For Izzy Bizu, travelling throughout her formative years gave her access to experiences that would eventually influence her lyrics. But the London-born singer and songwriter credits her approach to her craft and a product of her roots. “Well, you know Ethiopians are quite laid back… really laid back,” she recalls over the phone from Madrid. “And we like to take our time and so I think on stage, I’m quite flowy and I’m quite chill.”
As a teenager, after her girl group SoundGirl was dropped from its record label, Bizu entered music college to further develop her songwriting. She quickly garnered a dedicated local following as she successfully competed in the open-mic series ILUVLive, which both claim Ed Sheeran and Jessie J as alumni. In 2013, Bizu released the Coolbeanz EP which saw international acclaim flood in and by 2017, she had won the Introducing Artist of the Year Award at the 2016 BBC Music Awards and had opened up for the North American leg of Coldplay’s Head Full of Dreams tour. Most recently, you can catch her as the face of a massive new international H&M campaign.
But Bizu’s rise to the top of the pop has as much to do with her approach to artistry, as it does her dynamic melange of fresh jazz, soul, funk and pop. We caught up with Izzy Bizu earlier this summer to talk about her new music, childhood memories, and some of her favourite self-care practices.
A.Side: I really enjoyed listening to your debut album, A Moment of Madness because I love Jazz and Soul music and it definitely embodied the beauty of Jazz and the depths of Soul but also had the fusion of Funk and Pop. I was wondering what were some of your favourite artists growing up? And how did your musical dreams manifest?
Izzy Bizu: My favourite artists growing up were Amy Winehouse, Ella Fitzgerald, Marvin Gaye. I liked the Black Keys as well and they are all quite soulful and I love their lyrics and stuff like that.
I loved Amy Winehouse growing up as well! So I’m really happy to hear that! In recent interviews you spoke about your Ethiopian roots as well as traveling and living in different contexts. How do those cultures and memories shape your music now?
Well, you know Ethiopians are quite laid back… really laid back. And we like to take our time and so I think on stage, I’m quite flowy and I’m quite chill. And then it’s sort of like that raw and acoustic vibes. I used to listen to Ethiopian Jazz as well so then I wanted to get the horn section involved in the music as well.
I also read online that you lived in Bahrain? Do you have any memories or influences that shaped your upbringing?
I lived in Bahrain for about 4 years with my dad. I meant to go on holiday there just to chill and then he worked abroad and I really wanted to stay and get to know him. What influenced me the most was life was really laid back, really nice people and always hot weather. I used to sail with my father a lot and I guess I turned up there being a girly girly and he sort of turned me into a tomboy.
It was a nice way to get to know him and it wasn’t the typical father-daughter relationship, he was kinda like a friend- it was really funny. So, it was a cool adventure for me and everything was new and I was very naive and I was getting to know my dad really well and it was just amazing. From something so absent in your life to be so present and I just felt like ” Oh my god, this is what life is” and at the age of 7, I didn’t realize what I had been missing the whole time.
I was always sort of on my way to somewhere else and I really didn’t know where my home was.
Speaking to those experiences of being able to travel,now after touring with the likes of Sam Smith, Rudimental, Foxes and also opening for Coldplay on their North American leg of the Head Full of Dreams tour. Each musical act have such different and diverse audiences, how have you evolved as a performer? But also as a young woman after those experiences?
It’s just amazing because each person I toured with is so different from each other. The first person I ever went on tour with Sam Smith and it was the craziest, luckiest, most amazing experience. I never heard his music before I went on tour with him, this is really early before he became massive and I saw him and he is just so emotional but just such a happy person backstage. When he’s on stage, he is just so emotional and I was just like ” oh my god, this guy is so amazing!” and I learned a lot from that tour and I felt like every time I watched him, I was trying to improve certain parts about my voice. I would do warm- ups and be like ” HOW THE HELL DID HE SING THAT LIKE THAT?”
For me, I looked at him like a mentor without him realizing it. He’s so inspiring and I was really working at my craft because I had a lot to learn from that guy and he’s a nice person as well. And then Foxes is super cool. She’s very entertaining and she’s good at talking to the audience and that’s super cool and that was fun as well.
And with Coldplay, was that your first time performing in the North America?
Oh my God! When we got asked to do that, I was like ” okay, this is creepy”. We have such different music but we weirdly appeal to the same age group * laughs*. And I was expecting it to be really difficult, like nervous wise. I was like ” Oh, I’m going to be way too nervous to do this! How the hell are we going to fill a stadium doing a acoustic music?” But then the first day on tour, on stage it was fun. Chris Martin came up to us and was like ” hey, don’t worry about the crowd tonight. Just have fun!” And then after that moment, we were like ” Oh? Okay.” After someone that big that has to deal with so much pressure like that, says that to you. You take it so seriously and you’re like,”Cool” and he just set a really good tone. The whole band set a really good tone for the tour. It was really hippy backstage, everyone was so nice, the whole crew and everything. It really makes a difference and showed me the importance of having a community with the right people around you, really does help. It was such a beautiful experience.
I’m glad that you got that opportunity! When I was reading up about it, I saw that it stemmed from a tweet from Chris Martin that said he loved “White Tigers.” Is that true?
Yeah! It is did! I thought it was his fan club, I didn’t know it was him. So I looked at it and when you see that you’re like, “Oh, it’s not them.” So many renditions of artists with other people pretending to be them. And then my manager was like “Izzy, he likes the song!” and I was like “ WHAT!” I was screaming, like how the hell did he find it? When did he find the time to find that song? That’s crazy. And yeah, I was just so happy. I wasn’t sure that anything would come of it and then when they asked us to go on tour, I was so happy.
Sometimes we seek the love we are not getting and it’s right there on our doorsteps. We just don’t see it because we always know it’s going to be there.
Also, I also love “White Tigers” as well. I was dancing around to it on the weekend. It’s a really fun and uplifting song! But along with beautifully written songs, your debut album also produced a lot of vibrant and provoking visuals. Particularly Give Me Love stood out to me because of the imagery of community, dance and even hair braiding but you’re also on this solo journey on your skateboard. Can you speak a little towards what was the vision and collaborative process like for these videos?
It was constant movement all of the time. I never really knew where my home was, I’ve always moved houses and I also used to live really close to those beautiful woods. I was always sort of on my way to somewhere else and I really didn’t know where my home was, sort of thing. Yeah, I was bit of a lost soul. was basically what Give Me Love was about. White Tigers was about new experiences and quite happy from getting all the “no’s” then to jumping into new things. Mad Behaviour was about being so scared that you are going to lose something and then losing it because you were so scared. They are quite different concepts really.
They are all really beautiful. Your music touches on many important themes and you brought up Mad Behaviour which to me, really spoke to mental health. And then your song Gorgeous, it talks a lot about positive affirmations and messages of self worth and beauty. What are some ways that you practice self-care? Or hope to in the future?
I think it’s not using vices to make yourself feel better. Because I feel like you say “I deserve this vice because it’s going to make me feel better” but it’s only going to make me feel worse. When I say vices I don’t just mean the obvious things like drugs and alcohol and “blah blah blah”. I’m not talking about those obvious things which are not good either. But, I’m talking about how sometimes you can just rely on the wrong people to lean on and I think self-love is just being really aware that it’s okay to be lonely sometimes, it’s okay to be alone.
And then naturally when you feel like the right person comes into your life, that’s OK. I think also keep your family close as well, that’s a lot of self-love as well. Sometimes we seek the love we are not getting and it’s right there on our doorsteps. We just don’t see it because we always know it’s going to be there, so I think that’s good. Along with just having a hot bath and putting a face mask on your face *laughs*. There is lots of things that you can do and I mean just helping someone who’s in a worst situation than you can really help as well.
That’s a great answer-
A long one- sorry!
*laughs* No worries. You touched on a hot bath and a face mask, what are some of the other favourite things you like to do when you get some down time?
You know what I love getting up in the morning and going out and just doing something fun that I used to do when I was a kid like play basketball, play football, play tennis. Just play some fun sport, that makes me really happy. Just to get up and go, that’s really nice. Sometimes you don’t always get downtime, sometimes you just have to find your downtime like, “Cool! I just have to get up extra early and find my own time to do that.” I like to watch good films and I like to cook as well, that’s really nice.
So music is such a powerful outlet to release and engage with how we are feeling. I definitely relate to just putting on some music, depending on my mood. But when you need support, advice or a listening ear, who do you reach out to?
I reach out to my best friend and I reach out to my mum, my brother and my friend John as well. He gives quite good advice. He’s such a calm guy, literally phases him and he just realizes that nothing is a big deal and he’s very like ” Yeah… well.. I think…” *laughs* he just honestly the most- he’s not stoned but he just looks and sounds stone all the time, it’s so great.
You have been working on new music and I know all of the fans are really excited to hear. What has been the most exciting part of this process this time around?
It’s like rediscovering myself as a woman and I’m facing more obstacles as well. You always face obstacles but you discover amazing things as well and I met some great new people to work with and I’m travelling a lot. It’s been really nice to work with new sounds and things.
What would you say is the most challenging about working on a new project after your debut album?
Challenges… basically sometimes I’ll have so many ideas for one song and I’m like ” What? I can’t put them all in one song”. Like it’s too much, you know what I mean? And it’s like ” what the hell? I’ve been writing songs for 6 years like why have I forgotten how to do that?”. I will write a massive poem and then it’s that’s just too much! Yeah, it’s like trimming the cake because sometimes I get so attached to an idea and I have to let it go. It’s like condensing a big idea and sometimes I find that quite challenging which is quite funny. But it’s all apart of the process. You know… it’s OK.
I relate to that because my mind works as a web, it’s not really linear so refining ideas can be quite challenging for sure. So what are 3 words that you would use to best describe your vision for your new material?
Ugh, it’s really hard to explain…
I’m sure it is! But what are 3 words that you hope your new material embodies?’
Probably like a new chapter, almost like a different person to who I was and a discovery for all the things I was naive to back then when I was writing, you know? I don’t know… it’s really hard to explain, I can’t tell you until I finish it.
I’m wondering which artists excite you right now?
SZA and… sorry there are so many new artists. My friend showed me this guy, a video of his friend jamming. It’s called Guillaume Ferran, he’s French. It was like a 5 minute jam on Instagram and it was ridiculous, I really like him. I like Tom Misch as well, Tom Misch is cool.
So lastly, which places, locally and beyond, give you creative inspiration?
Ethiopia and New York.