This photo is captured by Alec Redding (Courtesy of Mei Semones).

Ann Arbor native Mei Semones is the ultimate triple threat: a skilled multi-instrumentalist, bilingual vocal talent and unabashed lover of the color pink. On her debut EP, Tsukino, Semones blends soft indie J-pop with glittering jazz, a sonic combination that radiates the same cherry blossom glow as the project’s cover artwork

Now in her final semester at Berklee College of Music, Semones studies professional music with a concentration in performance. Despite a relocation to Boston for school, the influence of Semones’s Ann Arbor upbringing remains distilled in her musical style. In an interview with The Michigan Daily, the artist credited her time in Community High School’s renowned jazz program for first sparking her interest in jazz performance.

“They have a really good jazz program, where there are small jazz combos as opposed to big band, which is kind of the standard thing most schools have. So I started playing jazz then,” Semmones said. “At first it was mostly because I wanted to play guitar at school, and that was the only class I could do that in, but I ended up really liking it.”

Semones later adds, “Jack Wagner, who teaches jazz, had a really big influence on who I am as a musician, because I wouldn’t be doing what I am if I hadn’t taken his class, you know?”

On Tsukino, Semones’s penchant for jazz clearly shines through. The project pulls from an array of local talent, featuring upright and electric bass from Music, Theatre & Dance junior Ben Wood, as well as recording and mixing assistance from University alum Geoff Brown and Music, Theatre & Dance junior Sam Uribe. Tsukino is the culmination of almost two years of work, after a simple bedroom recording of the titular track “Tsukino” two summers ago turned into a polished five-song product recorded in an Ypsilanti studio. Despite the sometimes challenging logistics of making music as of late, Semones reflected on this experience. 

“Pretty much the whole EP was recorded during the pandemic, and that kind of worked because I feel like I had a little bit more time to focus on the project,” Semones said. “I do think (the pandemic) gave me more of a space to focus on writing and recording and developing a presence on social media.”

On opener “Yoake,” Semones poetically flexes this aforementioned writing. Over warm string arrangements and plucky guitar, she sings, “Push me to the / Brink of dawn / Lost behind the / Secret sun / Morning’s gone / Take your hands / Put me down.” Semones’s voice carries a special kind of gentle expressiveness that simmers over her instrumentals, simple but beautifully impactful. 

On “Kodoku,” she sings about mingling loneliness and frustration, crooning in Japanese (which has been translated to English here), “How far will I carry / The bitterness I want to forget / Why won’t the cold end / Even though I don’t have strength.” The track feels slightly hopeful despite its somber musings about love, with full crescendos of violin and soft tumbling drums. Semones sounds emboldened by the time of the song’s close, affirming, “​​I don’t wanna be another thing that you will forget about / I don’t wanna be one of those names that you can never recall.”

Single “Muchuu” is steeped in an energetic bossa nova beat, a genre Semones has pointed to as a major point of musical influence. She counts seminal Brazilian musicians like Antônio Carlos Jobim and João Gilberto as inspirations during her writing process, along with an array of pioneering jazz musicians.

“I’ve always listened to a lot of John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, who are some of my favorite jazz musicians,” Semones said. “In terms of harmony and rhythms, I draw from a lot of my favorite jazz artists.” 

On Tsukino, Semones has placed her own spin on these understandings of jazz. The project’s texture feels homegrown but smooth, perhaps due to the exclusive use of demo vocal recordings throughout. This balance stands as further proof that Semones has carved out a distinctive niche for herself on the EP, infusing the classic chord changes of jazz and bossa nova with indie-pop flair and elegant Japanese lyricism. 

As for her upcoming plans, Semones is hopeful that the future will be filled with safe live shows. She’s the lead guitarist for Connecticut band The Brazen Youth, leaving on tour with the group in early February in support of Kansas City indie-rock band The Greeting Committee. Outside her own solo career, Semones performs with acts G Luné and close friend Reggie Pearl as well, never staying idle for too long.

The artist is currently in the process of writing a three-song EP as a part of her capstone project before graduation in the spring, an effort which Semones plans to herald with new music videos, an EP release party and, fingers crossed, live performances. 

Semones is an exciting new talent out of Ann Arbor, by no means limited by genre. Tsukino meanders from jazz to pop, English to Japanese, quieter moments of solitude to blooming moments of passion, executed with considerable artistic prowess. After a dynamic first solo EP, it’s apparent that there is still a lot more of Mei Semones to come. 

Make sure to watch her music video for “Yoake,” which was recently released and was directed by University alum Evan Deng.

Daily Arts Writer Nora Lewis can be reached at noralew@umich.edu.