If the pandemic left you pacing at home, more cabin feverish than a caged beast, then here’s a fitting post-lockdown anthem. Aiko Tomi’s “Animal’s Awake” lives up to its title with both prowling synths and percussion that taps like honed talons. The propulsive Toronto alt-pop up-and-comer’s new single follows her recent TD Music Connected Series performance. At that gig she premiered “Umami,” a yet to be released collaboration with fellow speedily rising artist Korea Town Acid, who leapt into the spotlight after building a frenzied beat for Cadence Weapon’s 2021 Polaris Prize winning Parallel World

Both “Umami” and “Animal’s Awake” are tracks on Tomi’s upcoming album, also called Animal’s Awake. Below, she tells us about bonding with KTA over their Asian heritage (Tomi is of Chinese and Japanese lineage; KTA was born in Seoul). Tomi also tells us more about her forthcoming album, how she broke free of both short-term pandemic malaise and longer festering classical music training hang ups, her early days of “sad girl” balladeering, and how she now obsessively pieces songs together like 3D puzzles. 

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What were some of your biggest muses while working on Animal’s Awake?
After over a year of lockdown, I craved—for the first time in my life—being in a sweaty, crowded club. “Animal’s Awake” is my low-key epic fantasy about this human animal finally “out of the cage” and partying for the first time post-pandemic, appreciating fun little moments once taken for granted. I think many of us are ready to bask in freedom, let out some pent-up energy and see where the night takes us. I’m really excited about the video for this one!

Recently, you live-debuted your collaboration with Korea Town Acid, “Umami.” She once enthused to me about your “massive energy.” I see here that you are classically trained in music, as was KTA. That had a big impact on KTA’s style, and helps her compose electronic music with pieces of hardware, which led Cadence Weapon to praise how “alive” her beats sounded. Did you and KTA bond over that classical background? 
Despite our contrasting energies, KTA and I both have eclectic musical tastes and wandering ears. Whether this was a result of our classical training is unclear. But we most definitely bonded quickly over beats, bubble tea, tacos, fashion and Asian culture. Our approaches to creating music are quite different. She is very intuitive and textural, channeling a lab scientist. I can be obsessive with hooks, lyrics and arrangements, working at songs like a 3D puzzle. Ultimately, I believe the combination of our different yet complementary processes is what makes “Umami” so unique. I’m looking forward to share the final version.

Aiko Tomi crouching and sticking out her tongue
Image via Evie Maynes

How did you get into music in the first place—not just classical training, but the kind of music you began working on as a professional?
I started writing songs at the piano in middle school. Sad-girl ballads, initially. I’ve always prioritized catchy pop hooks and have a huge appreciation for a range of musical styles, from art music to hip-hop, though I am especially drawn to tracks with bass-heavy, industrial-sounding electronic production. 

I enjoy collaborating with other creatives in various capacities, as an artist, writer, arranger and producer. Each experience provides a different context and flavour of learning and self-discovery.

I had this long-time fixation—perhaps a remnant of my classical training—with proving I’m a “real musician” and felt the need to play an instrument on stage. Prior to the pandemic, I bought a keytar so that I could perform without being physically “locked down” by a keyboard. It took me some time to realize I wasn’t doing myself any favours chasing some imaginary validation. Now, I’m having the time of my life performing sans instrument—it’s the only way for me to fully embrace my “massive energy” on stage. Oh, and the cardio helps too!

What can you tell us about your upcoming album? 
My upcoming album, also titled Animal’s Awake, is an outpouring of feelings pressure-cooked by the pandemic, channeled into a high-energy collection of songs that are very personal, yet I hope, relatable, and give some insight into my crazy brain and sense of humour. 

While I didn’t set out to highlight my culture or gender, being a female immigrant of Chinese and Japanese descent is so deeply part of my identity, that a number of songs on the album directly reference Asian immigrant and diasporic experiences. For example, “Monolids” is based on my real-life experience learning to love the eyes I was born with, and I hope this song can help others embrace their individuality. The songs are also inspired by modern life and our shared experience existing with technology that amplifies the emotions, issues and pathologies we’ve always had to deal with: desire, angst, consumerism, body dysmorphia, uncertainty, competition, jealousy, displacement, and freedom.