TOMI on the Heartbreaking Honesty of 'Sweet, Sweet Honey'  [Q&A]

Photo: Zac Farro

After spending the pandemic in isolation, Los Angeles singer-songwriter TOMI has come out the other end reset and ready to release her long-awaited EP, Sweet, Sweet Honey. The record is a poignant five-track body of work that embraces a unique folk sensibility while building on the wide emotional range of her two previous EPs.

Prior to the record release, the artist dropped “Lemon Tree,” a dreamy folk song that reveals a longing for the suburban dream, and the expansive, atmospheric “If I Wasn’t Yours, Who Was I,” a track about the loss of identity that occurs following the dissolution of a relationship. Now, TOMI explores grief, growth, and more through her clever lyricism and captivatingly stripped-down instrumentation in the hopes listeners can connect with the feeling of optimism that encompasses the record.  

We had the chance to talk with TOMI about the record, meditation, and being your own hype person.

Ones to Watch: By the time this interview is live, your EP will be out. How are you feeling at this exact moment about its release?

TOMI: I’m really excited. I’m eager to get it out. I haven’t released music in so long, especially a body of work. I wrote this during a time of grieving process, and I think the biggest thing as far as what I want, and what I hope for listeners to pick up on is that the healing process takes a long time and you have to really go inwards, and you have to take your time with it, but you do get through it, and there is hope there. When I started writing the record, I was in a pretty hopeless spot. I got out of a record deal that I was so excited to get. I was also going through this long-term breakup, and it was just a lot of loss and a lot of starting from scratch, and that’s why I wanted to strip down the record. There’s no band; it’s just all me. I really wanted to come back down to the basics, because I think it’s really important to ask questions and not have answers and keep asking more questions. When we all don’t really know anything, we’re all kind of making it up as we go. When you’re grieving or going through a change, which we all have done in the last year, it’s really important to just try really hard to practice positivity and practice love and care and forgiveness. I just hope people hear it and connect with that feeling of hope.

What are some things that you do to practice self-care and bring positivity into your life?

Well, definitely music. That’s my number one. I think that’s the most honest place anybody can go because you don’t even have to say anything. You can just go through the actual notes and set the sonic landscape. You can feel something. I also started meditating every day last year, which helped me understand the chaos in my mind. When you take those moments to slow down and be still with yourself, it is crazy how fast your mind is going all the time. You can’t really process anything. It’s crazy. So that’s been really helpful, and I run a lot. I believe in working out and exercise, and building new pathways in your brain. I think it’s really easy to fall into bad habits, and I try really hard to catch myself before anything is ingrained. Excellence is habitual. You have to do it every day. So every time I have a negative thought, I try to balance it with five positive thoughts, and that’s been really helpful. It’s tough out here, man.

What made you want to name the record Sweet, Sweet Honey versus a title track?  

When I wrote “Lemon Tree,” “sweet, sweet honey” is a lyric at the end of the second part of that song. I called the woman I wrote the record for; I called her “my honey” behind her back. So when I was kind of reconciling and accepting the fact that the relationship was over and that there was no going back to like fix anything, I think a lot of people use anger as a way to cope. I believe it is important to keep love at the forefront, because it’s always there deep down. It’s like there’s love. It’s not anger. It’s a feeling of you connected with somebody, and you shared a part of your life with them, and they change you, and you carry that with you. It’s really an homage to her and her sweetness, even in moments of being really cold and not communicating or a breakup. I think it’s really important to just remember the sweet times.  

After completing Sweet, Sweet Honey, I stumbled across a quote by Alan Watts that summed up the message perfectly. He said, “We seem to be like flies caught in honey. Because life is sweet, so we do not want to give it up, and yet the more we [want], the more we are trapped.” Whether it’s love, lust, or vices, it all starts from a place of pure sweetness; we want more and more of it until we completely lose ourselves in it. In my experience, if I can’t have too much, I don’t want any. The sweetness is the easiest to love and the hardest to let go of.

How did “Lemon Tree” end up becoming a seven-minute song? Was that an intentional effort?

So when I wrote that song, I wanted to hold on to every memory I possibly could. They’re all small moments, and at the time, every time I closed my eyes or tried to go to bed, I would have these really intense flashbacks of this former life. It was tough to keep experiencing it over and over again, and so I was like, “If I just could get it out, maybe they’ll stop, or at least I can put them somewhere, so I’m not so afraid of forgetting.” And so I wrote that song. I was just in my parents’ basement at the time and was playing, and I just pressed record and wrote pretty much the whole structure from beginning to end. It was, I think, like 13 minutes. So then I started editing it down, and I got to a place where I could split the song in half and get two songs. Every time I did that, though, it just felt wrong. It felt wrong to change what had happened so naturally.

It would’ve felt like the story of the song was interrupted?

Yeah, exactly. I almost split it and then called that second half “Sweet, Sweet Honey,” but I felt like it was starting in the middle of the story. I felt like if you don’t know the first half, you’re not going to understand how desperate this person, this person is being me, is to have this life back.

Out of the songs record that haven’t been released yet, which one are you most excited or nervous for people to hear?

I think the first song on the record, “Am I Ever On Your Mind?,” I’m most nervous about it because it’s just really candid, and that was the first song I wrote, and I didn’t know I was writing a record at the time. I was just like trying to survive, and I think that song was the first one that started the process. It’s a total like, I’m living in some fantasy land and hoping for this future that is already gone and being in total denial. I think I’m afraid I’m gonna sound crazy like a stalker, but I’m also like, I don’t know that’s what music is. It’s a little dramatic.

You’ve mentioned that for this record specifically, it’s all you and stripped-down. How did your songwriting process change for this record?  

I think this record is probably the truest to my core and to my songwriting. It’s just a guitar and a recorder because I believe that allows some kind of freedom and a release where there’s no pressure or no time constraint or structure. I tend to write a lot and then edit down. Editing is really a practice that I’ve had to learn. I’m like, “Damn, I just kept going, and every song is a tangent, and nothing makes any sense.” They’re all cool parts, but you ask yourself, how do I make it feel like a song? How do I create a piece of art and make it relatable and listenable? I think songs can be anything, and there are no rules, but I do think for a little I started to challenge myself and make something melodic and lyrical and clever. That was kind of like the What Kind Of Love EP was. It was just pushing more of a collaboration, more of a pop-leaning style, which I really enjoyed. It was so fun, and I still have a ton of songs that I’ll be releasing that are that kind of vibe. Still, I do think that songwriting, in general, should come from a place where you can play it on the guitar and sing, and it feels like you can feel something from that.

And did you continue to do everything yourself throughout the rest of the project?

Yeah, no one. I made it there. I isolated a lot for this, and I’ll probably end up doing it again. It was very intense, but I get really influenced by other people’s opinions, which can be good when you’re in a band, but it’s really hard. The songs are so personal, and because I was in a vulnerable state writing them, I did not and could not share them with anybody. So I didn’t. I first played them for my mother because I was curious if an older generation would be into the more lyrical and acoustic leaning songs, and she was very supportive. But I didn’t play them for anyone in the biz until I sent them to the violinist who plays on “Lemon Tree,” and then my mixer and then Hector and Christina. No one heard them. Zero.

You were very set on being isolated and did your best to avoid outside influence or criticism. Was there ever a time when you wished for validation from an outside source?

It was tough because I kept wanting somebody to cheerlead for me and be like, “This is so good! Keep doing this, and you should do this, and you should do this,” and be like a hype girl. It’s important to have hype girls, and I honestly just convinced myself that I would never release it. So it was all about serving the song and whatever moved me or made me feel like, “Okay, I got that out. That is what and how this moment should feel.” There are so many little details in the songs that are intentional for either a lyric or a feeling, and it was purely just to create the thing that I felt would speak to exactly what I was going through at the time.

Do you have a favorite lyric from this record?

I really love, “It’s how come your eyes only lift into the night?/ When the sun goes down / You seem happier than when it shines.” It’s basically saying, “Why are you happier when the sun isn’t shining?” It’s really about describing more of a sense of relief that the day is over rather than being relieved that you wake up in the morning. The other one I really love is in “Behind Me.” It goes, “If I ever cross your mind /I hope it makes you smile just as bright as the snow / Until it covers every road / Without a sound / I’ll follow / And leave my footprints in a row behind me.” That one is really about acceptance and hope and realizing that there’s more ahead and letting somebody go who’s kind of still being there. I wrote it in the winter, so it was the first snowstorm I had seen in like three years after moving to LA. I was in New York, and I was walking through the snow and had this whole image in my head because when you walk in the snow, you can’t hear your footsteps. It’s really quiet, it’s so beautiful, and everything’s the same color. It’s just like a blank slate, and the last lyric of that song is about walking behind somebody and being like, “my footsteps will be behind you.” So it’s like if you ever turn around, I’m here, but you won’t hear me, and you won’t be aware that I’m here, but I’m around, and I really love that.

I know no formal announcements have been made yet about touring after the release of the EP, but if you could do a show anywhere tomorrow, where would you go?

Listen, I have always wanted to play MSG. So that’s a goal, but oh my god, Red Rocks. That’s where I want to go! That venue is absolutely gorgeous!

The pandemic and lockdown have changed so much about how the music industry runs, who we are, our psyche, and how we express ourselves. So if you could say anything to “Day One of Lockdown” Tomi, what would you say?

I would say start meditating now and hold tight. I feel like my world just flipped, and I feel like the person I was and the people I surrounded myself with before the pandemic was a completely different person. I don’t want to say I’ve lost so many friends, but I’ve just realized who my family is and asked myself, “Who do you want to spend time with? Who serves you and makes you feel supported?” I think that’s been like the biggest shift, and it’s really surprising who I surround myself with now and who I am now. It’s just like, damn, I don’t know where my life would have gone if I hadn’t had to slow down.

Sweet, Sweet Honey is available everywhere you can stream it.  

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