R&B Musician UMI Sees Every Setback as an Opportunity

For someone only 22 years old, UMI (the Seattle-born, Los Angeles-based musician born Tierra Umi Wilson) exudes a surprising degree of wisdom, especially when it comes to dealing with setbacks. When she experienced a youthful case of stage fright, she realized online platforms like YouTube and SoundCloud would allow her to sing for people without being in front of them. When SoundCloud sent her an e-mail claiming that her popular covers were copyright violations, she decided that was the push she needed to start releasing original songs. When the pandemic hit just as she was slated to do her first headlining tour, she saw it as an opportunity to check her intentions and get back in the studio. During that time, she re-recorded her 2020 EP, Introspection, producing a strikingly different body of work entitled Introspection Reimagined. UMI, whose lo-fi R&B sounds could sit easily on a playlist between SZA and Frank Ocean, is part of a rising class of younger musicians who rocketed to success through online platforms. As part of a larger exploration of Spotify’s emerging Lorem playlist, we spoke with her about reimagining K-Pop songs, the power of YouTube, and making hits with intention.

How did you first get into music?

I come from a very musical family. My mom is a classical pianist. My dad is a drummer in a gospel band. So I grew up kind of immersed in music, but I also had really bad stage fright for most of my life. I love singing, but it was something I always did in secret. I remember having these dreams of performing and being on stage and just pursuing music, but every time I would do it, my throat would clench up. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t move. In high school, I was like, “Okay, UMI, you know what your purpose is, but you have to do something.”

So I started making YouTube videos so I could sing and then share the videos with people and not have to actually be in front of them. I did a lot of different covers where I’m playing my guitar. I put those covers on SoundCloud, and maybe a year into doing this, I started gaining a little bit of an online fanbase. SoundCloud sent me an e-mail that said, “You’ve been flagged for copyright. If you put one more cover on your SoundCloud, we’re going to take your account away.” That’s what pushed me to actually start putting original music up and pursuing other platforms.

School in California was my ticket to get out here. I was on scholarships, so going to class was like, helping me pay rent, but I would skip class all the time and just go do open mics and sessions.

Who were some of the artists you were covering?

I did a lot of Frank Ocean covers. I did a lot of SZA covers. I actually did a lot of K-Pop covers. I really loved Korean music, so I would translate the songs into English and reinterpret them. I would say those were the main three, but I’d also do whatever was popular at the time. I remember I did Rihanna’s “Work” on my guitar.

How do you think people started to find you?

Instagram and YouTube are really powerful platforms for me. Because I’ve used them for so long, I have a really good sense of how to express my authentic self on both. I really value visual content with my music and coupling everything that I create with the visual sphere. A lot of fans find me from the music videos that I create.

It seems like authenticity is such a big factor to an audience right now, and also the sense of getting to grow along with an artist.

It’s so important. I want to have a long-lasting career and that means not rushing. I’m telling a story and letting myself evolve. The youth wants to see that too. They don’t want to be sold the song anymore. They want something to be a hit because it’s genuinely loved.

Last winter, you had reached a certain level, professionally, and then all of the sudden the pandemic hits. What was that like for you?

I adjusted surprisingly quickly to the circumstances. I was slated to go on my first headlining tour and had all these other opportunities lined up, but I realized that I wasn’t really ready. I was just kind of doing it for status and to stay relevant. My intention wasn’t in the right place. So it almost felt like a relief washed over me when all of that happened. It’s given me more time to really understand that I do really love music and I’m not doing it for ego reasons. It’s a genuine passion and now I know the next time I go on tour, how I want to tour and what I want it to feel like for the listeners. It’s given me the opportunity to be intentional from this point on in my career which I felt really great for it. I don’t think I lost any opportunities. I think that none of those opportunities were meant to happen then. I feel really clear about it now.

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