How can five minutes change your life? Ask Hemlocke Springs. Having only two released songs – which combined, barely eclipse the five-minute mark – the artist born Isimeme “Naomi” Udu has seen her life completely upended in a matter of months. This time last year, she was enrolled in a master’s program for Medical Informatics at the Ivy League-ranked Dartmouth College with a plan to eventually pursue a PHD.
But following the viral smash of ‘Girlfriend’ – which has already racked up over 10 million plays on Spotify since its early November release – the self-described musical “hobbyist” has put any immediate plans for a medical career on ice. And it’s easy to see why, even if the recorded output has been limited: on both ‘Girlfriend’ and ‘Gimme All Ur Luv’, Hemlocke Springs displays a rare gift for making percussive pop music with an intimate and deeply emotional core, not unlike Prince during his ‘Purple Rain’ peak.
Between trips to New York, Los Angeles and Asheville, NME caught up with Hemlocke Springs during a rare visit home to Concord, North Carolina, a suburb a few miles outside the city of Charlotte. All her music to date has been recorded in this home on the outskirts of the city, where she resides with her brother and her parents. Inside, she gives us a brief tour, including the bedroom where she recorded ‘Girlfriend’ to her phone in a matter of hours. “I recorded the vocals under a blanket so I wouldn’t wake my brother,” she says.
There are no instruments to be found in her bedroom, and she readily admits she has no formal musical training of any kind. “I wanted to learn the piano, but I took sewing lessons instead,” she quips at one point. The only real hint that we’re in the home of a musical artist comes once we’re seated in Hemlocke Springs’ living room and she opens her computer. We’re greeted by a sprawling document with various working song titles, and her wallpaper: a picture of BTS. “I went through a big K-Pop phase in college,” she says by way of introduction.
She opens a new window to reveal a playlist she prepared ahead of our interview, which includes some of the aforementioned K-Pop but also a surprisingly broad and, at times, unexpected collection of influences. The 24 songs run the gamut from Solange to R.E.M. to Seal. It’s as complete a survey of Hemlocke’s world as one could possibly hope for, and a perfect lead-in to our equally wide-ranging conversation covering everything from being mistaken for a voiceover actress to the brilliance of Kate Bush’s dance moves.
It’s fair to say you’ve experienced a lot in a very short period of time – what’s the weirdest thing that’s happened so far?
“Honestly, I’m just flabbergasted that people are still listening – that people are walking around with me in their earbuds. Grimes and Remi Wolf contacted me, which was weird. And then just today, Steve Lacy reached out and said, ‘You made a classic. Please keep doing what you’re doing.’ TikTok is weird too. I saw people saying, ‘This has to be Mabel Pines [from animated series Gravity Falls] or Louise Belcher [from Bob’s Burgers].’ I had no idea who those characters were, but it turns out they’re both voiced by Kristen Schaal. They thought it was her singing these songs!”
How have you been dealing with all the attention? Has it been overwhelming?
“It definitely was when ‘Girlfriend’ first came out. It was two weeks before final exams and I would get all these emails, text messages, and phone calls from people I didn’t know. I was like, ‘How did you get my number?’ Then I handed it all off to my manager, so I didn’t have to deal.”
Was it a lot of record labels?
“Yeah. I’m honestly still struggling with that – whether to stay independent or not. There are pros and cons. I was talking to three or four [record labels], but that was before finals. I’m sure there are more [waiting] now. My main thing is I’d like to put out an album in April. Initially, I was thinking of just an EP, but I really want all these songs out sooner since they’re all already written.”
It must be strange to be getting all this attention for something that you weren’t really considering as a career this time last year…
“I’m a first generation American. For kids from Nigerian families, your career path options are doctor, doctor and doctor. [laughs] The truth is, I didn’t hate [studying]. I really enjoyed biology in high school and doing research on genes and cancer. Music just always seemed like more of a hobby, and it probably didn’t help that I always heard stories about struggling artists when I was growing up.”
“Kate Bush’s ‘The Dreaming’ completely changed my perspective on what music could be.”
So now that you are doing music full-time, have you started to give any thought to what your live show will look like?
“I’m really looking forward to it. I’ll admit that the few times I’ve been on stage I don’t remember much. I know I was probably anxious, but the way I look at it, you either keep feeling that way or you put on a show. I don’t think I’ve shared this with anyone, but I definitely want to incorporate dance, even though I don’t consider myself a dancer. I was watching a video where Kate Bush was performing ‘Babooshka’ and she was doing all these amazing choreographed dance moves. It didn’t even seem like the kind of song you could really dance to, but she was doing it anyway. That’s what I want to do, but so far, it’s just been me and my hairbrush.”
Is Kate Bush a hero of yours?
“Totally. ‘The Dreaming’ completely changed my perspective on what music could be. The way she expresses her emotions vocally is so cool. I also like that it was a polarizing album when it first came out, but now so many artists name it as one of their favorites. I hope I can do that – put out an album and people are like, ‘What in the world?’, but then years later they’re like, ‘She was onto something.’”
Do you think that’s the reaction you’ll get with your debut album?
“I hope so. I do think people are going to be surprised. If I just heard those two songs [‘Gimme All Ur Luv’ and ‘Girlfriend’] before listening to the rest of the album, I’d be like ‘Oh.’ I’ve always had this fear of being boxed in, so I have a tendency to go in the opposite direction. Maybe not a 180, but let’s call it a 165.
“It’s weird to me the only two songs I have out are both under three minutes because I don’t usually like short songs. Those two just sounded complete. The rest are over three minutes and there’s probably going to be one on the album that’s over 7 minutes. It reminds me a bit of the Eurythmics and Depeche Mode.”
What are your aspirations for the future?
“I know there are awards you can win and that some people get really excited about playing on certain stages, but if in five or 10 years, I can still say that I make music and that people listen to it, I think that would be something. I was supposed to be a medical researcher! If I’m making songs and people are still tuning in for some weird reason, that would be pretty cool.”
Hemlocke Springs’ new single ‘Girlfriend’ is out now