It’s hard to believe British singer-songwriter Izzy Bizu once thought she “wasn’t that good” of a music artist. In fact, she wasn’t even sure she could ever pursue music professionally.
“I literally fell into it. I wasn’t that person that’s like, ‘Well, in two years I’m going to do this. I’m going to be that,’” the 23-year-old told ABC News before her recent show at New York City’s Sounds of Brazil, aka SOBs. “I just really liked writing music. And I’d been at home, and I just liked doing that so much. And then I went to a few open mics, and I wanted to show people a few of the songs.”
It was at an open mic planned by a cousin that she never knew existed where Bizu got that opportunity to share her songs with an audience. After that performance, Bizu found the inspiration to turn her talents into a career.
“I never had that ambition before. I never had that drive [until] being up on that stage,” Bizu said.
Bizu first found her unique acoustic sound during her travels to Ethiopia as a young child. Bizu is half-Ethiopian on her mother’s side.
“There’d be a beautiful hut, and you’d walk in and everyone’s playing instruments, like, unamplified and it’s super raw and then that really created my love for like acoustic music. And I really liked small venues for that reason because everybody’s so close,” she said.
Bizu, who spent most of her life in London, often moved from city to city as a child because of her father’s job. The constant upheaval is what gave Bizu the material for some of her earlier songwriting.
“I’d always have something new to write about and a new surrounding and trying to settle in somewhere new produced a lot of feelings. Being away from my parents in boarding school created a lot of feelings and trying to fit in and all that stuff,” she said.
It was at boarding school where Bizu met a housemaster who motivated her to take songwriting and singing seriously, and eventually, a headmistress encouraged her and a friend to audition for a girl band.
Since then, Bizu has toured with Sam Smith and to open for Coldplay’s North American fans. Bizu even has her own fans, including “one guy that turns out everywhere. He’s really nice. He must get on so many trains.”
It’s a change for a young woman who likes to spend her free time getting lost in cities on her skateboard.
“I never took it for granted. I just thought, ‘This is amazing. This is fine. This is as big as it’s going to get,’” Bizu said. “And then the next stage. I never really looked ahead. I just enjoyed it as it was coming. I guess I really should be like, ‘I want this now.’”
Here are five things to know about the rising star:
1. While growing up, Izzy Bizu didn’t want to be a singer at first.
Before music, Izzy Bizu said that as a young girl she wanted a very different career: “I wanted to be a vet. I liked animals,” Bizu said.
But her ambitions soon changed after she found out taking care of animals was more than just playing with them.
“You have to put down animals and stuff. It’s like you love them, but you have to do all this other stuff for them,” Bizu said. “Like, if they’re in pain -- I was like, ‘I can’t do that.’”
2. She found her passion for music while going to boarding school.
Because of her father’s job as a civil engineer, Bizu spent most of her childhood traveling to and living in different cities, like London, Bahrain and Ethiopia.
She eventually attended boarding school in a city two hours away from London by train, where a housemaster shared his love for music with her and helped inspire her own.
“He had this little book with ‘Killing Me Softly,’ you know, the Fugees, ‘Amazing Grace,’ and like, all these gospel and soul songs,” Bizu recalled. “And when he heard me sing with him, he said, ‘Try this.’ And I tried it and was like, ‘Oh this is cool.’ And he’s like, ‘You should get singing lessons.’ So I got singing lessons. ‘You should get piano lessons.’ So I did that.
“He was the first person that really believed in me and really inspired me in music,” Bizu added.
3. She once was a singer in a girl group.
Years ago, a 15-year-old Bizu and her best friend were walking around school when suddenly their headmistress introduced them to a man who was holding auditions for a girl band. The headmistress encouraged Bizu and her friend to audition.
“And I did, like, 'Beautiful' by Christina Aguilera. It was so embarrassing at the time,” she recalled. “My friend, she did another song, and we did our auditions separately. And then we had to learn a song together. … And then we go after the audition and he’s like, ‘Cool. I’ll let you know what’s going down.’”
A week later, Bizu said, they went straight to a recording studio to write and record music in a band with her friend and another girl under the name of SoundGirl.
“Two years down the line, it ends up being quite popular and everything,” Bizu said. “We’re just having a lot of fun. I had to have homeschooling while I was away. A lot of it I just had to read by myself. And then we got dropped [from the label] after two years. We did alright. We didn’t do well enough. It’s cool. We weren’t ready.”
4. She got discovered after an open mic run by a cousin she never knew existed.
When she was around 17 years old, Bizu discovered she had a cousin she never knew existed. It turned out her cousin was in events planning, and Bizu interned for her company.
Six weeks later, her cousin invited her to perform at an open mic competition that her cousin helped plan.
“There was 10 of us and the crowd cheered for who they wanted to win and then I won. I did practice for six weeks though,” Bizu said.
Bizu said the experience of being on stage gave her the inspiration and ambition she never had before to pursue music seriously as a profession.
“It was the first time I was ever on my own on stage after the girl band. So I think my confidence was pretty low after what happened with the girl band ‘cause I was always in the background, and then we just got dropped,” Bizu said. “I was like, ‘Maybe it was just like a little pipe dream.’ But then when I got this amazing new feeling, I was like, ‘Maybe I’ll be able to do this as a living. And I was like f--- it.’ Then we finished the songs, wrote an EP. It was a beautiful moment.”
Bizu and her bandmate submitted their EP to the BBC and ended up getting a gig at Glastonbury, which is one of the biggest music festivals in the UK. They went on to give a few performances at Glastonbury and go on tour, and Bizu got signed to a record label soon after.
5. Chris Martin from Coldplay gave her advice while they were on tour together.
Once her career took off, Bizu was invited to go on tour and open for Sam Smith. She later was asked to be an opening act for Coldplay’s North American tour. The moment she found out, Bizu said, she dropped to the floor.
“[It was] like I’d won the lottery or something,” Bizu said. “What was nervewracking was rehearsing for it and wondering if it was ever going to be good enough for us to support. And then as soon as we did one [performance] it was fine.”
Behind the scenes, Bizu spent time with the band, including Martin, playing board games on the plane from city to city and exchanging stories and advice.
Bizu said Martin gave her a poetry book by Rumi and even got a surprise when he performed with her during one of her shows in Miami: “If you look at the pictures, you can see I’m about to cry.”
Martin made performing, being on tour and having a personal life look so easy, Bizu said, so she took the opportunity to ask him how he does it all.
“So I did ask him, ‘How’d you make it look so easy? I’m freaking out about a 20-minute set. You’re not freaking out, and you’ve got a 2-hour set. And you’re doing this with a sore throat. Like, how the f--- do you do that?’” Bizu said. “And he’s just like, ‘Oh Izzy. I read this book, and I meditate. I do my yoga. And I’m extremely healthy.’ And I was watching him, and I was just like, it’s worked. He’s got his routine, and he stays calm. And he’s really nice to people. He’s a philanthropist. ... He said it took years of practice.”
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.