This year, fans of Kali Uchis began suggesting that the Colombian-American singer had the gift of predicting the future, because in 2018 she titled her debut album Isolation.
“It was a little joke among themselves. It was cute,” she says. “I just like my titles to be whatever mindstate I was in while I was making the music. I’m a Cancer – I like being in my lttle shell, in my own space. At the beginning of this pandemic I didn’t go out of my house or let anyone in for months.”
Her real isolation release came in April this year when she put out an EP called To Feel Alive. The four tracks were recorded and produced completely alone in her Los Angeles home – two spruced up versions of songs that were written but not released around the time of her first EP in 2015, one song only previously heard live on a joint headlining tour of the US with Jorja Smith last year, and the brand new title track. She says its plucked orchestral strings and yearning vocals took 15 minutes to complete, including the actual writing of the song.
So she’s prolific, and doesn’t need much help. “I have my Spanish album finished, and I’m working on my English one. I am sitting on a lot of music,” she tells me. Which makes things tricky, in this year of what’s-the-point-even-trying-to-plan-anything. It feels like she’s on the cusp of becoming much better known for her brand of colourful, sassy R&B, which has already seen her supporting Lana Del Rey on tour and singing with Gorillaz and Tame Impala, the major rappers Snoop Dogg, Tyler, the Creator and Mac Miller, plus the Colombian superstar Juanes. Her high concept videos, in which she plays everything from a catatonic suburban housewife to a violent cyber criminal, earn millions of views on YouTube. But the big comeback keeps going back.
She has agreed to talk to me, on a Zoom with the cameras off, about her second album, which is supposed to be sung almost entirely in Spanish and released in the next month. It apparently comes as just as much of a surprise to the various handlers listening in as it is to me when she says, “I think we’re looking at February now.”
“Literally nothing goes as planned,” she continues. “I just let it happen. If I were to go crazy every time something didn’t go as planned, I would not have any more brain cells.”
There is a new single at least, a Spanish language smoothie called La Luz, which means “the light”. With its slowed reggaeton rhythm, twinkling keys and an appearance from Puerto Rican singer Jhay Cortez, it’s well suited to appeal to the Latin pop market, but Uchis seems confident that her latest work can cross over to boring old English speakers too. Perhaps another Colombian giant, Shakira, set the precedent by landing high in the Billboard charts with her 2005 album Fijación Oral, Vol. 1, which was a follow-up to a smash in English. Let’s not forget Justin Bieber jumping on the 2017 megahit Despacito either.
“The album is all Spanish with a few bits here and there in English. That’s just my writing style. I grew up bilingual, speaking Spanglish in my house, so it would be inauthentic to sing completely in Spanish or in English because that’s not how I talk,” she explains. “At my concerts, when I do songs and covers in Spanish, I see people being receptive. They aren’t as closed-minded as they used to be. I hope that even if they don’t understand the language they’ll be able to feel the music. If not, my next English album won’t be too long coming.”
She was born Karly-Marina Loaiza 26 years ago in the US state of Virginia, but spent her childhood between there and Colombia in busy houses with various relatives passing through. She attended high school in the Virginian city Alexandria, which sounds like it encouraged her creative side. “There were so many different cultures, so many different people, and everybody was really open: gay kids, lesbian kids, girls with their heads shaved, piercings and tattoos. Everybody had a lot of personality and did their own thing.” She made her own clothes to sell, learned keyboards and saxophone and got into filmmaking and photography. Academia was not her path.
“I don’t like classrooms. I had this creative mind that wasn’t into what my family wanted me to be into,” she says. “My dad is a teacher and takes education really seriously. I knew that my plan was to move to LA and pursue music.”
Her parents returned to Colombia when she was 17 and she remained, working in grocery stores, restaurants and a yoghurt stall. In 2012 she recorded a 17-track mixtape on her laptop in her bedroom, using a microphone and the free music editing software GarageBand. She called it Drunken Babble and obviously thought something of it given that she put it online in the first place, but she deleted it as soon as she realised that excited music fans were sharing it en masse. Fans still keep putting it back on YouTube and Soundcloud, which she finds embarrassing.
“I hate when people refer to that as my introduction to the music industry,” she says. “I was a kid who didn’t know what they were doing. It literally took no time to put together, I just threw together a bunch of songs. I was experimenting and learning. It’s not that I think it’s bad. There are songs on there that have tonnes of potential. But I just made this music overnight. It’s like somebody taking your notes and saying they’re your final project.”
Nevertheless, the collection helped doors to begin to open for her. By the time her next album finally appears, a lot more people will be waiting with great anticipation.
“Basically my career has been full of mistakes!” she says. “If I could go back I would definitely do a couple of things differently. But mistakes are part of what make us who we are, and take us where we’re supposed to go. I’m really proud of this next project, and even though I don’t get to give it to the world when I wanted to, I really do believe that everything’s gonna happen when it’s supposed to happen.”
Kali Uchis’ new single, La Luz, is out now on EMI/Interscope