First Look Friday: UMI on Making Music That Heals
For our latest First Look Friday, we spoke with UMI about her career, her therapeutic debut album Forest in the City, and more.
UMI tuned in with her intuition during the four years it took her to craft her debut album, Forest in the City. At 15 tracks and no features, UMI radiates with deep-rooted soul as if the 23-year-old has been here before.
UMI – whose legal name is Tierra Umi Wilson – was grounded in the nature-filled environment of her Seattle hometown before transitioning to Los Angeles to attend the University of Southern California as a business major. While in school, she released her 2019 EP, Love Language, followed by Introspection in 2020 and a live version of the EP, Introspection Reimagined in 2021. Each project shines with calming, meditative energy although UMI was nascent in her career, but on Forest in the City, UMI comes full-circle in songs of manifestation, healing and finding her purpose. Although she’s no longer in Seattle, UMI looked to the tranquil scenery of home to connect with her inner world, realizing that the forest never left her.
Now on her first headlining tour, UMI has lightened the mental load for her fans through high-spirited performances. UMI even offers VIP packages where she guides attendees through meditation sessions, imbuing them with words of wisdom. Following the release of Forest in the City, UMI spoke with Okayplayer about finding home away from home, creating music as a therapeutic practice, and more.
With the release of your first full-length album Forest in the City, how would you describe this current stage of your life?
Umi: I feel like everyday I’m learning something new. Right now, since I’m on tour, I feel like I’m in this season of sharing – sharing new music with people and welcoming people into [my] world. While I was working on the album, [my energy] felt very internal, like planting seeds. Now, I’m sharing my flowers.
How did relocating from Seattle to LA shift your perspective personally and professionally?
Living in Seattle, it’s very rainy, so I spent a lot of time indoors. When I came to LA, I was really coming out of my shell, finding myself more and wanting to share myself more with the world. Personally, I feel like I became more open and extroverted in my energy and also in the way that I create. Professionally, there’s just so many people in LA who are in alignment with the music I want to create and the dreams I have. It’s so easy to make things in my mind become reality in LA, [there’s] more people to build community with.
What music community do you feel most in alignment with in LA?
The people that executive-produced my album. So there’s me, VRon, Danny Parra, Logiksmind – those people, I love creating with them. There’s so many more people, but they’re some of the first people that come to mind, especially because I spent a whole year finishing this album with them, we have such great synergy.
I think the fact that we all approach music from a feeling place and it’s never like “We have to make this” or “This is popular right now so we should make this.” It’s like, “How do you feel today?” or “How does this sound make me feel?” It’s very day-by-day and I appreciate that because it allows me to be myself with them and create from the heart.
You’ve spoken about withdrawing from college to pursue a career in music. What was the confirmation for you that you were on the right path?
When I left school was about the time when “Remember Me” was starting to grow. It’s funny because I remember I was writing out my affirmations and manifestations for “Remember Me” at this scholarship camp I was going to. I remember being there like, “I don’t even want to go to school but I’m here putting my hours in to get this scholarship.” Then I started to see those dreams materialize one-by-one and I was like, “I think it’s time I leave [college.] It’s time to spend more energy on this dream than school because I don’t even want to be in school.” Seeing that was a big confirmation for me.
Then, I got a tattoo, and I was like, “If I get a tattoo, I can’t work an office job” and I didn’t go to my midterms. I was like, “If I don’t go to my midterms, I can’t come back to school – it’s gonna mess up my GPA too much.” I kind of put myself in a corner of not going back.
How have you found home away from home since you’re not in Seattle anymore?
My family moved out to California recently and having them feels like home to me. It’s interesting, too, because growing up, I moved around a lot. My parents were also divorced, so I would move around a lot within a week from house to house. So, when I think of home, I don’t think of a destination or a place, I just more so think of my practices.
I have my yoga mat – where my yoga mat is, is home. My mom comes on tour and I see her, it’s like “Ah, it feels like home.” Wherever I do my meditations feels like home because it’s just something that always grounds me. I guess I say that to say, lately practices have felt more like home than people, places or things.
You came up with the idea to host guided meditations on the Forest in the City tour. What made you want to share that experience with your fans?
I remember when I went on tour previously when I was opening, I was observing how other people would kind of do their meet and greet experiences. I feel like they’re so quick, you get five seconds to meet the person, they sign one thing and then walk away – that’s not really an opportunity to connect. Before [the Forest and the City tour], I did a lot of meditations on Instagram Live and I’d notice people would be like, “I feel like I got to know you better from that” or “I felt really connected to you.”
I think I can offer more connection to people through meditation than I could just giving them a hug and a signed poster. Already I’ve seen people cry and share deep, releasing and letting go experiences, so not only are people getting to know me, but I feel like I’m able to be in service to the community.
In seeing your fans cry – because I’m sure that can be a bit overwhelming – have there ever been times that you felt like you have a responsibility over their healing process while still navigating yourself?
Yes, I have and I feel like now I’ve gotten to this place where I’m prioritizing my healing, sharing what I’ve learned and letting other people pick and choose what resonates with them when it resonates with them. I feel like I used to feel this responsibility like “I must heal people, they must try these things, I know it will help them,” [but] people don’t do things until they’re ready for it. Even me, I don’t do things until I’m ready for it, so I’ve had this perspective of just sharing more openly, everything that comes to mind that has helped me and let people come to it when they’re ready for it.
I do think though, I make music to help heal people and there’s a deep intention for me behind it. I feel like if that wasn’t there, I don’t feel like my soul would feel so full when I make music. Knowing that it helps people is what makes me like, “I’m happy to do this, I’m excited to be doing this everyday.”
What have you learned about yourself in the process of recording Forest in the City?
Working on this album, I learned what it means to be a leader because when you make an album, it’s not just music, it’s so much that comes with it; the creating, the mixing, assembling the team… A lot of people ask me, “UMI, what do you feel about this?” or “What do you feel about this [sound] on that song?” Before the album, I don’t think I realized I could make so many decisions and I could trust myself so much.
After the album, I’m understanding what my intuition sounds like and feels like more easily, so it’s easier for me to navigate. I guess I just realized, “Wow, I do know how I want to do it, I do know what I want to hear, I just have to ask myself and trust that voice.” That’s one thing I’ve learned about myself – my own capabilities.
Do you feel like you weren’t trusting of your capabilities before this album?
Not as much. I feel like I’d always be like, “What do you think?” I think it’s natural to do that, but I did it a lot, more than what I needed to. Even if nobody agrees with me, if I know deep in my heart and my intuition that this is something that’s supposed to be, I trust it and I know that I’m here to shake things up and try something new.
Which song from Forrest in the City has gotten the best crowd response on tour? “Whatever You Like” seems like it would be one of the crowd’s favorite songs.
“Whatever You Like” is definitely a big one. People love the classic oldies, they love “Remember Me,” they love “Love Affair,” but from my newer stuff, people love “Sorry.” All of the singles, I’m really happy with having people sing along with me. Since the album just came out, [fans] are learning the lyrics as they come, but I notice people really love and feel mesmerized by “Hard Feelings.” I have a lot of sound bowls on the song and I think it puts people in this trance.
“100 Days” has a conversation at the end. What was the idea behind that?
[The conversation] was between my two grandmas. I wanted to use the project as an opportunity to share insight into my heritage and family. I asked both my Black grandma on my dad’s side and my Japanese grandma on my mom’s side about their experiences growing up and questions about their life. I think it’s kind of cool to be like “Wow, I come from both of these worlds.” Also, I don’t talk to my grandmas as much as I would love to. It’s a reminder to myself and to other people to talk to their grandmas, talk to your family, ask them questions because they’re full of wisdom.
What cultural influences have you drawn from both parts of your identity to pour into your music?
I would say from my dad’s side – from African-American ancestors – I feel like the soul and the rhythm moving me. There’s so many times where I’ll write a song and I don’t even feel like I’m writing it, I feel like I’m remembering the song that’s already existed and it’s just coming back to me. I always feel like they’re always coming from that side of my family, that part of my soul.
From my Japanese side, I’m noticing that Japanese art, music and culture is very detail-oriented, there’s an attention to energy and feng shui. I notice when I create, I have such a dedication to detail that I try not to be detailed, but it flows through me and it’s the ancestors reminding me like, “People may not notice all the details, but they’ll feel the details.” I feel them in the way that I direct, the poster art is very influenced by Japanese culture, so I see those two worlds melding in those ways.