Kali Uchis: California Dreaming
It takes three bars of Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance With Somebody to get Kali Uchis hyped. Sat among flowers in photographer Molly Matalon’s LA apartment, Uchis looks like she’s been plucked right out of a painting. Her eyes are dark and shimmering, her hair is slicked, curled, and not an inch out of place. As she idly scrolls through a phone, the 23-year-old insists we find the right soundtrack before the cover shoot begins. Then that familiar synth line kicks in. Uchis’ manager starts singing and she flashes a smile. It’s go time.
As the night goes on, little dance parties break out all around the apartment. At one point Uchis climbs and straddles an old painter’s ladder as Janet Jackson’s Control blasts out of the nearby speaker. She’s laughing as she angles her stiletto-clad feet and steadies herself, but when the camera is on her, she’s all business. From up above, she bats her eyelashes and serves looks with the confidence of a 90s supermodel. Later she changes into a massive choker and strikes a pose as Madonna’s Material Girl starts playing. “I feel attacked,” she deadpans as everyone erupts in laughter.
It comes as no surprise that Kali Uchis’ pump-up playlist is a stream of beltable songs by iconic women. Uchis is becoming somewhat iconic in her own right, with her bold style, brassy spirit, and unmistakably rich voice. To her fans worldwide, Uchis is also a vital role model – a strong Colombian woman who’s proud of her culture and her sexuality. Her songs are often self-sustaining anthems of empowerment, elegant vignettes about striking out on your own and knowing your worth and not needing a man. In her music videos, Uchis plays motorbike-riding hustlers, power suit-wearing newscasters, and the kind of women who shove the guy who wronged them in the trunk of their car. In the promo photos for her first EP, she posed in the desert wearing all white, a suitcase in one hand and a rifle in the other.
“I like to reinvent myself,” Uchis tells me, puffing on a spliff in the kitchen after the shoot. She’s bundled in a floor-length puffer jacket and wearing pink-hued sunglasses. Nowadays, Uchis’ look falls somewhere between retro-future, California pin-up, Valley of the Dolls glam, and Sade. “I just like to have fun and express myself through the physical, regardless of what it is.”
Kali Uchis (born Karly Loaiza) may be the queen of reinvention, but she’s been an artist for as long as she can remember. She was born and raised in Virginia alongside three brothers. Her parents are both immigrants, who fled their home country in the early 90s to escape the escalating violence and political unrest caused by a decades-long war between the Colombian government and the far-left guerilla group known as FARC. Uchis says she spent much of her childhood travelling back and forth to South America to visit family, and she still considers Colombia home. As a kid, she loved books and at one point aspired to work in a library and read to children. “I also wanted to join the circus,” she laughs, “just so I could infiltrate and set all the animals free. That was going to be my life’s work.”
As she got older, Uchis started writing poetry and short stories. In her teens she played piano and joined her high school jazz band. “Making things made me feel really close to myself and close to God,” she says. “Growing up, it gave me a really strong sense of power. It was never about being a singer or a star or anything. I just always felt like I had to make something, I had to create something and put it out there to make myself feel alive.”
In spite of her creative spirit, Uchis struggled in school. She’d skip classes to work on her photography and often butt heads with authority figures. “I believe in education, but I don’t believe that the way schools do it is for everybody,” she tells me. “In high school I just felt like nobody could teach me art, nobody could teach me how to be a creative person.” Intent on getting her GED certificate – the minimum requirement for graduating high school in the US – and getting out of there, Uchis took a job at a grocery store and sold clothes to make extra cash. At 17, she was kicked out of her family’s house following an argument with her dad. Headstrong, she vowed to make it work. During the day Uchis would go to school. At night she’d crash at friends’ houses or sleep in her car.
To this day, she says she credits her father with helping her find an artistic purpose. “My dad is the hardest worker I know,” she says. “He had a fourth grade education and still managed to come to America, do all his own shit, and take care of everyone in our family. Even though he works hard everyday, he does things that make him happy. I really sympathise with people who haven’t found that thing, that purpose. Your purpose doesn’t have to be about your career, but there’s no point to living life if you’re not doing anything that makes you happy. It really gives you greater insight into why people are miserable or angry or insecure.”
After high school, Uchis released 2012’s Drunken Babble mixtape – a laidback and woozy mix of RnB and hip-hop that found Uchis speak-rapping on many of the tracks. She co-directed the 2013 video for What They Say, a moody homage to West Coast lowrider culture that features the singer and her two friends stealing a guy’s car, riding around Los Angeles and smoking weed. A few months after the video dropped, Snoop Dogg reached out to propose they collaborate. The result, On Edge, ended up on Snoop’s 2014 mixtape, That’s My Work, Vol. 3, and introduced Uchis to a whole new world of listeners. She began working with Tyler, the Creator, who called called on Uchis to sing on his 2015 album Cherry Bomb. The two have remained close friends and collaborators ever since: Uchis is featured on his 2017 LP Flower Boy, while Tyler contributed a verse to the single After the Storm from her debut album Isolation.
“Embrace who you are. Your heart and your soul are not defined by stereotypes or expectations”
2015’s Por Vida EP was filled with the themes that have become Kali’s calling card: coy, take-no-bullshit lines about self-discovery and self-empowerment. And the lyrics on Isolation are some of the most regenerative and uplifting she’s written. On After the Storm Uchis coos a heartfelt message of self-love: “If you need a hero/ Just look in the mirror/ No one’s gonna save you now/ So you better save yourself.”
“I think we live in a world that profits and thrives off of our insecurities and self-doubt,” she tells me. “So to truly love yourself in this world that’s constantly telling you not to, telling you that you’re not good enough, is so important.” In a lot of ways, this is the message at the heart of Isolation: that true love, and true happiness, can only come from within. “I think being viewed as alone or isolated is too often conceived as negative,” Uchis says. “Isolation to me means giving yourself the space emotionally and mentally to heal, grow, create, reinvent, tap into your intuitive senses and your truest self.”
Isolation is a masterclass in contemporary soul music. It credits the likes of Thundercat, Damon Albarn, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker and the Dap-Kings, while vocal contributors include reggaeton superstar Reykon, The Internet’s Steve Lacy, ascendant British artist Jorja Smith and Bootsy Collins. “It was very humbling,” she says of working with the funk legend. “We were in his house and there were photos everywhere of all these iconic moments in American culture. It was like, ‘Oh shit, that looks fucking crazy, and I wasn’t even born then.’ He’s a timeless classic soul, and if I had been that age back then, I feel like we still would have worked together.”
Still, Uchis is hesitant to talk too much about her famous friends, or her rising profile. She tells me she used to struggle with the idea of being a public figure, but she’s slowly learning how to not think about it. “I feel like I had to go through an adjustment period,” she explains. “I’m a very passionate person and I also have a very bad temper. I used to try and fight with everybody. If I felt like someone stole something from me or made me out to be something that I wasn’t, I’d be like, ‘Oh, fuck that person.’ And then you kind of just get used to the fact that everybody has their opinions. It’s like, you could be the ripest peach and there’s still gonna be people who don’t like peaches, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Uchis goes on to tell me candidly that mental illness runs in her family, and that she’s struggled with depression herself. She says that up until recently, her family didn’t really understand what she was doing with her life, but ever since her 2017 duet with popular Colombian artist Juanes, they’ve been very supportive. In the last few months, she’s also dealt with her fair share of online haters.
“Being Latinx, being proud of your roots and where you come from, is something that no one can take away from you no matter how hard they try,” she says. “I like to know everyday that I am making my ancestors proud and that they are guiding and protecting me. It will always be a part of [me]. It’s important to remember that being Latinx comes in every colour, shape, and personality. So embrace who you are. Your heart and your soul are not defined by stereotypes or expectations.”
Rather than dwelling on the negative, Uchis says she’s finally gotten to a point in her life where she feels like she’s choosing to focus on the positive – on creating art and having fun “before everything goes to shit.”
“I feel like I went through a long time where it was really hard for me to be happy,” she says. “I feel like as I’ve gotten older I learned how to navigate it better and control it better and filter everything in a way where I know what to do with it, and I feel like I’m in a place now where I feel the most womanly I’ve ever felt, and the most powerful I’ve ever felt.”
As evening turns to night in our makeshift photo studio and Uchis and her makeup artist sing along to a steady stream of karaoke hits, it’s hard not to believe her. Tomorrow she’ll fly to Paris to continue the endless stream of promotion for Isolation, then to Colombia to be with her family before the record drops. The idea of keeping normal work hours or a healthy sleep schedule in the coming months isn’t really an option. But in this moment, she doesn’t seem to mind much. “So many people are blinded by what’s going on right here and right now, and the reality is the best part of your life probably hasn’t even happened yet,” she tells me. “Constantly reminding myself of that finally got me to a place where, you know, I don’t feel good all the time, but I’ve learned to choose happiness.”
Photography: Molly Matalon
Styling: Ashley Guerzon
Isolation is released 6 April via Virgin EMI
Kali Uchis plays Lovebox Festival, London, 13-14 July