Rising Seattle-born and now LA-based musician Tierra Umi Wilson (better known as just UMI) is a perfect embodiment of her middle name, which translates to “ocean” in Japanese. Her music—an amalgamation of lo-fi beats, intense soul, and poignantly simple lyricism—radiates a quiet and compelling peace, not unlike that found in breaking ocean waves. And being half-Black and half-Japanese, UMI has rooted her identity in fluidity. It should come as no surprise, then, that breaking barriers in music seems to come naturally for her.

She's been building slowly and steadily, sharing covers on YouTube and SoundCloud since high school, but this year especially, her momentum has hit new heights. In recent months, UMI has been sharing her energy far and wide. She just wrapped up a national tour with Cuco, is gearing up for a new EP after her last project Balance, and is about to hit the road with Conan Gray this November.

As her work reaches wider audiences, UMI hopes to keep up her thoughtful, intentional approach and create a healing space with everything she does—all, of course, while still going with the flow. Read our interview with UMI below.

How did you get started making music?
I feel like it's always been an extension of me. I've been singing since I was super little. But I always had really bad stage fright, so no one knew I sang but my family. I've been writing songs since I was 4 and I have journals from back then. In high school, I wanted to do music but started a YouTube channel because I was scared to sing in front of people. 

Then I used to do covers—I was that girl who does covers every week for four years in high school. I started putting those covers on SoundCloud and eventually I started getting flagged for copyright. I was at two strikes and I was like, "You know what? This is the universe telling me to start putting out original music." Then I just took some songs from all my journals and started producing my own stuff and playing guitar and putting that on SoundCloud and YouTube, and over time it's grown. It's always been in my family because my mom's a pianist and my dad's a drummer.

So it's almost like you've always had it. It just took the right moment to uncover.
Exactly! It feels like it's always been my natural way of expression. Back then, I didn't even realize what I was doing—it'd be like, "I'm angry, I'ma write a song.” But now I see that's just an extension of me.

Where do you draw inspiration from, whether that's life experience or sonic influence?
I write poetry or I write journal entries about things that happen and then when I'm in the studio I draw from that. But I’m also very empathetic, so I feel other people's energies a lot. Like, "Remember Me" was [actually] my friend’s experience which I felt so deeply that I wrote the song almost for her, but I felt like I was going through it too. 

Sonically, I'm inspired by a lot of neo-soul and female artists like SZA and Eryakh Badu. Women who talk about how they feel. [SZA's album] Ctrl was the first time I felt like someone who looked like me was talking about things like insecurity. It was cool to realize I can write about that and people actually listen to it.

That's what I want to do with my music, too. I want to give back to my fellow listeners. I hope people can find healing—I learned that from people [who came] before me.

So you wrote the song "Remember Me" based solely on your empathy?
Yeah, people don't really know. They're like, "Who broke your heart?" But I really that was my friend! Someone broke my friend's heart. I just felt it so deeply.

I think it's rare to be able to be that empathetic with other people—it's a really beautiful trait that you bring to your work. What's your process for bringing that to your music?
What I've been doing lately is making sure I've lived before I go to the studio. I used to just go to school and go to the studio, and I'd wonder why I felt creatively blocked when I'm writing music. Now I'll go on an adventure. Hang out with my friends. I'll talk to somebody so I’m always speaking from a place of emotion and the music connects more. Music is just energy, so you can feel the purest, most wholesome music that comes from my heart. That's what I've been doing recently—just feeling more. When I feel more, I write better music.

Music is just energy. When I feel more, I write better music.

On social media, it seems like meditation is a big part of your life. How does your spirituality impact your music?
To me, spirituality is just heightened self-awareness and taking time to check in. That's why I like to meditate—I'll just reflect on the day and ask myself why certain things happened to me? Why did I feel this way? By doing that, I can write better music. I can always be more aware of where my emotions and lyrics come from.

The music industry can feel very unpredictable but [my spirituality] grounds me. I'll make a vision board or I'll script, which is when you write about something you want to happen as if it's already happened. I'm not worried about where my career will go because it'll flow the way it's meant to. Spirituality just gives me more space to be authentic and emotional and aware of everything I'm creating and doing. It's the same with the people I work with—it's all about being intentional.

How so?
As a female in this industry, I'm realizing how important it is to be intentional with the people you surround yourself with. This industry is very male-centric. There can be a lot of male ego.

You can work with people who work you to the ground because they don't understand the importance of mental health, or men who might not have boundaries, so I'm really intentional about men I allow into my life and work with. I'm really intentional about increasing the number of women I work with and making sure they resonate with my energy. So by being tapped into myself, I'm more aware of the people I'm going to surround myself with—I feel better everyday because people aren't dragging me down with their energy.

That makes sense—you being more self-aware allows you to make better choices so you can be the best person you can be.
Exactly. Today, I was watching the Amy Winehouse documentary, and I felt like she just needed people who felt and heard her. That opened my eyes. I really need to be careful about who I surround myself with because it's not like the music industry is bad—not if you just be intentional with who you surround yourself with.

As a female in this industry, I'm realizing how important it is to be intentional with the people you surround yourself with. This industry is very male-centric. There can be a lot of male ego.

Does your cultural heritage have any impact on how you create your work?
I'm half-Japanese which is where "Umi," my Japanese middle name, comes from. I speak Japanese and just went to Japan a couple months ago—I'm still very tapped into that part of myself. Growing up with my mom playing a lot of Japanese music in the house—like Japanese jazz, pop, and rock—I grew up with more melodies to tap into, and more perspective. So I've been realizing it more now, where a lot of my musical influences come from and how getting exposed as a child allowed me to have that in my self-conscious. 

Also, I had a bit of an identity crisis at one point. "Am I Asian? Am I Black? What do people see me as?" But now, accepting both parts of myself, and accepting that people might not see me as both parts of myself—just making music that expresses that has been important.

In both ways, I feel like your music reflects that. It’s a mix of a lot of different genres, like mixing the two parts of your identity. All of that speaks to breaking down the idea of barriers that we arbitrarily create.
That's so true. Now's the best time to be an artist, because you don't have to be one thing anymore—you can be everything. I've also been realizing the significance of your name on your personality. I'm really glad my mom picked “Umi” because my personality is very like the ocean, you know? I can see myself having different parts of the ocean when I'm making music.

Do you feel like a lot of that is because you've been close to the coast your whole life?
That's a really good point! I've always grown up seeing water. I think that's very true. I just got back from Hawaii a couple weeks ago, and just staying right by the ocean was such a healing experience. I've been learning to flow with life more. I've been having these ups and downs with emotions, but I would try to block and suppress it—and it'll just come out in my music. I’m realizing I am the ocean. I just gotta flow with life.

You just finished up your first big tour with Cuco? How was that?
I learned a lot. I learned I need to sleep. Also, this tour was the first time I’ve performed without my glasses. I can see what's directly in front of me like the mic but I can't see people staring back at me. I realized that by taking off my glasses I connect with people as they can see my eyes and they can feel my music more. I feel like I got over my stage fright when I did that. Is it because I can't see people? Maybe it is, maybe that's my superpower.

I also learned that music really is energy. People would tell me they feel so healed from the show. And I felt like I was really doing something to help people, to impact people. So I just need to keep working on my live show and practicing so I can heal even more.

Photo by Yong Loh


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