Evening chic: That is the phrase bouncing around the brain of Hemlocke Springs mastermind Isimeme Udu, or Naomi, on a balmy Tuesday evening in a dying shopping mall in suburban North Carolina. In the morning, Naomi will fly to Los Angeles for several weeks of recording, preceded by the first music-industry soiree for which she’s been given a dress code. She is here in part to find a dress with her mother, Frances, but she’s not quite sure where to start. “Evening chic?” she says, laughing deeply as she pads across the worn gray carpet of Carolina Mall, the smaller of the two shopping centers in her hometown of Concord, North Carolina. “How am I even supposed to know what that means?”
Such is life’s tantalizing juxtaposition for Naomi, age 24, as it stands now in the Spring of 2023. She strolls through the old hallways of this nostalgic mill-town mall, reminiscing about her long-closed haunts here and offering teriyaki chicken to a stranger in the sleepy food court. She talks about the travails of the master’s degree in medical informatics that she finished at Dartmouth just four months ago.
But as Naomi looks at the future, whether it’s tomorrow or the next six months or the next six years, she is staring at the possibility of an entirely surprising and major music career, based on a flawless series of intoxicating and idiosyncratic pop songs that have not only earned millions of streams but also the admiration of Grimes, Steve Lacy, and Toro y Moi. “I thought this was just a phase,” she admits, grinning with genuine bemusement. “And then contracts started showing up— ‘Oh, I wasn’t expecting that.’”
Naomi is instantly likable, someone who opens up about her life with such candor and wit that you cannot resist doing the same. Her broad smile radiates beneath big, round glasses, and her laugh slices through a conversation like an exclamation mark through a paragraph, proof that she really means it all. She seems to see the world with unabashed wonder, too, everything around her presenting a question she has only yet to ask. Her humility charms. An alumna of Spelman and Dartmouth, she grins sheepishly when asked about school: “I was OK, I guess,” she offers. And then, well, she talks about advanced classes in machine learning (and how much, frankly, she disliked them.)
Hemlocke Springs radiates those same endearing qualities, as apparent with that first viral 2022 hit, the guileless and glowing “Gimme All Ur Love,” as it is with the spellbinding and slightly scandalous new “Sever the Blight.” A K-Pop authority with a supreme ’80s playlist she updates with the enthusiasm of a rare record collector, Naomi makes songs that mirror her very nature—great and welcoming at first glance, yes, but interesting and unordinary enough to keep you captivated for the long run. Naomi first came to notice with a triptych of hits on TikTok, but she only signed up for the service to look around, not because she wanted to share her own stuff or because she craved some social media ducats. (When she decided to post work of her own, she used a name generator to come up with her handle, for fear her parents would find her account.) The subsequent songs—accessible and intricate, poppy and provocative—are much more than 15-second flybys. As she approaches her much-demanded debut project, it’s hard to shake the fantastic feeling that she is, too.
Though Naomi was born in Raleigh, the state’s capital city, her family of four moved a few hours southwest before she began elementary school. Her parents are both Nigerian immigrants, but they chose Concord, where her mother had landed a job as a middle-school teacher, rather than the sizable Nigerian community in nearby Charlotte. Aside from questions about her beautiful name, Naomi recalls her childhood there as relatively standard—lots of time at Carolina Mall, lots of friends, lots of church. Neither of her parents played music, but they loved it, their home filled with contemporary American gospel and Nigerian folk, even some mainstream rap. Naomi’s preteen epiphany, though, was the video for Avicii’s “Levels,” seen on one of the two computers in her mother’s classroom after school. “This is the music—this is art,” she remembers thinking, marveling at an exasperated office worker pushing a stone up a hill like Sisyphus. “This is it.”
She recorded some songs with a friend in high school, a practice she maintained down south at Spelman, where she was first studying to be a doctor. From time to time, she’d post songs under assorted names and delete them when she was over it. That was, she presumed, the eventual fate for Hemlocke Springs and “Gimme All Ur Love,” a tune brainstormed during the course of two showers and recorded so as to forestall a pending machine learning assignment. She casually posted it to SoundCloud in May 2022 amid midterm stress at Dartmouth, expecting nothing. Even when its popularity ballooned online within a week, she thought, at best, she would list it as an extracurricular achievement on her imminent doctorate application. “I was going to put it on my résumé: ‘I did this song and it got some attention,’” she remembers. “This will pass by, and that’s totally cool, just how life goes.”
But then it happened again, in November 2022, amid the hubbub of finals and Naomi’s 24th birthday. “Girlfriend”—two minutes of flippant romantic mirth, as direct as a cheerleading chant but as slippery as a B-52s curio—became such a hit that Naomi had to stop responding to laudatory messages about it so she could study for her last tests. “After those first two singles, I knew that I was going to be put into a ‘quirky’ box fairly quickly,” she says. “So I decided to make the antithesis.” When she released single three, “Stranger Danger!,” in January 2023, the consensus regarding the newly minted master in medical informatics was unanimous: How was everything she touched so consummately catchy? Still, where her first two smashes had been playful ditties, this burst of effervescence slashed at both capitalism and the patriarchy, cutting at the core of our endlessly extractive systems.
Those songs now seem only like preliminary sketches for “Sever the Blight,” which turns the rare trick of being complicated but remaining compulsory. It begins with complete intrigue, Naomi sweetly singing of bondage scenes over bird samples and skywriting synths, a testament to the EDM of her youth. But then the beat pounds ahead like a jackhammer, flashing back to her playlist of ’80s hits, somewhere among Depeche Mode and Phil Collins and Kate Bush. It is a love song for the longing, an ode to the very act of wanting. Naomi knows that people will ask what that fetishist first verse is all about. “I’m not really sure,” she says, howling. “What am I even talking about with this?”
To be honest, she’s not too worried about an answer, about ascribing meaning to the comings and goings of a career that has come as a complete surprise. When Naomi starts to write a song, that same feeling of satisfaction that she first found as a teenager playing around with pals in GarageBand returns. Making music simply scratches a mental itch that sits somewhere between the organization of science and her enduring sense of play. These days, she gets up early to do it, rising before dawn to work on songs before the communiques of the industry inevitably begin to arrive. The act of building these pieces into a proper debut thrills her, a process of research, creation, and refinement—good work for a scientist who doubles as a pop savant.
By the way, Naomi and Frances never found that evening chic look in Carolina Mall. Instead, they went home and unpacked a suitcase of hand-me-downs. Naomi found a black dress that sparkled on the shoulders and fit well. She borrowed her mother’s heels and got on the plane, heading to California to discover what was next.