Kali Uchis has spent her entire life building worlds of her own. First as the oft left-out youngest sibling in Colombia, then as an immigrant in Virginia, she routinely shut herself in her room to pen songs and make collages. “I never felt like I needed to belong anywhere,” she says. “The only thing that exists is what I’m making and what I want to exist in my mind.”
That fierce individualism, of course, has led to a musical style all Uchis’ own. Her shimmery blend of soul, doo-wop and ’90s West Coast hip-hop — a genre she dubs “soul-wop” — paired with crackly, cooing throwback vocals sounds like nothing else on the airwaves. She insists on creative control, writing and producing most of her tracks, cover art and music videos. Uchis made her debut with the 2012 mixtape Drunken Babble, which she produced herself in a month. After attracting notice from the likes of Snoop Dogg and A$AP Rocky, the 21-year-old released her first studio EP, the nostalgic, dreamy Por Vida, in February.
Uchis created the entire concept for Por Vida — which she describes as “surreal … like a dream state.”
From her platinum blond hair and elegantly curved talons to her (often baby pink) vintage threads, even Uchis’ look refuses to recede into the background. She speaks to OZY over the phone in a sweet, scratchy voice about seeking solitude from her big, loud family in her bedroom, making illustrated books and playing the saxophone and piano. When she moved to Virginia at age 12, she did the same. “I never felt grounded in either place,” she says.
When she started recording her own music on GarageBand in high school, she looked to strong female artists, like Erykah Badu and Aretha Franklin, as she forged her own sound. During her 18th birthday party, she asked her (inebriated) guests to freestyle on some of her tracks. She decided to continue the project, aptly titled Drunken Babble. Highlights include the infectious, ’70s soul-inspired “T.Y.W.I.G.” and “What They Say,” whose head-swaying doo-wop melody and grainy audio pair perfectly with the Polaroid-hued video, featuring Uchis and her friends romping through L.A., oozing sweet yet sexy lowrider badassery.
Kali Uchis - What They Say
Drunken Babble generated plenty of babble in the music industry. A$AP Rocky tweeted a request to collaborate, while Snoop teamed up with Uchis for his mixtape track “On Edge.” The rapper Tyler, The Creator, lent his production magic to two tracks on Por Vida. Despite working with producers this time around, Uchis created the album’s entire concept — which she describes as “surreal … like a dream state” — right down to the pastel pink-and-blue cover design.
Uchis says Por Vida traces her growth into womanhood. While she sings about missing an ex in “Lottery,” she expresses a desire to stay single, free from “mind games, manipulations” in “Loner.” “Rush” is about staying afloat during tough times without losing sight of yourself. The grainy, lo-fi music video, released in May, shows Uchis crooning in classic Cali settings — sunbathing on a car hood, roller-skating — and emanating her signature girlie-tough vibe.
Watch out for her upcoming studio album — “definitely a step up from Por Vida,” she says, showcasing not only personal but also artistic growth. “I’ve been teaching myself, just trying to progress and evolve.” In the end, she hopes that whoever listens to her music can “gain some kind of power.” Get it, girl.