Kali Uchis

This story was originally published in BRICK Edition 05.
 
Words by Ashleigh Kane
Photography by Hayley Louisa Brown
Fashion by Kyanisha Morgan

Make Up by Jaime E Diaz
Hair by Cathy Ennis
Nails by Rebecca Jade Wilson at The Wall Group

 

Kali Uchis is dressed in a powder pink feather headdress and a sheer gown of the same shade. She shakes my hand politely before she’s bustled into the kitchen which doubles as the shoot’s changing room. Re-emerging moments later in two-toned trousers, she pulls on a black hoodie as we bundle into the back of a van that’s on route to her hotel in Soho. Uchis landed in London the day before and she's already been on set for six hours and clocked up a total of seven outfit changes. “I’m not a napper,” she says as she turns her body, and attention, towards me. She looks like she’s had a full forty winks – with immaculate make-up in tact. Uchis kicks her sneakers off and rests her feet on the seat in front of us. “I’m so jealous of people who can fall asleep out of nowhere. I have to tape my eyes closed, lay there, and I’m still not asleep.” For a singer whose sound is often described as dreamy, it surprising that Kali feels short-changed when counting sheep. But, I quickly learn, there’s no time to rest – Kali’s reality now outlives her dreams.

 

Born Karly-Marina Loaiza on 17 July 1993, Uchis spent the first seven years of her life tripping back and forth between Colombia and Virginia. Eventually her family settled in the latter where Uchis would remain until she was 19, although she makes it clear that she’s not choosing between the two. “People can belong to multiple places”, she says, “we’re multi-dimensional beings; we can belong to wherever we want to. If our heart is there, our heart is there. Colombia is definitely where my heart is, where my home is. It feels just as much like home as VA does.”

 

Reflecting on her childhood, Uchis describes her mother as someone who “had a lot of jobs” and her father as “an entrepreneur”, and I quickly gauge where she garnered her hardworking nature. “My parents did anything they had to do to keep food on the table, so it wasn’t a creative household at all,” she recalls. “When I saw my parents, it was to eat a meal every once in a while together, but they were very-much working people.” This meant Uchis tapped into her creativity on her own terms – not that she believes it’s something that can be taught. “When you have it, you have it. And when you pursue it, or feel strongly about it – when you feel in your heart that you are given a distinct vision – then that’s what it is.”

 

From as young as she can remember, Uchis was drawing, making videos, writing poetry and stories. “I won a lot of poetry competitions as a kid. I still have some of them – they’re really dark!” she laughs. “There’s one dramatic poem called ‘Another Person’, and it talks about that feeling when you look at a younger version of yourself and you don’t see the same person. I was like, ‘what the fuck! You were looking at a picture of yourself when you were three and writing this?’ But I guess I was already feeling detached from my body, and that’s always how I felt growing up. My body felt like a physical space, but it didn’t feel connected with my inner. I guess that’s where the need to be creative comes from; from wanting to bring, into the physical realm, all the things that are going on inside.”

 

At elementary school, Uchis studied saxophone and piano and joined the school jazz band, but says that when she started highschool, “I was like ‘fuck rehearsals and fuck being in a band’ and started to rebel.” She fell out with her family and began living in her car – an experience she sings about on the track “Killer”. “It sounds a lot more dramatic to people when they think you were a homeless teenager but it didn’t really feel like that. I wasn’t upset at my parents or the situation. I liked the freedom of doing whatever the fuck I wanted to do. It pushed me,” she recalls. “I’m so proud of how far I’ve come, and my family is now really proud of me. It’s just scary for them because they love me and they don’t want me to be out here on my ass, and what I do is a huge risk. But life is about risks and if you don’t take risks there’s no point in living. We weren’t put on this earth to live boring, mundane, mediocre lives.”

Alongside a job at a grocery store, Uchis hustled selling clothes, doing cover art, and making videos for local musicians. After buying a laptop and a $50 microphone, she began releasing her own tracks online. Her first performance hardly went to plan, however. Taking place under at a little Mexican restaurant located off the freeway in Virginia, she remembers how the mic failed to work. Naturally, Uchis shook it off and shut down any naysayers with the release of her debut mixtape DRUNKEN BABBLE in August 2012. “I probably made the majority of the songs on the night that I released it,” she recalls. “I only had a couple of tracks, but I wanted it to be 17 songs so I thought ‘lemme just make a bunch more songs right now.’”

 

Despite having “no operative or motive”, DRUNKEN BABBLE gained the attention of Tyler, the Creator and Snoop Dogg. Snoop collaborated with Uchis on the 2014 song “On Edge” and Tyler became a constant in her creative orbit. He produced two tracks (“Call Me” and “Speed”) for Uchis’ POR VIDA – the artist’s debut EP released in February, 2015, which Diplo, BadBadNotGood, and Kaytranada also lent themselves to. Tyler then invited Uchis into his world and featured her on “Fucking Young/Perfect”, as well as last year’s “See You Again” from his fourth studio album FLOWER BOY. “It’s like I’m working with myself in a man form, that can actually produce,” laughs Uchis. “Our head spaces are in the same world, so it’s like bouncing back ideas with yourself.” And while their latest joint offering was the track “After The Storm”, which also featured funk legend Bootsy Collins, Uchis hints that there’s still a lot more to come from the duo. “We’ve made so much music together that’s unreleased, and we love our songs. We’ve never been in a situation where we’ve had a creative difference, so that’s definitely a special connection to have with somebody – your musical soulmate.”

In summer 2017 Uchis collaborated with Gorillaz on a song called “She’s My Collar”, which appeared on the animated band’s all star album HUMANZ. She also enlisted British singer-songwriter Jorja Smith for her own track “Tyrant”, and lent her vocals to Daniel Caesar’s “Get You”. After wrapping a tour supporting Lana del Rey – who Uchis said showed her that you can find success “in a lane that isn’t necessary mainstream” – she’s now riding her own wave, having just released her debut studio album, ISOLATION.

 

Asking her, pre-release, what the album is about, Uchis says, “all the songs are really different. They all have their own worlds and their own messages and their own everything... they’re just on their own.” Listeners are led between the singer’s different sides, never quite knowing which will pop up next as Uchis takes on a range of genres head on – from pop to bossa nova, reggaeton, funk, dancehall and soul. She’s sweet, sassy, sultry, and scorned, all in the space of 15 tracks that share credits amongst Damon Albarn, Tyler, the Creator, Steve Lacy, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, and Thundercat. A songwriter who claims her best songs were all penned in ten minutes, Uchis explains, “I like to write quickly. It shouldn’t be forced – you know? My best music just flows out of me like crying. You don’t think about how the water is going to fall out of your eyes, whether it’s going to get your makeup runny or whether it’s going to mess up your shirt; you just cry. That’s what making music is like for me… I don’t want to think about all of that other stuff.” After a pause, she bursts out laughing – “I just thought of that right now!” But she says she does try to block out opinions, whether they’re good or bad. “The more I think about the general public and their response, I feel like the music becomes less of art.” She sighs, “Sometimes I just miss the feeling – and I know I’ll probably never get it back – but I try to imagine and fantasise that no one is going to hear it.”

As ISOLATION racks up nothing short of four and five star reviews across the board, fans are elated, and Uchis has clearly come into her own as a star. But for her, it’s just another brick in the road. “I want to take a moment to celebrate myself, but ultimately I just want to keep taking my artistry to the next level. I really want to impress myself and push myself to create a project that makes me feel fulfilled.” As the car pulls up to her hotel I ask whether she feels that she’s achieved that in some way with ISOLATION? “This album feels like a stepping stone, definitely. I’m trying to build my stepping stones into an album that I feel is going to be my ultimate contribution – something that I could die happily to. But then”, she pauses pensively, “if I make that album, it might just be time to die – because what would there be to do next?”

 

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