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C-U Native Somi Discusses Grammy Nomination, Short Film

Somi's live album, "Holy Room," just received a Grammy Award nomination for Best Jazz Vocal Album

URBANA — Vocalist and composer Somi grew up in Champaign-Urbana, and her mother still lives here. Somi was in St. Louis working on a theater project when the pandemic forced it into hiatus. Rather than fly back to her home in New York City, the early epicenter of the pandemic, she drove three hours to Champaign to stay with her mother, where she would spend the next eight months.  

One of the projects that would emerge from Somi’s time in Champaign-Urbana is the short film, “Somi: in the absence of things.” You can get a first look at this project Tuesday at 7:00pm at the Krannert Center website.  

Somi also released a live album, recorded last year in Frankfurt, Germany. “Holy Room” was just nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album. Illinois Newsroom’s Brian Moline spoke with Somi about her short film, and her reaction to getting her first Grammy Award nomination. 

Listen to the interview with Somi here.

“I was overwhelmed,” Somi said, “with gratitude, with emotion. I actually was watching the live stream, the announcement, and of course, you cross your fingers and hope for certain things, but but really hearing my name and the album out loud was quite an emotional moment for me.”

On releasing “Holy Room” during the pandemic

“It’s the recording of a concert I did in Germany in 2019 May, and I had no plans to release a live album, but when everything kind of came to a screeching halt and I had this recording, this archive, I thought ‘why not reconnect with that thing that makes me feel most alive?’ I was listening to it before it was mixed and thinking there’s something I feel when I’m on stage that I just don’t have right now, that I can’t feel in any other way. There’s nothing else that gives me that energy or emotion or sense of spirit.”

How “Somi: in the absence of things” developed

“I emailed Mike Ross (Krannert Center Director) and Tammey Kikta (Artistic Services) and said, ‘I’m in town. I have this album. Would you be comfortable with me doing kind of a social media stream, live stream performance to sort of celebrate it?’ Because it felt strange to not just perform when an album comes out. I said I’d love to do a little live stream, maybe work with a local pianist.

Then we started talking about what it could be, what my response could be, and initially, again, it was just going to be a concert in the space, but then the more we began to explore the production logistics of creating the live stream, then it was like I’d love to do something that is in response to the actual space. Eventually we moved towards visual media. If we were going to pre-record, well, what does pre-record mean? It means we’re making a film, and then suddenly it was like, ‘it’s a film, and this is how we’d like to do that, and what’s the process?’

Eventually, it was a three-day workshop, an intensive workshop of conceiving and writing in the space, and I had some collaborators who were there to help execute a certain vision. The Krannert production staff was also there to support that vision. Now, we’ve been in post-production and pulling it all together. It’s still very much in process, but we can welcome people into that process, which is why we’re calling it a ‘first look.'”

Memories of growing up in Champaign-Urbana

“On my birthday in June, one of the things that I’ll always remember from this time, I decided to trace my life in Champaign. I walked from my home to my elementary school, and my middle school and high school and campus, and just kind of took in my life journey in Champaign. It was just interesting to reflect in that way. That was a joyous, deeply introspective way to just reconnect with my younger self and think about who I was then, and who I thought I’d be now.

Even just this opportunity lately to connect with Krannert. My parents would take me to Krannert and see different productions, and so this opportunity to collaborate with them in this way has been kind of also a return. We’ve had this professional kind of nexus over the last few years. I was even recently here in February with my band, and so that’s continued to be in place, and it feels very much like a homecoming any time I do come to perform.”

Where she would like to perform first when the pandemic is over

“My next calendar date is in May of ’21, the next thing that hasn’t been canceled, and that’s at Carnegie Hall. I think that would be an amazing kind of return, but right now I think we just want to do the work, and we just want to be with people and telling stories. I say ‘we,’ because I feel as though I’m speaking on behalf of many artists right now.

It’s a very challenging time right now, and while I’m so grateful to have so many things to celebrate, be it the sharing of a work in progress, or excitedly talking about the response to the album, it’s not lost on me that it’s hard to feel whole when you can’t actually do the thing that you know you do.

So, yeah, where is that gonna be? I think the moment they’re like, ‘it’s all clear, everybody! It’s safe!’ I will sing wherever is closest and safest. I don’t even think I’ve thought that far ahead, but I should visualizing that. Thank you for that question.”

Follow Brian on Twitter @BMolineWILL.

Brian Moline

Brian Moline

Brian Moline is the Managing Editor of Illinois Newsroom and host of Morning Edition for Illinois Public Media/WILL. He's been with WILL since 2015, after a long stint at WDWS-AM in Champaign where he covered both news and sports for more than a decade. If you have story or interview ideas, you can reach Brian at bmoline@illinois.edu.

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