PATTA VOL 2: A Spring in Her Step - Hemlocke Springs
Words by Grace Wang | Photos by Ana Peralta Chong | Design & Illustrartions by Kiyomi Morrison & Jaclyn Arellano
In less than a year, Isimeme Naomi Udu has gone from studying for a Masters of Medical Informatics to creating sui generis pop music as hemlocke springs. She has racked up millions of plays on Spotify, soundtracked tens of thousands of TikToks and can count Grimes and Doja Cat as fans, but still isn’t immune to racist trolls. And behind her quirky veneer is a musical message dealing with identity and equity.
You can learn a lot about someone’s life from their TikToks. A scroll through hemlocke springs (lowercase styling preferred) profile will tell you, amongst other things, that she makes catchy, incredibly fresh, ‘80s-tinged pop songs, has amassed over 10 million likes on her videos, rocks a signature look of wavy hair and round, wire-frame glasses, and will probably be the funniest person you’ll come across this year.
At just 24 years old, she knows a thing or two about keeping viewers engaged. Comfortable in front of the camera, she records herself dancing chaotically, pulling pranks like showering fully dressed or pouring water into overfilled glasses, cracking jokes and cosplaying different personas, all the while vibing to her own music—it’s like she’s been doing this her whole life like she was born to perform for her 300,000 followers.
Over Zoom, Isimeme Naomi Udu is just as vivacious and energetic, although a little more modest. Constantly chuckling and capacious with her warmth, she talks in loosely strung sentences of a manner that is both charming and slightly self-conscious. At one point, she describes her production process using ‘meat’ as a pun, and begins to apologise profusely—“Are you vegan? Sorry, I was like, BURGER.”
It’s been just over a year of her using TikTok as a platform for her music, but in this short time, hemlocke springs’ singular voice and infectious beat have gotten the attention of renowned musicians and celebrities—Steve Lacy sends props into her DMs, Doja Cat, Bella Hadid and even Mason Ramsey, the 16-year-old Walmart yodeller turned country singer, have made videos with her music.
It all started when one of her songs went viral. She had been uploading music onto SoundCloud and deleting them after a few days, but then she got some nice comments from strangers on a song titled “Gimme All Ur Luv”. The happy, nostalgic tune with addictive dance-pop synths and post-punk vocals that turn ethereal, made one listener compare it to Grimes, while tagging the Candian musician and singer-songwriter. Udu went to sleep and woke up to tens of thousands of views and a comment from Grimes saying that she liked it.
Now, hemlocke springs’ music has been played over 30 million times on Spotify. One song, “Girlfriend”, has soundtracked 70,000 TikTok videos, including one where Khalid snap dances to it in his mansion. All this attention is leading her down the well-trodden path of self-made singer turned viral sensation turned full-time musician with tour dates and a contract with a record label.
Less than a year ago, Udu was still finishing her masters at Dartmouth and making music in her spare time. Teaching herself on GarageBand, creating music was a form of release from the gruelling work of completing a Medical Informatics degree.
“We're just looking at the prevalence of diseases and stuff, basically coding,” she explains, “You could be looking for hours at something, and it's literally one tiny semicolon that's messing everything up.”
Going off and creating a melody, or even just a jingle, enabled her to take a break and escape the stultifying work for a while. Eventually, she started to get the feeling that the absence of music as a creative outlet was building up into something more serious.
“I found myself spread thin. It got to a point in a semester where I was just, like, depressed. I had just gotten over COVID, I didn't want to do an assignment and I was like, let’s take my butt over to Logic (the music production software) and just work on some things, and then I'll feel a lot better.” And she did. She promised herself to do it more.
In a video posted on TikTok, Udu irreverently breaks down her ‘process’ for a follower. Step one, have a mental breakdown, which she stresses is mandatory. Step two, do what you can with the resources around you. In her case, that’s a standard QWERTY keyboard (“I literally just start typing until something pops up”) and the production software Logic. Following closely is a spout of verbal vomit, with editorial input from the online rhyming encyclopaedia Rhymezone.
“I feel like for an eighth of the words that I use, I didn't know until I looked it up,” she laughs. I ask about the use of arrhythmia, an erratically syncopated and irresistibly fun word to pronounce, which sits sophisticatedly in the intro of “Girlfriend”:
You say I want to be your girlfriend
It wasn't really in my plans
Udu tells me about how it simply came up after she looked up the condition where the heart starts skipping out of control. The bridge from the same song, which she shrieks in an exaggerated, vertiginous crescendo—
Secretly I’m aiming for a rhythm that exceeds my expectations
—is a perfectly crafted double entendre about sex and songwriting and one of the most iconic and unforgettable motifs in her oeuvre.
“In other areas,” she adds, “I have to try really hard, especially when, like, talking—sometimes I have to visualize the words in my head.” So when it comes to music, she wants to express herself as truthfully and exhaustively as she can, “I’m like, you're just gonna speak, say whatever you have on your mind.”
And that can mean pausing mid-shower to record a voice memo. She mock performs the process, humming and dutting, explaining that she usually starts with a synth and a basic drum pattern, and tries to work through the whole song before going back and adding more flashy elements. “To me, the lyrics and the melodies are the base. That's where the meat is, if you like.”
The raw honesty of her lyrics, paired with electrifying vocal contortions in her voice brings to mind the 80s punk-funk of ESG and art pop of Kate Bush. Incidentally, she names Bush as her biggest musical influence. It perhaps comes as no surprise to those familiar with Bush that The Dreaming, her fourth and most ‘experimental’ album, is Udu’s favourite. The record is one of howls, cries and transformations and sees its heroine turn shame, fears, and frustrations into daring, fantastical prog rock anthems.
Though Udu says she can’t explain why she relates to this album (“I lowkey don't really know what she's talking about”), you hear it in the way she similarly draws from the rage and pain common to those who are often condescended to, disbelieved, and told that they’re different, wrong, too loud, and too weird.
For Udu, being a Black woman means songwriting comes with an added layer of complexity. Race comes up often in her songs, and she feels a responsibility to point her listeners to it. In “Enkee1”, a single in her forthcoming album, she sings, “I don’t think you’re into my kind”. Udu explains how the song drew from her perspective of love as a Black woman. “When I was younger, I was basically told that some people aren’t going to like me because of the colour of my skin.”
She describes growing up in North Carolina, a “very white suburb”, where she’d experience gratuitous, inexplicable prejudices, where her mere existence was an affront to some people. “And it's just so crazy—I kind of have to talk about it. I feel like it's expected of me. It's affected me, and if I experience it, I can make a little lyric on it.”
As her profile grows, Udu has started to be subject to aggressive racism on the internet. One person demeaned her music as ‘I only date white people music’, while another tagged a picture of her in an Instagram story with the caption “idk how someone can see a person like this and not think theyer [sic] the most linked to monkeys and neanderthals”.
“First of all, that’s just foul—racist and foul,” she responds on TikTok, adding that it’s one thing to post hate speech, but when the perpetrator goes a step further and tags her, “That’s just a whole different level of being confidently racist. You can not like my music, hell, you can not like me, but don’t be racist. That’s not cool.”
Though the hints at racism in her lyrics can sometimes go over people’s heads, Udu will get DMs from people asking for clarifications, and often, she’ll meet kinfolk and allies who assure her, “I got you, I know what you're talking about.”
It is empowering to see a young, early-career artist use her profile to call out racist behaviour and demand for social change. More than that, we’re witnessing a rare gift of turning incredible pressure into beautiful, joyful songs people can dance to. “Enkee1” was written to reignite the feeling of “dancing in the rain with no worries in the world.”
Right now, Udu is gearing up for the release of her new EP, going…going…GONE! and glad to not be studying anymore. Working with art director Ana Peralta Chong, the cover art sees hemlocke springs sprinting towards the animated, computerised ether.
“I'm still really, like, trying to discover who hemlock springs is.” She explains that as a person prone to daydreams and overthinking, she sometimes prefers to be inside her head, even if it can get a little chaotic up there. So Udu’s working on staying in the present and being grateful for how far she has come.
“When you’re going through it (sudden success), you’re like, this is not it; that was not the vibe. But now, I’m more appreciative of it, especially knowing where things are going in the future. I’m like, ‘Oh, wow, you started in the corner of your bedroom. Look where things are going now!’”
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