BECOMING KALI UCHIS: HOW THE BOUNDARY BREAKING ICON FOUND HER SIGNATURE STYLE AND SOUND

An interview with Kali Uchis by Kitty Robson for HUNGERTV.com

If there was ever a self-made star, Kali Uchis should be the dictionary example: turning to creativity of all forms in her somewhat tumultuous upbringing between Colombia and America, Uchis (born Karly-Marina Loaiza) found herself lost in the world of music. Nicknamed Kali Uchis by her father, her musical world was her own little secret, until her 2012 mixtape made its way out of the bedroom and into people’s lives – the lives of Snoop Dogg and Tyler, The Creator nonetheless.
A story-teller, a picture-painter, her aesthetic is as emotively crafted as her music, it’s Kali through-and-through. Proud of her heritage, her Colombian roots shine through her soulful sound and sensual style, drawing in her influences from the silver screen and beyond, Uchis is a cinematic ethereal dream. On top of her creative genius, the artist confronts discrimination, inequality, Americana and more head on, Kali Uchis is as relevant and important now as she was when she was creating art for her community. Unpacking her evolution to the siren we know and love today, Kali Uchis talks HUNGER back through her days directing videos in her small town, to discovering her life’s calling, right up to what’s still to come…
How’s 2018 been for you so far?
I don’t like to put too many expectations on things because nothing ever seems to go as planned, but I think as long as there’s growth each year it’s positive. I always keep myself busy no matter what, when there’s nothing I get a bit depressed so I like to be constantly doing stuff. Preparing myself for better things to come.
You’ve had an interesting evolution over the years, and you’ve definitely grown. How do you feel your sound and self has evolved?
I think when I started with music, when I started as an artist releasing things into the world, it was always a choice and an expression. I didn’t have any training or have anyone around me who really supported me. Over the years, being able to actually grow as an artist and as a person has been so vital. Leaning how to use my voice, and really produce my own music, I’ve found how to expand on them because I have people around me who really believe in me. For so long I never had people like that around me, and I didn’t have people around me to work with either. So I guess I’ve always been pushing myself, I’ve always been pushing to learn more about my own voice and my own self. Never trying to be stagnant or stay doing the same thing.
Was your upbringing musical?
In a way – it’s not like my family were musicians or anything but I made sure I was around a lot of music. It was a way to get out of my current surrounding, I’d go to my room put my headphones on or just blast music, like a lot of kids do. It was an escape. I’d love to go to record stores and find new artists, I didn’t like listening to music that everyone else was listening to. I liked to discover new things, so I developed a very eclectic taste and a strong appreciation for artists that were upcoming and were unique. I think I was drawn to writing, so I was always writing poetry and winning writing competitions. Then I was also in band and I played saxophone and keys, I really pushed myself to be musical. So it was a vital part of me.
You mention writing poetry, do you find writing helps you be in touch with your emotions?
I think so, I try to have emotionality in my writing. I’ve always been a typical Cancer – I read my horoscope and I’m like that is so me, you know?
As a fellow Cancerian, me too.
Aw haha, it’s so true! Cancer’s always say they can tell I’m a Cancer from my music which is so funny.

"Music is energy. If it’s used the right way it’s extremely powerful."

I can see that, your music is emotional and empowering. How does it feel to be a woman in the industry right now?
I think life is all about perspective. I try to look at it from the most positive aspect that I can, because otherwise I’ll just drive myself crazy. I’m happy that I have my fanbase and the people supporting me in this time. I’ve never really been the person who relied on the industry accepting me, or believing in me, because they never really have. It’s a business. They place their money on safe bets, especially when it comes to female artists. I’m Columbian but I’m also American, I’m bilingual; I kind of have a weird face, I’m not traditionally beautiful, I consider myself beautiful in my own way. I never strive to be perfect or be anything I’m not. I don’t plan on rearranging my face or try to make my voice or personality flawless. I’d rather just be me, and make way for my own self.
Do you think music has the power to change things? Socially or politically…
Music is really powerful. History proves it, that’s why certain types of music have been banned over the centuries, why musicians who were preaching about certain things have been killed. Because, it’s something that can fully change your perspective, change how you feel about your environment.
Do you feel like you’ve experienced that personally?
Definitely, that’s another thing I’d use music for growing up. Emotionally, to make you feel better, to put it in a new mood – all of a sudden you have energy to exercise because of a song. All of a sudden you feel sad because of the music you’re listening to. Music is energy. If it’s used the right way it’s extremely powerful.
If you could change something about the music industry what would you focus on?
If I had to pick only one thing – because there’s a few things (laughs) – it would be to encourage diversity. I feel that artists who are unique aren’t put to the forefront enough, because they’re seen as risks. There’s an issue with putting people into boxes with music, and everyone is so obsessed with filling someone else’s shoes: being a stereotype, whether that’s a certain type of woman, a certain type of Latina. By being in the box, ‘they’ understand what you are, “we get what this is”. It makes it a lot easier for people who are doing things that are safe, but that makes it a lot more difficult to progress as a society because we’re repeating things that have been done before. Little kid melodies, lacking substance, goo-goo-ga-ga la-di-da, it’s non-progressive. But, that’s just one thing.
Do you feel like artists who are unique are limited by that?
I still think that artists who are unique are going to get where they want to go, but I feel like it makes it harder to get support for people who are doing something different. People perceive you as not belonging anywhere, but the reality is that you shouldn’t have to. Music isn’t about belonging in genres or boundaries, it should just be about expression, about being free.

"There’s an issue with putting people into boxes with music, and everyone is so obsessed with filling someone else’s shoes."

The visuals you work on are very cinematic, is film something that has had an effect on your creative evolution?
Growing up I was really into cinema, I wanted and I still do want to go into film, acting and behind the camera. One day I’d love to make my own movie! I always love to direct my own music videos, when I started out, in my town I wasn’t just releasing music I was making music videos to get myself out there. Super low budget, random stuff, but it’s how I started getting into my groove of actually making money doing something I loved that wasn’t a 9-5 job. I used to make music videos for other people, I used to make cover art for mixtapes, and I used to make clothes and redesign and customize them. So I was doing whatever creative things I enjoyed, and made money off of that. I’ve always just loved anything creative that allows me to express myself, and film was such a major part of that.
How did you get into music from there?
Nobody really knew I was making music back then, for a long time it was something that was very personal to me that I didn’t share with anyone. One day I just randomly decided to put a mixtape out and the rest is history.
You’ve worked a lot with Nadia Lee Cohen, what is it about her aesthetic that meshes so well with yours?
I love working with people who have so many of the same influences as me, and I think Nadia really is one of those. She always understands where I’m coming from and gets all of my ideas. Sometimes it’s really hard to explain yourself to people who you’re working with on a creative project if they don’t have the same inspirations. Nadia and I love a lot of the same films, and directors, so everything we do is so easy.
Is there anyone you’d really love to collaborate with?
When I was growing up I was so inspired by Melina Matsoukas, I didn’t know many female directors who were really killing it in the male-dominated music video industry. Especially ones who were making things artistic, her work for Beyoncé and Rihanna is so special. So I’ve always really wanted to work with her.
Who are your ultimate style icons?
Oo I have a lot. When I was young I really loved androgynous models. Omahyra Mota definitely. I love Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz’ early films, because I really appreciated what they could add to the film world from a Latina perspective. I always love their characters, they pick roles of such strong women which is important. A lot of my styling inspirations are from characters in movies, more so than they are from other musicians or whatever. But in terms of artists, I just love artists who are really bold and fearless with their fashion – like Cher or Diana Ross or Selena [Quintanilla-Pérez].
What’s your favourite fashion era?
I love a lot of the 90s fashion. But then I’m also so into the 60s and the 70s! I mix those three eras up a lot definitely.
What albums would you take onto a desert island?
Definitely Astrud Giberto, I always listen to Bossa Nova music because it makes me relax so that would be nice on a desert island. Then probably something for when I want to dance, so some Celia Cruz.
Finally, what’s next for you?
I’m focusing on Isolation right now, I’m putting out so much content to support my album. Hopefully some movie soundtracks are in the future too, and maybe some acting. I have some dates in the summer that I’m excited about, and then my tour starts in September. I’m coming to Lovebox which should be fun and then I’m going to other parts of Europe that I’ve never been to before on my headline tour.
Isolation by Kali Uchis is out now.

Team Credits

Kitty Robson

  • Online Editor at HUNGER Magazine
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  • Hunger Magazine

    Hunger Magazine

    • Media Production

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Kitty Robson
Online Editor at HUNGER Magazine