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UMI’s Peaceful Soul: ‘I Can Be Whatever I Want to Be’

Like so many people of mixed heritages, Tierra Umi Wilson exists between worlds. The 23-year-old artist — who performs under her middle name, UMI, which means “ocean” in Japanese — was born in Seattle to a Black father and a Japanese mother, and has spent her life negotiating the cultural exchange she embodies. Her 2020 EP Introspection put that interrogation into music as she worked her way through questions of heritage and sexual identity.

But while that record was explicitly inward-looking, UMI’s debut album — Forest in the City, out May 27 on RCA — seeks to turn her search outward. The themes are more universal and the sounds more expansive, bouncing from sun-soaked electro R&B on “whatever u like” to moody slow jams like “moonlit room.” It’s as if being at a fulcrum between communities has given UMI the confidence to be something completely different: herself.

“Growing up, I didn’t feel Japanese enough, I didn’t feel Black enough, and I didn’t feel me enough, really,” she says. “Now that I’m getting older, I feel like I can be whatever I want to be. Today I’m completely different than who I was yesterday, and that’s OK.”

UMI spoke about the impact of her move from Seattle to Los Angeles, her shift in musical perspectives, and what fans can expect from her upcoming tour.

You’ve talked about how your music is centered around the idea of peace. How did you settle on that as a central theme for your work?

More and more now, people are becoming conscious about how everything they consume impacts their state of being. I’ve noticed that for myself, it’s not just the food I eat, not just the people I spend time with, but the music I listen to that impacts the way that I feel about myself in the world. As I’ve been finishing this album, I’ve realized that there’s this deeper purpose in what I’m creating. It’s offering people music that’s like fresh air, like pockets of forest, pockets of peace.

How did your transition from Seattle to L.A. help inspire this album? 

The title came to me when I was at Griffith Park. I’m just sitting there, I’m meditating and I’m hearing bird chirps, and then I’m hearing sirens and cars honking. And I thought, “This is so unique, where humanity has evolved into.”

I realized: I’m in a forest in the city. It stuck with me. With the music, I wanted people to feel like that, even if you’re in the subway in New York or you’re driving through the city in L.A. or on an airplane. Those places you feel so far from nature, I want the music to take you back to that place. The feeling that being at the park can give you. That’s the intention.

Can you talk more about intention? There’s a deliberateness in your approach that seems spiritual.  

Making music is so fun, but I also see it as a sacred responsibility in a way. There’s a lightheartedness, but there’s a depth to it too. The fact that you can go to a show and get thousands of people to jump at the same time, and to recite the same words as you, it’s power that’s in your hands, and I’ve just been thinking about questions like, “What do I really want crowds of people to say? How do I want people to move at my shows? At home, what songs do I want stuck in their heads?” I think spirituality plays a part in that, because I want to infuse my spirit and my love through what I create and what I inspire in others.

That external focus feels like a shift from your Introspection EP from a couple years ago. What did that transition from looking inwards to focusing on the world at large look like?

Introspection reflected a globally introspective period of time for people. Everyone was getting to know themselves on a deeper level, including me. That project was about all the things that I’ve gotten to know about myself. But after that was done, I felt like I just spent more time with people and realized, “Oh, these things are universal. This is beyond me.”

That’s where Forest in the City comes from. It’s me saying, “I went through this, but how can I best write this in a way that another person can relate to?” I think they’re both important processes, and I’ll probably ebb and flow between both of those feelings, but right now I’m very much interested in taking my experience and applying it outward.

That period of extended, global introspection has shifted the meaning of community as well, with many people looking more towards their neighbors for support and mutual aid. Has your definition of community changed at all?

Community feels like life. During my Introspection era, I felt like I could do everything myself. I can make my videos by myself, I can do it all solo. It was like this lone wolf mentality. With Forest in the City, now I’m like, I don’t want to do anything by myself. I want help, I want community, I want to do this with people. And it’s reflected in the way I finished the album. I did it with a team of people. I’m making the videos with a team of people, and I want groups of people to hear my music. I’m going on tour now. I’m performing it for people. Community is so infused in my pillars of life now in a way it wasn’t before.

How about personal community — have you ever felt fully part of either being Black or being Japanese?

I feel like I’ve always teetered in between. That’s such a mixed-person experience. It’s always like, “Where do I fit?” And then you realize, it’s OK, and I remind myself the boxes don’t exist. That’s where I’ve gotten to.

Do you think that balance of not being fully of either community but still being fully yourself has influenced how you work?

I think with the album you can hear that it’s not bound by any genre at all, but at the same time I can vividly see where my Black ancestors and growing up in a Black community come into play. I feel the soul from my Black side, I feel the gospel music infused in what I make and the melodies I choose. And then growing up in a Japanese community, I feel this attention to detail that I feel like is just an essence in Japanese art. It makes the way I approach R&B, for example, really unique. I’ve been really feeling it recently, as well. Like, “Oh, that’s where the Japanese is coming through,” you know? So that’s been cool to feel.
Do you feel like any of those sources of inspiration are going to come through from your live show? What can people expect?

The show is a play, and it’s about my journey through my past lives. The tour set is infused with choreography, poetry, and music, and it’s inspired by something I’ve been noticing at shows where after a certain point, people will get back on their phones. They stop engaging with the show. And I feel like it’s because everyone’s just doing the same type of show these days. I’m very much inspired by watching FKA Twigs perform and being like, you don’t have to just hold a mic and sing. You can do so much more. That’s the seed that sprouted this idea.

I also set this deep intention that I want everyone to leave uplifted and inspired in some way from the show. So it’s really infused with a depth of love and to remind people that we are nature, we’ve been nature, and we have the ability to connect to nature deeply.

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