Like Dua Lipa and Anne-Marie, who lost out to Rag ‘n’ Bone Man for the BRIT Critics’ Choice award yesterday less than a week after being shortlisted, Izzy Bizu didn’t get much time to enjoy being in contention against Jack Garratt for the same prize a year ago. Now, after a year which the 22-year-old singer describes as “intense”, she’s finally getting a gong to call her own. On Monday she’ll be named the BBC Introducing Artist of the Year at the BBC Music Awards. Still new to the red carpet game, she asks me if I think she’ll be allowed to take the microphone-shaped trophy home. “Do you get to keep them for life or do you have to give it back afterwards? I can keep it? Really?”
We meet just after she’s been revealed as the recipient in a Radio 1 interview, and briefly handled the prize for a photograph. “It didn’t actually sink in until I saw it,” she tells me. “It feels really nice to get it because I’m not usually someone that wins things. I always come second.”
As with Jack Garratt, who at the start of this year topped the BBC Sound of 2016 poll and collected both the BRIT Critics’ Choice award and the Introducing award that he now hands over to Bizu, her rise has not been the stratospheric ascent of previous next big things such as James Bay, Sam Smith and Emeli Sande. Her debut album, A Moment of Madness, spent one week in the top 30 in September and she has yet to land a hit single. It’s surprising, as she ticks plenty of the boxes for mainstream success, with her sunny, organic pop sound, distinctive soul voice and stunning half-British, half-Ethiopian looks. I’d place some of the blame on a stagnant chart in which Adele and the big names of US R&B won’t budge, but it’s an issue for new acts across the music scene.
Has it been hard to get the attention she deserves in 2016? “Yeah I guess so,” she says. “But you have to think about why you’re doing it, and remember it’s because you really love it. You have to keep writing new music and not just sit on one album.”
There’s a new song coming around now that isn’t on her album. Talking to You is her catchiest effort yet, with a rolling piano line, handclaps and immediately loveable chorus. It might just be the hit she’s missing to end the year on a high note, or it might get lost in the battle for Christmas number one. Either way, she exudes positivity and won’t be swayed from the idea that she’s having a fabulous time, even when heading off to perform a corporate gig for representatives of the motor trade industry that evening. It’s going to cover her rent for a while. “I’ve never thought, ‘Why am I doing this?’ Even when I’ve travelled many hours to play in rooms with hardly anyone there. If you’ve only got that many people in a room you have to grab each one’s attention and make them feel what you’re feeling. That makes you feel more connected to them, so it’s quite satisfying in a weird way.”
I attempt to tell her in a nice way that I’d love to hear her sounding sadder in her music. There’s a beautiful catch in her high voice that could convey serious emotion. When she was discovered at the open mic night ILuvLive in 2013, she sang the Gershwin standard Summertime. I’d be keen to hear her sounding that melancholy again, and perhaps achieving the depth of feeling that artists such as Corinne Bailey Rae and Michael Kiwanuka have reached on their later albums – but it sounds as if I’m wishing bad things upon her. “Music’s such a tender thing that it should be done quite naturally,” she says. “I’m gonna take my time. I just want to live my life, not to plan. I want to travel and discover new things and meet great people, and write music at the same time.”
Alternatively, she might make a shift towards world music. She tells me she’s in a phase of listening to “shitloads of bossa nova”. In the summer she sang in French to provide the theme song for the BBC’s Euro 2016 football coverage, an evocative cover of Edith Piaf’s La Foule. The Beeb have been good to her – next week’s award is the culmination of a long period of support that has also included a slot on the BBC Introducing stage at Glastonbury 2014 and her first US tour last month, as part of a BBC Music Presents bill that also featured new bands Spring King and Sundara Karma.
The woman born Isobel Beardshaw has the exotic background to suit a broader palette of influences, having spent extended family holidays in Ethiopia with her mother’s family, and lived in Bahrain as a child when her British father worked out there. “It’s by the sea, so beautiful, the food’s incredible, the people are lovely. I loved it so much I wanted to stay.”
In her teens she went to boarding school in Lincolnshire and joined a Sugababes-style trio called SoundGirl. They landed a major label record deal, released a bouncy cover of Carly Simon’s Why which hit the top 10 in Belgium, and were dropped before they could release an album. “I was devastated but when I look back now, we were so young, so head-in-the-clouds. I did learn how to write songs in that band, which was great.”
So she went to a music college in London for a while, where she met her current guitarist and former boyfriend Mika Barroux, and left because she could no longer afford the fees. She spent her time waitressing and building up the courage to sing at the open mic event, to which her cousin, who ran it, kept inviting her.
“I don’t know what my goal or dream was. I just knew that I loved writing music and it made me feel happy,” she says. “I wanted to be a songwriter at first. I wanted people to hear me rather than see me. I don’t know if I’m shy. I just felt I wasn’t good enough. I hadn’t discovered my voice yet.”
She has now, and her appearance on primetime BBC One on Monday ought to turn a few more ears deservedly in her direction. It hasn’t been easy to get this far, but she’s going the right way.
BBC Music Awards, Dec 12, Excel Centre, E16 and live at 8.30pm, BBC One. Ticket information: bbc.co.uk/music
Izzy Bizu plays Feb 15, O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, W12 (0844 477 2000, o2shepherdsbushempire.co.uk)