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Naia Izumi Went From LA Busking To Winning NPR's Tiny Desk Contest

Musician Naia Izumi (Photo courtesy of Naia Izumi)
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Just one song into a rehearsal at his manager's studio apartment overlooking Echo Park Lake, Naia Izumi abruptly put down his guitar and slipped out the back door to get some air.

"I'm kind of overwhelmed right now" he said, just above a whisper. "It's hard to focus."

Hard to focus with this reporter taking pictures and recording sound and his manager Andy Alt shooting video. Izumi struggles with mild autism.

It's mostly under control, without medication. But some circumstances can still overwhelm him.

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"But I know how to handle it now," Izumi said. "I leave the room and breathe and count backwards, and get my analytical mind back in circuit. When I do that, then I can push through, even though I still feel stuff."

Izumi says music has always been a refuge, a focus for a restless mind and an escape from a troubled Georgia childhood. Along with guitar, Izumi's also mastered drums, standup bass -- and pretty much any instrument that appeals to him.

"It was a calling, towards loving myself," Izumi said. "I learned so much about life through whatever instrument I play. When I get into an instrument I'm very, very into every single detail. I literally take things apart."

Naia Izumi rehearses in Echo Park. (Photo by Steven Cuevas)

A lot of Izumi's material revolves around his fluid, funky, percussive guitar lines -- the fingers on both hands flying up and down the neck of his guitar like a piano keyboard. He's been compared to King Crimson, Prince, and another musician who launched his career as a guitar-slinging street busker: Jeff Buckley. But Izumi's cagey when asked about his musical inspirations.

"Everything, just sound," Izumi said. "When musicians get stuck on notes, they get stuck in their abilities. When you listen to sound and timbres and emulate those sounds and those feelings, the things you taste and touch and all the senses, using your whole being -- percussion especially -- you can definitely feel it in your bones."

Izumi was barely eking out a living busking on the streets of Venice, Hollywood, and downtown L.A. -- experiences he's been documenting in a series of online video diaries.

Unlike many other street musicians, Izumi writes, records, and performs all his own material. During one burst of creativity in 2016, he released a series of monthly 4-song mini-albums via Bandcamp, locking himself away in a small makeshift garage studio in South L.A.

"I can record a whole song and have it done in less than a day," Izumi said. "Make some time, just block four days off, lock myself up in and just do it. [Songs] just come as soon as I pick up my guitar. I spend so much time with my music -- it's just there whenever I'm ready for it."

On the strength of the song "Soft Spoken," Izumi beat out nearly 5,000 other performers to win NPR's annual Tiny Desk song contest this spring.

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Despite sometimes feeling overwhelmed, Izumi can come across as anything but soft-spoken. He has a commanding physical presence and a creative drive that, according to his manager, usually has him up at 4 o'clock each morning to meditate. Then he works out new material and maybe takes the bus --with all his gear -- to whatever downtown street corner he can pick up a few bucks performing.

"If you look at the definition of 'soft-spoken,' it means you just talk softly. It doesn't really connote your sense of power. You can be soft-spoken and carry a big stick," Izumi said, laughing.

"Soft Spoken" was originally written and recorded as "Soft Spoken Woman." Izumi says he's struggled with gender identity for years, and a few years ago began the process of transitioning.

At a show I saw a couple years ago at an L.A. dive bar, Izumi had long black flowing hair, wore a long black dress, and identified as a woman. Last year, he recorded a YouTube video to announce he was, in his words, "de-transitioning."

"I choose to share my life because I'm a real person. I am not a faker," Izumi said. "People make things bigger than what they really are, that's really the whole lesson: just be here. Love who you are, love what you're doing, love who you're with."

Fellow guitarist and music producer Andy Aly started managing Izumi shortly before he won NPR's Tiny Desk contest.

"Music flows right through Naia," Alt said. "[He] has a subtlety in the art of playing guitar. I don't know if you've seen this, but his forearm is holding down the whammy bar while there's an odd time signature tapping. And it's incredibly musical, and then there's [his] vocals. That's a dedication I have not seen reproduced anywhere in a human being."

"Music is a hearing and a feeling art," Izumi added. "And if you can't listen and learn it and then play or respond in a cohesive way, I don't want to play with you. You should be able to just hear it and go for it."

On the weekend before a mini-tour of the U.S., Izumi ran through a batch of songs with his new bass player: 23-year old Maddie Jay, a recent graduate of the Berklee School of Music and an impressive composer, rapper, and songwriter in her own right.

"I'm used to communicating with people in the way that we learn from music school through charts where like; hey, I'm playing this quarter note, here's the time signature," Jay explained. "But playing with Naia, he just plays, and then I listen, and then we play together. It's really natural and feels so musical -- rather than having to talk about it."

As he prepared for his first-ever national mini-tour sponsored by NPR, Izumi was cool and focused. Was he nervous? He shook his head no.

"My whole [plan] to take my music to the next level is to just play, do it, and let myself be found," Izumi said. "I'll play anywhere I'm allowed to play. I don't care if it's one person or 5 million people watching me, I'm still doing the same thing that I would do anywhere. Nobody's gonna stop me from playing."

And no one's trying. Since winning NPR's Tiny Desk contest, Izumi's received an avalanche of attention -- including an invite from veteran British rocker Peter Frampton asking if Izumi could open for him at his upcoming show at L.A.'s Greek Theatre. (A version of this story was also on the radio. Listen to it here on KPCC.)

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