Naia Izumi interview: Winner of NPR Tiny Desk Contest brings their soulful vocals to Hong Kong ahead of debut album


'Soft Spoken' singer talks about why they prefers busking to performing at gigs and how being on the autistic spectrum helps their music

Chris Gillett |

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Izumi will be in Hong Kong for the first time to perform at Terrible Baby in Kowloon this Thursday

This Thursday, cosy music venue Terrible Baby will be hosting guitar aficionado Naia Izumi ahead of their highly-anticipated debut album, set to be released next year. Having grown an adoring fan base from busking, to winning the NPR Tiny Desk contest in 2018 with a unique blend of groove guitar rhythms, jazzy chords and soulful vocals, the 24-year-old spoke to Young Post ahead of their first ever Asia tour.

Going right back to start of your career - When did you start to learn to play the guitar and what inspired you to pick up the instrument?

To be honest, I don't even know. I just picked it up and start playing. Music chose me, I didn't choose music.

How long did it take you to develop your technique and be able to sing over the top of these intricate parts?

One blessing of having autism is people who are on the spectrum can do multiple things at the same time pretty easily. So, for me it’s just a natural thing, conceiving two different things and being able to figure out in my head how to put them together.

How long did you busk for?

I didn't start out busking originally. I've always been a session player, doing a bunch of different styles and playing for different projects my entire life. But busking was something that would make a little bit of money on the side. That was really all it was. But what I really liked about it was the freedom - I don't really like playing too many shows because of all the organisation, and timings. There isn't really room to have much freedom in shows, as you have to perform to the audience, whereas I just [busk] because I want to.

You did an international tour after you won the NPR Tiny Desk concert contest. What did you enjoy about touring? Was it what you expected it to be like?

I have mixed feelings. I just like playing, and any time I’m playing I’m happy, so the rest of the daily stuff around touring – well, that's just life.

You're close to finishing your album - is there any theme or inspiration behind the album?

There are so many songs and so much inspiration that it would take me hours to break down. But I would say when it comes out - listen to it and feel it for yourself. What inspires me is not necessarily what inspires everyone else, so I'd rather people listen to it and form their own opinions. That's what music’s about. It's a little too early to say when it’ll be released yet, but maybe early-to-mid next year. 

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What's it been like working with [producer] Tony Berg on the album?

It's definitely been inspiring in a lot of ways and it's been really fun working with him. He’s been challenging me to open my chord progressions up a little bit more, and make them longer. He's more of a chords kind-of-guy, whereas I'm all about groove and rhythm, so we bought both those different worlds together.

Have you ever visited Asia or Hong Kong before?

I've never, but I’ve got quite a few friends there who I met here in LA and they’re definitely connected in a lot of ways. Hopefully I’ll get some time to meet up with them and have them show me some cool places. I’m going to be playing solo because I don't have the budget to hire musicians yet, and as the album's not out - it'll probably be more low-key and intimate.

Naia Izumi performs at Terrible Baby in Kowloon on November 14. Tickets are available from Ticketflap.