Following the release of her EP, Love Language, we spoke with UMI about the energy of music and the removal of ego in an industry so reliant upon it.
This interview originally appeared in She Shreds Magazine Issue #19, released December 2019.
Tierra Wilson, most recognizably known as UMI, was born and raised in the rainy city of Seattle. But by contrast, the songwriter’s disposition is undeniably sunny. In her moody yet playful music, as well as her daily life, Wilson radiates a warm and infectious positivity.
Having recently dropped out of school, Wilson is now fully committed to her craft. She currently lives in Los Angeles, and in October, UMI released the EP and visual album, Love Language. The title has a double meaning, both referring to ways in which people convey their love in intimate relationships as well as Wilson’s own upbringing as being a mixed race person (she’s both black and Japanese) and learning to speak different languages in her household. “I hope that while listening to this EP, people are given the space and time to go inward and become more reflective of themselves,” says Wilson.
Wilson sees the main purpose of her music as a tool to heal and connect back to herself as well as her fans. Beats and melodies constitute a majority of Wilson’s tools, but thanks to her grandmother, the guitar served as a gateway into her current career as UMI.
How did you come to play guitar?
My grandma got me a guitar for Christmas when I was seven. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I loved the guitar. Eventually I started taking lessons for maybe two years, and through that I learned the foundations. My guitar teacher kept trying to teach me country songs—not that I don’t like country music, I was just like, “This is not what I’m trying to learn right now.” I wanted to play blues and black people’s music. Since then, I’ve just been learning on my own by learning covers. That’s honestly how I learned to play guitar, by putting chords together from all those songs in order to make my own music. Guitar is so important to me. It’s been such a natural expression. Without it, I wouldn’t be here doing what I’m doing.
When you think back to those first days of playing, do you remember what your ideas of guitar were?
There weren’t a lot of feminine figures that I saw playing guitar. I’m from Seattle, so it was like, Jimi Hendrix—these idols in my mind that played guitar were all men. I came from a musical family, so I was encouraged to play any instrument, regardless of the energy surrounding it. I just had to create a role model for myself.
I always thought soloing was so cool, though. Like, what’s that game called? Guitar Hero! Soloing is my shit, that’s what I’m meant to do in life. I haven’t even focused on soloing, so that’s what I’m actually working on now.
How are you learning to solo in your songwriting?
I’ve been asking a lot of guitarists how they learn, and a lot of them have said that, as a singer, the best way is to sing and play. So I’ve been singing [guitar] solos and forcing myself to learn through my voice, doing runs and stuff. But I’m learning to translate it all back to my body. I’ve been focusing on scales and feel confident in music theory, which I didn’t really delve into as a child. So one day I’ll be shredding it on stage! [Laughs.] It’s so interesting how instruments can be like singing in different forms. Music can be expressed through different parts of your body.
Has your songwriting evolved since you’ve started playing music full time?
One thing that’s constant is that I love melody, so to this day I start with melodies. [They] are just so intuitive to me. [But] the way I pair the words to my music has changed. The vocabulary that I pick from and my experiences have expanded. Nowadays, I don’t really write from my guitar; it’s the guitar in conjunction with other things. I’ve been able to expand by guitar and add more sonics to the music that I write. This is my little reminder from the universe that I should go back to writing on the guitar soon.
You seem to value self-awareness and connection to others. How do you feel these ideals have grown with your music?
In the past, I would be very broad about what I was talking about. I wouldn’t even allow myself to go that deep into myself, and would write from a place of surface level emotions. Now I’m realizing that the more honest I get, the more real I get. And the more specific I get, the more people can connect with my music. My purpose as an artist is to heal people through relatability, through conveying the oneness that’s in all of our experiences. The only way I can do that is to force myself to go beyond and become more aware of, “Okay, I’m sad—but why am I sad? What type of sad? What color of sad?” Making songs from that place has been the goal for the new music that I’ve been working on.
That seems like it could take a lot out of you energetically. How do you recoup from that process of going deeper into yourself?
There was a point earlier this year when I was creating every day and wondering, “Why am I so tired and drained?” I was just writing way too much. I’ve become a lot more intentional about when I make music, and putting space in between. That way I have enough time to live in between, and then I have a story that’s worth putting into a song. I’ve realized that songwriting is not something that you can become a robot with, and you can’t do it all the time. I’ve been trying to adventure before I write songs. I try to learn and experience something before I write so it’s more meaningful.
It’s very therapeutic for me, but it’s also a lot of energy being used. Meditating every day and writing helps. I keep my journal with me everywhere I go. When I feel something, when I think of something, I write it down. If I ever feel like I don’t have anything to write about, I’ll flip through my journal. I can tap into that day and that moment and feel re-energized.
Do you have any examples of when songwriting becomes robotic?
When you get consumed with other’s opinions of what people want to hear. You say, “Okay, I want to make this type of song,” or “I want to make a song that sounds like this person’s music.” You create a construct you have to fit within.
Creativity can’t be defined. You can do whatever the fuck you want when you make music. When you try to create rules to stick to, it becomes very robotic. You’re just recreating, and it’s not authentic. I went through that phase, trying to write something that someone else did, or be someone I wasn’t, and it didn’t feel good—like just trying to make music to make money. I want to find a deeper reason outside of fulfilling other people’s expectations and this capitalist perception.
It seems like that can involve being intentional with who and what you surround yourself with. What are some ways in which you are intentional with that energy?
I’m very empathic, so I feel people’s energies. I’m working on protecting my aura and being selective about what I let in. In this industry, I cannot be around people who don’t believe in me as much as I believe in myself, because it’s so easy to not believe in yourself when you’re making music. I want whoever I’m around to believe in me and I’ll give that same energy back.
Surrounding myself with more women is important, and surrounding myself with men who are in touch with their feminine energy, men who are balanced within. With producers, engineers, people I go on tour with, every single person—I think about if I resonate with them. Do they make me feel a negative way or positive way? Also, finding the personal power within to know that I’m allowed to choose who I’m around.
How do you create boundaries in those moments?
It’s so hard! I’m always like, “Am I hurting this person’s feelings?” But again, it’s all intention. If I’m asking someone not to be around me, to not do something or to change in a certain way, if my intention is for their highest good and my highest good, then there’s no ego involved. Intention behind everything is what I’m learning. I had to do some uncomfortable changing to get there.
How does it feel to tour your music?
It’s surreal mostly because I used to have the worst stage fright. I’m so proud of myself that I’ve gotten to the point where I can tour and enjoy performing. A year ago, I would dread performances. By processing and shifting my mindset, I’ve been able to feel more comfortable. Seeing how many people are touched and healed through my music reaffirms my purpose here.
How do you see your music as healing work?
Music is energy and it can shift your mood. You can be in a really dark place and it can take you to a really hopeful place where you feel heard and recognized. Music is so universal. It can shift someone’s mind state, and their perception of themselves and their own world. When you make music with the intention to move somebody, that energy will be received in whatever way you please.
I’ve been working on being very intentional when I perform. I take my glasses off so there’s nothing blocking me, and I’m just with people and [they] can see in my eyes. I used to get scared to see people when I performed, and I would hate to make eye contact, but I realized that my purpose on this earth is to be a healer. I needed to get over that fear so that I could best communicate with people.
You talk a lot about removing the ego from these spaces in order to connect with people. What are some ways you cope with the appearance of ego in an industry that seems so reliant on it?
Yo, that’s so real. I don’t think that anything will unground me from where I am. There’s so much oneness in the world. I’m never above anybody else. As a listener, if you resonate with an artist, that means that you’re equal to them because you took something away from their music. You’re vibrating at their frequency. I’m connecting with every single person that is listening to my music. When people come up to me and ask for pictures or whatever, I feel like I’ve just met more friends, people who are like me, who relate with me. I’m fortunate enough to be pursuing a career where I have more exposure in showcasing myself. I’d be the same person regardless of what I was doing. I don’t ever want to not be a normal person. I just want to keep making music and to grow.
How do you see feminine friendship and connection in regards to your music?
Within this industry, I feel like I’ve made a lot of great friends with other women artists and we are each other’s biggest fans—especially on social media. I’ve seen women artists that are way further in their careers taking their time to share my music. We’re sisters, and if she succeeds, I succeed. And if I succeed, she succeeds. I try to do the same with other femme friends who want that platform. Our success as a collective is what’s going to heal the world. This industry wasn’t necessarily built for us, but we can change it if we stick together.