Tiny Desk Contest winner Naia Izumi on being a role model for those with autism

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Naia Izumi

Winning NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest has been a major career boost to those who have come out on top. But Georgia multi-instrumentalist Naia Izumi has remained remarkably nonchalant after beating out 5,000 entrants into the annual music competition with his single “Soft Spoken.”

“I actually forgot that I put the entry in, and the next thing I knew I got the email,” the 34-year-old said, laughing. “I’m not the kind of person who gets surprised very easily, so I was just kinda like ‘oh, that’s cool.’”

To Naia Izumi, entering the contest in the first place was simply an extension of his passion to make music and share it with others. Playing concert halls rather than street corners gives him excuses to do what he loves most.

“It’s not about where I do it; it’s about doing it and having fun,” he said.

This attitude keeps the guitarist far outside expectations in more way than one. From the distinct mix of neo-soul and math-rock, to the very nucleus of his artistic individualism, no music scenes, influential players or dreams of stardom paved the path Naia Izumi walks.

“Nobody inspired me whatsoever,” he said. “I just love sounds. I like organizing sounds. That’s it.”

Izumi’s love of music began young, with extensive classical training and playing in school orchestras. Eventually he shifted from upright bass to guitar and began gravitating toward older, more experienced players.

“I didn’t like the musicians closer to my age because I felt that they were stuck up their butt,” Izumi said. “I went to a lot of older players and session musicians and asked them a lot of questions and learned about the craft from them.”

Session musicians and classical veterans supported him early on when he wasn’t finding encouragement in friends and family. But his unique style sprung entirely from the sounds he thought up on his own.

“I don’t care about what others do too much,” Izumi said. “There’s plenty of great ideas coming from brilliant players, but you self-defeat when you compare yourself to what they’re doing. I experiment and listen within my own heart and mind about what would feel like me.”

As he got better, Naia Izumi never lost sight of the visceral experiences het gets from playing music. He refuses to write songs based on music theory, or work with those who do. Instead, he creates based on gut reactions and inspiration.

“Music is not an intellectual art,” Izumi said. “The only logical and scientific things behind it is making it stable, repeatable and communicable. People should be able to listen and respond. That’s the whole point of it.”

Nowhere is this balance of thoughtfulness and proficiency more apparent than on the song that won him the Tiny Desk contest, “Soft Spoken.” Over syncopated drum machine loops, danceable bass grooves and vocal serenades, a dazzling tapped guitar line steals the show. The lick’s undeniable difficulty stems from the prodigious skill he has built up over decades of practice. But Izumi remains free-flowing in his artistic expression.

“I have nothing planned out. Even my live performances vary depending on how I feel at the moment,” he said. “If you were to come to one of my live shows and hear me improvise, it’s literally a complete song right out the gate. It starts with a whim, and then ‘boom,’ it’s done.”

The creative writing courses Izumi took during college allow him to craft his lyrics into personal, yet moldable narratives. In the case of “Soft Spoken,” Izumi is hesitant to relate the words specifically to his own experiences with transgenderism and autism, preferring his songs to be perceived in a more universal sense.

“It has nothing to do with any of that stuff,” he reveals. “It’s more about the general experience of being a soft-spoken, gentle spirit and having other people’s opinions come across louder. It’s a euphemism for the world being really loud and you finding your way through the noise of the world and making yourself heard.”

Such an involved, yet fluid songwriting approach lends itself to Naia Izumi’s methodical process of incrementally developing multifaceted arrangements—a carryover from his classical background.

“The way my mind works is I break things down in little pieces,” he said. “I can always play a little piece of [a song], so I’ll section it off into little chunks and work on it until it grooves—eating the watermelon little bit by little. You can accomplish anything by breaking it down into little chunks and building it up. The whole world was built piece by piece.”

This decision to hunker down and dial in his songs one measure at a time makes his music not only a creative outlet, but a way for him to acclimate to a hyperactive world as someone on the autistic spectrum.

By “taking time to breathe, watch [his music] grow and be thankful for every little bit of success,” Izumi has found a source of personal efficiency in a daunting environment, and a means of combating the blinding speed of society.

“We’re very overstimulated in this world,” he said. “We’re not meant to have this much stimulation. Social media—the whole ‘I woke up like this’ kind of thing—this is really dumb, and it really messes with kids’ heads. They need to know that they can work hard and make things happen. I take any chance I get to say ‘I worked at this.’ Even if it was just an idea, I eventually made it something.”

Izumi’s success reflects the lengths he has taken to improve himself as a person. His outlook on perseverance coincides with his desire to spread that positive mentality to those dealing with similar things, and to anyone willing to lend an ear.

“I do realize that there is a shortage of inspiration for certain things like the spectrum of autism,” he said. “I want to show people practical ways to work on ourselves and acclimate ourselves to the way things work now. I want to be there as much as I can to help people think about things a bit differently and break things down without getting overwhelmed.”

In spite of the stigma associated with autism, Naia Izumi offers himself as an example of how one can not only live with it, but thrive. Given proper self-care and guidance, he sees autism as not a problem but instead as a unique brain chemistry one can use to accomplish the unexpected.

“What’s really interesting about these so-called ‘mental illnesses’ is that they’ve existed for as long as mankind,” he muses. “The only thing that has changed is the environments we’ve created for ourselves and how we’re handling those environments. We have to remember to slow down and think about how to nurture ourselves—doing what you want to do and accomplishing what you want to accomplish.”

Undeterred by the world’s inherent imperfections, Izumi remains dedicated to being a positive impact. The joy he finds in playing music is matched only by his desire to give back to those he cares about—especially his mother, who supported him through much of his life when he struggled to find his place academically and socially.

“I would love to take care of my mom, and buy her a house and have people take care of her and love her,” he said. “She is a very loving person. I just want to play music for as long as possible. I’m not a very extravagant person.”

Follow writer Max Heilman at Twitter.com/madmaxx1995.

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