Pam Soffer is a talented, enthusiastic, and ambitious member of Princeton’s great class of 2015. After a cross-country road trip and some time in France this summer, Pam moved to New York to begin her life as Uma—an “alternative electronic soul” singer ready to take the NYC music scene by storm. Uma’s first single, a cover of “Valerie” by Amy Winehouse, was released on Soundcloud in May. In early June, I did a phone interview* with Pam about her plans to turn her love for music and performing into a full career in the music industry.
Talya Nevins: How did you choose the name Uma?
Pam Soffer: It’s actually my middle name. It’s not legally my middle name on my birth certificate or anything, because my parents were kind enough to omit it officially, because then my initials would be PUS. So, it’s my unofficial middle name, but I like it because it feels like it has more weight. And it does. I like what it means. It comes from Indian traditions and Hindu traditions. I’m not Indian, but my mom, who is Colombian, has an Ayurvedic clinic. Ayurveda is this ancient Indian practice of healing where they use massage and herbs to help heal the body. I grew up doing that my whole life, so I had a lot of Indian / Hindu influence in my life. Some of it is bleeding into my music, which I didn’t realize.
TN: Doesn’t Indian music have an entirely different musical scale and time signature?
PS: Yeah, they have all this cool semi-tone stuff. A lot of singers will sing in between the notes that we’re used to hearing in Western music. They do lots of weird tonal stuff, but it’s cool.
TN: I learned that in one small parochial dialect in India, “Uma” means milk.
PS: That makes sense. I know that “Uma” is the name of the Parvati. It means mother, so milk, mother, that kind of makes sense. It also means bright, tranquility. I like it, and it’s also an interesting market symbol. People won’t know how to spell it.
TN: So what are your post-graduation plans?
PS: I’ve had this Uma project for a while now. I’ve had an internship for the past two years with a production company called Rock Mafia and they have been great mentors. I would stay out here in LA, seeing as my connections are here, but I really just want to be in New York, so I’m going to go to Brooklyn. I’ve already working with a few producers out there, just trying to get the ball moving in the New York scene. I’m releasing the rest of this E.P. hopefully in the next month, so I’m here trying to wrap that up and get started on some new stuff. [This conversation took place in mid-June. We still anticipate the release of E.P.] My audience is pretty much limited to Princeton right now, which is awesome, but still limited. I want to start reaching my fingers out into the world.
TN: You generally sing to live bands, right?
PS: Yes. At Princeton I had two projects going on. I was in a band called Cactus Karma, and that’s a more jazz-inspired funk soul band. All the people in my band are amazing musicians, and it’s been incredible to work with them. But I also have this other project [Uma] going on which I have stolen them for a little bit. I’ll steal Logan Roth, who’s our keyboardist, and Arjun Dube who’s our drummer, to come help me with my Uma gig. That’s been really great. But I haven’t gotten to solidify my band yet for Uma so I’m going to figure that out in New York. I might continue to play with Cactus Karma next year, because they’re all going to be East Coast, and we’re actually hoping to do a tour over [Princeton’s] fall break. I’m pretty sure— and I don’t know if this is public yet— but I’m pretty sure that we’re playing at lawn parties. I think we’ll be at Terrace, practically our second home.
TN: You say you’re funk, soul, Indian… do you have a description of your style?
PS: I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what that is. I say in Uma, I am going for an electronic soul vibe. That electronic influence is still with a strong acoustic bass, and very multi-genre influence, but centered on the soul aspect. Electronic soul is the best way to do it. Or alternative electronic soul. I feel like alternative works with any word, you can just throw it in there. Dark soul vibes, but also keeping it modern and evolving with the electronic part.
TN: Are you doing mostly covers, or are you writing music?
PS: Valerie is the only cover that I’m probably ever going to do. I shouldn’t say never, but for now. There are three other songs on this E.P. and they’re all originals, but I wanted to release [Valerie] while I was still at Princeton because that song has been weirdly present in my Princeton experience. It was my first solo as a freshman in Shere Khan, and I feel like I’ve had it through my whole process of figuring out who I am as a musician. I’d noticed that my rendition of it has changed, and I thought it was a cool way to pay homage to that. Having my own version of it is an interesting way, at least a personally interesting way, to launch my career because it has a lot of sentimental value to me, but has evolved as I have throughout my time at Princeton and throughout me figuring out who I am and what kind of music I want to be making and what I want to be doing with my life.
TN: Have you always wanted to be a musician?
PS: No, actually I used to want to be in the U.N. I was a total nerd in high school. I’ve been in choir as long as I can remember, and doing musicals I learned piano early and then guitar a little bit after that in high school. The songwriting was always a back-burner thing for me as more of a psychological cleansing. I think it was halfway through my time at Princeton; I was in Shere Khan and loving it, I had already decided to be a Psych major instead and I was studying abroad in London, and I brought my guitar with me instead of a second suitcase. I started playing all over the place, and I spent so much time writing. It was the first time in my life that I was able to sit down and be like, “wait, you have five hours to do whatever you want, and you have complete freedom to plan your life and choose to do the things that make you happy,” and I was like, “shit, if I do anything else with my life I’ll be unhappy.” So when I came back from my study abroad in London, I started to work on this E.P. and got that job at the songwriting production group. That was my wake-up moment. It’s always been present but I didn’t realize how forward it was in my life until pretty late in the game. Not too late hopefully.
TN: That was junior year?
PS: Yeah, junior year of college. Funnily enough, in choir [junior year of high school] we’d have coffee houses where I’d play originals and my choir teacher had me audition for this “get discovered!” thing out here in LA. I was chosen to go meet with the heads of Atlantic records and one of the guys there wanted me to start working with him, potentially with the intention of signing me later on, but I’d have to drop out of school. I love school and I love learning, and I wasn’t willing to give up my college experience. So I held off, and I’m so grateful for it because I feel like if I had pursued music then, it would not have been on my own terms. I want to be very actively involved in all the music I’m making, because I want it to mean something. I know it’s hard. You hear stories all the time about musicians you love and it’s like, “oh, but their manager invented their whole image and did all this and they’re not even real and they’ve had like eight plastic surgeries and don’t even look like that.” I really want my music to be authentic, because to really come from me because otherwise I don’t think it really means anything emotionally.
PS: That’s the “soul” part of electronic soul, to have your music make some kind of connection. It doesn’t have to be ‘50s soul that you’re thinking of. It just means that whatever you’re listening to elicits some kind of emotional reaction. That’s the beautiful thing about music, right? It’s a cathartic experience. You listen to a song and go through an entire emotional arc and come out feeling like you’ve somehow grown a little bit, which is so dope.
TN: Do you think that being at Princeton specifically has had any role in shaping your music or your attitude towards being a musician?
PS: Yeah, I think for a while I was kind of bitter about Princeton because I think there was a moment, towards the end of my sophomore year or somewhere halfway through Princeton, where I was like “shit, I’m here, I should’ve gone to USC and done a music degree. This is not the place for me to be.” Right when I went and studied abroad I realized how much Princeton had done for me, and I just needed a little bit of space. Especially [concentrating in] psychology really taught me how to look at people and look at myself in a more informed way. And to understand my emotional wellbeing and my relationships with other people at a much more subtle level, [which] I think has improved my songwriting a lot just because I think I’m in a place now where I can investigate emotional experiences in a more interesting way.
TN: I like what you said about the connection between psychology and songwriting. Everyone enjoys a song that they feel really gets them.
PS: Yeah, I always say to people who are cynical about songwriting that I think the most beautiful thing about it is that you can take a moment that doesn’t really mean anything, or that you might not think means anything at first, and then dissect it to the point where every gesture, every glance, every word, every utterance carries some weight, and you can take that one moment and expand it into a three-minute saga. Which is so cool! It helps you understand yourself so much better […] it lends a certain amount of clarity to your life, which is a huge relief, and something that I think we all search for in every moment of our day. We all find it in different ways of course, but music is a great way to get there. Even just as a listener.
TN: Do you feel like there are certain artists who really get you?
PS: Honestly I am all over the place. Right now I am super into Alabama Shakes. I saw them at Bonnaroo. I had listened to their stuff but I didn’t get them until I saw them live. The lead singer Brittany Howard is incredible. Her voice is this full-body instrument, and it’s glorious. I love her songwriting. It’s really simple, and she says exactly what she means without embedding her thoughts in complicated metaphors. It’s very straightforward, and because of that very powerful. I also think John Mayer does a really great job at that. But recently, at least Uma has been super inspired by lots of Frank Ocean, Fiona Apple—I love her angst, it’s so awesome. Lianne La Havas—I love her. She has a certain elegance to her songwriting as well; it’s still very relatable and straightforward but still sprinkled with subtleties that are just really beautiful.
TN: Well that’s when you feel like it’s actually deep, when people don’t need to disguise what they’re saying because it just rings true.
PS: 100%. I honestly think that’s so hard to do. At least, that’s what I’ve struggled with the most. I think all of us at Princeton read a lot in general and we’re so surrounded with this academic mindset, and to try to express things in a different way is a really great exercise but can also be really difficult. To try and be straightforward but with a certain amount of elegance is more difficult that I think I thought it would be. But I think I’m getting the hang of it. I do love singing, but it means a lot less if it doesn’t come from me. Obviously, Valerie is a direct contradiction to what I just said, but I’m attached to it in a different way.
TN: I don’t think it’s a contradiction, it seems like an emotional landmark for you, which is already making it your own. What do you think are the biggest challenges you’re facing? What are you most nervous about?
PS: I’m so nervous and so excited, but I think just the right amount of both. My biggest challenges have been that I don’t like playing by myself. There was a period of time where I got pandered as the singer-songwriter girl, and I love playing with people and I very much don’t want to do that. I’m not quite a good enough solo musician to stand on my own that way, and it’s been very hard to determine what kind of musicians I want to surround myself with for this project. Especially since it’s been taking place all over the country, I obviously can’t drag people around with me. Also my producer Curtis lives in LA so we’ve been doing a lot of long distance trying to work out music, which has been hard because when we’re in the same room it makes a lot more sense.
TN: Like any long distance relationship?
PS: Exactly. But now I’m out here, so it’s been a lot easier. It’s been hard to articulate, especially because I’m a total newbie at all this. I love it, but I don’t have all the lingo down yet. It’s all in my head but it’s hard to communicate sometimes. I’ve learned so much about studio etiquette, and how much harder it is to sing in a studio than live. It’s a weird dead room where you’re by yourself and you have to generate all of this emotional backing on your own, and when you have an audience there or other band members you can feed off them.
TN: Do you have any particular advice that you’ve gotten, advice that you would give, from other musicians, for other musicians, from other important people in your life that’s driven you?
PS: I feel like people always want to tell you what to do, and the one thing I get over and over again is “if you can imagine yourself doing anything else, do that other thing.” You just have to push until you can’t anymore. I was really terrified of that. Of course I can do other things, but if you’re a musician and it’s something that you can imagine pushing for without any reward for months and years, then that’s what you gotta do. And that’s how I feel. My boss, who’s a total rockstar, told me: “You’re a smart girl. You understand what it takes to make it in this business” and I’m like, “No. what are you talking about?” He said, “Everyone at a certain point is a good enough musician to make it. But 95% of the people who are in the industry, after five years of failing they stop. But it’s the people who push that extra six months who make it. If you keep pushing, and you use every connection you can and never feel embarrassed about exploiting a connection, you just have to be self-serving and push it as far as you can until you literally drop dead, you will make it.” And I was like “Well okay. Shit, but okay.” It takes a certain amount of willpower to be in an industry that has no immediate payout, and I’m pretty prepared to do that.
TN: Do you have a favorite song to sing in the shower?
PS: I’m going to give you this week’s favorite. Lianne La Hava, Elusive. I love her. I’m a huge Sara Bareilless fan, but it’s hard to pick a song. I’m going to go with Love on the Rocks. And one more. Do you know Vulfpeck? They came and played at Terrace a couple of times. They did this song with this guy called Wait For the Moment, and it’s so good.
TN: Anything else you want the world to know about Uma? Or Pam? Or both?
PS: Uma has been something I’ve been excited about for a really long time. Hopefully someone will listen to it and have a little more clarity. I’m excited to be a part of the world now officially and sing for people and talk to people and write more and experience more. I’ve been waiting a long time to dive into this, and now I finally can.
*This interview has been edited for clarity and length.