Born and raised in Colombia, 21 year old Kali Uchis is a rare kind of artist. Pushing Motown vocals through a modern R’n’B filter, Uchis’ brand of pop blends decades and styles to create something more energising and feel-good than a breakfast smoothie.
After writing, producing, recording and releasing her 2013 mixtape Drunken Babble in just 48 hours, Uchis quickly caught the attentions of hip-hop pitch-hitters like Snoop Dogg, A$AP Rocky, Earl Sweatshirt and Tyler, The Creator. Now based in Los Angeles, Uchis has been evolving her signature sound, something she calls "lowrider soul", and her most recent offering - a mixtape defiantly titled Por Vida, released in February - could easily be mistaken for Amy Winehouse doing Spanish pop songs or a collection of undiscovered Motown b-sides from the mid 60s.
With a voice as silky smooth as the Golden State aesthetic she resides in, Uchis has been hailed as “the most exciting voice to come out of Virginia since Missy Elliott”. We caught up with her to talk about her roots, her influences, and boys.
How many tattoos do you have?
Five. There’s a rose, this is something my friend wrote. I have a tiger too, I got it when I was 16. They’re all really personal. I went through a period where I would get one for everything in my life, as if they were closure.
And how long have you been living in LA?
About two months. I really like the geography of LA, it reminds me of home. The colours of it, the architecture… It’s a lot like Colombia, actually. They’re both lavish. The geography, the character and the energy are all the same.
Have you been going out much?
I’ve been to a few events, but I’ve been busy working. I think night time bike riding is fun. I love watching movies, dancing, shopping, getting my nails done, pedicures, adventuring. I really like the beach out here, the ocean. Going on roadtrips, to the desert… There’s so much to see in LA, so many exciting places. If you go an hour out, you’re already in the mountains.
What would your ultimate fun day out in California be like?
I really want to go to Disney World, because I’ve never been. Or an amusement park. Universal is really fun. They have Springfield there, so you can go to Moe’s Tavern and Krusty Burger - I was running around like I was five years old. I really like playing tennis, basketball and stuff too, so maybe that. I’m always working creatively, however.
Do you find you’re more creative in LA than back home?
Not more creative, but more productive. There are more people here to work with. In Virginia, I would have to plan everything months in advance. You can definitely be more spontaneous out here.
So far you’ve linked up with Snoop Dogg, A$AP Rocky, Tyler, the Creator. Do you have a favourite person to work with?
Tyler [the Creator]’s definitely my favourite. He’s got a lot of similar influences to me. We’re around the same age, too, and influenced by the same cultures. It happens naturally. When you work with someone you often have to explain to them what you’re about, then they have their own shit and you have to meet in the middle and it becomes a melting pot. With him, we grew up the same way. My brother is a professional skater, he used to skate with Adidas. And I’m Latino, we grew up in Colombia - that’s why I was always destined to come to LA.
Would you say Tyler’s like your brother?
Tyler and all his friends are like his brothers, but he’s a lot like my brother too. He’s actually the same age as my brother. I already understood who he was before I knew him.
How did you come to work with him?
I always thought he was cool. I’m not a fangirl, but when he reached to me I thought it was an amazing opportunity. I met him and it was different from my other collaborations, because it was closer to home for me. We hit it off immediately.
What’s he like as a person?
We don’t hang out that much, but he’s funny. He’s always fun and free-spirited with a kind heart. In music and fashion, a lot of people won’t do anything if it doesn’t benefit them or unless you’re cutting them a check. Tyler actually loves art and his heart is in it. It’s never been about money with him, only making good shit. My project was free. It wasn’t about making money, it was about doing something for culture.
You definitely get a lot back that way. It’s good karma.
It wasn’t about making money off the music, it was about the music being free and working my ass off.
What do you think of Lana Del Rey and Iggy Azalea, personas who have been created by artist management?
I don’t like to be pinned against other female musicians. I respect everyone’s hustle as long as they make it work for themselves. I’m a different artist to them, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with what they do. I think it’s easier to get other people to tell you what to do because it can be treated like a corporation, not for art. I could be much bigger right now if I wanted what the labels wanted and what people wanted me to be. Making pop and getting my hit single, but I couldn’t be bothered. You only have one life. Everyone has their 15 minutes now and I wanted to do something for the people. It’s definitely harder but I think what matters is the legacy you leave - something that lasts and helps change.
What would you say is your biggest influence?
I spent a lot of time with my grandmother who put me onto a lot of classic stuff like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. Then there was my uncle who let me listen to old school low-rider music. Then I became a huge fan of jazz and I played saxophone. I’ve been a music nerd my whole life. When I was 13, I was into girl power like Lily Allen, MIA. Their voices were cool, they never had to flex their voices. They stood for so much and it was tight. Kelis was badass too. When I got into digging music I started listening to Astrud Gilberto, Brigitte Bardot, they were like mothers and sisters to me. I appreciated having women to look up, who were strong, who I could ask what to do.
So they became your spearheaded, powerful women?
I had three brothers, so I became a tomboy. Everyone thought I was a lesbian in flannels, hiding behind my bangs. People were like, “Hey, excuse me sir”... they would confuse me for a boy.
Would you bring that look back?
Haha, I don’t know. In Colombia my dad would always say, “Why don’t you dress like a girl, get a manicure?” I do my own hair now and my own stuff. I was a firm believer in self-teaching and exploring. I educated myself in religion, music, culture - lots of stuff.
Are you religious?
My family is like the Brady Bunch. All different ethnicities and religions. Even in Columbia where it’s mainly Catholic, there’s Hinduism, Rastafarianism, my dad is a philosopher type with a Quran, the bible, he even studied Buddhism. He always taught me it was my decision to figure out what I believed in. I think spirituality is important. I believe in a higher being and the Universe - being a good person, bringing good energy, being grateful… but I don’t know if I believe in a white man with a beard.
Where do you go dancing?
I went to a Colombian place that was so much fun, but me and my friends are the only ones dancing usually. In LA, everyone is busy standing around judging everyone.
Where’s your favourite place for boys?
I haven’t found any good places for boys.
I feel like a lot of LA boys are skaters. Is that true?
I think [boys in LA] don’t have anything to do with their lives. I like a guy who can be confident in whatever they are doing. If you’re ambitious, if you’re trying to do something with your life, some people wanna hold you back, because they don’t wanna do anything when you hang around with them. I don’t want someone who just wants to sit around doing nothing.
Word. Thanks Kali!
Photographer - Bella Howard
Stylist - Kylie Griffiths
Makeup - Lily Keys
Hair - Sami Knight