Singer-songwriter-engineer Iyaz is adding his own Island twist to a mainstream pop and R&B style. His debut single, “Replay,” landed at #1 on U.S. and UK charts; and his follow-up, “Solo,” has quickly followed into the top 20. In between studio sessions, he recently spoke with Justin Kantor about growing up on the British Virgin Islands; his college studies as an Audio and Video major; and his colorful new collaborations with Miley Cyrus, Charice, and — hopefully — Green Day.
How are you feeling today?
I’m feeling good. I’m here on the road, bouncing around from interview to interview — a typical day.
Kind of draining, huh?
How did you come up with the name Iyaz?
The name Iyaz was actually my Godfather’s name. It means “The Big Kahuna,” or “The Boss.” I always used to deal with him when I was younger, so they called me “Mini Iyaz.” Years later, I’m not so mini, so you get “Iyaz.”
So, you were the junior, and now you’re the head honcho.
Exactly! I’m the boss.
You’re from the British Virgin Islands. Many people know it as an exotic tourist destination. Can you give a snapshot of what your daily life was like there — growing up?
You wake up, eat breakfast, you go to school. It’s just like any place else other than the fact that it’s 98 degrees in the shade all year round. Even in the winter it’s hot; but we go through the same things everybody else goes through. You go to work, you make your bed, you do the dishes — it’s the same stuff. When we get hot, instead of jumping in the pool, we jump in the ocean!
What’s your earliest memory of music?
I’m not sure how old I was, I think I was younger than 10. It was a Christmas concert.
Were you singing in it?
Yes, my cousin and myself, we did a duet together. We sang “The Gift Goes On.”
That’s cool. Who did you enjoy listening to as a kid? Who inspired you?
I used to listen to my Mom and Dad sing all the time, but apart from them: Bob Marley, Gospel, Yolanda Adams.
Oh, Yolanda Adams! I always think of that song she did, “Can You Reach My Friend?”
Yeah, man, powerful voices. That’s all I used to hear growing up, and it influenced my musical voice.
Did you move to the States to go to college?
Yes, I went to Rhode Island to study Video and Audio Production, and then I did my Bachelor’s in Digital Recording Arts.
What was it like transitioning to life in Rhode Island?
The main difference was the climate, and I had to wake up early. All those classes were at 7:45 in the morning. Oh, my goodness! Sometimes you wake up and it’s, like, 12 degrees outside. Crazy!
I went to college in Boston at Berklee College of Music.
You definitely know what I mean, then.
The couple of times I’ve been to Rhode Island, it struck me as a sort of subdued environment. Did you get a feel for what it was like to be a resident there?
It was almost like the Islands. There’s nothing to do, unless you have people there with you. I definitely had a lot of people form the Islands there, so it was like I never had left.
Which college did you attend? What did you gain from your program of study?
It was New England Institute of Technology. Well, most of the songs on my album, I engineered. I actually engineered “Replay” before producer J.R. Rotem had a chance to do anything. I know how to work around and explore to get what I want, but it helps to have J.R. there. It makes the process even faster, and he has his own creative ears, too.
What does it mean to actually engineer a record?
Engineer means you are the one pushing the buttons, you’re recording, you’re panning left, you’re adding the effects, you basically do everything. That’s what I did. In actuality, in the studio, the booth is one place, and then you have the whole mixing board in the other room. So, you push “record,” run into the other room, and then come back.
In other words, after the song is produced, you’re coming back and fixing it up, making sure everything is evened out?
Yeah, actually I’m the one that produced the song. I didn’t do the beat, but I recorded myself on the beat.
The first time you broke out was a couple of years ago with the song, “Island Girls,” with Young Diction. What’s the story behind that?
That was just a song that we did for the fun of it. We put it on MySpace and the song took off.
Was that song what prompted Sean Kingston to get in contact with you?
Yes, after that song I started getting messages from Sean Kingston along the lines of “I love your music, I want to work with you,” and stuff. There was a week’s worth of messages, and I didn’t believe it was him. I finally I gave him my number. Then, we went on Skype, and I saw it was him. He flew me in to meet him in Florida. It happened really fast.
What is his role in your career at this point? It wasn’t like he just discovered you and that was it. You have a working collaboration, right?
Actually, no. It’s like the plane took off, and I’m so far left and he’s so far right. Everybody’s basically doing their own thing right now.
Are you signed with his label?
Yes. Time Is Money Entertainment.
How did “Replay” come to life? How did you decide to release that as your first official single?
Oh, man, that song actually leaked and it started to take off, so we followed it. I did it last year in February or March, myself and Rock City. They signed to Interscope, and the song just got out there somehow. I was in Vegas, and next thing you know, I was on the road.
Were you prepared when it took off and hit #1?
Definitely. I didn’t expect it to take off, being from where I’m from and seeing so many people going crazy over my craft, something that I put my heart into. Seeing all those kids going crazy, oh man! I have nothing but love for them.
Have you adjusted pretty well to the success that you’re having?
Yeah, I’m trying!
I heard that you would like to work with Green Day. What is it about their music that speaks to you?
They’re so far left and not afraid to put themselves out there and branch out. They have a Broadway show, and not many acts in their genre have that. I love everything they do. They’re raising the bar higher and higher, and not settling for anything that’s less than great.
What kind of collaboration do you envision doing with them?
Oh, man, me and Green Day. I would do a song by Green Day, and they would do Iyaz.
Like a mash-up?
Exactly. I think no matter what we do, it’s going to be hot, because they have their creative juices going, and with my little Island twist, it would be hot.
That would be off the hook. At the other end of the musical spectrum, you recently worked with Miley Cyrus. How did she come into the picture for you?
She came into the picture because I did a song with David Foster’s other artist, Charice. We did a song called “Pyramid,” and the same guy that did the track for that did one for Miley Cyrus. So, he put it all together.
What can fans expect from that collaboration?
Nothing but high energy. Keep it movin’, keep it dancin’!
How did you meet Charice?
I was at Warner Bros. in New York, and one of my reps said that he had a track for me to hear. I’m always open to hear, so he played it for me and I was like, “Wow! This is a huge song!” It had the right energy, the right type of feel to it, right in my lane, so I was like, “Get me on that,” and they made it happen.
What about her style compliments yours?
We’re both from overseas. She has such a voice, and me doing my whole Island thing, I put my little flavor on it — and who knew that it would do tremendously well? It’s a song that everybody will remember for a long time.
Tell me about your current hit, “Solo,” in which you use some of the melody from Janet Jackson’s classic hit “Again.” What was the impetus behind that idea, and how did you come up with the lyric to go with it?
The lyrics are based on a true story. I walk this Earth, I walk it solo. I don’t want the cars, the chains, or the money, unless I can share it with her.
What's in store on your upcoming debut album?
The album is coming out in June, and basically it’s love songs in the same format as “Replay.” I’m getting my story out there, letting ladies know — and not just ladies — all the stuff I’ve been through. I took all of the featured artists off; so it’s all about me this time. It’s an autobiographical album.
Do you consider yourself more of a studio guy or a live performance artist?
I’m both. The way I do it is, I record in a way I could perform it, so if I can’t really sing it live, I’m not going to do it on a track. I want myself to sound exactly how I would sound live.
What are some unique aspects of your live show?
Oh, nothing but the energy! I like to be in the crowd, pulling people up on stage, have them sing a song for me. I sing to them, and I interact with the audience. That’s what they want — not just to put a show on for them, they want to feel like you’re connecting. I’m not just here performing, we’re rocking out all night!
Where do you call home now?
I’m not based anywhere, I’m everywhere. I’m never in the same place more than two days.
Well, I’m glad we got to do this interview. Thanks for taking time out to talk with me. I hope the rest of your session goes well!
Thank you. I appreciate it.