I sat down with Chicago’s Iz Burns
to discuss life, music, and finding the joy in communal creativity.
Around three years, a few hundred cigarettes, and countless FaceTime conversations ago, I let my beloved classmate, and pseudo-maternal figure, Talia, drag me on one of her typical Instagram-inspired brunch excursions, with the intent of introducing me to an old friend of hers who had recently enrolled at Gallatin. Anyone who knows me even in a cursory fashion is fully aware that I’m not the type of person who enjoys planned social gatherings, engaging in arbitrary small talk with people I’ve just met, or even food in general; nor would I ever voluntarily be awake during the hours in which any dining establishment offers a brunch menu. However, in many ways, I consider Talia to be the closest thing to a sister I’ve ever had, so I try to do just about anything she asks of me without giving her too much shit about it. Entirely cognizant of my qualms with interpersonal communication and aversion to meeting new people, Talia attempted to provide affirmation on the way over by saying, “Don’t worry you’ll love him, you two actually have a lot in common.” At the time I wasn’t sure what to make of this as it could mean a myriad of positive or negative things, but in hindsight I can safely say this is one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. About ten minutes after we had been seated, a lovably goofy looking dude in short shorts, off-white Air Forces, and some of the dopest eyeglass frames I’ve ever seen jogged to our table and apologized for his lack of punctuality. As he introduced himself to the members of our group, for whatever reason, I couldn’t help but smile. That was the day I met Iz Burns.
For those of you who have not yet been fortunate enough to make his acquaintance, Isaac “Iz” Burns is a twenty-three year old Chicago-born producer, songwriter, vocalist, trumpet virtuoso, and easily the most genuinely personable guy you’ve never met. If you’re hip to the ever-expanding music scene in the Chi, then that last name should sound familiar; and for good reason. Iz accounts for one half of the city’s dopest musically-inclined doppelgangers, the Burns Twins. Alongside his twin brother Eddie, the pair have used their background in conservatory Jazz training to blend together a unique fusion of hip-hop, R&B, funk, and soul with the ubiquitous juke flavor that has become synonymous with the Windy City. The duo have been releasing music professionally now for the better part of five years, generating a respectable buzz locally before subsequently branching out to playlists across the globe; racking up over three and a half million Spotify streams across seventy-nine countries, in 2019 alone. With statistics like that it should surprise no one that Iz is one of the most forward-thinking and intensely creative minds in music today. However, to say that he is simply an immensely talented musician would be doing an unfathomable disservice to the range and breadth of his craft. If you need any type of advice, guidance, or general consultation regarding the creative or technical process that creating a record entails, Iz will happily and thoughtfully oblige; and if the focus of your inquiry happens to be in one of the few areas outside of his realm of expertise he will connect you with, and insist that you reach out immediately to, the perfect person for the job. Over the past few years Iz has swiftly become one of my absolute favorite people to discuss life, debate music, and exchange ideas with, so when the opportunity arose to crack open a Stella Artois and pick his brain as the subject of an artist profile I couldn’t have been more psyched.
I caught up with Iz via FaceTime on the Sunday night before NYU’s Spring 2021 finals week, and was greeted warmly with his typical, “Yo bro, what’s good?” Despite the fact it was already half-past ten at night and he had just finished a twenty-three page neuroscience paper, he brought the same childlike excitement and energy he always does when music is the topic of conversation. After dedicating a few minutes to checking in and catching up I informed Iz that typically when constructing these profiles the writer and artist would engage in some sort of bonding activity, but due to fact that Covid-19 has kept us more than a few hundred miles apart for nearly two years now, we were going to have to improvise. Under normal circumstances, I’m sure I would have found myself flying out to accompany Iz for a few hours of his favorite hobby—riding dirt bikes through the Colorado wilderness—but given the constraints we found ourselves under, I proposed we partake in mine instead: a friendly game of FIFA. Upon registering my challenge, Iz defensively retorted, “Dude, I don’t even have a game console, I’m a workaholic.” While the latter half of this statement is certainly true, the reader should be aware that it doubles as a thinly veiled excuse, as Iz is fully aware that I would wipe the floor with him on the virtual pitch ten out of ten times. As a compromise, he was kind enough to give me a virtual tour of his space while I asked him to walk me through his journey as a musician.
“Yeah, sure! Where should we start?” As he made his way down to the studio space in his basement I noticed his trumpet case sitting by the bedroom door. I know music is very much a family affair in the Burns household, so I suggested that Iz run me through his introduction to the art form as a whole. For everyone new here, music quite literally runs through the Burns family’s DNA. Iz and Eddie trace their own musical lineage to their father Stephen Burns, an American conductor, composer, and ingenious trumpet maestro with a master’s degree in trumpet performance from the esteemed Juilliard School. His distinguished contributions to his field are too numerous to list here, but members of our generation might know him best for his work as a mentor to The Social Experiment’s Nico Segal (formerly known as Donnie Trumpet).
“Well you know my dad’s a musician, he’s a classical musician; or he was a classical musician before he moved into contemporary scores. But he would always have students come stay with us and they would practice for hours a day in the house, so we were just always around musicians. I think pretty organically at the age of like five or six I was like, ‘Dad I wanna play piano;’ and that lasted for maybe a year. Eddie was like, ‘Dad I wanna play drums;’ and Eddie still plays drums. Then when I was around nine I was like, ‘Dad I wanna play trumpet;’ and a trumpet showed up at the house just for me. From there it was all about falling in love with the pursuit of musical mastery and learning about music; more than becoming the best it was always about consistently getting better.”
The contextual knowledge that the Burns studio space has housed innumerable musicians for countless years helps explain the controlled chaos that Iz was sharing through the screen. As he tiptoed around an assortment of tour gear, recording equipment, and enough instruments to arm an orchestra he assured me that the root of this disarray was the fact Eddie was in the process of moving. As the camera lingered on one of Eddie’s drum sets I asked Iz to give me a little insight on what it’s like to work professionally with his twin brother.
“It’s interesting! I know very few people who work with their twins—siblings for sure—but twins not so much. I think part of it is however much Eddie and I will fight or disagree, we’re best friends; we’re super similar in a lot of respects and our musical identities develop together. Whenever we work, it feels almost symbiotic, which is a phenomenal feeling. At the same time, it’s occasionally difficult because it’s easy for us to get into these brash disagreements over trivial shit because we’re siblings, but for the most part it’s awesome. It’s also a somewhat revelatory experience in certain facets because I know Eddie as a person very well, but Eddie as a musical mind is something that I consistently learn more and more about as we work together. Although I’m always conscious of the similarities and disparities between our creative processes, I’m never like ‘Oh this is my brother;” it’s more like ‘Oh this is how my brother thinks about music and this is how his mind works,’ which I think is why I find myself so drawn to neuroscience.”
As Iz says this he’s in the process of collecting discarded sets of drumsticks off the floor and placing them back in what seems like their most appropriate resting place, a more organized section of the floor. We pause the tour momentarily to give Iz a moment to expand upon his fascination with neuroscience and explain his academic interests. I ask if he wants to give us a quick overview of what he’s been studying lately. “Absolutely! I’m calling my Gallatin concentration ‘Bridge Building,” which he describes as the confluence of neuroscience, creative arts, political sciences, and strategic leadership.
“What I’m trying to do is determine, on a neurological level, how to work with people more efficiently and effectively. The goal is to develop a method of collaboration that is creative and engaging, while simultaneously finding common ground within the political-ideological spectrum. Because, in my experience, people like to align themselves within really insular communities and disagree with any viewpoints or perspectives that even remotely oppose those views; so it’s all about finding the gray area through the sciences. The strategic leadership side then revolves around taking those methods and applying them in the most digestible way possible. I really love trying to understand how the mind works; I think there’s a lot to be found within the machinations of the mind that go further than words.”
As he explains the scientific intricacies of his studies to my less-developed journalism brain, I can see the passion glowing in his eyes, which, despite half of his analogies still sounding like Latin, brought me a lot of joy. Iz had a bit of a tumultuous start to his relationship with higher education, taking two and a half years off following a single-semester stint at Skidmore College to provide remote production support while his brother Eddie was on tour. As it stands, he’s two classes into his junior year here at NYU, and he’s been a lot happier since returning to school. Though I felt like I already knew the answer I had to ask, “You know, man, I know the workload is grueling, but you always seem so excited when you talk about your studies; how has returning to school impacted your creative process?”
“Oh I love it! I’m very thankful; it’s like I’ve rediscovered the language needed to create again. I feel like I have a lot more freedom to be creative in any way I want, not just musically but overall I just feel more comfortable in my creativity; whatever that may mean in the moment. From working on creative strategy to working on video direction to something as simple as organizing my thoughts in writing. I think that returning to school has allowed me to find the methods, words, and internal processes to be more creative and joyful about my creativity. Which is a very cathartic feeling for me because for a while it was a heavy burden on me, and creativity should never feel burdensome. Creativity should be as innate as breathing; it’s all about being new, and expansive, and respectful.”
Before resuming the tour we took a moment to speak more personally about the space Iz was in for those few years away from school. After Iz stepped away from Skidmore, he had a really productive couple of years working on music with Eddie back in Chicago. Everything was going really well until the fall of 2018. Around that time Eddie had been enlisted as Clairo’s drummer, and was set to accompany her as the opening set on Dua Lipa’s sold out world tour. Simultaneously Iz’s longtime friend, frequent collaborator, and coincidentally my roommate Mitchell’s older brother, Andrew Bedows, had started school himself, leaving Iz to work on the production side alone in Chicago. This half-year of isolation, combined with the self-imposed pressure to remain productive and creative, resulted in the excessive burnout Iz had alluded to.
At this point in our conversation, Iz reassumed his role as tour guide and was showcasing the Burns’s personal library of music journals, song sheets, and historic sonic documents, alongside a large portrait of the Burns Twins Side Eye EP cover commissioned by Danny Cole. He then panned over to the crown jewel of the tour, two side by side monitor setups, saying, “Our biggest studio setup here is our computers.” He then sat down to play me a song he had worked on for his music improvisation course at Gallatin with Kwami Coleman, and a couple unreleased snippets of some older work he had done with Omar Apollo. I took this opportunity to ask him a little bit about the collaborations and feature work he’s done behind the scenes over the years.
“It’s like the best part about making music, there’s such a massive community aspect; especially in Chicago. I feel really blessed to be involved with such a diverse set of musicians because, at least for me and Eddie, we grew up in an insular private-school community that was very much a bubble, so our music education and our career allowed us to break out of that bubble and create new relations with people we may not have been normally spending time with. Which was huge for our personal development more than musical; it was about our identities. So yeah it was a similar case with Omar Apollo because he’s from northwest Indiana, which is a half hour from the city, so before he had any following whatsoever we met through a mutual friend and he would pull up to the city and we would make music and kick it. I wound up doing a lot of vocal direction and production work for him, and we ended up putting out ‘Day by Day’ which is still the top song on our Apple Music analytics right now.”
While we were on the topic I couldn’t resist the urge to interrogate Iz about the backstory regarding his relation to one of my favorite Chicago based bands, Manwolves.
“Yeah so I had heard about Manwolves in high school, and actually it was Talia who had told me about Manwolves when we were at Parker, and I was like ‘Fuck these kids, they’re from Evanston, they suck!’ Then I watched the videos, and I was like, ‘Damn, these kids are cold as fuck.’ So one day me and Eddie got this call to do a show in Evanston and it was just us two, us and Manwolves; we were the second to headline and they were up before us. So we pulled up, and were loading in, and like immediately we realized, ‘Holy shit, these guys are wonderful.’ They were so kind and they put on a great show, and we just clicked. Over the next two years as we put out more music we would constantly be playing double bills where we were next to each other in the lineup, I don’t even know how many times. We wound up just kicking it constantly and those guys became my best friends until one day their former trumpet player broke his jaw. So they called me up to fill in on trumpet at a show in Vermont, and when their trumpet player left afterward they asked me to join. I wound up playing trumpet for them for a while and it was great.”
Not only was it great, I’ve always thought the band was at its best with Iz on brass. To this day, I’ll never forget attending one of the very last shows at Brooklyn Bazaar, headlined by Manwolves, and seeing Iz get pulled on stage to perform the back half of the set with the band. “Yeah man that was a great time, the spot was about to shut down, too, so the promoter let us smoke cigs in the green room; it was raw.” Later that night, I made my way over to Iz’s crib in Manhattan to congratulate him on the set only to find he had retreated to his room in exhaustion. I spent about fifteen minutes standing silently in the corner while the band took turns trying to figure out who the fuck I was, before slipping out unnoticed to smoke a joint on the sidewalk with the drummer, Julian. When I made my way back to my dorm I had around ten texts from Iz apologizing for being pent up in his room. The man had just played for two hours and could barely keep his eyes open, but wouldn’t let himself fully fall asleep until he had checked in with me; that’s just the type of person he is.
Iz concluded the virtual tour by giving me a glimpse into the spare room littered with miscellaneous instruments, synthesizers, and MIDI/XLR hookups; among the various items was one of Clairo’s guitars and countless packs of guitar strings. He then headed back up to his bedroom, where the tour began, and propped me back up on his desk; behind him hung his first RIAA Gold certification for his production work on Clairo’s “4Ever.” I took the occasion to ask about this moment in Iz’s work.“Speaking of Clairo, I see behind you you’ve got your certification hung up. Congrats again on five hundred thousand sold, do you want to wrap up this discussion of collaborative ventures by talking out your work with Clair?”
“It’s definitely a dream come true. It’s so crazy, I can’t believe I woke up after taking a final and I was gold certified. But basically Clair’s management used to be based in Chicago, and they needed a drummer. So you know me and Eddie know lots of the folks in the city, so they hit up Eddie and were like ‘Hey Eddie come talk to Clair and if she likes you, you’re her drummer.’ They were working on her Diary 001 project at Chicago Recording Company, so Eddie went over there and they hit it off. Clair wound up leaving the studio, but me and Eddie were tight with the engineer so I went over there and we were all working on “4Ever” until like three in the morning; we had no vocals, we were just arranging the track and looking at levels and shit. The next day they called me to come back in and it was just a joy, she’s such an incredible musician and songwriter. After that I went out to L.A. to work on some stuff for Immunity, and it was so natural and amazing; I just kept saying to myself ‘Oh my God, I’m so lucky to be here.’”
As that last sentence leaves his lips you can see the appreciation exuding from his body, it’s difficult not to get emotional yourself because, if you know his work, you know it has nothing to do with luck; he genuinely deserves it. Since we had dedicated a decent amount of time to the influence he’s had on the work of those around him, I was curious as to which artists he accredits for influencing his own. He naturally gave props to his father, as well as the late great jazz trumpet legend Clifford Brown. In a more contemporary shout lavished both Thundercat and Flying Lotus with infinite praise. “When I was writing this really long research paper, I was listening to the soundtrack to Yasuke, Flying Lotus’ new anime series, on loop for around ten hours. Additionally I have been attempting to draft a tweet for years that will get Thundercat to notice us.” After giving a few of my proposals for the Thundercat tweet, I asked Iz to provide some insight on anything new he’s been listening to.
“I’ve been really into Latinx music recently. Chicago has a huge Spanish-speaking community and I have a lot of aunties that are fluent, not by blood but like political auntie type shit, so I was partly raised speaking Spanish; I try to stay in tune with that. I’ve also been into a lot of punk recently, Turnstile is the punk I’m listening to. Oh and Aphex Twin is always a mainstay. I’m kinda all over the place.”
On top of the new shit in his playlist, Iz has been keeping busy professionally by doing production work for Savemoney’s Thelonious Martin. He’s also been polishing up the track he created under the improv guidance of Kwami Coleman to prepare for release, and dusting off some long awaited records from the Burns Twins vault. Primarily though he’s used the pandemic and his return to university to reevaluate his relationship with music overall, and develop healthier ways to mitigate burnout. I closed our conversation by asking him what he’s up to next.
“So I have a lot of creative work coming up for this rapper Qari, because Eddie produced like two EP’s and an album for him so I’ll be helping them with the rollout. I did everything for one of the videos but direct and shoot it, and I just love that process; I’m super excited to do more work like that. I love being outside, I love making things happen, so to be able to connect music with other types of creativity in the strategic setting is exhilarating. But I guess my favorite answer to that question is always, I don’t really know; I never really know what’s coming, and I used to hate that. Now I find it cool, honestly, it’s exciting. I’m kind of in this position where I’m lucky enough to have things come to me, now that I’ve established myself and put my work in. I’m moving back to New York soon with one of my best friends from Chicago and a good friend I know through the industry, so I’m really just excited to keep paving my own way; I think the last thing I want to do is pigeonhole myself into doing one thing because I’d lose my fucking mind. I think I’m just excited for whatever happens; whether it be good or bad, I do my very best to learn from every situation. That’s what brings me excitement.”
As we wrapped things up I thanked Iz again for finding the time to speak with me before telling him to forward my best wishes to the family, and expressing mutual love as we reciprocated peace signs through the phone. We’ve had these types of conversations hundreds of times now but every time, I walk away feeling like I sat in on a lecture I should have paid for.
A couple days after I first met Iz I got a text from a number I didn’t recognize saying, “I know you’re not doing shit right now, let’s get dinner.” Talia had given Iz my number and we only lived two blocks apart. Normally I would have pretended like I was asleep, but it was only seven and I respected the fact his assumption was spot on. I met him outside his place and we had dinner at San Marzano’s, then spent the rest of the night chainsmoking my whole pack of Newports and half of his box of American Spirits. I think at this point I can safely say “Bridge Building” is one of the most apt concentration titles I’ve heard during my time at Gallatin. When it comes to Iz, he has this uncanny ability to form meaningful and genuine connections with people almost instantaneously. Whether it be through music or regular conversation Iz Burns recognizes nuance and modulation like very few people I’ve ever interacted with. Having only met once before, we spent hours discussing the juxtapositions of our upbringings and how the disparities in environmental factors have shaped the ways we consume and conceptualize music and existence; within twenty minutes it felt like I was speaking with someone I had known my whole life. You can see this reflected in his art; every Burns Twins record is made with intent and purpose. The onus of interpretation is on the listener, but every single track will make you feel something. In our current landscape of throw away songs and microwave music, minds like Iz’s and Eddie’s are invaluable. With the benefit of hindsight I now know this is the reason I couldn’t wipe that stupid smile off my face when he first introduced himself to me, that aura of creative curiosity literally emanates from his very being.
If you were unfamiliar with Iz prior to reading this profile, then it has been my absolute honor to serve as your introduction. Whether it be from behind the scenes or on the stage, Iz Burns’ influence on the contemporary landscape of music will be present for decades to come. When he eventually becomes a household name amongst the circles and communities that recognize and respect his unparalleled creativity, just be sure you let everyone know that it was an inevitability.