DePauw University senior Issac Loya, originally from the Rio Grande Valley, began his collegiate journey as a freshman football player in 2004. Twelve years later the 30-year-old singer/songwriter/guitarist shares his story of setback followed by triumph.
by Donovan Wheeler
You could say that what happened to Issac Loya wasn’t fair. You could argue that he played by the rules, did everything right, and didn’t deserve to be stuck back home in deep South Texas—one of the five poorest regions in the nation—taking care of his family. You could make note that he was one year away from his degree when he walked away from school. You could also sympathize with him as he watched his two younger sisters go on to complete their degrees and land teaching jobs. But don’t say any of that to Loya himself. He would be the first to point out that decades before, thousands of young men walked away from their lives (from college, from movie stardom, from major league baseball fields) to put on uniforms and fight on the other side of the planet. In fact, for as long as we’ve sent off our kids to college towns with both their dreams and their laundry, many of them have had to give up school because someone else needed them. So this is not a story unique to Loya. Does he want to you recognize his journey? Yes. Does he want you to stop obsessing over his age? I think so. But does he want you to feel sorry for him? Not a chance.
photos by Caitlin Fogle
“Long story short,” Loya says explaining what happened to him, “my dad was sick for a long time. He had been sick before, when I was in fourth grade. He had heart issues which turned into liver issues, then diabetes.”
He arrived on DePauw’s campus in the fall of 2004, a high school football star, brought in to play on the offensive line. But after one season, his football days were over. And music, his other passion which he had haphazardly pursued was also shelved. As he explains it: “I knew the same 10 or 12 songs everyone else knows and that was it. I didn’t spend any time trying to get better.”
Donovan Wheeler: So how does your father’s illness push you to the decision to walk away from DePauw in 2007?
Issac Loya: “I remember one time having to rush home sometime around Thanksgiving. I was originally going to go to Virginia to visit family, but Dad had just had a heart-attack. I hopped on a plane and headed home, and realized how serious everything was. When I got back to DePauw, I felt out of place being on campus because I knew I needed to be home. My parents were high school educated, no college, so I guess you can understand the kind of income they were making at the time. So I had to go back home and help. My last semester here in ’07 was really tough. My mind wasn’t in the right place. So I went home, and I worked.”
DW: And roughly seven years later, you decide to come back.
IL: “When my dad passed, I didn’t have to fill that responsibility, anymore. I didn’t have to make money to give money. So I reapplied—without anybody knowing—back to DePauw, was reaccepted, and kind of surprised everyone—even my girlfriend, who had just moved to LA.”
IL: “Yeah, [laughing]. It was a big shit-show after that. Everybody was saying, ‘What do you mean?’ or ‘What’s going on?’ and ‘I can’t believe you’re leaving.’ But at that point my two younger sisters had already graduated from college, and I said to myself, ‘It’s my turn to do that. My turn to be able to earn my own keep.’”
DW: So why go back to DePauw? Why not go to school closer to home?
IL: “DePauw makes it challenging to transfer credits. I went back to school in the fall of ’07 in Texas, but I quickly realized that if I was going to go that route, I was going to have to back-track. It would have taken me five more years after that. So that was the moment when I decided that I wasn’t going to mess with it while I was in Texas. When I returned to DePauw, six credit hours transferred from Texas, and I only needed 5.2 to be done. I decided to spread that out over the whole year, and I started performing better in class than I ever had. When you’re a 30-year-old, your perception changes. Being an avid reader helped also. Being able to read and comprehend makes it so much easier to go back to school. I was always a natural reader, doing it when I was little kid, but I didn’t take it on seriously until I was 24-25. I should have been that way when I was 18-19.”
Earlier this month Loya penned a letter to the editor for DePauw’s school paper commenting about life as a 30-year-old senior in what he calls “a very traditional four-year school”:
“Things got interesting quickly. Many of you reading this will never be able to understand the struggle I went through in the first few weeks. It isn’t because I grew up in the poorest region in the U.S., or because of the color of my skin; personally, those things were irrelevant. The struggle gets real when faculty and students say offensive things, or look at you like you’re out of place in Asbury Hall because you look like a dude looking for the Dad’s Weekend celebration.”
For Loya, however, music provided the bond he needed to find his way through the age gap. Besides regular stints at the campus’ Fluttering Duck bar, he has performed a handful of times for college music showcases (including a session warming up for Fort Frances’ front-man David McMillin last March).
DW: How did you find your way into music?
IL: “I grew up with my uncles, who were playing at barbecues…around the campfire…around the pool, and I fell in love with it. I bought my first guitar for about $20 (over in Mexico because we were so close to the border). I had that guitar for seven or eight years, and I also played stand-up bass. I played with youth symphonies in the metropolitan area more so than with my high school band, and I also played with a nearby university symphony.”
DW: So when did you decide to get serious about music?
IL: “About four or five years ago I was back at home working in the food and beverage industry…bartending and stuff like that…and I finally realized that I wanted to make money playing music. So I quit my job, I bought a sound system, and I said ‘I’m going to use my friends around the Southwest and see if I can make it happen.’ So, I packed my sound system and my guitar, and made my way around Texas to people I knew who worked in bars. I was playing four, five, six times a week. I started developing a repertoire, and I also discovered that if I could take less money and play more gigs then I could make this work out.”Loya would go on to travel across most of Texas—something he describes as equal to crisscrossing a half-dozen other states—as well as making stops in both Oklahoma and Louisiana. But it didn’t take long for the grind of life on the road to wear him down.
IL: “It was a drag, sleeping on other people’s couches, staying with friends, all the while never really sure about the next gig. So instead, I went back to South Texas, picked up a group of guys, and pretty soon we had built up a catalogue of two-hundred songs and were playing almost every night of the week. We were making good money playing private events, weddings, political events, city events…all kinds of cool things like that. Then that work transitioned into playing in bars, and from there we moved on the regional music scene.”
DW: Why the acoustic guitar? I know it seems like a popular choice among many musicians, but I was wondering what has motivated your choice.
IL: “It’s easier to do my work acoustically. I can rehearse whenever I can. I’m responsible for my own equipment, and I take care of getting the gigs. When you have other people in the act, then your responsibilities become greater and more things can go wrong. So this is the most efficient way for me to do this. People will give me an electric guitar, and when I hold it I’m kind of lost. It’s not that I wouldn’t like to play, it’s just that I’m not very comfortable with it. I like to be on the beach. I like to be in front of the campfire. I like the spontaneity, and that feels natural…feels good to me.”
DW: When I first heard you, you played a few of your own original songs. But I’m assuming that in your Duck sets, you play a lot of covers?
IL: “Covers are what people want, and they’re what makes the money. When people don’t know the music it’s kind of hard to push it on them and expect a response. Keep in mind, where I’m playing, it’s a setting where people are drinking and having conversations. I’m not really the centerpiece, and I’m not playing for me. I’ve always been kind of nervous about my songwriting. To put that out to the world, it’s kind of disconcerting.”
DW: And yet you spend all that time playing at the Duck, almost as ambient background, and then you’re thrust into the McMillin session. The audience is seated in rows, and they’re zeroed-in on you, and you’re playing your own stuff.
IL: “It’s definitely weird for me. Because with most covers…that’s just me reading the lyrics as I play. It’s hard to internalize most of the songs and own them in the same way that I do the ones I’ve actually written. But my songs mean something to my own personal story. It still makes me nervous, though. Because why would other people connect to my own story?”
DW: What story do those songs tell?
IL: “One song, ‘Hooked on You,’ is about telling my girlfriend I was coming back to school. We were going to be away for a long time, and the long-distance relationship is tough to stomach at times. The Internet, Skype, and being able to fly directly from Indy to LA has helped a great deal, but even with all of that, carrying on a relationship with that much space between us has been intense at times.”
DW: And the other?
IL: “That one is called ‘Have Faith in Me,’ and it talks about facing the challenges which I’ve encountered. People will be quick to say, ‘No you can’t go back to school, you can’t play music,’ and things like that. But I’ve always carried this attitude that I can do whatever I set my mind to. I know it’s a cliché, but that’s honestly how it is for me.”
DW: How has your evolution as a songwriter progressed since those early years doing this?
IL: “Writing songs for me, at this point in my life right now, has changed thanks to the poetry classes I took here at DePauw. When I came back I was stuck in a deep mental block. Being introduced to poetry like that really changes the way you write. I’ve found myself thinking when I’ve written my own poetry that it could one day be music as well. But as a whole the writing process for me is still in its infancy.”
“I’m not sure if I said, as I sometimes do with students, ‘what’s your story?’ of if he just volunteered. But suffice to say, that after he told me his story, I told him I’d make room in my class for him. The class was in East College and Issac sat in the back corner always ready with a question or comment. I wish I taught more people over the age of 25 who have the kind of curiosity and appreciation for knowledge Issac showed. I know he loves poetry and sees in it the possibility to cut through those things that separate us. He understands how poetry and song can give name to the ineffable stuff he’s experienced, perhaps, a little more fully than typical college students between 18 and 22.”
DPU Poetry Professor, Joe Heithaus
DW: So what’s next? Where do you want music to fit in your life after DePauw?
IL: “I definitely don’t want to struggle. That’s for sure. It’s hard to put ‘music’ and ‘success story’ in the same sentence unless you’re really committed and willing to take on everything that comes with that. And I don’t know if I really want to be at the center of it all. I’d like to more work under the radar…writing those jingles I mentioned before or writing for others more willing to stand under the spotlight. But for me…my plan is to start a family, and I want to have a steady schedule. So unless I find myself fully committed in the future, I don’t see myself playing as much as I am now.”
DW: Have you thought about how different your life would have been if you had finished “on time?”
IL: “I used to think about that. When you leave school…or leave anything…undone, it feels like a kick in the face. And watching my sisters graduate only made that more difficult. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to accept the idea that fate plays some role in the story. If I had graduated on time, for example, what kind of 30-year-old would I be today? Who knows if I would have grown to see the world the way I do now. I wouldn’t have ended up with the woman I’m planning to spend the rest of my life with. There’s almost a decade’s worth of those sort of questions, and I’m done looking back on all of that. So now…I don’t think about it much at all. I think about the future, about being the best person I can, about being the most positive influence I can.”When I sat down with Loya I thought I was going to write a story about a budding singer and guitarist, an artist with a great musical future ahead of him. And while music will indeed play a role in his post-collegiate life, Issac Loya’s story is something much bigger and more profound than one of a guy who’s really good with a six-string guitar. As we parted, he told me that he hoped he was able to have some sort of influence on the younger students he’s spent his year with. I don’t doubt that he did. But I think it’s too dismissive to limit the lessons he’s taught to a cohort of early 20-somethings. If you’ve spent even an hour with Loya, he’s taught you something, and he’s made you reevaluate how you react to the hurdles put in front of you.
Sometimes, the best musicians are the ones who can move us without even plucking a string.