From the moment she self-released her debut mixtape Drunken Babble on free download site DatPiff in 2012, Kali Uchis has been slowly but surely carving a strong back catalogue and attracting a dedicated fanbase in the process. It’s not hard to see why. Not only are her old-school-with-a-twist visuals beautifully arresting, Uchis’ vocals are refreshingly distinctive; strong yet sweet without ever being saccharine. Lyrically, she flips tired stereotypes of heartbroken women on their head by owning her independence and reminding us never to cross her: “I don’t need a man / Fuck me over, I’ll fuck you worse then take off to Japan,” she sings on the irresistibly catchy “Ridin’ Round.”
This endearing sense of self-belief is evident when I call Uchis in Los Angeles. She is warm, extremely friendly and often hilarious, but there’s unmistakable tenacity in her voice; when she says she’s aiming for global domination, it’s hard not to believe she can pull it off. That’s not to say her come-up has been easy: “As a teenager, I started making money off of doing music videos, mixtape artwork and photoshoots for other people,” she explains. “I was trying to leave my house and become emancipated, and I was living out of my car and my friends’ houses while I was finishing high school. I was just trying to make money out of my passions and really stay creative with how I made that money.”
As well as working on projects for other artists, Uchis would sell clothing from the back of her car and hustle in various jobs. She also found time to write poetry and record music, although she stresses she never dreamed specifically of being a singer: “I never thought of it like that,” she says. “It was more so that it was a creative outlet for me.”
After sitting on material for so long, the star finally decided to put her work online. “I guess one day it just dawned on me that everything I loved was related to being an artist. I thought: Why not just put out some of the music I made by myself? Instead of taking a couple hundred dollars from people here and there to work on their stuff, I decided to focus on my own project - I thought maybe I could make money from that eventually.”
The response to Drunken Babble was immediately heartening. Fans and critics praised it as a trippy, genre-defying introduction to her work, whereas heavy-hitters including Tyler, The Creator and Snoop Dogg were soon moved to reach out and collaborate.
“I ended up getting a really good response from my first mixtape that I made by myself,” she says. “I was just a random girl from Northern Virginia, but no one over there was making music like I was making. People on the internet were like, ‘What is this?’”
More impressive still was the audiovisual universe she was able to create for herself - not only did she have the sound, she had the aesthetics locked down too. It’s worth noting that Uchis’ distinctive world is a product of her own creation. Unlike many artists who get picked up and subsequently dropped by major labels in record time, Uchis has been instrumental in carving out her own vision. She hints that this creative control is the formula to sustainable success, warning up-and-comers to be protective of their work.
“When you’re an emerging artist, someone can pick you up too early and you can sign your life away because you think they’re ‘making you,’” she explains. “That was never fair to me - I already had my own brand, my own sound, so I was never concerned about getting help from someone who had major influence.”
Despite this determination to not be distracted by major label interference, Uchis admits a past tendency to think differently about her creative process as her profile has grown. Before, she would simply write for herself, but there was a period in time when she was strongly thinking about the message her work sent to the world. For Uchis, these messages often revolve around empowering narratives and sassy, in-control protagonists.
Her lyrics are sometimes open to interpretation - one particularly brilliant analysis of “Tyrant” calls it an exploration of the women behind famous South American dictators - but often deliberately literal. She is never scorned, not even when tackling themes of romance and relationships.
“If I make a love song, I am always on the defense,” she laughs. “I’m not so much like, ‘Oh my God, you don’t love me anymore, my heart is broken!’ I’m more like, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to keep moving!’”
Most of us experience heartbreak at some point, but Uchis is passionate about communicating more optimistic messages partially to subvert certain narratives, but also to protect her own mental well-being. She is a firm believer that the energy you put out comes back to you, which is why she has consciously tried to reframe negative experiences through more positive output. On the one hand, it’s a form of catharsis, but it’s also her way of trying to manifest good things in the future.
Another dominant aspect of her own identity is her Colombian heritage, which she often references through Spanish lyrics and collaborations with high-profile stars like Juanes. She is working on more Spanish music, and says there are plenty more Spanish-language songs in her future. For Uchis, it’s a way to stay close to her roots; in the charts, however, the intent doesn’t always seem so genuine.
“I think a lot of people try to capitalize because fans in the Latin market are crazy—you can literally have a whole career based off Spanish-language music,” she says. “But I’m not interested so much in people trying to pretend they speak Spanish to sell songs.”
When asked if she has felt pressure to get more political in her songs, Uchis laughs off the suggestion. She actually feels people are a little too political - at least on social media. That makes her more reticent to speak out on certain topics, especially because she’s been criticized for doing so, something she feels more difficult to do as an emerging artist than an established one with a large platform. She also finds it ironic that the current geopolitical climate has galvanized online activism, when inequality and injustice have been happening for so long.
“I understand it’s important to spread awareness of important topics, and I will spread awareness when something fucked up happens that people aren’t acknowledging,” says Uchis. “I feel like so many people are doing it from a place of wanting to look spiritually conscious.”
Uchis admits that one song in particular on her album has a political tinge, but she emphasizes the importance of action over awareness. She wants to go beyond just addressing the topics she’s passionate about, and actually partner with foundations that can make a difference in people’s lives. Conversations like this are increasingly rare in the somewhat sanitized pop music industry, but this rarity only goes to show how important Uchis’s uncensored attitude is. She gushes with pride when talking about the sacrifices her family has made over the years.
She recalls the struggles her father went through—living on the streets as a kid, sleeping in buses, and hustling his way into America to support his relatives back home. Much of Uchis’s family remains in Colombia. She has her father’s passport signature tattooed on her arm to remind her of his resourcefulness, something she’s inherited from him.
Her storied upbringing underpins her own determination to be successful not only for herself, but for the past and future generations of her family. Uchis describes living in a house crowded with bunkbeds full of relatives coming to America and speaks with admiration of the familial support she grew up surrounded by. Her home was a waypoint for immigrant aunts, uncles and cousins, a place to help them get on their feet before moving into their own places.
Uchis’ own success only continues to grow; she’s currently gearing up to release her official debut album and expresses enormous gratitude to a fanbase that continues to grow even when she’s inactive. Her success is slow but steady, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’m not expecting to put out a project and suddenly be a fucking billionaire with a mansion, but I enjoy that my stats go up each week and that people are still finding out about me every day,” she says. “I just want to always one-up the last thing I did. I’m not interested in doing something that blows up crazy big and then never being able to follow up, because that’s how people fall off.”
Uchis has since moved from Northern Virginia to Los Angeles, but she jokes that she avoids the bubble of the music industry by spending a lot of time at home. She’s been able to carve her own lane by working on her album with just a few collaborators, maximizing her few contacts to build a platform on her own terms. Perhaps that indomitability is something she’s gleaned from her father.
“I’m just the daughter of a hard-working immigrant that came to America. That’s it.”