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Kali Uchis

How Kali Uchis crafted her singular cinematic vision

The Colombian-born musician on refusing to compromise and saying no to ‘boring’ love songs on her debut LP, Isolation

Kali Uchis pauses for a long time. Apart from the hum of the galley in the east London hotel where we’re on second helpings of breakfast, the only noise is her long nails scrolling rapidly across her phone. At first, I think she's taking a moment to carefully consider her answer to a question, as she frequently does – but then she suddenly slides the screen toward me and taps it, a triumphant grin on her face: “this is you, you look like her!” The photo of Lizzy Caplan – not in the Mean Girls Janis Ian phase, though – is one of just several pop culture references that pops up throughout our kinetic, bunny-hopping conversation.

Kali’s debut album Isolation, released this month, is a vivid fever dream that oscillates from bedroom pop to reggaeton, lo-fi, and slick funk. The 24-year-old explores her multi-national trajectory across the songs (her adolescence was spent in Colombia via Virginia with spells living in her car; she’s now in LA when she’s not touring the world). Its politics are deeply personal, too – her ocean-deep alto on “Miami’ unpicks the hollow American dream; “Your Teeth on My Neck” is a bold-faced confrontation of industry succubi, and “After the Storm” is a blossoming ode to inner strength. The storytelling is cinematic, like a surrealist, kitsch telenovela made by the Love Witch’s Anna Biller. In her masterful music videos, she’s unafraid to be sad and vulnerable, hopeful and supremely confident, and ultimately herself.

Her lovingly crafted aesthetic – combining the influence of classic jazz women, her Colombian roots, and peak Edie Sedgwick with Faster Pussycat! Kill, Kill! vibes – has been a journey, from when she first caught ears with her high school era mixtape Drunken Babble in 2012. When we chat, a video of Kali is popping off on the Twitter TL, showing her rounding the corner of a fan-dedicated album release party in a white limo – she hands out cupcakes and merch from the car roof. “I’d never been in a limo before, I never went to prom or had a quinceanera,” she laughs, “this was my moment!”

As Kali’s moment continues to reach stratospheric heights, we talk about being a Cancer, her empathic songwriting, and her dreams of directing movies.

The narrative of Isolation is so expansive, I suppose because the timeline of making this record is across some really formative years, teens to 20s.

Kali Uchis: I went through so many different things, and been at so many different stages. There's heartbreak, there's finding love, there's finding yourself, falling apart, getting it together. Some really deep elements of my life are on here. But I can write a song in like,10 minutes, and record them really fast – my best songs are ones I don’t have to struggle with.

I know that you’re a Cancer sign – this whole album is a real Cancer mood, like, really emotionally intuitive.

Kali Uchis: Yeah! Definitely, I’m so in tune with it. You know, my sun and my moon signs are mostly Cancer – it’s really strong. We’re deeply intuitive and sentimental. I really like to take care of people, nurturing them. I’m very passionate about the things I do and like to see people I love grow.

It’s multi-layered too – you’re never going to get a straight up love song from Kali.

Kali Uchis:
I find that love songs can be a bit boring, and a lot of the time people expect a female singer to be singing about love or sex. Another part of being a Cancer is I have a lot of maternal instincts, I’m really interested in the needs of the soul with my music. I also have a lot of masculine energy – I always joke with my dad and my brother that, because my dad and my brother's name is Josquin, that I’m J number three. I really try to balance my feminine and masculine energy when I write.

“I really try to balance my feminine and masculine energy when I write” – Kali Uchis

How did you curate your collaborators?

Kali Uchis: The album is a very strong blend of new school and old school: Bootsy Collins, Damon Albarn, and then Thundercat, Bootsy Collins, and Tame Impala who for me are the new school’s Gorillaz. Steve Lacy and Jorja Smith are these super young, talented little babies I know are gonna be legends. Working with Tyler (the Creator) is so fun because we’re both driven to not restrict ourselves and be free with what we make. I only worked with people that I really love and respect, which makes it fun. For the next one I’d be excited to try a new creative process and work with one person on the whole thing.

Have you ever been pushed to compromise your vision?

Kali Uchis: People have tried to make me, but at the end of the day, my response is always like, ‘this is my song, my video. I was one of those people at one point who was scared to put my foot down and show where the boundaries were. For me, it’s really important to stand your ground and know exactly what you are, where you wanna be, and what you're doing or else people are gonna try you.

What do you make of how Spanish-speaking tracks have been topping the global charts?

Kali Uchis: It’s really natural for me to write bilingually. I would love to have more songs that were all fully in Spanish. I have already started – “Tyrant” has a full Spanish version. I want to give all of my songs a Spanish version, just because I can.

I think it’s about time that Spanish-speaking music dominates because it’s such an important language on the planet. I can remember being really little and coming out of school in Colombia and always hearing American music outside, in people’s cars. It’s their time. It’s important that Latino artists who’ve been overlooked for so long, because of the fact that they don’t make music in English, get the credit they deserve and not just people who are trying to capitalise on the language and the trend.

Your visual aesthetic is so good – but do you recall any of your not-so-great fashion moments?

Kali Uchis: When I look back at it, I hate when I had blonde hair. My eyebrows... I never bleached my eyebrows so they were always dark while my hair was platinum. I just feel that I've come into my own with finally having my natural colour. Oh my god, I hate my oldest pictures when I was really young, but I think everyone hates looking back on pictures of themselves from four years ago. Like, what the fuck was I thinking?

Have you bought anything really cool recently?

Kali Uchis: These vintage Dior heels, they were a steal. Same as with my sound, I like to experiment with my style and use it as an extension of myself. Like I said, I’m really intuitive . Show your moods, your thoughts, your actions. I try to make myself and people around me feel good, I try to make sure that I smell good. I don't have to be super glam all the time, but I love wearing colours that are going to make people around me feel good. I like to wear patterns that are going to make people brighten up. How I feel is going to show through in what I'm wearing. 

“I think it’s about time that Spanish-speaking music dominates” – Kali Uchis

How do you establish the facets of your identity in your music?

Kali Uchis: I think I have just always been really proud of who I am and where I come from. Home is really important to me. It was a difficult transition period for my parents seeing me make this career move – my dad comes from the street, he was homeless, fighting for himself, and to get away to America with his family. Education was so important to him, and he wanted me on the straight path that I just wouldn’t take. It’s cool for them now though, I think having the number one song in Colombia was a moment of recognition. I’m such a homebody too – I never want to lose that or become washed out by LA. I actually want to leave, but I don't know where to move next.

Back to Colombia?

Kali Uchis: I kinda want to go to Paris. Yeah, I’m not ready to go back to Colombia yet, that would be a big move for me and I would have to be really comfortable with the place I was in my career. 

Are you tapped into the music scene there?

Kali Uchis: The scene is way more extensive than people probably think it is. When people think about Latin America they just hear reggaeton, but the punk scene is really alive, reggae too. There are kids making different and experimental music there. I’ve been working with these guys called the Rude Boys and they’re so talented.

What would you be doing if it wasn’t music?

Kali Uchis: I wanna expand into making films and TV shows, maybe doing creative direction. I really like movies about drug lords, crime, with a strong female lead. I love the movie Gia. I feel like I can just really relate to characters that are really dysfunctional. Making a movie is just such a dream of mine.

I wanna found organisations that could help the world. Shit, I’ve so many causes close to my heart – personally, I really care for hurt or disadvantaged children, the LGBT community, and animals. The direction the world is going in right now, it’s so important not to be desensitised by everything and let yourself be hurt by seeing other people hurting.

What issues do you see in the music industry?

Kali Uchis: I wish that more people made music that they actually liked instead of making music that they think is going to sell, and made music that was actually about something. It has the potential to change the world, provide free thinkers and that empathy. I think musicians have to challenge themselves in order to do that. and be willing to maybe not make money for a second. Music that’s popular right now can be distraction music, zombie music, repetitive and monotonous. I think that if you could really change people’s lives or ways of thinking with music, why wouldn’t you?