In front of a bubbly, animated stone wall, hemlocke springs (born Isimeme “Naomi” Udu) is cloaked in dark red, at the start of her mind-boggling, medieval-themed video for ‘Sever The Blight’. There’s wine, war and dungeons – the visuals come with the full package, from a scene that nods to The Last Supper to a swashbuckling sword fight at the end. It is a bountiful banquet, indeed. “Who says I was a fool / To think in ways so grand,” she sings amidst the splendour. Dream away, we say.
This is creativity of the highest order, with an attention to detail and eccentricity few other new artists are doing in the pop space. Udu’s own bar is set so high that ‘Sever The Blight’ doesn’t even make the cut for her debut EP, ‘going…going…GONE!’ out later this month (September 29).
It’s an EP that’s glowing with personality and colour, and somewhat of a founding mission statement for Udu. Speaking to NME from her hometown of Concord, North Carolina, the overriding feeling pouring out of her is excitement. When we spoke in December, we paid a visit to her house, where she was hurriedly powering towards her first project: “I really want all these songs out sooner since they’re all already written,” she said at the time.
Emerging with viral single ‘Girlfriend’ in November 2022, the vibrant anthem gained nine million streams in its first month of release; an initial teaser of the track’s bridge left its marker all over TikTok, its identity as an awkward high school anthem reaching full form. While completing her finals for her Medical Informatics master’s degree at the Ivy League-ranked Dartmouth College amidst her rise to internet stardom, a forked path presented itself to her: stick or twist. She headed towards music, led very much by the flow of the moment, following her gut instinct and remaining staunchly independent.
She’s since found fans among the likes of Doja Cat, Grimes and Steve Lacy, the latter of whom personally messaged Udu to express his appreciation for her first two singles. Her sound is built around the ‘80s pop she grew up on, with flickers of Depeche Mode and her beloved Kate Bush. There’s nods to EDM, hyperpop and a range of modern soundscapes that have shaped her life since. Her conversational vocal style transports you straight to her bedroom, the place where the magic really happens for Udu – from a song’s inception to release.
“We live in such a depressing world, let’s just be colourful!”
Still working exclusively on that very same laptop, what started out as a hobby is now taking Udu all over the globe. Off the back of a thrilling set at Chicago’s Lollapalooza, her tour will come to an end in London, where she’s set to play her first headline show in the capital at Dingwalls this November. How does the idea of world domination sound to Udu, then?
“I hope the facade is keeping up!” she exclaims, unsure whether to be terrified or thrilled. “I guess this is life now. It’s still a foreign feeling. But here we are… it’s crazy how unpredictable life is, it’s so rewarding.” A short while after our conversation, she’ll jet off to NYC, her NME photoshoot for The Cover lying in wait on the other side.
Creating a balance between the personal and professional has been an important step for Udu. “hemlocke springs nine to five – and then Naomi. That’s not been the case for like the past few weeks, but it’s in my head, so I’m happy about that,” she says. Both within the music and away from it, a learning curve of self-discovery has characterised the past year, as she explains to NME.
“At the start, things were absolutely horrible. I’m still not used to the industry, but back then I really wasn’t,” she says. Record labels came knocking at the door, with ears from all corners of the world keen to work with Udu. “Now I’m a little bit more acclimated [to the industry], she says. “I feel like I’ve discovered what my boundaries are, now it’s about making sure I stick to them.”
‘Going…going…GONE!’ can be read as the hemlocke springs origin story, comprising both her vibrant and percussive debut single ‘Gimme All Ur Luv’ through to tracks that came about very late in the process. A trip to LA inspired the second half of the EP, as ‘Pos’ and ‘The Train To Nowhere’ were written upon her return to Concord in a rapid-fire songwriting session.
Crucially, it draws a line under her first chapter as a global artist. “I started in this little, quiet bedroom pop world, and I wanted to finish the EP correctly so at least I can move onto the next world with an open mind and more experience,” she says, perhaps the first moment of the conversation where a more serious gaze replaces her otherwise ever-present smile. “I want to be more assured of what I want to do. The vision for the album is there, but I’m personally not there yet. I’m still the person in my room on my computer.”
After she wrapped up the EP earlier this year, a clean slate has given Udu the chance to commence work on her debut album. “I need to slow things down,” she says, describing adding in more time the release dates of recent singles ‘Heavun’ and ‘Enknee1’ has helped to “ground” her back into the present day.
Udu describes one particular coming-of-age album that resonated with her above all others. ‘The Dreaming’ by Kate Bush “completely changed her perspective on what music could be”, she told NME last December, but there was a secondary purpose to her love of that record during her college years. “That album, it would be a relief”, she says.
“When you’re studying, you get these moments of intensity and then you need to listen to something equally as intense.” To balance out her heavy workload came the exaggerated personality that we see in hemlocke springs, as Udu channelled her inner Kate Bush to experiment with her unique brand of pop that we see today.
The door isn’t closed on her medical career she insists, having worked so hard for her master’s degree – it’s merely ajar: “I’m toying with something new and if I grow tired of it, I can always go back to what I originally planned on doing,” she says. “Even if I go back, that doesn’t mean I have to quit music.”
During the pandemic, the uncertainty of a future in her previous career path instilled in Udu the mindset of going with the flow. These days, she keeps her artistic approach as introspective as possible: “It gives me peace of mind. I got to a point where I thought I had to figure everything out. Then I realised I didn’t.” Life will always throw a spanner in the works, but that’s OK – things will always work out,” she says. “There will always be something to figure out, so just chill for a moment.”
The sustainability of her day-to-day life as hemlocke springs centres on figuring things out for herself, rather than being bombarded by unsolicited advice from all angles. “I’ve had to try to balance how many people I want to let into the creative process,” she says. “Some people are really eager to hear everything, but it’s not necessarily making it easier for me. It’s about setting that boundary sometimes, and saying, ‘This is as far as we go, I’m sorry!’”
Udu’s journey with her ever-burgeoning fanbase, meanwhile, is just getting started. She speaks with genuine awe as she describes her early afternoon set at Lollapalooza last month, which marked her first-ever festival appearance. “It really tripped me up, I’m still not used to the fact that people know the words [to my songs],” she says. “I thought, ‘it’s 1pm, the traffic is bad – ain’t nobody gonna be there’. I thought I was going to be singing to the trees,” she grins.
Bedecked in a strawberry shortcake dress, she hung out with fans after her set. Taking a picture with them, there was a sea of smiles that radiated through the devoted contingent, who gathered en masse at the barrier. They certainly did take a leaf out of her book, she says, dressing up to match the tornado of colour and energy that is reflected in the EP artwork. “We live in such a depressing world, let’s just be colourful,” she says. “That’s the goal.”
hemlocke springs’ ‘going…going…GONE!’ is out September 29
Listen to hemlocke springs’ exclusive playlist to accompany The Cover below on Spotify and here on Apple Music
Words: Rishi Shah
Photos: Sam Keeler
Hair: Blaze’ria Clover
Makeup: Anya Tisdale
Styling: Cesar Alvarez