Pop Loner Kali Uchis on Growing Up Punk in Colombia and the Struggle to Stay Bilingual
“Where I come from, nobody thinks they’re ever gonna leave,” Kali Uchis tells Rolling Stone. “Most people don’t leave to tell the story,” she adds enigmatically, “so I’m telling you today.”
Inside her hotel room in New York’s SoHo neighborhood, the 24-year-old singer lays out her origin story. She lounges in a white plush robe, canary-yellow stockings and fuzzy slippers, speaking fondly of the Andean foothills of Colombia where she spent much of her youth. A trace of saudade washes over her face when she recalls her teen years in Alexandria, Virginia. There she spent many a night hunkered down in her Subaru Forester, cooking up song ideas on her keyboard after a family feud left her homeless for a time. “Nobody in my family has ever done anything like this,” she says of her music career. “All my friends go to school and work jobs. It can be really lonely.”
Uchis is currently based in Los Angeles, but her real home is the road. Following both Grammy and Latin Grammy nods in 2017, she booked her dream gig by opening on Lana Del Rey’s U.S. tour this past winter; then she kicked off a run of festival dates with her inaugural Coachella shows in April, coinciding with the long-awaited release of her full-length debut, Isolation. Onstage, Uchis and her traveling funk band bring her cosmic soul to life; meanwhile, her devout followers, mostly young women, shriek at the slightest swivel of her hips, clad in metallic spandex and glittering platform heels. (“We love you, Kali!” screamed fans during her set at Governors Ball in June. “Fuck the haters!”)
Fittingly for the bilingual, bicultural Uchis, Isolation is a genre-hopping pop experience, crafted with help from friends old and new. Spanish-language track “Nuestro Planeta” features fellow Colombian singer Reykon and rocks a low-key, reggaeton roll; Tyler, the Creator and Bootsy Collins share the sunshine on laid-back funk tune “After the Storm”; and the Damon Albarn–guided meditation “In My Dreams” evokes the feverish synth pop of Alan Vega. In talking to RS, Uchis makes it clear that genre boundaries don’t concern her in the slightest. “Anytime there’s a genre, it’s because it has to be classified for the sake of uploading it to a platform,” she says, languidly thumbing her iPhone screen. “I wouldn’t consider my music R&B – but even if it was R&B, who cares?”
In advance of a headlining tour coming up in September – co-starring alt-R&B singer Gabriel Garzón-Montano and indie-pop crooner Cuco – Uchis spoke with Rolling Stone about the making of Isolation, the significance of her Latina heritage and her magical year on the road.
Last year, you were nominated for your first Grammy (for your feature on Daniel Caesar’s “Get You”). But the only female artist who won in January was Alessia Cara. How did that feel?
I think everyone who’s nominated is a winner. But everyone that night was angry that they snubbed SZA. To be nominated for five categories and go home with nothing? It seems a little bit cruel … and winning in that situation might make you feel a little bad. But they did that to Beyoncé, right? So [SZA]’s in good company.
Did you enjoy your time at the Grammys?
I had a lot of fun; I love dressing up. Everyone thinks I dress up more than I should anyway, so it’s nice when people appreciate it – they’re not just like, “Why the fuck are you wearing that to 7-11?” [Laughs] Now I actually have somewhere to look crazy at.
You have an eye for design – you design your own merch and style yourself so uniquely. What’s it like adapting your style to the red carpet?
I love clothing, but [on the red carpet] I feel like we see so many of the same designers. The fashion world is political and elitist in that way. For me, it’s fun to work with people who are tastemakers. The girl who designed my Grammys look, her name is Kim Shui. I saw her stuff on Instagram and I was like, “This is fucking amazing!” I love how she mixes really bold patterns and colors – like, who would think to put lilac and gold next to a snake print? I like people that take risks.
That’s parallel to the tastemaking role that you play musically, from your collaborations to the references you make in your music. Like when you’ve busted out Elvis Crespo’s “Suavemente” at your shows and kids in the audience would go, “Oh, my God, who sings this song? I hear this everywhere!”
Yeah. I’m always like, “Let me put you guys onto something – this is some good shit.”
What I loved about you opening for Lana Del Rey’s tour this year was how well your vibes synced up. She brings that Nancy Sinatra, Valley of the Dolls vibe, while you draw on classic Motown – you both continue legacies that still have a lot of life in them. Did you sense that too?
Being an opener is hard and can be stressful – I literally told my agent, “I won’t do any tour unless it’s a Lana Del Rey tour.” And when they told me that Lana wanted me on her tour, I was like, “… OK.” Lana’s demographic and Lana’s fans are receptive to me. They’re not sitting there, like, yawning and waiting for someone else to come on, you know? They’re actually intrigued and on their phones looking me up and getting drawn in. I can see the moment when they’re like, “Hmm, should I fuck with this girl?” That, for me, is fun.
Were you able to spend any time with her?
We hung out sometimes, but it gets too hectic on tour – we have to do soundchecks, we have to glam, and then we have to go on stage. I would have to catch her at the moment, right after I do my glam and right when she’s going into her glam. It’s cool how we could just sit down and talk shit.
You dropped your Por Vida EP in 2015, but your debut LP took three years to release. Was it difficult to let go of this album?
It was timing; timing is everything. I definitely didn’t rush my stuff while making it, but most importantly, after I was done making it, I was like, “OK, look. I took this time to make it – I’m not gonna rush myself to put it out now that it’s done.” Like, I’m gonna drop this at the right time. Because it wasn’t rainy enough for October, and it wasn’t Christmas-y enough for the holidays, but it felt like a springtime record.
Isolation is stacked with features – and genres. How did you pull it all together so seamlessly?
Most of my features have been production features. I’m very selective about who gets on the same song as me, and whose song I get on. But when it comes to production, I really like to work with different people, because I’m still looking for that one person to work on my next album with. Every song is a different genre. There’s Gorillaz [Damon Albarn], who does some vocals and produces (“In My Dreams”). Kevin Parker from Tame Impala produces a song. Thundercat was doing a lot of ad libs and playing bass. He’s one of my good friends. He’s a really sweet person. And the Dap-Kings. I love them. For my next project though, I don’t want to bounce around between producers and features. I want to just work solely with one person and in one place.
It’s kind of like The Dating Game – you sample collaborators, give them one shot and find a winner.
I didn’t know anyone who really made music before, and it’s different from people who grew up in or around the industry. It can feel like you’re on an entirely different planet. When I would be listening to oldies and shit, stuff would just strike me. That’s how I made my first mixtape – I just sampled oldies – but in my first real project, Por Vida, that’s when people in the industry started noticing me a little bit. I was lucky enough to have things sent to me by Kaytranada, Tyler [, the Creator] and Diplo, and that’s when I started working with producers.
But the way I work best is still from scratch on the keyboard, when I’m by myself in my room. I’ll just make different sounds, and it can get weird [laughs]. Then I bring my ideas to people who can really produce, because I’m still figuring out how to be a better singer, writer and musician in general. It’s nice to see what you come up with with different people, because I learn so much from all these really talented musicians.
You recorded a Latin Grammy–nominated song with Juanes last year, “El Ratico.” Both being from Colombia, how did you two connect?
It’s funny, because it’s almost like when people ask, “How did you meet your boyfriend?” And you’re almost embarrassed to say, “Tinder” [laughs]. I get that, because when someone asks me how I met somebody that I work with, it’s always because they hit me up on Twitter or Instagram. I guess that’s just the name of the game nowadays. It’s so easy to reach people and get in touch with people through the Internet now. It’s just the power of the World Wide Web, baby. Juanes just hit me up. He tweeted my video “Ridin’ Round,” because I shot the whole thing in Pereira, and my family was in it and we were all just making a video, and it was super lo-fi.
He posted it and was like, “Oh, parcera” – that’s “homegirl” in Colombia. He said, “This girl is from Medellín!” and I responded, “Actually I’m from Pereira, but thank you!” He was like, “Oh, my bad.” But then I just DM’d him, “Let’s work, though.” He had a song ready for us to work on – he came to L.A., and we finished the song that night. I wrote my part in Spanglish. You know when you don’t speak in Spanish for so long? I was going through a huge phase, where, for some reason, even though I’ve been living in L.A. for the past few years, a lot of people in L.A. don’t like to speak Spanish. My makeup artist and I will be walking around speaking Spanish, and I notice people get really offended. But I’m the type of person that kind of enjoys offending people, so…. [Laughs] I love to see people get mad when I’m speaking Spanish. It makes me want to speak it more.
I think many American-born Latinx people can relate to that. Spanish is your first language, right?
Yeah. My dad actually teaches English, so I grew up speaking both. I felt super embarrassed the last time I went to Colombia though – I did an interview and just failed miserably, because I wasn’t sure about which words to use. When you go for so long without speaking the language, you get rusty. I was like, “Fuck, I need to be constantly staying on top of my shit when it comes to my language – otherwise I’m just totally gonna lose my shit!”
Ever since then, every time I talk to my parents, I speak to them in Spanish. If your parents know English, you get reliant on that because you’re so used to speaking English in America. I know a lot of Latinos [whose] parents didn’t raise them speaking it at all. It’s way harder for them to connect, and they feel a little bit of their Latinidad is erased and taken away from them, which is unfortunate. I started feeling like maybe that’s why my friends don’t like to speak it – when I try to speak Spanish they respond to me in English.
Juanes is a Latin pop legend. What did you learn from him?
I mean, we have a statue dedicated to Juanes in Medellín! In music, it’s really difficult to remain timeless. You want to remain somebody who can keep being an artist and not be washed out. You often hear things like, “I liked his first one better.” It’s hard for the fans to grow with you. So I have a lot of love for artists like him and Shakira, who are putting on for Colombia so much. They do so much for the city; they do so much for the country. It’s amazing to have Colombian artists at the forefront of pop music. I wish there were more Afro-Latino Colombians or indigenous Colombians that were being put on at the moment – I feel like that’s really what’s missing right now. But, you know, being from Colombia is definitely still something to be proud of.
You want to reflect some aspect of your culture, but also who you are as an individual. Juanes, Shakira and J Balvin have mastered that. I also love that they all started out as rockers!
Colombia is actually very punk! I don’t know if you’ve ever been, but there’s a lot of punks, there’s a Rasta culture, there’s all types of people. It’s just grungy. There’s graffiti everywhere, and we’re going to the little hole-in-the-wall clubs, smoking weed under the bridge [laughs]. All the time. That was the teenage experience I had with my cousins who lived there. I went through my punk phase for sure. Didn’t we all go through a punk phase?
Definitely. So you also spent some of your childhood in Virginia?
I would say most of my childhood. I was supposed to stay in Colombia my whole life, but my parents decided to move to Virginia. I mean, I was blessed to go to school in Virginia and visit Colombia – my family is still there, and my parents are there now. I got to experience both worlds in a way. I feel like that was really nice to have as a kid, and I would definitely want to give that to my own kid, the ability to have multiple places to call home. But Virginia is tricky because basically it’s between the North and the South.
It’s just under the Mason-Dixon line.
I’m from the DMV area, which is D.C., Maryland and Virginia combined, so it’s a subculture of its own. But for some reason when I tell people that I lived in Virginia, they ask, “Oh, is it a bunch of, like, hillbillies out there?” They don’t know a lot of legends come from Virginia – Pharrell is from there, Timbaland, Clipse and Missy [Elliott], obviously such an important icon in music and culture. But that’s OK, stay sleep.
How would you describe the area where you grew up?
We have Latin culture in Alexandria, but the Colombian crowd is not so big – it’s El Salvadorians, Ecuadorians, Hondurans. There’s also lots of of Ethiopians; I grew up with all the Habesha. I went to a high school called T.C. Williams High School – you know where the Remember the Titans movie was set? It’s one of the most diverse schools in all of the United States. Nowadays I get really uncomfortable to be in a room of people that are all the same, who all look the same, are the same ethnicity and dress the same. I feel like it’s because I just always grew up around people who were all different. There weren’t really any cliques – everyone was just cool with each other. I felt very blessed to be able to go to a school that had a lot of funding for the arts. Unfortunately, they’re shutting down some of those programs now, but they were key in developing me as an artist. I couldn’t afford cameras, or equipment, or a dark room. I wouldn’t have been able to access those things on my own, but we could play with them at school for free.
Let’s talk about how you started conceptualizing Isolation. Were there any songs in particular that you modeled the rest of the album after?
My songs are all so different. They’re like my babies. They all come from different times in my life, too, because I spent so much time writing the album that I was in a different head space for all of them. So it’s difficult, because they’re not really all about love, they’re not all about one thing. My music is always just an open diary. I just write whatever I feel is going through my head and what I feel most passionate to talk about at the moment. I try to stay away from political topics because that’s not fun for me, and I want music to be fun. I’m very anti–group think, and I’m very pro-independent thinking. Self-reliance, self-awareness is the key to being a human being, and that’s what’s fucking up a lot of shit. It’s important to reject the need to feel like you have to assimilate to society. But I don’t know. I’m working on my second album now….
Another album? What can you tell me about it?
Well, I wrote all the songs on [Isolation] three years ago. To you guys, they’re new, but to me, they’re old. That’s why I’m already so keen to start working on something new, and I’m in a really different place. I feel like my concepts are getting more abstract. I’m not looking to make a song that has a beginning or an end as much as I’m looking to project a feeling.
I wanted to ask about your working relationship with Tyler, the Creator and how that came about. You two have such a great rapport.
Guess how that came about.
Was it also Twitter?
Yeah, he hit me up on Twitter [laughs]. I told you. He just followed me one day, and I was like, “Oh, my God, Tyler, the Creator followed me, what the fuck?” And then he DM’d me, like, “I love your songs, I love what they say, da-da-da.” He said he loved the first mixtape that I ever made. The next time I was in L.A., I just hit him up, and I was like, “We’re gonna make this song.”
What was it like, the first time you recorded a song together?
I was super nervous, because I started making music by myself, in my room. I wasn’t used to being in a recording studio, let alone with somebody who was much further along in his career than I was. We made a few songs, and then we just kept working together like that. Every time we meet up, we just make songs. I’m really happy and thankful to have him in my life, because it can be hard as a new artist when you don’t really have anybody. And I don’t have much family in America anymore, either. Nobody in my family has ever been in this industry, so I can’t be like, “Daddy, who should I work with?” I didn’t have friends who were doing it either – all my friends go to school and work jobs. So it was really lonely. You can get pulled in a lot of different directions if you don’t have good people around you. So many people will pretend to be, but they want something from you. They secretly want to sign you, they want your publishing, they want sex from you. So to have people who just think you’re talented and don’t want anything but to work with you … that’s really important.
Did you work on “After the Storm” in the studio with both Tyler and Bootsy Collins?
I [produced] the song with BadBadNotGood in Canada. Then I went to Ohio to work with Bootsy, brought him the song and recorded his part at home. Then I went to L.A. and showed it to Tyler – you know, as artists who are friends, we share our music. I didn’t show it to him with the intention of him [featuring] – I just like showing him all my new music, and he was showing me all his new music. But he really liked this one, so he got on it.
Were you a big Bootsy fan? How did you two link up?
I did a Billboard interview and they asked me who I wanted to work with, and I said him, and then he hit me up on Twitter. But, yeah, I loved that whole era of music, and Bootsy is an icon. All his looks were iconic, and even still to this day, he’s just a lighthearted spirit. I went to his house in Ohio – they have a studio in the bottom level of their house, so we worked on a bunch of stuff there. Seeing photos [from] when he was on tour with James Brown, all the award shows from back then was incredible…. He’s such an icon. And his wife is also his manager. She’s a badass.
What was that trip like, being in his house and meeting his family?
They live on a farm, and threw a party for me when I left. Their kids, their grandchildren, everybody was there. It was really sweet. There was a cake that said, “We love you, Kali,” and it was so cute.
Now that you’ve racked up so many awesome collaborations, who’s your absolute dream collab?