Kali Uchis has always been an outsider

Since the very beginning, Kali Uchis has done everything her way. For the cover story of Notion 79, we stepped into her world to hear more about her journey as an artist, the making of Isolation and why she's just fine making her way exactly as she does.

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When I think of Kali Uchis, I think of the bath of kaleidoscopic flowers she lays in during the video for ‘Rush’ or the fuzzy pink glow that blankets the visuals for ‘Loner’. I think of balmy nights, 70s hot pants and roller skates, riding through a desert highway in an open-roofed car, feather boas and heavy sunglasses hiding heavy eyelashes. I think of empty motels and the light of the cigarette machine in a roadside bar in a place that exists somewhere between Colombia and LA. It’s an imagined state with no specific date or language. It’s a realm where women’s autonomy isn’t questioned even when they’re dressed in 50s babydoll dresses and white suspenders because dressing is an empowering act, not one for the benefit of men. It’s a place where there’s strength in tenderness and sensuality, but also power in fierceness and confidence.

Since she began making it, Kali’s crafted a world that exists entirely for her music, one that fuses together these elements without the conflict that exists in real life. If Barthes were alive, he’d certainly call her a myth. Yet it’s reality and testament to her artistic vision and her determination that in a few short years she’s a defined a brand and a sound that’s both definitively her and yet able to consistently evolve, like her ever-expanding network of collaborators which include Tyler, The Creator, Bootsy Collins, Vince Staples, Gorillaz, Steve Lacy and Jorja Smith. Her music has gone global, taking her all over the world, her style has made her an icon, and her mellifluous collaborative projects have earned multiple Grammy nominations. Her charm gravitates people to her and incites fans to want to be part of her cosmos. In some way, I think it’s where Kali Uchis would prefer to exist too.


Born Karly Loaiza in North Virginia to Colombian parents, she spent her childhood going back and forth to her family’s home in Pereira, Colombia. The daughter of immigrant parents, she knew the value of hard work and perseverance and pursued disciplines such as saxophone and piano. As a teenager Kali began producing music with her first laptop and shooting artwork for her friends’ mixtapes, later combining the two on her own projects. She dreamed of a life more significant than that in her small town and wasn’t afraid to seek more than what was given to her. Her own music came to light when living in her car having been thrown out by her father, she made her first mixtape Drunken Babble and released it online via DatPiff.com.

At home, the mixtape didn’t make an impact. Rather, she was teased by her narrow-minded colleagues at the grocery store who mocked her for her difference. But elsewhere, it caught the attention of listeners Snoop Dogg and Tyler, The Creator and launched her fully into the fore of public consciousness. In the following years, she’s built up a repertoire of cult hits, prolific singles and a back catalogue of dreamy supporting visuals, while broadening her audience with a series of Spanish releases, even teaming up with award-winning Colombian artist Juanes.

As I go to meet her on a snowy day in London before her headline Brixton show, it strikes me how strange it feels, almost paradoxical for her to play a city like ours – her sun-kissed sounds thawing out the icy streets. When I’d leave the venue that night, I’d notice how the snow had all but melted. Backstage she’s exhausted, having just completed a leg supporting Lana Del Rey on tour, but later on, she brings the fire to a packed crowd. Throughout our conversation, I discover more about an artist who is fiercely ambitious, creative and resilient. She’s unperturbed by fame, instead driven to create music that stands the test of time. The music industry jades her and in some ways she lives like an outsider, but it’s from this lack of belonging she constructs a space to call her own.

Phie McKenzie: How do you know when choosing a song of yours that will be a single that is has that Kali Uchis magic?
Kali Uchis: I think I guess sometimes when you hear a song it’s hard because as an artist you don’t ever think something is good enough but at the same time, I think when you can step away from it and come back to it, and you still like it, I think that’s when you know when you know a song can always be revisited. Sometimes I make a song and I’ll be like ‘oh this is really cool’ when I’m actually making it, and then when I go back to it later I’m like ‘hmmm, it’s still good, but it doesn’t hit me as strong as it did when it was new in my mind.’ Other songs, I can revisit them and be like ‘this is still as fresh to me as when I first heard it’ and I think those are the kind of songs I want to make, try to work towards making music that feels like it doesn’t expire, you know?

You want to have a timeless quality for sure, like the artists that influenced you.
I love No Doubt, Kelis, Sade, Jeanette, Astrud Gilberto. I just like singers that have a strong sense of their own tone and their own voice. I like people that sound unique and that as soon as  you hear the voice like Shakira – as soon as you hear one of her songs you know it’s Shakira – I don’t like when you hear a song and it’s like ‘who is this?’

As an artist, you have collaborated with many others. What makes a great collaborative partner?
I guess you never really know until you try it, coz you never know what the energy is like until you get in the studio with somebody.

Have you had instances when you thought you were going to gel with someone and you haven’t?
There were definitely instances where you know, I got the opportunity to work with people who I really looked up to when I was growing up and stuff. When I went to work with the person it was kind of disappointing.

In what way did you find it disappointing?
People make music for different reasons. Some people, unfortunately, have been doing this for so long that they lost a little bit of why they actually started and so people just do it for money or [to] be working with the new act but don’t actually want to make good music. I think a big part of making music for me is the creative process, being very organic and natural. I just don’t ever get in the studio thinking like ‘I want to make a hit’. I just never try to force those type of things or make music just to ‘get it over with.’ I don’t like that kind of stuff.

It’s been nice seeing you grow as an artist over the years. What part of your career did you feel you were on the right path of where you wanted to be?
I feel I’ve always believed in myself more than everyone in my life did, and so a lot of people thought that when I started making music that it was going to be something cute online for a second, that was going to go away or something. I think a lot of people are probably surprised I’m still here, and people are still talking about me.

A lot of people didn’t give me the time of day you know. I heard like, ‘internet girl’, and you know I come from nowhere, and my family is nobody, and I didn’t know anybody. So, the only place to start was online because there was no other way for people to know me. I didn’t come from a big city, and I didn’t know people. I didn’t start out signed to a label or with a producer or with my daddy helping me, I had me and my microphone and my laptop and my wifi connection (laughs). There was no other way to promote myself, to get people to write about me or to create opportunities for myself. I don’t think there’s shame in starting out on your own, especially when you come from nowhere. Not everybody has it so fucking easy that they get to be born in Los Angeles with fucking daddy that already has 9 Grammys and a recording studio in their house. I feel like when I first started a lot of people kind of wrote me off for a long time. People still write me off I guess, it’s a little less once you’ve been around for a little longer.

Every time I put something out, it gets bigger. Every time I do a show, it’s a bigger room, it’s always selling out. Everything I’m doing is consistently on a trajection [sic] that is expanding. I think as an artist that is all you can really hope for, not necessarily overnight success but constantly be better than the year before and be pushing yourself as an artist, pushing yourself creatively. Try new things, and that’s all I’ve been really doing, trying and making sure I’m never in a comfort zone.

Going back to what you said before – you struggle sometimes believing your work is good enough. Is it something you’ve had to overcome in yourself?
I know other people who go through it too as a creative, so I think it’s actually kind of common but at the same time, I feel like sometimes even though [you think] it’s not good enough, you have to keep rolling with it as it’s all about momentum too. Things strike you, and you have you get them out of you. You have to keep the creative juices flowing by not living in yourself or blocking your blessings by standing in your own way when it comes to perfectionism.

Are you a perfectionist?
Yeah. I could revisit a song literally a million times and not be done with it. When I write a song, I write super quick. I’ll write songs in ten minutes, and I’ll be like ‘that’s a song’ but when it comes to the production, I’ll be like the song is good, now I need to change this and this and this with the production. Then I’ll be building a million different versions of the song. You know, songs can sound a million different ways it’s so crazy, you can make a little change to a song, and it sounds so different. You start to get kind of obsessed with that.

How do you feel about having your debut album, Isolation, finally out in the world?
I’m excited to get it out. You work on something for so long; you just want to go on to the next part of your life. I’ve already started working on my second album and in order to, I guess, keep things rolling you have to release stuff (laughs). I could stay working on this album for the rest of my life and keep adding songs to it. I made a song a few of weeks ago that I just added to it. I’m always making stuff and always trying to make things, adapt them. [I] feel like you have to finally say enough is enough.

I read in your The Fader interview that you tend to visualise a project before you start working on it. How did you visualise this as a body of work?
For this album, I feel like it was a growing thing because I really moved around making it and worked with so many different people in so many different countries and the songs are all tied together by the simple fact that it’s me. Not by the fact they are similar in concept or genre, so it was less conceptual. It’s like finding a diary with all the pages ripped out all over the room. I’m doing it real different on the album I’m working on now, but that probably won’t come out for another ten years (laughs). I like trying different processes, more so just letting each song take a form of its own, a universe all of its own.

You said your album was made in different places with different people, if this album was a movie scene, or a still from a video, how would you describe that scene?
All the songs are really different; it’s kind of difficult. For me, when I close my eyes and listen to the album, each song takes me somewhere visually, but they all go different places. It’s more of a journey than it is one scene.

Which of the tracks are particularly special to you?
‘After the Storm’ was one of my favourite songs off the record, I also really love the intro to the project.

For me, that song personifies the feelings of butterflies in my stomach.
You know, what I really like is listening to the project while I’m outside, going for a walk, or when the sun is setting, it’s really beautiful, especially that song. That’s a riding your bike on the beach moment or something.

Does it annoy you – music journalists, labels – always asking for an album? Is an album important to you?
I think albums are important because they’re creative bodies of work that people don’t value as much as they used to. Like I remember when I was younger I used to go to CD stores to look at all the different projects. Sometimes it’s nice to see, collectively, this is the headspace at this part of this person’s life, these are the things they came up with. It’s not so much the label or A&R people, you know. What’s frustrating is the fans when they ask for the album so much. I know it’s because they are excited to get an album but it’s like damn, I still been giving y’all shit. I did a lot of collaborations that went really big this year, they all were nominated for Grammys. Like the Gorillaz shit, Juanes in the Latin world, Tyler [the Creator], Daniel Caesar as a newcomer – I did a lot of features that went really big this year. I did a lot of singles. ‘Tyrant’ with Jorja [Smith], I just put out ‘After the Storm’ with Tyler. It’s not like I’ve been sitting here twiddling my thumbs, I’ve been putting things out, still been doing shit. It’s like ‘chill, take it one day at a time, take what I give you.’

There’s a lot of hard work and effort that goes into all my visuals. I’ve released two videos. I think maybe they don’t understand that the things that are coming out right now, is the album. It’s like I’m dropping the album in pieces. It’s like I’m not going to give you the whole… fruit platter if I can just drop little pieces to keep you just walking and picking them up one at a time until you get to the big dinner at the end of the trail if that makes sense. Even then it’s not really an ending. I have to give it eventually but it’s not where I’m at right now.

You didn’t have the easiest start, especially in your teenage years. How did those experiences shape who you are?
I have a lot of pride in where I come from because I feel that it’s an accomplishment in itself to be able to be doing something that I love and being able to feed myself and even take care of other people and employ other people off my work and my talents. That is something where I come from is unheard of, you know. You grow up and it’s not so heard of to think that you actually maybe don’t have to follow a certain life path in order to be happy, not necessarily be happy but to make money. I think a lot of people settle for mundane mediocre lives that don’t make them happy because they were told it [would] secure their comfort and that’s a very sad way to live because at the end of the day we didn’t come to earth to play it safe you know?

When I started making music, I was working at the grocery store. Everyone looks at you like what the fuck are you doing? They were all gossiping about me and making fun of me. Instead of being like that’s nice you’re pursuing something that you like to do, it’s like ‘so why aren’t you going to college? How do your parents feel that you’re not going to go to school anymore?’ I don’t expect anyone in my life to be supportive of me, from my family to my friends, I don’t expect anything from anybody, but I guess I was shocked, looking back. I was a little bit surprised at how much I learned. It brought out the worst in people.

You put out a tweet recently which said: ‘I dunno ab u guys, but I’m gonna let these blessings roll into my life & no longer let myself feel unworthy of good things.’ Why have you felt unworthy about the success that you have had?
I think a lot of us were raised in self-doubt. Unfortunately, if we want to be happy, healthy human beings we have to unlearn doubt and unlearn the ‘sit up straight’ ‘why are you doing that?’ Especially as a female, coming where I come from, they are very harsh, and they place a lot of expectation on [you]. The music industry, society in general places so much expectation on women. I remember when I went to go do my first interview on TV in Colombia, all these people are like ‘why is she slouching?’ I’ll be wearing sunglasses and they’re like ‘that’s so disrespectful’. It’s like you guys wouldn’t be saying that to a male artist who wears sunglasses in almost all of his music videos. Maybe I’m tired; maybe I’ve been doing twelve other interviews that day. I always see people nagging and picking on girls, not to always make it a gender thing as guys go through shit too, obviously everybody goes through shit. I just feel like I can’t be bothered to fulfil people’s expectation of me. I don’t feel any of us should – man or women. We shouldn’t subside to be being likeable or everything people want us to be to make people feel good about themselves or whatever.

As your profile has risen so has your level of fame, but I don’t see you as an artist that is wanting of that celebrity kind of fame.
I think I like to show people the parts of my life that I want them to see, like most people. I don’t think anyone is powerful enough to take anything away from me but I do believe in the evil eye, I don’t want people to see what I’m working on. My boyfriend [artist Yung Gleesh], I was dating him for over a year before I posted a photo with him finally as I was so happy and I [felt] like posting a photo of him as I’m proud of him and I love him. Even that was really hard to share that with people because some things are personal and some things are private and [it] doesn’t need to be shared. Everybody doesn’t need to give their comments and their concerns and two cents. It’s so unnecessary. Being an artist has strayed too far away from being an artist and it’s become so much about being an entertainer.

If you didn’t do music now, what do you think you’d be doing?
Honestly, I don’t think there is anything [else] for me to do. I mean I do other stuff, I direct videos. I would like to make clothes, I would like to go on extend myself into different lanes of creativity, you know, make movies, acting, everything. I really love music and film together, maybe score movies, I don’t know. Do voices for TV shows. I want to do so much stuff beyond music but I think I will always make music.

Kali Uchis’ debut album Isolation is out now via Virgin EMI.

Photography Carissa Gallo
Fashion Samantha Rhodes
Hair Iggy Rosales @ Opus Beauty using Oribe
Makeup Jaime Diaz using Kasha Lashes
Nails Erin Moffett @ Opus Beauty using Vetro USA
Set design Lizzie Lang @ WSM

Follow Phie McKenzie on Twitter