JBL Emerging Interview: UMI on finding happiness and talking to the wind

In this Emerging Headliner interview powered by JBL, singer-songwriter UMI opens up on how her African American and Japanese heritage is reflected in her music, how her experiences as a queer woman have become a beacon of acceptance for others in her artistry, why recent single, happy im, was inspired by a time she was running from love. And when it comes to overthinking? She turns to the wind. UMI gives Headliner the tea…

UMI’s voice is putting Headliner into a trace, and she hasn’t sung one note. After making herself a homemade tea (more on that later), the Seattle-born singer-songwriter settles down to speak about her music from her now-home in L.A. Her voice is so soothing it feels like being lulled into a guided sleep meditation.

“That’s lovely,” she responds, genuinely delighted. “That’s an amazing compliment. I actually have this series called Full Moon with UMI on YouTube where I talk about mindfulness topics, and a lot of my fans will put it on as a sleep playlist. That is so lovely that I can help people fall asleep. That's an honour!”

Away from helping people sleep, the singer-songwriter has been steadily making waves in the world of R&B and neo-soul with her profound, ethereal sound and heartfelt lyrics. Raised by an African-American father and a Japanese mother, a young UMI (real name Tierra Umi Wilson) absorbed the music loved by both of her parents, both of whom are musicians – UMI’s mother plays the piano and her father plays the drums. UMI reflects on how her unique African American and Japanese heritage has fed into her musical identity as an artist.

“I've been noticing it more and more,” she muses. “Japanese culture is very tied to a Zen way of living; a very calm, peaceful, holistic way of living. When you go to Japan, the traditional food is very subtle and there's depth in the subtlety – there's no extra fluff added to things. That's really how I create my music. It's a very functional way to think: ‘Why am I adding this sound? What is it doing for the song? Why am I adding these lyrics?’ I feel like not a lot of artists naturally approach music from that lens, and it's not even something I thought about. But as the question has come up more, it's made me step back and be more introspective about things. 

"Then on my dad's side, I grew up listening to gospel music, with music playing all the time, versus my Japanese family where there's literally barely any music playing in the house. It's very peaceful, quiet. It's like, ‘Let's enjoy the sound of the wind’. Then my dad's side of the family is cookouts, music playing, R&B, gospel music – all lively. Both parts show up in my artistry. That side of my family makes me very bold, so I don't hold back much of the way I feel when I write and express myself. I feel very uniquely created.’

UMI’s mother taught her how to read, write and speak Japanese, which is where the name UMI stems from. It means ocean in Japanese, which when linked to her music, makes perfect sense – the Zen and hypnotic sounds of the sea feeding into her melodies, soothing like a day spent in nature.

“There's a big Japanese community in Seattle,” she enthuses. “I think that's what drew my mum to the area. Ever since I was little she either worked at or had her own Japanese school. When I went to public school and I was with my friends, I was definitely the only one with my heritage and culture, but if I would go to my mum's Japanese school, I would see all types of different kinds of mixtures of cultures.”

UMI started writing music at the tender age of five, writing down her ideas in her songwriting journal. She admits that she has no idea where that journal is today.

“I mean, if I dug through my garage I might find it! But also, my mum's essence is very, ‘If we don't need it, we don't need it’. She's minimal, like, ‘Let's just toss things from the past,’” she laughs. “She's like, ‘The memory exists in my heart. We don't need to hold on to things’. I'm a sentimental person. But with that being said, I have the memory of the book in my mind. It was pink with a locket on it and it was iridescent in the front.”

Living in Seattle at the time, UMI was unconsciously manifesting her future in L.A with her first song: “I would write a lot of inspirational, ‘you can do anything’ kind of songs. One song was called I Belong in Hollywood, and my mum got me this matching tracksuit that said, ‘I belong in Hollywood’ on the back,” she grins. 

“It's cool to realise that you can have the dream and then it'll just unfold, but not in the way you expected it or in the timeline you expected it. Nothing else is really required outside of believing; it kind of all falls into place. It'll happen when it'll happen.”

Japanese culture is very tied to a Zen way of living.

In high school she discovered YouTube beats and started writing to tracks, gradually building an online following and catching the attention of listeners, however this was swiftly halted when she started to get copyright notifications on SoundCloud by posting covers of other songs.

“The panic!” she remembers. “I was like, ‘No, not my 1,000 followers! I spent so much time curating that.” (Today, UMI has 495K Instagram followers and over two million monthly listeners on Spotify, so it all worked out in the end).

“That really pushed me to put my music out,” she reflects. “I had this friend in high school who kept telling me like – literally every single day – ‘Put your music out online, put your music out online’, and if that friend combined with the copyright didn't happen, I probably would not be sitting here. So in a way, I was able to turn that into a blessing, which I'm really grateful for. That's what pushed me to start uploading.”

In 2017, UMI started releasing original singles, followed by her four-track debut EP, Interlude in 2018. UMI soon found herself on Spotify’s Fresh Finds Best of 2017 playlist, before things really took off with her single, Remember Me, which currently has over 33 million views on YouTube and 146 million plays on Spotify. 

The song taps into the fact that we’re all the same, no matter who we love, and the accompanying music video features couples of different races, class and sexual orientation. UMI reflects on how her experiences as a queer woman become a beacon of light and acceptance for others in her music and videos.

“I love that song,” she says. “My artistry is very unique to me. It's almost like my acceptance, love and peace within myself reflects in the growth of my career and the relationship with my fans and my comfortability on stage. There's a very authentic expression: I'm not playing any kind of character; I'm not pretending to be anything. It's just me being myself. 

"As I've learned to find acceptance for myself and an awareness that I have these feelings, or that I am a queer person and that I do have this unique way of loving, I noticed more of those types of people are attracted into my universe – people that are also in the queer community and fans who have reached a place of acceptance and are very free spirited. It's a really cool reflection that's happening.

“It's also interesting, because I was never like, ‘I'm queer’. I just was like, ‘I love all people and I don't feel confined by gender’, or I don't feel very infinite in that space. As I started owning that, I've been becoming more and more of a leader in the movement and a voice in that world. That's been really cool to see. I never imagined that for myself, necessarily, but now that I'm in it, it feels very natural.”

When I feel that sense of loss, I tend to go outside and let the wind talk to me.

Her new single, happy im, was written at a time when UMI was running from love. The kind of love, she says, that can be felt in many ways: love for a dream, family, career, a place, or a person. On the track, gentle acoustic guitar glides over a stripped-back drumbeat, while UMI switches between Japanese and English. UMI explains what was on her mind at the time of writing the blissed-out tune.

“I was realising that I had a pattern of poking at good things and creating unnecessary problems, especially in my relationship. I was like, ‘Things are so healthy, they're so good, they're still flowing’, yet I didn't know why, but I would keep being like, ‘Are you mad at me? What is happening? Why are you so nice?’ I would poke at things and think that there were problems in places that there weren't. I realised this is all self created.”

Does UMI think of herself as an overthinker?

She laughs before responding. “Yes, I am – and I don't want to be. That's my goal. There's areas where I'm almost there. It does come with creativity,” she acknowledges. “I feel like I'm tuned into a lot of things at once, so those are the areas where I'm down for it to stay. Every time I listen to happy im, it reminds me to let that go. I think it's a human habit that a lot of us have when we really love something – it almost feels like there has to be a fight, or there has to be an uphill battle to get there. 

"I've been learning that that doesn't have to be true. It's only true if I make it true. Instead, I just simply let myself be happy, think about things a little less and be more present. That's what this whole new era of songs I'm releasing is all about. That's what inspired the song; me letting that go.”

I'm not playing any kind of character; I'm not pretending to be anything.

When it comes to her life outside music, one thing that helps ground UMI is her love of cooking.

“I really love cooking,” she says enthusiastically. “I really love eating. It instantly brings me joy to talk about food! I love noodle dishes. I also really love fruits and smoothies, and I'm very interested in herbalism and holistic eating. It's a hobby of mine. I really love making teas,” she volunteers. 

“Lately, I've been making these different combinations of ginger teas and I started freezing them. I blend ginger, lemon and turmeric and I'll freeze it and make them into little ice cubes. In the morning I add hot water, honey and sea moss. That's been my guilty pleasure every single day: thinking about how I'm excited to make the tea,” she laughs.

Headliner has a controversial question for UMI, seeing as it seems to be on most menus these days: how does she feel about truffle?

“Oh I love truffle oil,” she purrs. “Trader Joe's has this truffle oil and I've always been curious to cook with it. But in terms of truffle anything, I'll always get truffle pizza, truffle pasta. Truffle is delicious!”

Headliner steers the conversation back to her music, and UMI shares that she will be releasing a new EP next year called talking to the wind.

“I'm very excited for this EP,” she smiles. “The whole EP is the idea of being more present. I think that comes with making peace with being lost. I realise that when it comes to humanity or just myself, we expect life to give us answers, like life is Google. Like, ‘How do I make truffle pasta?’ And then, ‘How can I be happier? How can I accept myself more?’ For me, it's like, ‘How do I know what I want to do with my music? What's the next step?’ They're all songs made at a time where I didn't really have a specific direction I was going in or a specific goal, but I just felt a pull towards creating. I think that's how life can be.

“When I feel that sense of loss, I tend to go outside and sit with the wind and let the wind talk to me. The wind is very simple. The wind is just like, ‘It'll be okay’. I think that life answers questions more naturally in that way; very simply, impatiently, and it all unfolds over time. 

"By being okay with that and enjoying things, right here right now, makes the answers come more clearly and smoothly. All the songs on the project give you the essence of the wind; it gives you that sense of peace, a next step or sense of acceptance. By the time you finish listening to it, you'll feel a bit more connected, inspired and present.”

The whole EP is the idea of being more present.

The first single from the EP will be released in November, titled why don't we go, which is partly inspired by not putting things off.

“It was inspired by me going, ‘You know what? I'm going to stop being like, ‘next week’ or, ‘let's go on this road trip next year. Let's wait until my birthday’” she explains. “If I want to do something, I want to do it now. If I want to jump in the water, I'm not going to wait five days to do it. Why not do it right now, right here? It's a song that invites you to be spontaneous with life. That's the whole visual world I want to paint with it; to invite spontaneity. The melodies are super catchy and it's a song to dance to. It's a nice change of pace from the last single, which felt more like a diary entry to me.”

When UMI started recording, she discovered YouTube beats and started writing to tracks, recording songs with a simple USB mic and uploading them to SoundCloud and YouTube. These days, she’s got a more sophisticated setup, using an AKG C214 condenser mic to record with, which is a cost-effective alternative to AKG’s high-end C414 family of mics, which are a permanent fixture in the world's biggest recording studios.

“I'm really happy to be using this mic,” she says sincerely. “I'm using it right now for this interview! Some of the first records I ever cut were on this mic. The producer I work really closely with is named V-RON, and the first session we ever did was on this mic. 

"The mic creates the session and creates the relationship, because after cutting on that mic, I was like, ‘I really like the way she tracks my vocals!’ The mic played a big part of that relationship being built between me and her, so I have a lot of memories with this mic. And it's super easy to travel with,” she points out.

The essence of my music is to have a song that feels real & organic; this AKG mic supports me in creating that sonic world.

“This is now my travel mic; it comes in a really nice, cute case. I like to make music on the go, on road trips; I make music pretty much anywhere! I take the mic with me on tour, so this is super handy. This beats my bigger mics that I have feel more stationary; it feels like a travel buddy. I'm the type of person where if I travel and make a song, I really don't like recording my vocals because there's a certain essence to that. But now that I have this mic with me, I don't feel like I have to recut so much because the quality of it is really nice.

“I have been using it at home, too,” she shares. “I'm definitely going to cut some songs for the next project on this. I'm excited to see what final demos this mic helps to create. The essence of my music is not to create a super polished song, but to have a song that feels real and organic. This mic definitely supports me in creating that sonic world. It's high quality, but still maintains the naturalness of recording. It doesn't have to be in a perfect, soundproofed studio – I'm recording real life, so it helps capture real life.”

As a parting thought, UMI shares that on top of her upcoming music releases, she will soon begin hosting regular meditation shows, as well as sound bath and breathwork sessions in L.A. Her deepest intention is to use her music as a vessel for healing and human connection.

“L.A is very into the holistic movement,” she nods. “If you come here, there's probably a sound bath happening almost every single day of the week. It's a way of life. I think it comes with the person I am and the music that I create,” she considers, “because I feel like all the music I create is a sound bath, in essence. But I'm also really passionate about just doing sound baths. So why not do both?”

With that, she sips the last of her homemade tea. “I'm gonna go make myself another one,” she smiles.

Image credits:

Second, third and fifth image: Eddie Mandell.

Last image: Spencer Middleton