an eye when, hardly two minutes into chatting, Naia tells me a homeless man once punched him in the face when he was busking in Hollywood, and Naia doesn’t seem thrown off when I pose the vulnerable quandary of whether he’s been in love before.

Since winning the Tiny Desk Contest, Naia is professionally touring, making from one gig what he’d sometimes scrounge up “in a whole month of playing on the streets.” He has secured a record contract with SONY Masterworks, and is even giving a TED talk in the coming month. All these accolades, yet Izumi maintains his honest and serene composure. This is the magnetic charm of outrageously talented, yet humble-to-the-core Naia Izumi. He is simultaneously reserved and completely open about himself, “soft-spoken” (like the title of the song he won NPR with) and capable of accessing powerful existential depths in his lyricism. But, this depth is not without reason; Naia has embarked on a veritable odyssey to stand where he is now, from having to hide his guitar in a closet, growing up in a household where his father forbid him to play, to leaving home at age sixteen in order to pursue music. Now 35-years-old, Naia has spent years making ends meet by performing on the gritty streets of Los Angeles before being spotlighted by NPR. That’s why it feels so right to appreciate his music: beyond his catchy riffs, poetic writing, and unique style of finger-tapping on the fretboard—he’s earned it. And so it goes that somewhere in eternally sunny Los Angeles, I sat down to catch up over the phone with Naia Izumi, speeding by alone in a tour bus somewhere near Buffalo, New York.

Ever been dying to pick Naia’s brain about his creative process? Read below. Never heard of him? Even better, I’d be happy to introduce you. Welcome to the “soulful, intricate, and bizarre” world of Naia Izumi.

Q: Where are you right now?

A: I think I’m in like Hudson, New York, on the way to Buffalo. On a tour bus by myself [laughs].

Q: By yourself? You have a backing band though, right?

A: This tour I’m just doing alone.

Q: Wow, how is that?

A: It’s fun, I mean my backing band is just a drummer and bass player.

Q: You’re pretty used to playing solo by now, huh?

A: Yeah, definitely.

Q: I saw that you started by busking, what’s the oddest moment or interaction you’ve had while busking?

A: Well, I wouldn’t say the oddest, but I had one moment where I was on Hollywood and Highland and I was playing, just minding my own business, and out of nowhere this homeless tweaker dude punches me in the face … I lost a tooth because of it.

Q: That’s insane, how did you react to that?

A: I was just like, “oh dang, that was pretty good.” I didn’t fight him back or anything. He probably didn’t even realize what he was doing, it’s not even worth messing with.

Q: That’s a very spiritually high-level response to someone punching you in the face.

A: I mean it just seems logical, if a dumbass punches you in the face, why would you … [laughs]

Q: Have you had any especially heartwarming moments while busking?

A: I’ve had a lot of heartwarming moments. Sometimes there will be dancers on their way from a session or whatever, and they’re just feeling what I’m doing and they’ll all go into one of their routines right there. I’m like “why didn’t I have a camera!”

Q: Where’s your favorite spot to busk?

A: I don’t busk anymore, it’s been at least a couple months. But when I did, I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite, but it was more money; Hollywood & Highland seemed more consistent money-wise. It wasn’t much, but it was something.

Q: Do you think you would ever busk again, or are those days over for you?

A: I might, if I really felt like it kind of thing. But, other than that, I’m kinda happy, you know? As long as I’m playing longer sets, because I really love playing two-hour, one-hour sets.

Q: When you listen to music, what do you listen for first? Do you listen for tone, lyrics, or production aspects?

A: I feel it. I don’t really listen to it first. I’m looking for, how does this make me feel? What kind of emotion? Is it sensual? Is it happy? Does it make me feel like I wanna travel and I’m in a car with all my friends and we’re just having a blast? Is it dramatic? Does it feel like a horror movie? Pretty much, is it accomplishing this? Everything just comes out when you feel a certain way and you don’t really have to worry about anything else. The tone, all the sounds just pour out when you focus more on the feeling.

Q: For you, when you’re in the process of writing music, does any element take precedence over the others? Do you tend to focus more on the guitar or lyrics, or does it all kind of flow together?

A: Rhythm and feeling. That’s my everything. The average person, or anybody, regardless of whether it’s a super, super accomplished musician listening, or just the average ear, they focus on the feeling. It doesn’t even have to be a genre they like, but if it’s a really good feeling and it’s in alignment with how they want to feel, they’ll be receptive of it. They won’t care about how technical it is. Whether it’s in 11/8 or something, or just 4/4. As long as it feels good to them and everything’s in alignment, that’s when the magic happens.

Q: Absolutely. I watched some videos of you improvising and I was wondering what you draw from when you improvise. Is there a place you go to in your head?

A: I’m completely in the moment. I feel like you can’t … well, I won’t say that you can’t, but the best improvisations happen when you’re completely locked into where you are in that moment. It can be … I heard someone’s conversation and they were like, “yesterday I did this and this and it was like this rhythm” [mimics a beat] and I add a beat like a rhythm they just said. I can completely compose a whole thing of just that rhythm and just sort of impose by how it feels, chords over the top of that. The melody just comes out, and all of a sudden, you have a whole song.

Q: Is there anything you tend to focus on in your lyrics?

A: Lyrics are usually just how I’m feeling. I try to stay away from love topics, unless it’s sort of a unique thing. Well, sometimes it does feel good to go to love songs, I might do one or two, but I try to keep it pretty broad for the most part, something that anybody could understand.

Q: Why do you try to keep away from love, do you feel like it would be too generic?

A: Not that it’s generic. I guess it’s just, I don’t know … it’s just not something that I focus on too much in my life. It happens when it happens, and it happens in its own time. … there’s so much more in life that we deal with.

Q: Have you been in love before?

A: Yeah, I have. I just really try to be present and if I’m really honestly present, that’s not really the thing that I’m focused on.

Q: Totally. What do you do when you’re at your darkest?

A: When I’m at my darkest … I’m the same as I am when I’m at my lightest.

Q: I absolutely love that answer … I want you to take me to where you were in your life and career just before winning the NPR Tiny Desk Contest, what was it like then?

A: I was playing on the street, just trying to make money. Just trying to keep a roof over my head and food to eat for my tummy.

Q: And you were living in LA?

A: Yeah, I’ve been in LA for about five years now. Four of those years I was street performing.

Q: Is LA the first place you came to after you left home?

A: Yeah, actually I intended to go to Austin. My girlfriend at the time, we’d been together for about four or five years; we decided to just up and leave. We were going to go to Austin, but we met some cool people and they were like, “you should come check out LA!” We were like, “well we haven’t settled or anything, we’re just kind of traveling, so we might as well.” She got hooked, and I can’t argue with her so … [laughs].

Q: Since winning the contest, has your life shifted measurably?

A: Quite measurably. I’m able to make probably what it would take me a whole month to make playing on the streets sometimes in just one gig. And being on the road like I am now is something I wasn’t able to do so much. I’m doing a TED Talk November 1st, and then a talk for Ableton later in November, around the 28th. And I just signed on to SONY Masterworks.

Q: Are these your dreams coming true, or are they things you didn’t think would happen before?

A: I knew it would happen eventually, even when I was playing on the streets I was planning towards it. My plan was just to play on the street, build leverage on my social media, like taking pictures and videos on my DSLR, posting decent content and developing things like that. But after the NPR thing happened, it gave me a massive amount of exposure to just the right people and things just … [makes exploding noise].

Q: That’s incredible, and you completely deserve it. Do you ever doubt yourself or question how your life has exploded so awesomely and beautifully?

A: Sometimes I almost want to break down and start crying, it’s just a massive blessing. Even some of the things, like I’ve had some brands that want me to do modeling stuff … “I’m like 35 years old!” [laughs].

Q: That’s awesome! When did you join Jammcard?

A: Just around the time the NPR Tiny Desk came out, just before that. Andy Alt, who’s managing me, he got me into it, and I met a lot of people, like Elmo, who’s really sweet.

Q: What are your thoughts on the Jammcard app and community so far?

A: It’s really great and incredibly supportive. I mean, there’s been a lot of times when I’m in a crunch and I need a drummer for a spot, and I’ll just post, “hey I’m in Chicago, I need somebody on this NPR stop,” and you know, that’s how I met Jessica Burdeaux, and she came in and killed it and we keep in touch for any other gigs that I’m at towards the midwest or whatever. And I met Brendan (Mcguckin), a really brilliant drummer in New York, who I met off Jammcard. Yeah, it’s been really, really cool.

Q: So what’s in store for you creatively now, and what’s next after your tour?

A: After the tour, I’m going to be re-recording some demos that I already have for SONY. I have somewhere near 20 or more songs that I did in one year, I just put them all out on Bandcamp a few years ago. I have new stuff, but since people know those songs and I can feel confident putting those out on a bigger platform, I’ll just focus on rolling those out; the five songs that they want to do first, and then next year they want to put out a whole album. But, it’s kind of up in the air, because I may just write some new stuff and be like “I like these better,” or something.

Q: What would you say to someone who’s on the same path as you – someone who’s busking and trying to get out there in that way?

A: I would say just keep doing what you’re doing. Don’t follow your dreams, just take them with you. Take care of what you gotta take care of first, and keep your dreams in mind.

By: Alexandra Dwight