Standing near the back of the packed and dimly lit Camden venue of Dingwalls, you can just about make out a small sea of teenagers and young adults staring rapturously at the stage, arms aloft as they form the shape of a heart with their fingers. It’d almost be a stock photo-worthy scene, save for the footie chant that sweeps through the crowd, increasing in both volume and fervour as more and more grasp its prosaic lyrics: “We love you hemlocke, we do / We love you hemlocke, we do / We love you hemlocke, we do / Ohhhh hemlocke, we love you!”
The object of their collective affection? North Carolina’s Isimeme Udu (who goes by Naomi), who’s standing onstage sporting a bright blue wig, baby pink tea dress, opera gloves and a huge grin as she revels in this markedly British reception. On the face of it, the laddish cheers seem incongruous with Naomi’s high-fashion aesthetic, but she just merrily leans into the chaos - so much so that the overall effect is one of intentional, joyful juxtaposition. It’s a throughline which extends into other aspects of her project, too; sonically, visually, and even biographically, hemlocke springs is wonderfully contradictory.
“Lollapalooza was like, my second show,” Naomi exclaims pre-gig, absent-mindedly brushing the gold glittery remnants of DIY’s shoot from her face. “I think that’s when the lightbulb went off; I can connect with people on the internet, but seeing crowds being there in real life, realising that they [were] there for me - that was crazy!”
Playing a major festival would be a milestone in anyone’s book, but it’s an especially far cry from Naomi’s not-too-distant past life as a medical informatics Master’s graduate - a burgeoning career that began to take a back seat after she released debut track ‘gimme all ur luv’ in May 2022 and it swiftly blew up. And it’s this about-turn that informed the title of her recent debut EP ‘going… going… GONE!’, a project that encapsulates “how much of a 180 life has taken” since her college days.
What you see is what you get. It’s too much to feign something - I don’t know who else I could be.”
Drawing cherry-picked inspiration from her teenage K-Pop obsessions, the timelessness of ‘80s classics, and the noble desire to “just do ridiculous things”, ‘going… going… GONE!’ reflects both a huge breadth of pop culture, and an often touching depth of personal experience. Her output has certainly struck a chord with the Lockets (or, if you prefer, the unofficial group noun of “haemorrhoids”), whose very existence seems to still slightly bewilder Naomi. “When I’m meeting people, if they say, ‘I’m such a fan of you’, I literally look back…” She pauses to perform an exaggerated pantomime turn over her shoulder. “Like, who are they talking about? Me?!”
Naomi is warm, expressive, and frequently self-deprecating, and this approachable humility is undoubtedly part of what endears her so strongly to her followers. Whether it’s dancing with unselfconscious abandon or walloping a cymbal with gusto onstage, she’s the utter antithesis of the perfectly curated, Instagram-filter brand of celebrity.
“What you see is what you get,” she shrugs. “It’s too much to feign something - I don’t know who else I could be.” With this kind of transparency can come a particular vulnerability, but, as Naomi explains, fear is an emotion with which she’s well acquainted. “I’ve never not been afraid of anything in my entire life. I’m scared of everything, but that doesn’t mean I won’t still do it; I’ll just be scared while doing it, which I think is the best route to go.”
‘going… going… GONE!’, then, is a manifestation of her facing these fears head on - both practical, tangible anxieties about career viability, and more existential notions of identity. “The music industry is so fast-paced, and I thought, ‘Oh, people will lose interest, people aren’t going to tune in to me’,” she continues. Ironically, however, it’s this attitude that’s allowed her the freedom to write without heavy expectation or prescriptive direction, instead simply thinking: “I don’t really know what’s happening right now, and I don’t really know what’s going to happen in the future, so I guess I’ll write about that.”
The idea that you’ll have your life together by your mid-twenties is one of life’s great lies and, for Naomi, hemlocke springs has been instrumental in helping her through this ubiquitous quarter-life crisis. “Writing is my way of examining how I’m feeling. I have it all up here,” she taps her forehead, “and then I get it down on paper, and I guess that’s the first step of processing something.”
I thought I had to stay genre specific and make everything sound super cohesive, but I just don’t think that works for me.”
In the hemlocke springs school of therapy, though, you’ll sooner exorcise demons via dancing than deep introspection, and Naomi excels at pairing ostensibly serious subject matter with the sort of buoyant synth-pop that Pet Shop Boys would be proud of. Take the Robyn-inspired sad banger ‘enknee1’, for example - it’s one of the EP’s standout tracks and a clear live favourite which, when performed, sends the crowd bouncing around to heart-wrenching lyrics of acute loneliness.
This striking contrast between the sonic and thematic is something of a hemlocke signature - a technique that serves to “just make it all the more interesting and maybe a little bit funny”, as well as allowing Naomi the scope to explore multiple emotional avenues within one song. “I always say that I have different voices up here,” she explains, gesturing to her head again. “You know how everybody has an angel and a devil voice, and they’re your thoughts fighting against themselves? That’s basically me - I fight against myself a lot.”
But it’s because she puts so much of herself into the project - internal arguments and all - that others, in turn, invest heavily too. Naomi’s found fans in the likes of Steve Lacy, Doja Cat and Grimes, while her Dingwalls show acted as a microcosmic warm up for her current stint supporting on Ashnikko’s UK and European tour dates. “Because of the amount of people who have said [my] music is good - which is so cool - I got a lot of industry plant stuff,” she laughs, clearly amused at the idea that she has nepotistic connections. “I couldn’t even be mad at it. I was lowkey like, ‘Mom, do you… do you know people?’”
Despite being flattered by the high-profile kudos (“It’s honestly very rewarding and very fulfilling to hear that people I never thought I would interact with are fans”), Naomi is also steadfast in her decision that both ‘going… going… GONE!’ and her next project (on which she’s currently working) will be hers alone. “I want to find my own footing as an artist. I’m working on new things all the time, and I think I’m trying to explore more, with more live instrumentation. In my mind, I thought I had to stay genre specific and make everything sound super cohesive, but I just don’t think that works for me. If you’re going this way,” Naomi points into the middle distance, “then you’ve just gotta keep on going and see where it leads you.”
Following her instincts, however unconventional, has served her well enough so far. By embracing juxtaposition and being unashamedly magpie-like in approach, hemlocke springs has put herself firmly on the path to alt-pop stardom.
As featured in the December 2023 / January 2024 issue of DIY, out now.