The Metamorphosis Of Kali Uchis
In her debut album, ‘Isolation,’ Uchis finds her freedom
When I ask Kali Uchis where she is when we hop on the phone, she tells me she is in her home in L.A. It's a minor question that I ask absentmindedly in all of my phone interviews, a journalistic tactic I've adopted in order to ease the anxiety I feel bubbling in the base of my stomach before launching into the real discussion. For any other interview, I never think about the minuscule detail ever again. Normally, after I hang up, I shuffle back to my desk to upload the audio file to my computer, think about what I should eat for my next meal, and continue on with my day. But this was different. When I return to my desk, I find myself thinking about Uchis, curled up on her living room couch, her phone held perfectly in her long, manicured hands, talking to me about how she doesn't let negativity affect her, not anymore, and in that moment, I realize, I believe her. Uchis is home. Not in L.A.―she's found it in herself.
Uchis, whose real name is Karly Loaiza, was thrust into fame unexpectedly. "I didn't grow up doing any of that stuff," she tells me. By "stuff," she means writing, producing, and singing. "I kind of, like, dropped something for fun that I was playing with," she says, referring to her 2013 mixtape, Drunken Babble, which caught the attention of Snoop Dogg. Two years later, she would go on to work with the likes of Tyler, The Creator, BADBADNOTGOOD, and Kaytranada for her sweetly sad EP, Por Vida.
"All of a sudden, I got propelled into this world that I never thought that I would end up in. I never thought that I would be a singer. A director, yeah. I always knew I was an artist, but I think it was nice incorporating everything together to make art."
Being unprepared for a life she didn't sign up for left Uchis feeling inept. The crippling self-doubt, she tells me, is what ultimately led her to delay the release of her highly-anticipated debut album, Isolation. "I feel like I became a perfectionist, and I became really hard on myself. Every project I made, I just threw it out and would start a new project. Then, I would throw out the next one out and start a new project. And finally, I just got to the point where I had to put my foot down, to just rip the Band-Aid off, you know?"
Yet surprisingly, for someone who's dealt with self-doubt and anxiety, Uchis has always remained grounded. "I didn't take too much advice from other people because I genuinely believe that nobody knows what's best for you. No one can decide what you should do, what course of action you should take to get where you wanna go, except for yourself. Like, there are messages from your higher self, versus messages from your intellect. Learning the difference between those two, and making sure to close off messages from the outer, which is the criticism, the opinions, the doubts, the negativity... You have to close all of that stuff out and really only let your soul be directed to the messages from your higher self."
At this point in her career, it's clear that Uchis knows where she wants to go and doesn't care how long she takes to get there. In an era where music is consumed like fast food, Isolation is a five-course meal—a genre-blurring culmination of reggaeton, funk, and bossa nova, which not only is a testament to her immense talent but her truth: freedom comes from within.
"Attempting to raise your success or raise your public standing based out of fear doesn't work for me," she says. "I don't operate on fear, and I don't let fear control me. That's a dangerous game. I think, moving into the future, I just didn't want to let myself be constricted by boundaries or let my life path be guided by things that weren't true to me. I'm excited to work on my next album, which is gonna be more solitary. I'll be conducting the entire thing on my own. And it won't take as long as this one did [laughs]."
Stream the album and read our interview with Uchis, below.
You collaborated with some incredible artists on this new record. How did you come to work with them?
There's no particular method or course of action that I take in order to decide who I'm going to work with besides feeling complete and total respect and admiration for that artists. I started making music by myself and figuring all of that on my own. I had never worked with other people before, really. Even with Por Vida, it was all pretty much over emails, so I had never really sat in a room with other musicians and instrumentalists and singers and, together, try to make a contribution to my music. For this album, I really just wanted the collaborators to be people who are very much in their own world and include people from the old school and people who are newer. I have my peers, like Jorja and Steve [Smith] and Kevin Parker from Tame Impala, and then have people that I grew up with that I've been listening to forever, like Bootsy [Collins] and Damon Albarn. I just really wanted the album to be more well-rounded, and the people who contributed to it are people who have a place in my heart.
What did it feel like being in the studio with musicians that you deeply respect and admire to work on something for you?
I was nervous because sometimes I can be insecure. I think, especially going through this album, I was still learning about my abilities and nervous to sing in public. I didn't grow up doing that, and even when I made the project, it was like I was recording myself, I was my own engineer. It was just me in the room with a mic versus now, and you have this audience when you're recording. It was definitely a whole different experience but, I think, was really important and necessary for my growth as an artist, vocalist, and as a musician. I did my experimenting with that, and I learned that I was ready to put forward music and celebrate all of this happening. I've been able to experiment with all these different processes, and kind of learn and grow as an artist through these experiences, and let myself do what feels natural.
Your style has changed a lot for this new record. Can you talk to me about that?
I mean, I'm not a packaged Barbie doll. I'm not a brand that is created by anyone. I invent myself, and I love to reinvent myself. I'm just a multidimensional human being and artist.The same way, if you look at a picture of yourself, anyone who looks at a picture of themselves in three years is gonna be like, "What the fuck was I wearing? Why was I doing that?" We all just change. We're always adapting and kind of learning different things about ourselves. I knew eventually, with my hair, that I was gonna have to go to my natural color because it was such a process of constantly having to bleach, constantly having to damage my hair, and I actually wanted to do it the whole last year that I had my blonde. I didn't really want it, but everyone in my life was just like, "No, no, no. Don't change the blonde. It's your signature. It's your look." I was like, "No. My signature look is in the eyes, it's in the face, it's in the things that make me unique about my facial structure, about my imperfections." That's what I think is your signature look as a human being.
A lot has changed since the last time you spoke to us. Since last year, the entertainment industry has experienced an incredible reckoning with the #MeToo and Time's Up movements. What are your thoughts on this in terms of the music industry?
Not to get into things too personally, but we all are either victims of being personally abused before or close to people being abused, and I saw that from a really young age. So I think, for me, coming when I came to L.A., I knew that there were people that didn't necessarily [want to] work with me, as much as they just wanted to maybe have sex with me. I guess I always had that idea in my head, that I always had to make sure that people took me seriously and that people understood my intentions and that I was really clear about the boundaries between the fact that maybe I might not dress so conservatively, but, just because I don't, doesn't mean that I wanna have sex with everybody. It's sad that we have to constantly voice the fact that the way we dress―even people who are dressed conservatively still get taken advantage of... It has nothing to do with what we're wearing, it just has to do with the fact that a lot of people are sick in the mind and a lot of people abuse their power.
Abuse of power is something that has happened from the beginning of the time, and it happens in every industry, in every career, in every place of work. Do I think it's something that's going to end anytime soon? No, because I think people are always going to find a way to abuse their power. We just have to be supportive of each other and raise our children to be less tolerant, because I know so many girls who are kind of like, "Oh yeah, this happened to me." No. When things like that happen to me, I immediately let my parents know as a little kid, and not everyone has that, and it's hard and it's painful. But I think just kind of letting our children know from a young age... I think what we can do to help the situation truly is to raise our kids to know what's what, and to know that they're not responsible and it's not their fault. When things like that happen that they need to call out the people that are doing it and just holding people accountable.
I'm glad you touched upon the fact that what a person wears has nothing to do with abuse. Cardi B also touched on this in an interview with Cosmopolitan, where she said that these movements against sexual assault are often overlooked for women in hip-hop or women whose sexuality is at the forefront of their commercial appeal.
It makes me mad when people are like, "Oh, well did you see what she was wearing? She was asking for it," when they're talking about victims of abuse. Was I dressed some type of way when I was a little girl? Was my cousin dressed some type of way? Or my mom? You don't have to be dressed a certain type of way for bad things to happen to you. That's not about you or how you look, that's about someone else having a sickness.
How do you deal with being in the public eye?
I think most importantly for me, just as a human being, letting go of the need to assimilate to society is so important for me. That's where true freedom comes from. For a while, I thought that the worst thing about being in the public eye, and the main reason why I never wanted to be someone who was at at the forefront, was the constant assumptions that people make of you, and how people can create false narratives of you. It's a lot easier for people to believe something negative of you than something positive, and that speaks volumes of our society more than it does about the actual person that's being the topic of discussion.
Do you think you have reached a place where you don't have to worry about that anymore?
There's no use living a life trying to be accepted and trying to satisfy other people's points of view. Being good enough for myself is more important than being good enough for everyone else. I think the idea that we have to be liked by others in order to feel validated is kind of fucked up. My family are very humble, hardworking people and immigrants. I think even just coming from that, anyone who has parents or family members who are immigrants knows the culture is different, and your parents work really hard and they have a lot of expectations on you. I learned really young that anyone that tries to make me feel I'm not good enough, or tries blame, guilt, or shame me for being myself is something that doesn't need to be in my mental [headspace].
What are your thoughts now, looking back on all that you've been through in your life to the place you are in now?
It's hard to define how I feel at the moment because it's so many different emotions. Above all else, I feel relief, and I'm looking toward the future. I'm excited to give myself new reason to live every day, new reason to be excited about my future, be hopeful, continue creating, and being able to have the opportunity to share things that I create with the world. It's weird, but, at the same time, it's something that so many people don't have, so I think it's important to take everything else with a grain of salt and remember that you're just a human being and let yourself experience normal things and don't try to be perfect, and don't try to always be on-brand, or always be this picture of what a woman is supposed to be or what an artist is supposed to be. I think I'm just in a time of my life where I really just love myself and I feel proud of who I am as a person and proud of my growth, and I'm excited to keep growing.