By Sarina Bhutani
Being around Umi means basking in her light. As the 23-year-old singer gets comfortable during an afternoon Zoom call, freshly showered after spending time at the beach, her calm and peaceful energy is nearly palpable. The sunshine she soaked in seems to radiate from her skin. She dedicated her morning to journaling about purpose, detailing that in its pursuit, she has mended her spirit. Now, Umi wants you to find your healing. More importantly, she wants you to want that for yourself.
With the release of her debut album, Forest in the City, which she released on May 26, Umi’s here to help blaze that trail. Umi’s journey began in Seattle, where she grew up with an “innate calling to make music” and an environment that encouraged her to respond to it. Born to a Black father and Japanese mother, both musical in their own right, the artist born Tierra Umi Wilson listened to everything from gospel and soul to J-pop and classical from a young age. Those influences would eventually culminate into the genre-bending R&B sound she’s made her own.
Her early desire to forge a music career led her to create covers that she published on YouTube and Soundcloud, but the platforms’ strict copyright rules forced a pivot to crafting original tracks. Yet releasing her own music was a natural progression for her, as she had secretly kept songwriting journals since elementary school. According to Umi (who styles her name in all caps), it was also the universe’s way of guiding her in the right direction. “When it’s meant, it’s meant,” she tells MTV News. “You’re always going to be steered back to do what you’re meant to do.”
In 2018, she followed through on her “deep intention” to drop out from the University of Southern California and pursue music full-time. This leap of faith allowed her to release “Butterfly” and “Remember Me,” two tracks that jump-started her career and have since racked up millions of streams). She spent that year practicing scripting manifestation by writing down specific goals she hoped to achieve, even proposing the number of views on her videos and plays on her songs. Though much has changed in four years, to Umi, everything is cyclical.
Forest in the City serves as Umi’s sonic diary since then. Made up of 15 unique tracks written over five years, the record chronicles her parallel journeys back to nature and into herself. Spending years living in downtown Los Angeles, far removed from the lush greenery of her Washington home, she felt a sense of detachment. “I really started to question if this experience I was going through was just simply tied to the fact that I don’t live in nature anymore. And if human beings are leaving the natural world, how does that impact our mental health, our psyche, our values?” she ponders.
But after an afternoon at the park, listening to the birds chirping in tandem with cars zooming by and hearing sirens alongside the wind, she realized she had actually been living in a concrete forest all along. Understanding that helped her heal. “All the songs I picked for the album are songs that came from this idea within me. They’re channeled from that force,” she tells MTV News. “So now, when I listen to them, they bring me back to that place of peace.” Starting with the 36-second introduction, “Hello Hi,” Forest in the City aims to help listeners find their center.
Umi has been working toward this moment since she was a teenager, as captured on “Too Late,” which she composed the day she landed at LAX at 18. But the record only began to take shape over the past year. Every day, Umi spent a few minutes meditating, journaling, and stretching before heading into the studio, equipped with a to-do list of action items waiting to be ticked off. “It’s kind of like the idea of feng shui,” she explains. “When my room is clean and the space is clear, I can create the best. It’s the same with my album. Because I knew what I was working on, it was easier for me to just flow.” Between sessions, she devoted her weekends to connecting with the Earth, often road-tripping along the California coast to locations like Big Bear Lake and San Diego.
Keeping a structured schedule and a clear mind helped Umi create. The record is led by “Sorry,” an emotional anthem about self-forgiveness that revealed itself to be an unintentional manifestation for her future. Penned in 2018 during a moment of catharsis, Umi found herself writing about things that hadn’t yet happened, including buying her own home, providing for her mother and younger twin sisters, and forging a better relationship with her father. “At that time, I still felt really far from a lot of the things I was singing about, but I’m achieving those things now. I’m experiencing them currently,” she says. “And it just reminds me that no matter where you are, if you can imagine it, you can live it and you can be it.”
Sonically, the album maintains a general neo-soul aesthetic, but flows through genres effortlessly. With tracks ranging from the twinkly, lo-fi-inspired “Whatever U Like” and the electro-pop leaning “Wish That I Could” to the 808-heavy “Say I’m Ur Love,” it was all part of her master plan. “I am a multidimensional being — we all are. I wanted my music to reflect all the different sides of me,” she explains. “The through line of the whole album is my intention and my voice, which gives me the freedom to make whatever I want and have it still be cohesive, which is beautiful.”
Umi’s nature is inherently multifaceted, and hints of her upbringing have been, and continue to be, subtly sprinkled throughout her work. “In terms of my Black side, there’s just a soul, a spirit that I feel so blessed to have been gifted by my ancestors,” she says. Memories of her father performing in the church remained in her subconscious and appeared through songs like “Up Late,” with a gospel choir and melodies borrowed from Christian hymns.
Influences from her mother’s side are less literal but equally important. “I feel as if I have this very unique specificity that I can contribute in a room that others may not notice. I really feel that being able to tap into that is my Japanese ancestors moving through me and giving me this little microscope to create with.”
“Moonlit Room” is one example of that conscientiousness. First released as an unfinished verse on SoundCloud in 2021, the smooth and sultry R&B track came together through “a series of unplanned synchronicities.” She spent days fine-tuning the production, but the original vocals remained perfectly intact. “The demo is the final,” she reveals. “There was just something so special in the air when I wrote it and we captured it that first time.”
Thematically, Forest in the City does not speak to one specific cause. Instead, she describes its overall energy through angel numbers, a repetitive numerological sequence intended to convey a spiritual or divine message to the beholder. Umi calls Forest in the City a “2-2-2, 4-4-4 energy project,” in that she hopes it makes listeners feel connected and aligned (2-2-2) with their greater purpose in life (4-4-4), and helps them find their inner voice. “I’ve definitely healed my throat chakra through making this album,” she says. “I think the biggest thing I’ve learned from this whole process is to just believe in myself. The music that I’m creating is a direct download of me. I have to trust that what I make is worthy of people’s time, worthy of people’s energy, and worthy of their storage space.”
Upon completing the record, Umi revisited the park that originally inspired her to express her gratitude. During a moment of quiet retrospection (assisted by a psychedelic), she came to the realization that in creating Forest in the City, she found the forest within herself. All she has to do is close her eyes, breathe, and she’s there.