For Life: An Interview With Kali Uchis

The Colombia-via-Virginia singer's latest release, Por Vida, saw her refining her soul-inflected pop, coloured with the sounds of the past, to its finest iteration yet, aided by Snoop Dogg and a cast of other famous faces. With a debut album proper in the works, she talks to Mof Gimmers

Soul-wop: contemporary R&B with echoes of ’60s girl groups, blissed-out ’70s soul and melancholic jazz, and the self-attributed term through which Colombia-via-Virginia singer Kali Uchis is currently making waves.

Through her debut mixtape, 2012’s Drunken Babble, she unveiled a sound which was heady, woozy and drew on an extensive and disparate record collection, cut through her own skewed view on the world. With Por Vida, put out earlier this year, she upped the ante, honing and tightening her sound, and collaborating with Tyler, The Creator, Snoop Dogg and Diplo along the way. While these high-profile links could easily be used as a leg-up, Uchis remains resolutely single-minded, only looking to work with people because she finds it interesting; she gives away the tracks so she can give herself leverage to do exactly as she pleases on her first record proper, rather than to raise her profile for the sake of simply being famous.

Speaking to her in South London during her recent stop in the UK, she talks of this independence, which has taken her from being a teenager who disappeared into her room with a load of jazz in her head, making music by herself, for herself, to reaching corners of the globe she would never have envisioned.

"That first mixtape… I was in Virginia and I didn’t know anybody and I didn’t really know how to produce or ask anybody for beats. I was just like, ‘I really like this music, older music, I’ll just loop these, play around a bit’, and that was all I really had at that point and I really just made it for fun and put it out. All of a sudden I was getting a bunch of attention."

Uchis’ music is by no means throwback – there’s no sense of it being a lame facsimile, desperate to recreate what went on in some imagined golden era – but rather comes from her long-term listening habits.

"I’ve always listened to older music," she says, "When I was younger people would always get in my iTunes and be like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ In my family, they’re not really music or art nerds – I’m the black sheep. My grandma got me into Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald while my aunt and uncle got me into Latin soul music."

So where does that leave her now she’s cultivating her own spot in pop culture?

"Back in Colombia, reggae and Rastafarianism is big – so is reggaeton and hardcore punk. I did a showcase festival there and I didn’t expect anyone to know who I was, but everyone knew all the words to my songs, it was crazy! I thought that no one was going to like me because… I’m kinda from the hoodish area and I thought they’d all be like, ‘Who does this bitch think she is, dressed all crazy with blonde hair…?’ I wasn’t expecting it because, growing up, I was picked on and bullied and shit. As well as Colombia, I grew up in Virginia – just five minutes outside of Washington – and I did a festival there and everyone was like ‘What. The. Fuck? What. Are. You. Doing?’ They were literally shaking their heads at me… but I was expecting that because that’s how people treated me before as a human being walking down the street."

"I was that girl in school who sat by herself reading a book… I had four good friends and everyone just made rumours about us, saying that we were lesbians and shit. I didn’t go to prom, I skipped a lot of school… I’d rather be in my own world, y’know? So I wasn’t friends with that many people, but now, all those people who were popular at school are suddenly all ‘Hey! Kali! Let’s hang out!’ and adding me on Facebook and shit."

Is that satisfying at all? "It’s sad… but I guess it is kinda funny."

Colombia, like Washington DC, is steeped in hardcore punk and, while you can’t hear it in her music, Uchis has picked up on that genre’s pillars of doing it yourself and, of course, representing those singular teenagers who are so often picked apart by the popular kids. Stemming from this, rather than clamouring to get feature spots and name producer collaborations, Uchis has let her collaborators come to her: "The way I see it, everyone just wants to climb over each other and see people like they’re stepping stones. That makes me think people don’t believe in themselves, almost. Like, you think you need all these feature artists and [need to] manipulate other people – you don’t."

"At the start, my thing was actually making music videos for people – I’m very much a ‘behind the camera’-kinda person. It all came together with the music I was making. With Por Vida, I finally got enough attention to work with people who wanted to produce with me. Even that – it was a free project and everyone just got in touch with me through Twitter and having seen my videos. I’m just experimenting and my music isn’t really defined by any genre. The new album will be more cohesive… but I’m still really proving myself."

We talk about Uchis’ debut album proper, and it seems that this ‘curated bubble’ is still very much a theme. "I want to do this all by myself. I want to stand on my own. No guest spots – I’m tired of people throwing other people’s names into the mix," she says. "I started completely alone and I’ll be working completely alone. I just want it to be about me. You know what it’s like in America – if you want to have a hit, you’re told you need to have these certain people featured on your track, it has to be this single that goes to radio… I just don’t want it to be like that. This is for me, people who get me and will be a perfect bookmark for this period of my life, which I can be proud of when I pass away."

Even though her dalliances with the big names have given her some traction, their back stories suggest people reaching out to her because she’s interesting and approachable, rather than someone who goes in for career-minded jostling.

"Snoop got in touch after the ‘What They Say’ video because he’s into that whole East L.A., low-rider culture. Everyone else is into that trappy R&B and being mysterious, untouchable artists, where I want to do something totally different to that," she says. "With Tyler, we just hung out and I think he felt excited about me because he’s a big music nerd too."

Uchis appears on two tracks – ‘Fucking Young/Perfect’ and ‘Find Your Wings’ – on Tyler’s recent third album Cherry Bomb and, from here, they sound like Uchis’ influence is writ large, more so than anything else. The singer, though, disagrees, saying: "I don’t feel like I was an influence as he was already into the same things as me… it was just the perfect time for us to do stuff together and encourage each other," before adding: "Although, we might work on a project together at some point in the future."

Uchis, it seems, really is an unusual force in the current pop climate. While most comparisons to Amy Winehouse are lazy at best, she does possess two qualities that the late singer had when she was in full pomp: the sense that entire record collections fall out of her through her music, and a decidedly tough vulnerability. Soul and R&B music in 2015 is in very good shape, and in Uchis, it has the kind of artist who can exist on the fringes but with great success. If anyone is going to end up with fans who are completely and utterly besotted to the point of devotion, it really is her; in fact, when she sings, "Can you take this chance on me?/ You won’t regret it" on Por Vida‘s ‘Lottery’, you’d be wise to listen.

Por Vida is out now; download it for free at Kali Uchis’ website. Uchis plays Addams/Medill Park in Chicago, IL, this Sunday, July 12 and Pemberton Music Festival in Permberton, BC next week, before beginning a tour of the US and Canada in October; full details are here

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