Kali Uchis on 'Fools Paradise,' The Music Business and Online Trolls
We sat down with the Colombian artist in London ahead of the release of her upcoming album.
Photo by Luke Gilford
Kali Uchis enters central London's Edition Hotel wearing oversized shades, a cropped pink faux fur coat, perfectly manicured nails and her hair piled high. Everyone nearby is dressed ultra conservatively, but Uchis lights up the room in a way that makes you peer over your shoulder and think, that's somebody—whether you recognize her or not.
Born Karly Loaiza, Uchis grew up between her native Colombia and Virginia. Her father kicked her out the family home when she was just 17 (they've since reconciled, and her stage name is derived from a nickname he gave her). But it was during those chaotic teen years, when she was living out her car and rarely attending school, that she learned how to produce tracks and edit videos, creating her own romantic, candy-colored dream world in the process.
Though she's now readying her debut album Fool's Paradise, the 23-year-old has long built a name for herself. It was at 18 that she dropped her first mixtape, Drunken Babble, a collection of lo-fi jams that spiral between genres—from Motown to hip hop to soul and R&B—like someone frantically dipping their paintbrush into a multitude of colours. Later came 2015's Por Vida, a tightly-woven, melodic EP featuring production from the likes of Kaytranada, BADBADNOTGOOD and Tyler, the Creator (who also featured Uchis on his 2015 album Cherry Bomb). And now, of course, we're here.
Her throwback influences mean that many have placed her within the Lana Del Rey and Amy Winehouse school of artistry, although that would downplay the originality of her vocal style and visuals. Largely built around the aesthetics of lowrider culture, coupled with the slickness of modern pop, her long line of self-directed videos are colourful and hyper-feminine, with syrupy-sweet vocals that wrap around the production like honey. Over the years, she has crafted an incredibly specific image; one that is just as tied to the past as it is to a neon-tainted future.
Her Twitter bio reads: "dislikable Colombian girl," hinting at a hard-as-nails front that protects a deeply empathetic core. According to Uchis, people talk shit about her because they don't really know her. For someone who gives off a super tough vibe when I first see her walk through the door, it's disarming to find Uchis is open and easy to talk with. Kali Uchis isn't a character, it isn't a front—she is the real deal. And as she once said herself: "Who cares if someone doesn't like you? we're all gonna die."
Noisey: After basically stalking him online for time, you've finally managed to work with Bootsy Collins on Fool's Paradise, right?
Kali Uchis: That happened right after my Billboard feature when I said I wanted to work with him. He just reached out to me. I got to go and meet his whole family; they live on a ranch in Ohio. I stayed in this hotel across the street from them and we were together every day, it was so much fun.
Do you feel there's pressure for you to deliver with your debut album?
I don't want to let anyone down. The intent of the music is supposed to be something that's pure and that comes from a genuine place, and if you think about all these different things—audience or time constrictions and shit like that—you end up doing things you wish you wouldn't ever have. You lose a lot of what music is really about, which is doing your own thing and sounding like yourself. I always sounds like me but it just got better, it evolved. I sang on better mics, I learned my voice better. When I started singing I was 19; now I'm 22. I've figured out my voice a little better.
How much of Kali Uchis is genuinely you and how much is more of a magnified cartoon version of yourself?
Personality-wise, when people are like, 'Wow you're so strong,' I'm like 'What? I really come off that way?' I had to realise that, yeah, I deflect a lot of my insecurities and weaknesses and I try to overcompensate by being strong and feeling empowered. And that's not even really Kali Uchis as a 'singer character', it's something I've always done as a human being.
My whole life I've always tried to act stronger than I am. I'm a Cancer, I'm very emotional, very sensitive, a perfectionist. I'm super anal about how I come across and how my art comes across and I've had to let that go. I used to always take down stuff from the internet. Every time I was just over it, I'd be like, 'OK—delete'. Now I'm at the point where no matter what I delete, no matter what I take down of myself, someone's going to put it back up. I learned how to be more selective about what I put out. I want to know that what I'm putting out I really love and is a strong representation of me, and I'm never going to want to take it down ever.
You seem to get a lot of stick online.
All the time. That's been my whole life though. That's why I've always told people I'm dislikable; don't expect that you're going to like me, because I have a really strong personality [laughs] and shit that I say gets taken the wrong way. I learned at a really young age that being a people pleaser doesn't get you anywhere and it wasn't for me. Life is just too short. I don't mind if people don't like me for who I am, that's fine, but I don't like when people create narratives about me that are false.
Do you think it comes from jealousy?
A lot of the people who dedicated themselves to disillusioning others about my character are people who used to be really big fans. It can be really scary, I had someone show up at my house in Colombia, in the middle of the night. I wasn't trying to be rude at all but he was asking me, "How long are you going to be here for?", "Can I take you out?" and I'm like, "Oh, you know I'm just spending time with my family." He got really offended and afterwards went on this huge rampage, telling everyone I was a huge cunt and that I need to humble myself and that he drove so far to see me. It's a thin line between love and hate. I used to think that kind of thing was a joke when I was younger. I'd be like 'love me or hate me,' 'haters are my motivators,' and corny shit like that [laughs] but now I have people who feel strongly about me—they strongly want me to fail, they would be happy if I die, it's like that.
People have come at you hard, calling you out for being light-skinned Latino. What's your reaction to that?
I've always felt very close to my family and proud to represent my culture. American people don't really understand that in Colombia, we're all different complexions. There's a lot of deep-rooted division in the Latin community, between white-passing Latinos—especially in the entertainment industry—and Afro Latinos. There's still a lot of discrimination against people of color and Afro Latinos. We're still fighting. In Colombia people of color are still fighting for human rights; you can't get a "nice" job, it's a very serious issue. It's very sensitive, but I've always been vocal about colour as an issue. People try to demonise me as some type of person because of my complexion but it really all stems from my complexion changing from season to season, which happens to any person.
But I feel proud of who I am. Because I wasn't in the public eye I didn't realise how divided the Latin community really was. I've always been really sensitive about colorism and I strongly believe that there's a power imbalance on planet earth, not just in Colombia, that means people of color are treated worse and considered intimidating and 'bad' and I don't agree with that.
Is it a bit of a culture shock living in LA now, having grown up between Colombia and Virginia?
When I would be with my family in Virginia, people would always be like 'who are this group of strangers?' because we all look super different from each other, with different complexions. I always feel hurt when I see my family members discriminated against and when I've seen the police literally treat some of my family members like trash. I think a lot of people try to avoid talking about this because they know it's going to get them criticism, and a lot of people have cashed in on their skin being lighter in Latin communities and have never ever acknowledged the power imbalance we have in our community.
Do you worry about how speaking out may impact how people receive your music?
Some people are confused. They want me to identify myself, or want to know why I speak on issues affecting people of color if I'm not brown skinned or whatever. If you don't talk about it they're going to say, 'she only cares about being on her white pedestal' and then if you do talk about it they're like, 'why are you talking on our issues that don't concern you?'. I hurt for everyone that hurts. I'm always going to feel strongly and never be quiet about other people being treated differently. I've always spoken out about that stuff and said everyone should be treated equally and stop this bullshit of people thinking they're better than others because they have paperwork to be in a country or whatever. I'm first-generation American. My dad came to the country illegally so did the majority of my family members—I'm not going to be quiet just because maybe people will like me more.
Are you a materialistic person?
I hate wastefulness and wasting money—not just mine but everyone else's too. I've never been that type of person, not that it's bad. I just always felt guilty about spending money because of where I come from. I was raised to be very frugal: you eat all of the food on your plate or you give it to someone who needs it. In Los Angeles you'll be in these meetings and everyone will order all this food and take little things and just be like, "oh you can take the rest away." Then everyone looks at me all crazy when I'm like, "Can you please box this?" and I'll be giving food to the homeless people outside. It's just something everyone should do, there's no reason for us to be throwing all this fucking food away. It seems like common sense. People only think about themselves and they don't even consider that type of shit, they consider it such a charitable thing to do, when it's just actually normal.
Does style cost money?
Nah, it's really sick that people think the more expensive a brand is the cooler it is. That is brainwashing; it's so stupid. People put value in things celebrities wear or that cost money because they think that if the shirt costs $700 then it must be a cooler and important shirt than all the other shirts.
What have you learned about the music business?
Not to trust anybody. These motherfuckers are scary.
You can find Russell on Twitter.