The Austin Sky Doesn’t Limit UMI, The Neo-Soul And R&B Performer

With nearly 3 million monthly listeners on Spotify, a hit debut album in Forest in the City, custom meditations, and poems at every concert, UMI’s a long way from her days as a sapling. A woman never walks through a forest in the city twice. Because she is never the same woman. And it is never the same forest in the same city.

The duality of her album’s title contrasts against UMI’s singular energy. Her presence, like a bullet, is unmistakable, irrevocable. Her cross-legged joys and kindness fill a room like the scent of Elton John’s candles. And her movements on stage are as fluid as her star sign, Aquarius.

It attracted Simon after UMI’s show.

Simon was tapping her leg like an eager piston, waiting for her Uber at the back of Aquarium, a bar in Austin, Texas on Sixth Street, annoyed and more than a little ashamed her Bumble date stood her up.

Aquarium has two stories and an aqua marine slide connecting them. Simon was standing ten feet or so from its mouth watching drunk frat boys compete to see who could come out with the position and velocity least concerned for their own or other’s safety.

She was asking no one in particular what was taking her car so long when a pretty girl caught her eye. And as success begets success, she found beauty begets beauty. It’s odd – even in Austin, beauty capital of the South – for that many pretty girls to show up at once. There had tube seven of them, each more attractive to Simon than the last. They stood at the bar downstairs like emperor penguins. And in the middle of their pleasant circle was UMI, who Simon had seen in concert not an hour and forty-five minutes earlier, her idol.

MORE FOR YOU

Simon was one of millions of fans, and to hear her tell it, she was the biggest, proudest of them all. To be fair to her, she hadn’t stopped singing once through the whole concert.

Simon had the curious condition of being bold enough to listen to the impulse – magnetic as it was – to be around UMI and the courtesy not to dare to disturb her night. Mostly she followed like a fly adept at making herself invisible but around.

But when UMI and her travelling band of effervescent musicians would hurrah “girl power” or “pride”, Simon would whisper in hurrah too. It was pride month, after all.

Practically craning over a couple too caught up in each other’s tongues to notice her, Simon heard pieces of what words UMI was exchanging with her posse, who Simon recognized on third or fifth glance as the band. Their beauty and their symettry was overwhelming under bar lights. What asymmetry they displayed complimented their symmetry as red compliments green in the holidays.

“Seattle, I thought would feel more like home, but I haven’t been in Seattle for so long. It felt like coming back to an old home versus LA, where I was like, oh I’m home,” said UMI.

A beer bottle fell to the floor somewhere in the bar, and Simon jumped as if she was caught peeping on the volleyball team changing by her principal. When her heartbeat calmed and the blood rushed out of her ears, she settled in to listen again.

“The girlies called in fun in Texas,” said a brunette member of the posse.

“And we got fun!” UMI responded. And the girls cheered and toasted two fishbowls of pale medicine blue liquor with a dozen straws.

A girl in a plaid navy button down was dragged by her friend past UMI’s crew, and she drunkenly got out, “how are y’all doin’” with an extra-long (and southernly seductive) drawl on the y’all.

The girlies took to her country flirting like hillbillies take to spring water and corn hole. They cheered it and booed her hastened exit.

One of UMI’s friends brought the conversation back to something bigger when the caws died down.

“You know what I’ve been thinking about?” She said. “We got bigger, more numerous. Companies thought, oh ay it would be good for us to get bigger right alongside the population or, maybe, the population’s ambition. In some ways, it was empathetic for the market to feel that way. It’s inarguable, however now, that we need to get smaller, not in a population sense, but in the sense of our impact or the space we take up. Nothing’s sustainable in the way of permanence,” she paused. “But size isn’t sustainable. I don’t want to argue about whether we need to eat insects; we just need to consume and live smaller. And trains would be a start.”

She has the look of a girl, Simon thought, who gets stoned. She meant it in a good way.

Bob Dylan once said, “he had the look of a guy who never got stoned a day in his life.” He didn’t mean it in a good way.

“Trains aren’t smaller than cars,” said another girl, grinning in laughter before sipping from the closest fishbowl.

“Stack the cars on top of each other,” jabbed her friend.

“No, I get it,” said UMI. “We want to have more peace in the world. We want more equality in the world. And people are forgetting, music has so much power to do that. And if we would invest in music that is mindful, that is diverse in both art and artists, can you imagine how much of an impact we would see on the world? Yet it’s like, no. We’ll put money in this music video with 20 guns and girls with crazy plastique beauty standards. Because that’ll go off, you know?”

“Well, to be fair, the girls in your videos are quite beautiful,” said someone, someone Simon, it should be noted, found beautiful. Simon recognized her then from one of UMI’s music videos.

“And diverse. And non-traditional,” said another friend. “Not plastic.”

“Plastique,” said someone else.

“Are you sketching out any video ideas on tour?” asked the brunette who Simon was quick to admire.

“My mindset is more: how can I make a short form piece feel as potent as a long form piece? There’s a lot of push for short form content coming from a demand and a label perspective,” said UMI. “Or how can I tell a story across multiple short form pieces? With this album, each of the videos connect and they could all live together as one movie.”

“Did you see Halsey and FKA twigs talking about labels forcing them to make Tik Toks?” asked the friend who’d drank the least from the fishbowls. Though, it looked like she was working to remedy that situation in haste.

“It’s awful. And so many others too are speaking out about it,” said a friend who looked to be racing the previous friend for giggles. “Not one case coming out about any man artist too, so you know it’s on some misogyny ****.”

“I think that” said UMI, gathering her thought. “This is the season of the industry we’re in. I’m grateful for art, which has been my new process. It’s a survival tactic.”

“It’s got to be frustrating,” said the brunette who Simon, in looking through her eyes, was more and more convinced was actually currently stoned.

“It’s frustrating. I had to go through a whole shift of wow learning. They’ll show me a lot of statistics. People are consuming more short form content than they are music right now. So, the labels will push artists to make content over music. And it’s frustrating. It’s really frustrating: talking to camera before the song comes out,” said UMI. “Make this many videos; try to make your song trend. Luckily my label is still connected to the music. But there’s – I won’t name names – but there’s other labels where they won’t even let you release a song unless the song trends first.”

“And it’s so capitalistic. Meet trends. We need to see it going crazy on TikTok before we’ll even mix and master it. It’s so backwards because these labels will be like, we want to change the world,” said UMI.

Simon saw the fishbowls were empty before most of the band did. And, with a crew as cucumber cool as theirs, she knew what was coming next. They went down the slide, and Simon, at the mouth of the slide and the action, prayed her brain could form at consciousness in slow motion and her ears could savor their laughter forever.

“Cheer Up Charlies?” someone asked. Charlies is the capital of queer nightlife in Austin, after wrestling the title from Barbarella’s on the back of a scandal. Barbarella’s had reportedly – from the mouth of social media – taken to throwing trans guests to the street for little more than dancing and drinking.

Charlies is probably the home to the best dancing on a Tuesday or Saturday night in the lone star state.

Since UMI’s crew were Uber-ing, Simon took a lime green electric scooter. It felt deferential, even respectful, to give them some time alone. And scootering through the quieter streets of Austin, Texas on a Saturday nights is one of the more Zen spiritual experiences that can be had on planet Earth, at least to Simon’s nose.

When she caught the girls, the night air had opened her ears through her blood vessels through her lungs. And she seemed to hear clearer than before. She chalked it up to the good energy at Cheer Up Charlies.

“Love songs are measures in the currents of our life,” said the brunette, deeper in the night, the drink, and her own subconscious. “The love’s passed; the heartbreak’s past – leaving whatever jewel it deigns leave behind this time. And, performing, you have to throw that jewel in the fire, with whatever new wood your current experiences are bearing fruit for too.” She spit.

“Relationships that aren’t romantic fall apart,” said UMI, “working relationships, friendships. You know what it’s like: experiencing that through remembering making certain songs. You put in whatever you’re going through at this moment, right? And it’s not the same as that experience. That’s good. It’s still just as deep.”

Then, the most curious thing happened, as Simon would later describe it. It must have been a usual ritual for them. It was something set to change the trajectory of the night, and therefore their lives. The girls meditated, right next to the dance floor, alternate nostril breathing and some other serious breath-work in the tradition of Ramaswamy.

They were in the heat of Barbarella’s, in the valley between the bar and the dancefloor. Simon would have joined them if she wasn’t so worried about being caught as a dirty eavesdropper (her thoughts). She was sweating. Truth is, the poor girl could have used the anxiety relief! Yet troubles breed peace. A seed of courage was born amidst Simon’s admiration that would come in handy later.

“Every time I do that, I remember I’m not just human, and I go beyond my form, and I’m like, oh yeah, I’m just a light being,” said UMI. “And it’s really refreshing to reset that understanding every day.”

The girls hummed in agreement.

The girls didn’t speak much after that. The club was playing a pride playlist with copious Doja Cat, Cher, David Bowie, Frank Ocean, and Dua Lipa, and it called them to dance in the serotonin wake of their meditation like a broken fast calls to the hungry for supper. Simon danced too. And UMI caught her dancing and loved it. It looked like how the uncalculated median of the crowd at her concert danced earlier that night, in corporeal form.

UMI flowed her way to Simon. “You have such a pretty soul,” UMI said.

Simon was frozen. But glaciers move, albeit clumsily sometimes. The only thing she could think to say was, “what does a soul look like, exactly, to you that is?” It might have come off cooler than she realized, being a glacier and all.

“The soul to me,” UMI said and took herself back before reappearing. “It’s this unbound energy form. When I see people’s souls, I want to see almost an (Simon’s heart was pounding in her ears, and she couldn’t tell if she heard “Adam’s excuse” or “atom infused” as the description here. Both made sense.) color spiral around each person. And each has their own color. Like one of my band and I were talking about this last night. And I was looking into her eyes, and we call it: I see you in there. And when I see her you in there, the YOU within the YOU, it’s yellow. It’s orange, and it’s spiraling.”

“And I always, once I see her you in there, then I see them perform, and I’m like, wow, you picked a really cool body. It fits your you in there,” said UMI. “I’m very color oriented. So, I see color. Yours to me is very blue. Blue and purple. And it’s moving.”

UMI wasn’t taking over the conversation any more than someone would win a game of tug-o-war with a dead dog. Simon was absent from the conversation. Pulled by her gills by her Anxiety to a distant silent plane.

“It knows that this pace is very flowing,” said UMI. “I feel you accommodate. You keep moving around, like you’ll move faster when you track faster. Slow, slow, you can go slow too.”

“When I close my eyes,” said UMI. She closed her eyes. “That’s what I see.”

And like a glacier, Simon was thankful, and she was frozen. And unlike a glacier, she said she had to go to the bathroom, maybe – to some extent – out of a renewed voyeur’s guilt. And like glaciers are set (if the scientists are to be believed) to do, she left.

In the bathroom, she mustered a false courage to continue the conversation. Which was deflated when she saw the posse again, effortlessly beautiful. Their body language said, night’s over.

The next thing Simon heard UMI say was, “I’m going to be headlining Coachella one day. I’m going to have my Grammy one day. I’m going to have all these things one day, and it’s okay that it’s not all immediately happening now. It shouldn’t be. It shouldn’t be. And it’s like having to reprogram my mind to recognize other forms of success. But it could be hard.”

“I have to admit it could be hard to still believe in myself when it’s like, I don’t know,” she said. “I guess my form of success is different from what I’ve been pushed to think the success of the industry looks like.”

It almost broke Simon’s grateful heart. There was a perfect opposite irony in how UMI made Simon feel, and how the artist was confessing she felt.

Simon’s confidence became real. She walked over and talked to UMI for two hours. It started standing, went to sitting, and ended standing. The conversation accommodated.

“We just became like best friends,” UMI would say later. Simon came to her next show. Simon noticed up close that UMI was eating blueberries, pulling them from a place in her overalls. Simon brought her blueberries at the next show in Houston. “It was so wholesome,” UMI said.