Meet Naia Izumi, The 2018 Tiny Desk Contest Winner

Apr 27, 2018
Originally published on April 24, 2018 8:56 pm

After months of searching, the fourth annual Tiny Desk Contest winner has been announced!

Naia Izumi is a 34-year-old musician from Columbus, Ga. who now lives in Los Angeles and busks on that city's streets. With a plethora of self-released music on Bandcamp and a skilled, soulful Tiny Desk Contest submission, he impressed our Contest judges enough to stand out from nearly 5,000 entries.

Izumi's submission for the contest, "Soft Spoken," showcases both his undeniable talent and charismatic personality. Izumi was assigned male at birth and — though he currently identifies as male — identified as a woman for about seven years (and originally titled the track "Soft Spoken Woman"). The song of his winning entry was written in order to try to address dealing with prejudices both social and artistic.

"I was experiencing a lot of people [who would] just kind of over-talk me, or downplay my abilities because of how I presented myself," Izumi says.

Izumi got his first guitar as a child — he estimates he was between eight and 10 years old — and began to experiment immediately. Though he quickly became obsessed with making music, Izumi says wasn't always encouraged to pursue his passion. While his mother, a part-time choir director, supported it, his father didn't want him to play. "I had to hide that guitar in my closet," he remembers.

He now prides himself in making declarative music, writing songs that are a stark contrast to his timid personality — but Izumi, who has openly discussed living with autism, says that music is his refuge.

"[It's] having all this power that I can use to express myself," Izumi says, citing that he is a multi-instrumentalist and producer as well as a performer.

Having gone through so much for the love of music, Izumi welcomes the idea of being seen as a role model for young musicians in the wake of winning the Tiny Desk Contest.

"Honestly, I'm kind of ready for it," Izumi says. "I get comments sometimes like, 'You're so talented.' It's not talent, it's work. It's something anybody can do, you just have to put in the hours."

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Our friends at NPR Music have been searching for an unsigned super-talent. Thousands of musicians from all 50 states entered this year's Tiny Desk Contest. Now the judges have chosen a winner, and the winning video begins with a soft-spoken introduction appropriate for a song called "Soft Spoken."


NAIA IZUMI: Hey. I'm Naia Izumi, and this is my 2018 NPR Tiny Desk Contest entry. It's called - this song is called "Soft Spoken" or previously "Soft Spoken Woman." Enjoy.

SHAPIRO: Naia Izumi starts tapping a drum machine. Once it's going in a loop, the guitar begins.


IZUMI: (Singing) Back up.

SHAPIRO: When Naia Izumi came into the studio, he told me about the change to that song's title from "Soft Spoken Woman" too "Soft Spoken."

IZUMI: I used to be transgender for about maybe seven years or so.

SHAPIRO: You lived as a woman.

IZUMI: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: And that was when you wrote this song.

IZUMI: Yeah, that was when I wrote this song 'cause I was going through that experience, seeing a lot of people just kind of, like, trying to, like, downplay my abilities or whatever because of how I presented myself. There was one instance where it happened, and it just made me really, really annoyed. I was just like, I'm going to write a song about it (laughter).

SHAPIRO: So this is a response to that kind of treatment.

IZUMI: Yeah.


IZUMI: (Singing) Don't judge, baby, a book by its cover. Listen, and you will learn. I might be a soft-spoken person, but I'm aware of the power I have, so...

SHAPIRO: The lyrics say, don't judge a book by its cover. Listen, and you will learn. I might be a soft-spoken person, but I'm aware of the power I have.

IZUMI: Yeah. I've always been very confident in my work but socially very timid just 'cause of my upbringing and all that stuff.

SHAPIRO: You have recorded a lot of YouTube videos where you talk about your life.


IZUMI: Growing up dealing with autism, music was - it really helped me.

SHAPIRO: And in some of those videos, you talk about your experience with autism and the way that music has helped you overcome some of the challenges that autism has brought. Can you talk about that relationship?

IZUMI: It's always - it's been very much a refuge for me. Music has always been the one way that I can express myself and heal.

SHAPIRO: When did you first discover that the guitar could give you this kind of a voice?

IZUMI: I didn't know if I really even discovered it. I just did it. I got first - my own first guitar from a friend when I was, like, somewhere in between, like, 8 and 10 - somewhere in there. And I just experimented with it. I just put my fingers in random places and just obsessed over it.

SHAPIRO: So you're pretty much self-taught.

IZUMI: Yeah, totally self-taught.

SHAPIRO: So take me back to that childhood version of you who got a guitar. Paint a picture of the life that you were living.

IZUMI: It was rough. I had to hide that guitar in my closet 'cause my dad didn't want me to play instruments at home. I could in church, where my mom - she was a part-time choir director and whatnot. And she knew about it, and she supported it. But my dad was just completely anti. And so I had to hide my guitar in a closet. And when he wasn't home, I would, like, close the door and just obsessively play it (laughter).

SHAPIRO: So the fact that you're still playing today and that you've won this contest - not only did you persist, but you've really triumphed.

IZUMI: Yeah, yeah, definitely.

SHAPIRO: How does that feel today?

IZUMI: It feels really good. There's this - the saying, success is the best revenge (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Is - if you don't mind my asking, is your father still in your life?

IZUMI: Not really. I don't talk to him. He's, like, all about it now 'cause he's been seeing, you know, me gain more traction with it. And I'm like, you won't apologize for what you did, but you want to take credit for where I'm at now. And, you know, I don't really want to talk to you anymore.


IZUMI: (Singing) And only I know my heart. And I've got my best interests in mind.

SHAPIRO: The judges of the Tiny Desk Contest chose you as the winner based on this video not knowing anything about you. And given how open you are about your experience with gender identity, your experience with autism, people are going to see you as a role model and as an example now. And I wonder how you feel about that.

IZUMI: Honestly, I'm kind of ready for it...


IZUMI: ...'Cause there's just a lot of things that I want to get across, like the idea of work. I get comments a lot of times where people are just like, you're so talented. I'm like, no, it's not talent. It's work. It's something anybody can do. You just have to put in the hours and invest in what you want to do for the rest of your life.


IZUMI: (Singing) There's too many chiefs in this tribe, only room for one of us.

SHAPIRO: Well, congratulations on your win, and I can't wait to see where you go next. Naia Izumi, it's been great talking with you.

IZUMI: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Naia Izumi is the winner of NPR's 2018 Tiny Desk Contest.


IZUMI: (Vocalizing). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.