For some people, the past year has forced contemplation in uncomfortable ways. Yet UMI welcomed the increased soul-searching that has come with isolation during the pandemic.
Last June, she released Introspection, an EP that lived up to its title, before delivering Introspection Reimagined last month. The latter added live elements to the previously released songs, giving the 22-year-old Keep Cool/RCA artist time to shine as a singer/songwriter without being drowned out by studio productions.
The opening title track begins with sound bowls before UMI sings of her insecurities and the fear of facing her intrusive thoughts over a bass guitar. On “Pretty Girl Hi Reimagined,” UMI — who first garnered attention with the 2018 single “Remember Me” — strips down the track’s whimsical production and incorporates jazz elements, heightening the sense of longing in the lyrics.
Following the release, UMI chatted with Billboard on Zoom about why she created Reimagined, gaining confidence as a live performer, and her plans for her forthcoming debut album.
What was the inspiration behind Introspection Reimagined?
I was listening to a lot of live albums and soul music. A lot of D’Angelo, Erykah Badu [and] Lauryn Hill. Me and my friends were reflecting and being like, “Why do we have to go back in time to find this type of music?” I was like, why don’t I try to make something like this? We decided to do a live interpretation of [Introspection] and bring in more of an orchestral band feel to it.
When you were listening to live albums from your favorite R&B artists, was there a project or a song that you kept returning to?
“Feel Like Making Love” by D’Angelo is forever one of my favorite songs. No matter when I put it on it makes me feel good, and I wanted to emulate that in my music.
How is this latest release different from your previous projects?
This project is really different because a lot of it came together not in front of a computer screen or in a studio, but during jam sessions. At rehearsals. We played “Feel Like Making Love.” We jammed on it for like 30 minutes to an hour and then we’re like, “Okay. We want to make something inspired by this. Let’s try taking [the song] Introspection and making it feel like that.” It was a more graduate and collaborative process.
Who are some of your dream collaborators?
I’m working on my album and I want to get some really cool features on there. There’s the people I feel like everyone knows I lean towards: Jhene Aiko, SZA, Willow Smith. But I’d love to make a song with Jacob Collier. I’d love to work with some more instrumental artists, too, [like] Nick Hakim.
You’ve been releasing smaller projects for a few years, and now you’re looking towards your debut album. What has your growth as a creative artist been like throughout your career so far?
I think the biggest thing for me is collaboration and learning to build a team out. When I started, everything was really DIY and on my own. I was recording everything, mixing and pitching myself. For a while, I tried to cling on to everything. With these last few projects, I’ve just been opening up to and receiving help. Since then, I feel like my career has grown. It’s freed up more energy for me to just create.
For me, the biggest place I see that growth is in performing. I used to have the worst stage fright. Every time I would go onstage, my throat would close up and I couldn’t say anything. But I knew I was meant to do music. When I moved to L.A., I did open mics every single week for like a year. Through just kind of practicing and pushing myself to step out of my comfort zone, I just felt more comfortable doing those things.
Before the pandemic, you toured with Conan Gray and, since COVID, you’ve been able to do some really creative pre-recorded shows. What do you want your live shows to look like when you’re able to tour again?
The Conan Gray tour was really, really fun. To me, that was a really powerful opportunity for me to further get away from my stage fright and open up more. Because it wasn’t my tour, I didn’t really have a lot of control of the creative. Being on that tour made me think about how I want to do a meet-and-greet. How do I want my set design to look? Doing the live pre-recorded shows, you have more flexibility in location, set up and design. It opened my mind to performing outside and having a smaller crew.
I feel like music is such a healing medium of expression. And I feel really in purpose when I can use my voice to heal others. When tours open up again, I want my show to feel like a wellness retreat. You leave the show as a healed, more elevated being. [I might] have a sound bowl healer be an opener for me. My meet-and-greet [could be] a yoga session with me. Then, the performance would be a really intimate experience, where fans can give input on songs they want me to sing.