Kali Uchis: The Making of A Modern Icon

Kali Uchis’ debut album ‘Isolation’ is a star-studded record that’ll dominate your summer listening. Thomas Smith chats with the Colombian-American singer about defying her haters and working Tyler, The Creator and Damon.

Kali Uchis is an icon in the making. If you disagree, we can only assume that you weren’t paying attention to her Instagram last Sunday (April 8). It had been two days since debut album ‘Isolation’ had been released and Kali was arriving to a mural unveiling on Spaulding Avenue in Los Angeles’ trendy Fairfax district. Clad in a immaculate white outfit, she leaned out of the roof of a matching limo waving to adoring fans. Not only does she look and sound like an icon, she’s already behaving like one.

Kali then stepped out for some photo opportunities with fans that had been gathering outside, signing CDs, posters, and, er, a fan’s baby bump. How many artists have you seen do that on a debut album? Kali’s youngest fan may well not be born yet, but are there any Kali babies already in the world? “I don’t know, I’ve definitely had cats named after me.” Would you be into having a child named after you? “I don’t think I want a baby named after me. It will be too much pressure…”

The Colombian-American’s debut is confident and self assured. ‘Isolation’ flits effortlessly from big R&B bangers in the shape of ‘Just A Stranger’, to bossa nova on ‘Feel Like A Fool’ back to house-pop goodness on ‘Dead To Me’. It is a tremendous and fearless album.

So we’re pretty excited to talk to her about it, but we get the impression the feeling isn’t mutual. When NME calls from London (10am local time in LA), we ask Kali a few questions about her background and more recent crossover into the mainstream. The answers are a tad withdrawn. I ask, if perhaps there’s a better time to? “No it’s OK, I’m just tired”. Fair enough. If we’d slogged that hard, we probably wouldn’t be up for answering questions at 10am either.

Uchis split her time between Pereira, Colombia and Alexandria, Virginia when she was growing up. During her beginnings she was influenced by Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and artists like fellow Virginia-native, Pharrell but even before she stepped into music, she felt like an outsider. “I grew up being very different and being ready to fight people. I wanted to stand up for myself and I wanted to not let anyone think they know me based on appearances, so I was always just fighting back with people,” she says.

Opposition is something that the 24-year-old has found all through her career. “I experienced people not really believing in me, and feeling that I wasn’t going to go anywhere with my life,” she says. “I’ve always been someone who without wanting to or without trying to, I draw attention to myself sometimes in negative ways. It made me sharp and it made me quick.”

But the right kind of attention does arrive for Kali Uchis, because of course it does. Debut collection ‘Por Vida’ in 2015 featured production from Kaytranada, Diplo and Tyler, The Creator and marked the arrival of a future star. It showcased the old-school swagger of a ‘60s icon in an age when music fans are crying out for authenticity and a little bit of mystery. Kali Uchis, is that person. “I’m still very private about my life for the most part,” she says. “When I write about my experiences I still write about them in an abstract way. I’m probably not 100% sure if I’m talking about what I think I’m talking about sometimes.”

There are points on ‘Isolation’ when it seems like Kali is singing in character than in her own voice. Kali it seems, is always changing. “You don’t have to understand somebody to understand something. I’m constantly trying to look at things from a different view and to put myself into some new perspectives to evolve myself, grow myself and reinvent myself,” she says.

I grew up being very different and being ready to fight people

This album is a reinvention of sorts. Her musical journey since ‘Por Vida’ in 2015 has seen her move from a cult figure into someone muscling her way into the mainstream. Last year, she featured on Gorillaz tracks ‘She’s My Collar’ and ‘Ticker Tape’, Miguel’s groovy ‘Caramelo Duro’ and Tyler, The Creators’ ‘See You Again’. This last pairing is the one that has been most fruitful.

Tyler first hit up Kali in 2014 and the pair have been appearing on each other’s work since then. First on Tyler’s album ‘Cherry Bomb’, then Kali’s collection ‘Por Vida’, and now they’ve linked up for ‘Isolation’s lead single, ‘After The Storm’. But for the pair, it feels more like play than work. “He’s my friend so it’s very free and he’s the type of person that we look to not restrict ourselves into one type of sound,” she says. Is there scope for a Tyler x Kali album down the line maybe? “Working with him is really fun, and we can just make a million songs and put them on the record. We do have a lot of songs that we have never released…”

‘Isolation’ seems a contradictory name for an album with such an astonishing guest list. Here are the big guns who are featured: LA funk king Thundercat, British R&B star Jorja Smith, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, The Internet’s Steve Lacy, oh and Damon Albarn who used to be in Blur, of course. Big fan, Kali? “I’m a big Gorillaz fan. I think Blur was a bit before my time.”

It makes sense for her to have this future-facing attitude and most of all, a party, in the face of the people who didn’t want her to succeed. “I think a lot of people who’ve known me since I was young never would have thought I would have this opportunity, so just being able to share it is huge for me,” she said. “Releasing this album, it was never about, ‘oh I want my credit, I want this to blow up, I want this to turn me into a huge thing overnight’, I just knew it was going to be another part of my journey.”

This is a journey that will run and run, if there’s any justice. She’s eyeing up album two when the tour is finished for ‘Isolation’ and the caliber of names that could appear matches her rise. How about Cardi B? “Of course, I respect her”. Hometown hero, Pharrell? “I would love to. N.E.R.D were a huge influence to so many of us in Virginia.” It’s shaping up to be a classic.

With one huge album under her belt, a circle of musical pals we’d all kill for and a grounded version of just who she is right now – Kali Uchis is cementing her legacy as future icon, one white limo ride at a time.

‘Isolation’ is out now