. Biography .
"I'm not the man you think you know / there's more to me than I care to show ... "
Leaning against a brick wall on a busy street corner in Santa Monica, a young man clad in a blue-checkered flannel and jeans strums comfortably on the acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder. His gaze moves from passersby to his fingers on the fretboard jumping seamlessly from chord to chord, accompanying the smooth baritone voice that escapes his mouth.
It's fitting that 26-year-old singer/songwriter Isaiah "Izzy" January would be featured in the opening scene of the new documentary PLAY, a recent film highlighting the importance of music education amid nationwide budget cuts in public schools. The documentary, directed by Matty Steinkamp, is currently making its way through theaters across the country.
Born in San Bernardino and raised in the Inland Empire, January grew up as a middle child of five raised by a single mother. As a self-proclaimed black sheep of the family, he was naturally drawn to the Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Carpenters as well as 90s pop while his brothers and sisters almost exclusively listened to hip hop and R&B.
"Some part of me always understood what music means and how universal it can be as far as a means to communicate with people and bring people together," January says. "When I was younger, a part of me always understood that."
At 16, as a shy, overweight and melancholic high school sophomore, January signed up for a beginner guitar class as an elective, taught by his English teacher Todd A. Lamph. He recalls this time as the turning point in his life — learning the universal language of music gave him a "fundamental means to relate to people and peers." By his second year, January was teaching the beginner's class himself at the request of his teacher.
"I can't stress how important having something like that meant to me," January says.
By 19, he was writing his own songs. What began as instrumental arrangements on his acoustic guitar with a limited dose of humming ("I was fairly shy, so my voice was in my head a bit") grew with encouragement from his close friends and family. Inspired by the likes of Prince, Noel Gallagher and Bob Dylan, he began channeling his deepest thoughts and emotions into his songs.
"It was like psychoanalysis," January admits. "Whenever something would be weighing on my mind, a good bulk of that I would consolidate it and it would find its way as a musical concept and become a song."
January's foray into performing publicly occurred inevitably with his guitar becoming like an extended limb. He took it everywhere — Starbucks, Target, wherever he was headed. He'd take it out for a quick tune sitting outside a store, and unfailingly, people would start approaching him and handing him money. Once, he collected $237 outside a Target in Temecula from passersby and employees who'd step out during their break, he recalls.
"If somebody is telling you this and handing you money that you're not asking for, that's all the more reason to look into paving your own way," January says. "I really started to believe what it is people were saying."
So he began approaching it with more vigor. In addition to busking on the streets, his repertoire of gigs expanded to office parties, wineries and corporate establishments. He identified as an entertainer of the community, for the community. His interactions with everyday people on the streets fostered his sense of advocacy for the community, a sense of volunteerism in sharing his music with everyone at large without discrimination.
January is an ambassador for local music education nonprofits such as Music Makes Music, which visits public middle and high schools and encourages students to pursue their own musical journey. He also advocates for the Hawthorne-based Eubanks Conservatory of Music and Arts, which instructs students in the classroom.
Today, January, who is now based in the South Bay of Los Angeles, runs an open mic at The Mermaid in Hermosa Beach and working on his debut full-length album It Is What It Is, due out next spring. He's also working toward building a band with local guitar wizard Jacob Mio and hit the ground running on a tour nationwide.
"Right now, I'm in this for the passion and spreading awareness," he says. "And I'll take the opportunities and weigh them as they come along."