Naia Izumi: Taking It to the Street

Though we all complain about the time - suck aspects of YouTube, every so often we discover something amazing.
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Though we all complain about the time - suck aspects of YouTube, every so often we discover something amazing. A perfect example is Naia Izumi, who showed up on my computer screen one day playing and singing on the streets of Los Angeles. No folksinger strumming rudimentary chords while intoning a basic ballad, Izumi was attacking her Jazzmaster with the touch of doom, interspersing complex chords with lines redolent of African highlife or Gamelan, while intoning breathy, Bjork-like vocals.

Her two self-produced EPs—Soft Spoken Woman and Never Let Them Tame You [Bandcamp]—add programmed drums, bass, ambient pads, and cleverly arranged background vocals to the catchy tunes. It all recalls late King Crimson’s mixture of guitar gymnastics and pop sensibility, yet sounds nothing like that band. “Original” is a word bandied about too loosely, but is fully appropriate here.

Izumi grew up in a musical household in the Southeast, “Mostly around Columbus, Georgia, and Phenix City, Alabama.” she says. “My mom was a choir director in church.” Guitar playing began at around five or six. “Somebody gave me a Peavey Predator guitar and I was hooked.”

Much later, relocated in Los Angeles, offers were coming in to play with Cirque du Soleil, as well as a chance to form a super-group with name players and work with a famous producer. At that same time, Izumi, assigned male at birth, felt the need to publicly honor the fact that she identified as a woman. Those mainstream opportunities suddenly fell away, but she accepted the challenge of starting over. She explains how she evolved a style inspired more by environmental sounds than flashy guitarists and honed it with hard work. Her solo shows and interplay with her band are all the proof anyone needs that being true to yourself produces the best art.

Did you play all the instruments on your records?

Yes. I’m also a drummer and bass player. I programmed the beats but I came up with the ideas on actual drums.

What made you originally decide to focus on guitar?

I had a voice in my head that I needed to express and it was mostly coming through the guitar.

Did you have guitar influences that inspired you?

I take everything in. I’m into reverse engineering sounds I hear from other instruments, even the human voice, rather than listening to guitar players. I walk everywhere and hear street sounds. I take those sounds—cars, rhythmic cadences of the way people talk—and bring them back into guitar.

Was looping a function of not being able to always have a band?

There weren’t a whole lot of experimental musicians where I was from. I discovered one of those Boss loopers and was into it. I use it to loop beats that I beatbox with the guitar when I’m playing on the street.

What are some of the challenges to playing in the that environment?

There are thousands of people walking past every day who are just trying to get from point A to point B. If you’re going to do this, you need to focus on how much you love what you’re doing and not whether they react to you or not, otherwise it will rip you to shreds because it’s rough. It showed me how to zone into myself and concentrate on what I’m doing, versus people’s reactions to what I’m doing,

What kind of reaction do you get?

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It’s usually no reaction. Some people have actually come up to me and apologized later. They say, “I see you every day and I judged you. I thought you were miming what you were doing.” Or, “I just saw the way that you looked and I’ve never seen anyone who looks like you play with that level of ability and expressiveness.”

You do amazingly complex guitar parts while singing. What’s your process for pulling all that together?

I loop guitar ideas or vocal ideas. And then, I transcribe my parts onto sheet music/tablature so I can physically see the rhythmic values of everything. I’ll map out where the vocal parts line up on the grid of what I’m playing and slowly work them out. Sometimes I’ll go 60 BPM slower than I actually played the instrumental phrase and sing it at the same time. I move it up two BPM each time I play it. You are relaxed when you play things slow, and the idea is to be as relaxed as possible when you’re playing and singing at the same time. You kind of trick your brain into staying relaxed as you speed it up so it looks effortless when you get it up to speed.

Let’s get into some of your gear. What is your main guitar?

My Squier Vintage Modified Jazzmaster is my main guitar. I love that thing. In the street version of “Run,” I play a T-classic custom made by Moollon Guitars with a Fender Bigsby on it. My street amp is a Roland Cube Street with the Boss RC-2 Loop Station. No other effects, just my hands.

On the recordings, “Soft Spoken Woman” and the beginning of “Hush” have really cool overdriven sounds.

For “Hush,” I’m using an old Visual Sound [now Truetone] Jekyll & Hyde pedal. I also used a T-Rex Crunchy Frog with the Jazzmaster.

On “Morphine” it sounds like you’re using a delay on one section. Is that a plug-in, or were you using a pedal?

For recordings and live work I use completely different stuff than I do on the street. For the recordings, I’ve been using Pod XT Live and tweaking the settings to get good sounds. Over the past couple of months, I finally accumulated an actual pedalboard. I start with an MXR Dyna Comp and then go into the MXR Il Torino Overdrive and the T-Rex Crunchy Frog. Next come three pedals from Old Blood Noise Endeavors: a Haunt, which is a really rad fuzz, into their Dark Star Pad Reverb. I also use their Procession reverb. For delay I use an MXR Carbon Copy. I also just got an MXR Reverb. It all goes to the RC-2 loop station.

Why do you put some reverbs before the delay?

I put the Procession after the delay, but I like the delay to extend the other reverbs and then have another reverb after that if I want a spring or plate reverb sound. I took the idea from all the audio engineering I did some years ago. I was always maxing out compressors to get certain sounds. One of the engineers said, “You’ll get a clearer sound if you use a little bit of one compressor and add a little bit of another,” so I do that with the reverbs. The Old Blood reverbs have completely different characters than the MXR reverb. The Procession leaves your original signal intact, and gives you a little bit of a pad behind it so you can get super ambient. With Dark Star you can also have pitch shifting an octave up or down. It makes it sound like you have a keyboard player. The MXR does that as well. I have a lot of songs on my EP where I use a studio reverb as filler behind my guitar and those pedals give me that effect live.

What is it that sounds like strings on “Dreamers?”

It’s partially reverbs and the guitar volume knob for swells. I layered different effects to make it sound like a violin: fuzz and another overdriven guitar with a flanger. I then mix them together for a violin sound.

Which picks and strings work best for you?

I use the Dunlop Jazz IIIs. For strings, I’m using .010-.046 Dunlop Super Brights. They’re really great for the Jazzmaster because they are extra long. With every other brand I’m stretching it by the time I get to the high E string. Another thing about Jazzmasters is that the edges of the tailpiece often make strings break when using the vibrato bar. I have a trick where I take the ball off old strings and slide them on the end near the ball of the new strings. It builds a buffer so the end of the string doesn’t touch the edge of the tailpiece. Some people solder the ends, but why not just use what you already have?

Where did you record your EPs?

I have a studio set up in my practice space. I use Cubase and a cheap interface. I’ve spent a lot of time in high quality studios and have learned how to use those techniques with practically no gear.

Aside from the street, are you also playing with a band or solo in clubs?

I have a band called Utena. It’s nice to finally find some people who mesh together really well. We’ve been together since late January. My solo thing is my own thing, but I like playing off of other players in a band and getting inspiration from what they put in. Kynwyn Sterling, the drummer, pulls a lot out of me that I wouldn’t typically do by myself. We have two or three songs we are writing in the works, but for now we’re revamping some versions of the stuff on my EPs.

Do you plan to make a record together?

Hopefully we’ll get to it before the end of July and put something out on Bandcamp. We’re going to record it at my place. Kynwyn’s got some really good mics.

The past three years I haven’t been playing as much as usual because I have been trying to learn the business of how to manage myself. I’m learning from people who are entrepreneurs. A lot of them say to focus first on as many in-house resources as you have and then, when you’ve built a large enough clientele, start outsourcing. As a session player, I’ve seen artists blow so much money before it’s time to spend that much. They fall under the waves and get crushed. They’re not being creative first and taking baby steps with their spending. When you have more money coming in, then you can spend more.

Any final words?

With any guitarist, regardless of how they represent themselves, it’s just them expressing music—their essence and the instrument—and that’s a beautiful thing.

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