The Tiny Desk Concert. It’s a dream and a milestone for bands all over the country, even the world. Musicians of all backgrounds have made their way here: DC go-go bands. Atlanta rappers. British superstars. Spanish crooners. The Blue Man Group. Even Korean folk groups dressed in drag have performed at NPR HQ. So for the fourth year in a row, NPR held the Tiny Desk Contest to find the country’s best unsigned artist (as decided by a panel of NPR Music writers and a few musicians) and give them the opportunity to perform at the Tiny Desk and reach thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of eager listeners. This year’s winner was LA-based guitarist and busker Naia Izumi, whose simply-filmed, slightly-cramped recording featured a drum machine, a loop pedal, and some impressive guitar skills. On the night of his Tiny Desk Concert filming, NPR’s Studio 1 room was opened to the public for a performance before he embarks on a nationwide Tiny Desk Contest tour. While the other tour stops will feature local bands that ranked high on the final list of entries, the DC performance was all about Izumi.
Everyone in the intimate crowd was able to get a good look at his custom-built and very beat-up guitar. In a brief interview with NPR Music’s Bob Boilen, Izumi demonstrated the custom pickup he uses on the guitar to give it a heavier bass sound than what’s usually possible on an electric guitar. Under some dim, moody lighting, Izumi performed two songs by himself on guitar using that pickup alongside his loop pedal and some spacey synthesizers for some interesting, soulful effects. For the rest of the set, he turned up the lights and invited the rest of his band, a bassist and a drummer. This is where things started to really delve into math-rock territory. As the drums marched along to ⅞ time, Izumi’s complex guitar lines made him the star of the show. His winning entry, “Soft Spoken,” felt a lot more fulfilling with a band backing him up, but his guitar hammer-ons and pull-offs felt slightly mis-timed and might have taken people out of the moment. Still, there was something hypnotic about watching Izumi’s play style song after song.
Of course, math rock isn’t the most accessible genre, especially when compared to previous winners like soul musician Fantastic Negrito and hip-hop/spoken word melders Tank and the Bangas. As the show went on, there was more and more chatter in the back of the crowd. There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that Izumi’s a talented guitarist, but he likely won’t be attracting the same kinds of crowds that previous Tiny Desk Contest winners have garnered. But now that the dust is settling, Izumi will begin carving his niche in the music world - he’s a little bit of math rock, progressive rock, and even some blues. He’s in the spotlight now, so it’s up to him to make the next move.