Way back when, there was a video of a high school-aged Yumi Nootenboom on YouTube strumming on a toy ukulele. Purchased for $20 on Amazon, she learned to pluck its plastic strings to covers of Jason Mraz songs. She wanted to sing and was tired of asking her friends to play music for her. It was a passion that started at age seven when YUMI’s parents bought her a boombox that sparkled with disco balls. Out of its speakers repeatedly clanged Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration,” the first song she ever fell in love with, which she performed at home for her friends and family. Now, at 21, she has something else to celebrate. In October, the musician and model–she has been signed to Wilhelmina Curve since she was 14–who now goes by YUMI will release her first EP, Ego Boost.
Inspired by the music of Maxwell, Erykah Badu, and Jill Scott coming out of her father’s speakers, YUMI always wanted to sing R&B. She began singing lessons at age 12 and found they actually started to work once she was relieved of her adenoids at 13. Fascinated by YouTube since middle school, she put her ukulele covers online and by 16 began teaching herself to write songs to the instrument’s four chords. But there had to be something else, another way to break into the genre she truly hoped for. She didn’t want to sing on YouTube and at friends’ conferences forever.
In 2015, YUMI auditioned for The Voice, not expecting any success but making it through a massive cattle call audition by singing Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love” just the same. Called back for the following season, she worked with a coach for a year and passed through another round of music executives, eventually making it to the last round, hosted in a hotel with 100-200 other Voice hopefuls. This was going to be it, her big break, the achievement of a dream held for so long. But she didn’t make it to the next round. Even so, she didn’t let that stop her. In fact, she thought, if she could make it through a round of executives, maybe she did have something to offer after all. “If they think I can do it, I can do it, which shouldn’t be your root confidence, but at that young age I needed that validation for someone at that level,” she says. It was the first time she thought of herself as an artist.
Soon after, she found musician Olmos on Soundcloud, and together they put out “I’m Sorry” (and later, this year, “Sirens”). By August 2016 she met Kayhann, who would become her EP producer, and began bringing him songs. They’ve been working together since then, and the songs on Ego Boost are the fruits of their labor.
YUMI has taken her ‘90s R&B background and added modern inspirations like Billie Eilish, Kaytranada, Alina Baraz, and SZA, many of whom she discovered on Soundcloud. The result is gossamer electronic pop that floats as elegantly as YUMI herself does through the music video for EP’s first single, the song version of “Ego Boost,” wavy locks and white suit jacket fluttering behind her. Lyrics like “I fell in love with you/I took the bait/And you said you loved me/but youʼre a faker,” drip in honey laced with acidity, stinging with grace over venom. Similarly, Ego Boost’s second single “With You With Me” is a twisting ode to a lover who, despite her damages, takes her back, again and again, that’s set to a catchy, airy dance beat.
When Ego Boost was finished, she sought advice on what to do next from her uncle, DJ Steve Aoki, and played it for him in the car. Aoki had told her years prior that there’s a ceiling every musician has to swim to, that not everyone breaks through. Only when she got to that ceiling, would he help her because he wanted her to make a name for herself. So when she played her song on his car radio, she wasn’t expecting an offer to get signed to his label, Dim Mak Records, but there it was. “I was like, ‘Uh, okay!’ I was mindblown,” she says.
And while she’s proud of Ego Boost–it’s the first thing she made, the collected work of the last two to three years of her life, her baby, she says–she’s also excited for her next EP, which will come out in spring 2019. This is a more 2018 YUMI, she says, and a more evolved sound. “I’ve always had this R&B foundation that I’ve wanted for my songs, but I think that my sound is becoming more solid and I’m more confident as an artist,” she says. “Before I was unsure and testing things out, which I am and always will be, but I think that this is a more confident version of myself.”
It’s a confidence that comes alongside a vulnerability she hopes to share with her audience. “I always want my work to be something vulnerable and authentic to who I am and something that people can emotionally connect with or use to escape from pain or use as an outlet,” she says. “No matter where my sound goes or where I go as a person, I always want to remain authentic and bold and be able to connect with an audience in a real way in a fake world.” Perhaps accordingly, at one point she had to step away from her life as a model to reclaim her image for herself and lean into a more body-positive outlook. She has since returned to modeling, with opportunities for campaigns and runways at her feet, confidence renewed. “There are some days where I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m too sensitive, I don’t know if I can be in the spotlight my whole life, or why couldn’t have picked a job in finance or something where I’m not showing my heart to the world?” she says. “The vulnerability in life [is] of being afraid but doing it anyway and knowing that not everyone is gonna agree with what you put out there.”