Words: Sonia Akther
Tierra Umi Wilson, a 20 year old Japanese-African American vocalist, songwriter and producer has released her latest EP ‘Introspection’. Moving to Los Angeles a few years ago, UMI is drawing on her rich and diverse cultural heritage to create music she is calling “Neo-Soul”. I began by watching the live video for ‘Introspection’ before our Zoom call and would now like to recreate the setting for my first party in a post-virus-world.
Opening in an oak decked looking tree house; decked out to an interior architect’s dream, UMI and her band vibe away in a gorgeous gravel paved garden —natural, intimate and super chilled. I fancifully imagine they snacked on sashimi resembling stunning floral bouquets as they sipped on Gin-Seng tea…maybe. UMI, a fervent student of music, is making music you can’t not enjoy.
We spoke with Umi on Zoom almost a month ago now. Something wonderful feels like it’s happening in the music industry where I keep meeting these spiritually enlightened young women making music in their own way and at their own pace — and it really shows in the work. We spoke with UMI about anime, lo-fi, how social media is enabling the youth, ending with the most beautiful quote on books!
I watched your live performance for ‘Introspection’ and really loved the aesthetic. You seem so natural and at ease— how did you find your confidence?
Growing up I felt like I was constantly battling between purpose and fear—how could something (singing) that brings me so much joy, scare me so deeply? I moved to LA a few years ago and when I got here I started doing open mics every single week; just to get out of my head and get comfortable, and now I’m in a place where I feel free and comfortable on stage and I feel more connected to my purpose of being an artist.
With the live performance I really just let myself express and there wasn’t a blockage—I wasn’t feeling conscious that I was singing, so it’s cool to see that when I let myself go people seem to connect and resonate with it.
Do you find freedom in writing? Is it in the sharing that you might be a little nervous?
Yeah, there’s something about the sharing of the voice…there’s so much stability in playing an instrument but your voice can crack; your voice can give out; you can forget the lyrics and the song can’t move on without the voice—but an instrument is always there. I’ve always felt so vulnerable singing but writing for me has always been so freeing and a place I am comfortable.
Have you worked with the girls in the video before?
Yes, they’re my band. We’ve toured together, travelled the country together, they are my soul sisters. We also arranged the live set together. There’s such an intuitive connection when you work with other female players. We only rehearsed for maybe 4/5 hours in total and that was from scratch to the whole set. On the day there were still questions like “When are we going to drop out of the song? Are we going to transition?”. But we just have this intuitive connection—we get each other and know we’re going to hit this cord right now or on this break—it’s really cool that we have that connection.
You are bilingual and speak Japanese. Bengali is my first language and I’ve recently been thinking about how that influences my work. How has it been for you?
That is a beautiful question. I feel like being bilingual means you can approach your expressions in different ways. Japanese is such a different language to English with so many ways to phrase your sentence. I feel like without even realising it I form my sentences in English in the way a native Japanese speaker might. I mix my Japanese influences and my Japanese language into it. I explain things using some of those Japanese motifs and influences of the Japanese language; the simplicity of phrasing or the sentence structure– to explain things in more vivid detail and leaving some things for simplicity and openness. I think that’s how language also impacts the music. Lately, I have also been writing songs in Japanese and I’m excited to allow my music to reach more places, to be an artist in the U.S but to also reach people in Japan.
Does being bilingual enrich the other language for you?
100%. I couldn’t imagine speaking one language and being who I am today. It is so important to know more languages. I am learning French right now—I want to continue to expand on the number of languages I learn so I can communicate myself more deeply and in more ways. That’s also what I love about music. You don’t actually have to understand the language to know what the person is saying—you can always feel it in the energy of the music. I feel so blessed to be able to reach so many people and not have to put force in it; it just happens.
Do you have a favourite anime?
I grew up watching this one called ‘Duermo’—I loved the show, it really informed my creativity. It’s about a robot-animal and he’s friends with this boy who has a magic pocket, and with it he has an infinite number of gadgets. There’s a door which will take you anywhere you want to go; he can speak any language; he can speak with animals. In the show, the little boys desk drawer was like a time machine and he would time travel and go back and speak with cavemen. That show expanded my creativity enormously. The storytelling in anime is so unique, you get sucked into the storylines.
Did you visit Japan often as a child?
I did. I would go every summer throughout middle school, in high school I didn’t go for a while and then I went back last year for a few weeks and it’s always so nice. I always go with family and stay with my grandma. I love the energy out there—it just so special.
Childhood food memories…
I grew up eating a mixture of Soul food and Japanese food. A lot of vegetable dishes too. My mum loves veggies. Lots of ramen, soba. My dad is also an amazing cook; we’d have lots of barbeques; lots of collared greens; black eyes peas. Both my mum and dad would fuse elements of each other cooking, so barbeques with a lot of Asian spices. I grew up loving to cook and loving food and it still follows me now; I love food!
How would you describe your style of music?
I feel like my music evolves with me—I don’t feel like there’s one label that encompasses all the music that I make. A few years ago I was in a lo-fi phase, I was developing my sound and I think lo-fi is all about the simplicity of sonics and it has a lot of computer based/ programmed sounds; that was where I was in an era of my music. Now it has shifted into bigger neo-soul, R&B; much more of full sound. I feel more connected to sound than before.
My next project has a lot of African influences and Pop influences because I’m starting to understand what Pop means. In the past I thought Pop was bad and Pop meant mainstream; but now I’m like, “Pop means popular” and you can reach all people—as I’m learning that I feel my music can reach a broader spectrum of people and it also has healing elements in it. I am tuning all my songs to joy, peace and happiness; you receive all those benefits from listening to music. If I had to put a name to it, I would say ‘Healing Neo-Soul’ but I think that is so everchanging because I am ever-changing. Being free to express that and not being afraid to step outside of identity itself is what makes it unique. I want to take soul music and keep broadening it.
What are you listing to atm?
I am listening to a lot of soul-soul music. I’m listening to this artist called Eliza, DJ Harrison, River Tyler, Bill Withers… a lot of ‘soul-soul music’. I’m doing my own kind of masterclass in music. I think that’s what keeps music so fresh. Everything I write is inspired by something I have listened to. It’s important for me to keep listening to new music to keep my own music fresh and different and to study. To study other artists and to study my musician friends too—I have a lot of musician friends and I sit with them and practise and soak up knowledge; so I can bring elements of their energy into the music. I love to study. I love to learn.
I am constantly being pleasantly surprised by spiritually enlightened young artists like yourself…
I always want to pleasantly surprise people and to shift all our understanding of what an artist can do and what we can offer to the world is a vision. In the past it was maybe a ‘sing and perform for us but be mute’ but there’s so much we can do. I think that people want a depth to their music; people want a message. Art reflects the culture and if we’re not connected to ourselves, we can’t be that deep. I think this year has allowed people to get to know themselves better and I think that will reflect in the music too and be something positive.
The youth is waking up. The consciousness of the next generation is so profound and I think the internet is one of the reasons why. To have so much more access to the world is shaping our ways of thinking. It makes me extremely excited. I am very grateful for platforms like this that allow artists to be able to express their truths and to be able to share it with other people—that is so powerful. That is how we change thoughts and shift the consciousness forward.
It makes me happy to hear happy you are making music and it really shows in your work too.
As an artist, you just know when what you have created is authentic. There may have been a time where there wasn’t much space for authenticity and labels told people what to do, it was so ‘businessey’. Right now, I think the music industry is in a beautiful place. The stereotype of the bad label or the controlling label… I just don’t think that exists anymore. All my managers and record label want from me is authenticity. I don’t want to say that’s what sells but in some way—that is what sells. People want to feel your essence and that correlates with the joy that the artists are feeling. I’ve never thought of it like that, but I think that may be what is happening.
In the long run, it seems to make more sense to give artists all the time they need in order to get good work…
Exactly, otherwise you get burned out. I am learning that for myself too. I used to feel like I had to always keep content coming, that I had to always be dropping stuff– but when you work like that you get tired and your work lacks attention. Creativity is a labour of love, it takes experience, it takes life, it takes time to think and reflect and change and evolve and I’m so grateful my label give me the space to do all that.
Do you have a song writing process?
I do. I learn a lot from hearing other artists talking about their process too, it’s so valuable to share. The magic touch about song writing for me is that you allow it to be different every time you write a song. I have a system I know that works, but every time I go into the studio it’s a different experience. Generally, I start off by taking a voice memo and freestyling ideas and melodies, kind of mumbling words, and then I’ll go back and listen to all my memos and pick out what might be a good verse or hook. Within the mumbles you say a lot, actually—the subconscious comes through and I build the lyrics from there.
Sometimes I’ll have a poem written and I’ll put the poem to a song or I’ll just freestyle in the booth and write the song in the booth and then get a piece of paper and write it from the top of my head. It really depends on what the song asks for.
Are you reading anything right now?
I love, love, love to read. I’m reading two books right now; a fiction and non-fiction. I’m reading one book called ‘Just Be’, it’s about returning to a more simple meditative way of being, like the trees or the grass – that zen state that plants and animals live in where there is pure presence in each moment. And I’m also reading another book about a spirit which wakes up in a different person’s body every day and falls in love with somebody on one of the days and is trying to find their way back them. It’s a really good book!
It sounds so interesting and I can see a slight connect with the anime from your younger years as well..
Yes, there probably is. I love books! Books are like life hacks! You know how you can update your computer? I feel like books are like that for my brain. I read a book and I feel like I’m a better person.
The book I’d like to recommend to UMI and our readers is ‘Where The Crawdads Sing‘ by Delia Owens.