SINGER, SONGWRITER, PRODUCER, DIRECTOR. KALI UCHIS CAN DO IT ALL.
Words by Lily Mercer
In the world of popular music, it often seems like there are two opposing types of female artist. You have the mannequin-perfect, triple-threats with the skills to break into a choreographed dance routine without breaking a sweat. And then you have the women that curse, drink, say outrageous things in interviews and tell you who they’re fucking. The latter are far more interesting. They’re real characters, complete with scars and stories, often poured into the lyrics of the songs they sing. Look at Amy Winehouse, M.I.A., Madonna and Adele.
It’s been a minute since such an icon has shown up in the music sphere. Or at least one that has the personality to captivate a whole generation. More recently the mannequins have been behaving like bad girls, trying to fool us into thinking they’re the latter. Yes, you Rihanna. We love the way you roll a blunt on a guy’s head but we wish you could write your own songs. In this climate, it’s no surprise that Kali Uchis is about to be the next big thing. After releasing her self- produced debut mixtape, ‘Drunken Babble’, the 20-year old caught the ear of a number of industry kingpins, including Snoop Dogg and Diplo. And though she looks like she could be a manufactured pop princess, dig a little deeper and her haunting voice and reckless abandonment will leave you dazed. Get lost in her world and you’ll feel like an extra from Pleasantville that’s stumbled into Reefer Madness.
Some assume Uchis is going to rap when she opens her mouth, but she sings like Cory Daye from Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band. Her vintage musical influences are evident in her music, particularly her song, ‘Table For Two’, which could have been released the same year as The Flamingos’ ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’. Having grown up in Virginia, her early life in Colombia has instilled a great independence in her. Her lack of desire to fit in has served her well as she idolises mavericks of the music industry, from the aforementioned M.I.A. and Amy Winehouse to Gwen Stefani. Her biggest idol of all is Billie Holiday, who Uchis notes died on the day she was born, decades prior.
Kali’s the girl you want to be. Or the girl you wish would simply look at you, let alone turn down your advances – probably with a middle finger raised. Cher Horowitz, if she wasn’t a poor little rich girl, but a feisty, weed-smoking, gun- toting bad girl. In fact, she makes Cher look like a prissy daddy’s girl. And though Kali Uchis is the nickname she inherited from her father, you’re more likely to find her singing about sneaking out of her parents house at night. With that said, she displays a closeness to her father. One of her tattoos is his signature from his first passport, used when he moved to United States from Colombia. Welcome to Kali’s world…
How would you describe your music?
I don’t know! With my new songs, it seems like every song is not even a real genre because I take inspiration from so many different types of music that it becomes weird. I love the new music, I like it more than my mixtape. I know it works but it’s not really any type of genre. I guess the singing is more soulful but then the rapping… I wouldn’t even call it rapping. Like M.I.A, she doesn’t really sing or rap, she just in a melodic way puts her words into motion and rhythm. Lily Allen does it sometimes too. There are a few female artists that do it but it’s a weird thing to describe.
You released a teaser video with your new music, is ‘Por Vida’ going to be an album or an EP?
I’ve had it done for a while but I’m just working on more and more songs. Right now I’m kind of confused about what direction to take it in because so many people have wanted to come behind it and try to sell it and turn it into a label situation, but I kind of wanted it to be free. With my first mixtape, I just put it together myself. As my first body of work I wanted to release it for free and not have any income behind it. It’s not going to be an EP, I think there will probably be 17 songs so it’s going to be pretty big. That will probably come out early 2014. I just don’t know what it will come under. I’m in a transitioning period right now – I’m getting ready to sign with someone so it might come out under their group.
When do you think you’ll release ‘Por Vida’?
I really can’t say for certain. Springtime will probably be sweet for that.
Who have you been working with since the release of ‘Drunken Babble’?
So many amazing, talented people have reached out off the strength of my homemade mixtape and videos, it’s a blessing and an honour. A$AP Rocky, Snoop Dogg, Chris Braide, Diplo, Tyler the Creator and I’m also working closely with Bunx Dada, formerly known as JFK.
You recorded ‘Drunken Babble’ on GarageBand. How did you set up the recording process, were you in your bedroom?
I was in my bedroom, sitting on my floor, singing into a Yeti mic that I bought from a friend of a friend.
Who produced the songs?
I did it entirely alone, I used samples of songs I loved, looped them and did all the production myself for all vocals. That’s what seems to really intrigue people, that I’ve been doing everything completely alone. It’s nice that people notice I’m not a man-made machine.
Have you experimented with production at all?
Before I chose to use samples for everything on the tape, I actually had started making my own beats on an Akai at a friend’s house. One day I brought this girl over to vibe while I was making music. A lot of people were over but it was just us two in the studio, then the friend busted in and started accusing us of stealing some shroom pills that he was distributing out of his house, because apparently they disappeared out of the studio. So anyway we got into it over that, it escalated pretty quickly and the falling out was strong enough that I never spoke to him again. He can sell those beats in a few years if it makes him happy. Anyway, my songs come from the root of my inner subconscious, so randomly I’ll hear melodies and verses or chords and I’ll jump over to my keyboard or record an acapella. I work very closely with whoever’s helping me produce a song. Once I have the proper funding I want to do all of my own production.
You direct your own videos. Where do you get your visual inspiration from?
I love films and I love music videos, I brainwashed myself growing up with excessive cinematography. I can’t pinpoint what’s inspired those videos, it has to be some strange mutilated smoothie of a billion things I’ve seen at points in my life. Mostly I’m inspired by dreams, I like videos to be like that. Not really make sense all the way or be sequential, but make you feel something and take you somewhere.
How does it feel having done much of your work organically or by yourself?
It’s an amazing feeling to not be afraid to stand on your own, it’s a sense of independence that no one can take from you. I only hope that it will inspire more people to be freethinkers and open their minds to the possibilities of tapping into their own endless potential, instead of relying and depending on others to make things happen for them. I may not be where I want to be but I’m blessed to have gotten where I am within the year I’ve been working on music. I got here by being myself, I would rather fail being original than succeed in imitation. That was never a hard decision to make and I never once questioned myself on who I wanted to be or how I wanted to sound. I had my sound, look, brand, everything on my own because it’s who I am. I genuinely love to write, make music and direct. I would never insult God by not utilising the talents He gave me.
When did you write your first song?
I remember writing my first song in kindergarten. It was about how I wondered what the cat was doing when he ran away from home. We found this cat one day in our house when we lived in Colombia. It was Halloween and I remember when we got home he was hanging upside down from the ceiling all sketchy. I don’t know why we kept him but he was cool because he used to let me dress him up in baby clothes. He would always disappear and come back so I thought he had a girlfriend or a secret life. Anyway, I wrote a lot. I used to win poetry contests in elementary school.
You grew up in Colombia before moving to America, how does the culture clash influence you?
My rare personal experiences, along with my family background and not staying in one place are probably what have made me so difficult to pinpoint as an artist, or an entity. My family is from all over the world, not just Colombia, we look like a bunch of strangers if we get together. People used to ask me if my sister was my sitter; my sister is Thai.
Virginia has a great roll call of musicians and producers from the state, did growing up there attract you to making music?
Not at all. I was attracted to making music because since a very young age I had a very strong passion for music, writing and art. Looking back at old family footage, I think it may have stemmed from being left alone just playing my moms tapes on the boom-box or dancing in my diapers to MTV videos. My aunt has endless footage of that, you would think she was making a documentary instead of baby sitting. I love her.
You have great style, do you have good thrift shops in VA?
They’re decent. Nothing compared to LA or New York, but enough to get by so I never have to resort to the mall.
Your style of dress is obviously a big part of your identity. Was that something you were into before music?
Before I made music, I always felt that the way you dress is an extension of your personality and it shows where you’re at and how you’re feeling mentally. So that always meant a lot to me.
There’s a vintage sound to your music, like fifties RnB and even a hint of doo-wop. Do you listen to music from previous eras?
I rarely listen to music from the present time era, 97% of modern day music disturbs me. It doesn’t do anything for me, oldies make me feel something.
Do you have any musical heroes?
Yeah – Amy Winehouse, I really liked Lily Allen when I was younger. Also Erykah Badu and Gwen Stefani when she was in No Doubt. She was my favourite female musical hero when growing up.
You sing about bad behaviour in a very pretty way. Is that something you consider when writing?
Yeah, someone else who I felt did that was M.I.A. I also looked up to her a lot growing up, like female artists who don’t talk about normal things that female artists would normally talk about. But I definitely think about that when I’m making a song, sometimes I get inspiration for things that are not the average thing that a girl would make a song about.
How do you feel about the way women are portrayed in the industry you’re going into? Obviously with your age you’ve grown up listening to strong female artists, so do you see it as quite a powerful thing as opposed to it being over-sexualised?
Yeah, that’s why most of the female artists I like are the ones who have found a way to be sexy, because obviously sex sells and people like that, but in ways where they were never just ‘music prostitutes’ but instead creative geniuses who make their own music. I feel like nowadays it comes across as women just being told what to do by men, as the industry is mostly male dominated. It’s becoming less [about] talented musical people and more just women doing whatever they’re told to do. It’s kind of sad. That’s why I respect people like M.I.A. – she can make her own music, dress however she wants and she never has to over-sexualise or play into that situation.
Plus all of the names you mentioned are also songwriters and that’s the difference between you and the girl who’s told to take their clothes off by a record label guy. If you’re writing your own music and it’s your voice, you have more control.
Yeah, I agree. It’s sad but in the same way it’s probably been that way forever. As females, sex is always going to sell and you can always be a prostitute and make money. It’s going to be around forever like it always has and it’s the same with the music industry. There will always be a lot of girls who are on top of the music industry because they got to where they were by taking their clothes off and doing what men were telling them to do. So yeah, it’s the easiest thing to do but it’s repressing women because we’re still being undermined by men and have to do that in order to get noticed.
I have one final question for you, what’s your favourite animal?
Probably the tiger, I really like tigers. I’ve got a tattoo [of one] actually, I got it when I was 16. They’re supposed to symbolise anger transmuting into wisdom and being able to take all the hardships of your life and become stronger from it. And not being scared of anything, I feel like it’s really important to not be afraid to do whatever you want to do in life. That was my first tattoo. I got it done in Colombia because it’s the only place you can get a tattoo underage.
Originally published in Viper Magazine’s Spring 2014 issue.