UMI is a singer-songwriter from Seattle. Washington taking on neo-soul music with the modern twist of genre-blending that allows artists to make the music they truly feel at the time without regards to staying inside a genre box. Having just released her latest EP, Love Language, followed by a tour with Conan Gray featuring an all-female live band, we had a chance to sit with the songstress at the Houston show to talk tour and her experiences leading up to that moment before enjoying a beautiful show full of connected-ness and spirit.
Rianne: Alright. Now that we’re finally settled. How’s your day going?
UMI: Good! We just drove here and got some mediocre vegan food. That kinda made me sad, but I’m just grateful I had something to eat [laughs].
Rianne: This tour with Conan Gray is coming to an end. How did you all do to pass the time? Do you have a tour playlist?
UMI: The funny thing is in our van, we have a TV and a video game system, but we’ve been on tour for a month and haven’t touched it once. We sleep, we listen to music on our own, and I work on emails. It’s been very productive like the van time is my office work time. That’s usually what I do or I listen to podcasts or watch documentaries. Sometimes, I call my family.
Leslie: Before you went by UMI, you went just by your first name Tierra. Why did you decide to make the transition and is there a difference between the two?
UMI: Tierra is like my corporate name. I use it in the business world. People at school used to call me by my first name, Tierra, so I wanted to separate myself from school me and doing music me. UMI‘s always been my family name as it’s my middle name. It was always just something that people who knew me would use. I just felt like that’s more my
creative self and like, I don’t know, people didn’t really see that creative side of me in school, so I was like okay cool I can almost put on an alter ego. Or well not even an alter ego, but it allows me to show a deeper side to myself. And it also has like a punch to it. Then, in hindsight I’m so glad I didn’t go by Tierra because then Tierra Whack popped off. [laughs] Trust your intuition, always.
Rianne: Your name UMI comes from the Japanese language which makes sense because you are part ethnically Japanese. How do you stay in tune with that side of you? I saw that you recently traveled to Japan and you released your first song in Japanese. I was still curious as to what made you want to express that part of yourself in your music?
UMI: I would say, I’m realizing as I create more and more music that I don’t put myself in one category, one type of music, or one demographic of people that I try to sing to. Now is like the time where there are no genres like people don’t want you to be in a box and I should take this opportunity to express all parts of myself.
It’s also just feeling like people never saw me as Asian. People never saw me as Japanese, like I go to Japan and people still talk to me in English while I’m speaking the language you know? So I was like how can I just be shamelessly Japanese? So I’m like f*** it let me put Japanese in my song, and let me put anime in my music videos.
And it’s been so cool ’cause even on tour I’ve been seeing a lot of Asian fans coming up and them being like thank you for representing the Asian Community and I cry. It’s just like “Oh my God! People really see me as Asian!” I know I don’t look Asian, but it’s not about the physical. It’s the entire experience of me growing up with my mom who is full Japanese.
Leslie: For the time being, “Remember Me” is your biggest hit, why do you think that resonated with so many people and how has your life been affected by its success?
UMI: I feel like that song is such an empathetic song and I’m such an empath. I love feeling people’s energies, and that song was it the definition of that cause I didn’t even write that initially about my own experience! I wrote about my roommate’s experience she went through a break-up and I started feeling like “Did I just go through a breakup?’ I felt so sad every day. I cried too! So I needed a way to release that feeling which led to me writing that song. And when I was coming up with the idea for the music video I was like, “Okay, what is universal about the song?” and well everyone goes through heartbreak and that’s unique because people always talk about love and the bitterness of breaks up but not always the nostalgic sweet parts of it so I wanted to tap into that. I used film, so it has a bit of that analog feel. I just feel like it being nostalgic and kind of warm but also about a kind of a colder topic is why I think people are drawn to it.
For me, I always say that song opened so many doors for me. They always say it only takes one song to really get into and grow in the industry. The craziest thing is I wrote a journal entry while I was at this scholarship retreat at school, you know and I was like “F*** school! [laughs] I don’t want to be in school”. I forget what they were talking about, but I got bored and started writing and I was like, ‘I’m so happy that “Remember Me” was my hit and I got millions and millions of views on it”. It’s crazy how it manifested itself.
Leslie: A lot of your songs and music videos deal with intimacy and connections between people, be it platonic or romantic, so my question is why do you choose to use that as almost a muse for your music?
UMI: I would say I think it’s cause I’m such an empath and I feel the most when I’m with other people. It’s something around a relationship or friendship and observing another person’s relationship where I can draw a lot of myself from that place. When I was writing a lot of what is out now, I was around a lot of people like I was in school so I was just constantly observing observing and I feel like that’s where that has come from. But I’m working on a lot of new music right now and I’m realizing since I left school and I’m more on my own, my music has become more introspective. Coming from within rather than from out.
Rianne: You’ve worked with Cautious Clay, Deaton Chris Anthony, Yeek, and many other artists who when I listen to their music have such a distinctive sound. What it’s been like to work with people who are so authentic in themselves and their music? And also what has that experience been like to create with people you consider friends?
UMI: I always love to collaborate with people in their own little worlds because it allows me to step out of my world and join other people’s music that’s different from what I would normally do. It draws a lot more out of me with my songwriting and my melodies. Then it’s like you said, we’re friends before we even write a melody so it’s like, “What are you doing? How’s life ? What did you write this song about?”
Then we get really personal and start to realize, “Oh that’s where the sound really comes from”. It comes from your personal experiences and how you grew up. You start to understand the deeper layers of people through friendship and music coming together. It’s just a time where everyone’s doing whatever the f*** they want. You can do whatever and I’m very very fortunate to be in that scene.
Rianne: Is there a song that you kind of wish you made or wrote?
UMI: “20 Something” by SZA. Every time I listen to it it just has so much emotion in it and you don’t even have to be a twenty-something to understand what she’s trying to say. The production is so simple with it just being her voice carrying the song. That song inspires me. Every Frank Ocean song too I’m like “Wow. I want to get to that level”. That’s why I’ve been listening to more rap music. I’m like “Okay, he’s a rapper who can sing. He has that cadence”. I’ve just been learning and picking up from people. Just songs that are really personal. I want to write like that.
Rianne: For your latest EP, you released the music videos as a string of episodes. I was also reading the credits and you creatively directed them. How did you come up with the concepts?
UMI: First, I was like I wanted to do an anime so the first idea was to honestly do a fully animated video, but then we realized that was gonna take like three years so how could we dwindle that
down and still keep the main components. The writer and I came together after I sent him pictures of all these anime styles, letting him know I wanted a certain type of love story narrative, but I didn’t want to do that typical type of love story. I wanted something different, something kind of out there. He was like, “Okay. Why don’t we had a bit of Sci-Fi elements into it?”. Honestly, it was me taking a lot about my personal experience and as I was explaining earlier about sometimes I having to hide the fact that I’m Japanese or people not seeing me as Japanese. Then it hit me like, “Oh, what if I’m hiding that I’m an anime character?” and it just built from there.
Leslie: I see across your social media that you place a lot of emphasis on your spirituality. I want to know how important your spiritual connection is to your music making and your musical performance.
UMI: I feel like my practice in my spirituality is even what brought me to this point in my career. It’s what pushes me to try new things. ‘Cause you know I’m a scaredy-cat. Like when I was a kid I had the worst stage fright. I wouldn’t sing in front of people. I wouldn’t dance in front of people. I wouldn’t do s***. I also meditate before writing every song. I open the show with a guided meditation. I also burn Palo Santo. Palo Santo is going extinct so I have to find a new source, but just burning sacred woods and sacred plants that cleanse the space. I am also very intuitive about the people I work with. If I enter a room and I don’t feel like I vibe with a person I trust that inner knowing and leave. Everything is like my intuition meditating on what feels right. It guides me in making decisions and it manifests in my music just coming from my heart space.
But I just have this inner intuitive knowing that my purpose on this earth is to do music and maybe my biggest growth comes from pushing through my fears. I constantly challenge myself. I feel like that’s where everyone is. You know what you love is what you fear the most, so you have to balance the two.
Leslie: What advice do you have for people who dream of doing music but don’t know how or where to begin?
UMI: I would say first figuring out what your sound is as in what space you occupy with in the world. As genre-less as it is, you still have to be very sure of “this is me as an artist”. But to do that you have to experiment and try writing lots of different types of songs. When I started writing, I had real poppy songs and then super R&B songs and I even tried to write a rap song. After a while, I was like okay I know where I lie now. You have to align yourself to get to that place and like I said constantly pushing through your fears knowing that your higher purpose is not going to be the easiest thing to get to and that’s why it’s your higher purpose. Also, just always asking yourself like does this make me happy and if it makes you happy then it’s worth the extra time, energy, sacrifice you make for it I would say. Then more on he business side. Those would be my tips, hope that helps!
Rianne: I saw you got some new tattoos in New Orleans. Do you have any other tattoos?
UMI: Yes! This is my first tattoo. [She shows us her ‘I Am’ tattoo on her wrist.] Affirmations. Whatever I say after I am, I am. So I have to say good things, but these two [her new butterfly and moon cycle tattoos] I just got them yesterday.
Rianne: What made you want to get them?
UMI: It was a bit spontaneous. I mean I’ve always wanted a butterfly I was going to get it here before [on her arm, above her elbow], but my band mates and I were talking and we thought it’d be cool if I got here [outside of her wrist] so that when I sing you can see it. This is also the butterfly from the album cover for “Butterfly”. I always ask the universe if I’m meant to do this, if I’m meant to work with this person, show me butterflies and I get butterflies or I don’t. I also had this crazy experience in Florida where I got a reading from this light worker/tarot card reader. I was apprehensive at first, but then I was like, “Universe, if I’m meant to get a reading here, show me a butterfly”, and a butterfly flew into the store! I was like “Oh my God! I have to!”. That reading changed my life. And then I got this [moon cycle tattoo on the outside of her other wrist] because I’m so affected by the moon cycles. This is me giving thanks to the moon for giving me higher knowledge and intuition when I experience these emotions.
We’d like to give a big shout out and thank you to UMI and her team for allowing us to conduct this interview! If UMI ever comes to an area near you then you have to make sure to go catch one of her shows! I’ve never seen another artist like her that so intimately yet effortlessly connects a whole group of people to create an experience you can’t forget. Be sure to stream UMI‘s music on Spotify, Apple Music, or Soundcloud. Check out her music videos here!
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Leslie is a student at the University of Houston. She is a Media Production major. When she's not blasting music or watching anime, she's either failing to meditate, buying books she won't read, or purchasing plants she'll overwater.