It’s somewhat surprising that the rising singer, rapper, and producer Kali Uchis has spent much of her life in the humble suburbs of Northern Virginia. Her style seems sourced from somewhere between Beverly Hills and South Central Los Angeles, and her music—a mix of doo-wop, R&B, and hip-hop—doesn’t sound like anything being made in the D.C. area.
That’s probably because Uchis, 20, believes deeply in doing things her way. Over the last couple of years, she’s directed a few of her own videos, designed her own cover art, and written and produced most of her music to date, making her formal debut with her 2012 mixtape “Drunken Babble.”
That tape—along with her highly stylized and somewhat addictive Instagram feed—helped the young artist capture the attention of A$AP Rocky, Diplo and Snoop Dogg, with whom she recently collaborated on the vintage west coast-infused track “On Edge.” With a voice and vibe that has been compared to Erykah Badu and Amy Winehouse, and a unique sound she’s referred to as “soul-wop” (see the ‘50s styled “T.Y.W.I.G.”), Kali nods to the past while carving out a lane of her own.
In a way, her work helps her find both a home and an escape: Uchis was brought to the D.C. suburbs at age 12 after growing up in her family’s native Colombia, where she says she faced harassment for her fair skin and blond hair. She says she “never really felt completely at home in either place.”
Bandwidth recently caught up with Uchis in a recording studio in Falls Church, Va., and chatted about her background, personal style and her music—including her upcoming project, “Por Vida,” which includes collaborations with Diplo and Tyler, the Creator, among others, but is still all her own, she says.
Bandwidth: How have your experiences in both Virginia and Colombia impacted you?
Kali Uchis: Both of them kind of helped me to accept myself as an individual and accept that I was different and embrace the fact that maybe being like everybody else wasn’t the move anyway. I learned not to care what other people thought, ‘cause I just got so used to be being bullied and [stuff] just for the way that I contrasted with my environment.
B: How did you first get into creating music?
KU: I am very much an artist. I like painting and collaging. I used to love to look at cover art for vinyls… Also, my aunt brought me some musical influences because she would play a lot of old music. Like that “Por Que Te Vas” cover, that was a song that my aunt would always play in the house. My uncle would always play [stuff] like Curtis Mayfield and artists like that. I found so much beauty in that type of music.
I used to always write poetry and stuff. … I used to play piano, and I played saxophone. I was first chair saxophone and took that really seriously, too. I was always into music and stuff, so I would always make songs since I was little. … And then I got my first laptop when I was a senior in high school, and I started recording the music that I had been writing, and that’s when I recorded my first mixtape [“Drunken Babble”] and put it out that summer.
B: You’ve said that not using your talents would be an insult to God. Where did that attitude come from?
KU: It’s really not easy to be an artist. It’s not easy to put yourself out there and be honest. I’m making things that are really happening to me, and it’s not easy to share that with the world. It would be easier to get songs from other people and let someone else take the wheel and just be like “make me whatever you want to make me.” That would be easier. … Especially living in Virginia, it’s not like we’re in New York or California, so it’s not easy to just jump out on a limb and believe in yourself and really go full force for your dreams.
There’s a point in your life where you have to decide what you really want to do. I made the decision to do this because it was obvious to me that I am blessed. I do have talents. I didn’t want to let myself—for the sake of life being easier—pursue something that had nothing to do with the things that God clearly put me on Earth to do.
Warning: This song contains explicit lyrics.
B: What made you decide to handle everything yourself and become a one-woman band?
KU: Growing up, that’s the type of stuff that I loved to do. I’m an artist in every sense of the word. I was just like “Why would I let someone else do it?” No one is going to be able to fake that.
B: Will you always maintain full creative control?
KU: Even though I have the vision, I know I’m not the best at everything. I can admit I definitely have room to improve in terms of my videography, my writing and all that. I want to work and collaborate with people. I’m definitely open to collaborations, but I will never be the type of person to just let someone take the wheel.
B: How did “Drunken Babble” initially come together?
KU: I think it took me probably like—I remember I put it out in August. I was working on it most of July. I literally put it together in a month. I’m trying to remember what I was thinking because it feels like so long ago. I initially didn’t make it to put it out. I was just using it as a creative outlet. But I was seeing what was happening with music at the time. A lot of people were blowing up off of music videos and blowing up off songs that I felt were ass. … I felt like people would actually appreciate something real. [I was like] “Where is the soul? Where is the life?”…
I was definitely hesitant [to put out “Drunken Babble”]. I was thinking, “Maybe it’s too real.” I’m literally just crying on the joint. I’m saying everything that’s hurting me and bothering me. I didn’t make it for people to hear. I knew people who knew who I was talking about were going to feel a type of way, but I was just like “Eh [screw] it.”
Honestly, I didn’t expect anything out of the mixtape. I expected that when I put my first music video out, it was going to go viral. It was going to get 9 million views overnight, and everyone was going to be like “Oh my God, who is this?” and then they would listen to the mixtape and it would basically be a structure for the video. So I really wasn’t expecting much more than just something that people could appreciate as a reference. The last like five songs, I literally made those the night of the mixtape… I was more interested in a single and a music video. And the video did pretty well for someone that had never put anything out and had no push or PR. It was complete organic growth.
Warning: This video contains explicit lyrics and some NSFW imagery.
B: So what can we expect with “Por Vida”? Do you have a date yet?
KU: There’s no date. There will be a single with a music video coming out late spring. There’s definitely going to be a summery feel. Still like the old stuff, but kind of turned up a couple levels. There’s some guest appearances from Tyler [the Creator]. I’m still figuring out if the songs with Snoop [Dogg] will be on there. There’s a Diplo instrumental. I’m trying to focus less on making it feature-filled and more me. I collaboratively produced some of it. I worked with Chris Braide on it as well. He’s really, really good.
Warning: This video contains some NSFW imagery.
B: Why did you choose not to do everything yourself this time around?
KU: Producing is not simple. I wanted the music to be to its best capacity. I like to sit and build with somebody on something. For instance, the song I did with Chris Braide, I brought that song to him with the chords that I did on the piano. I wrote the entire song. I built the entire song myself. He just took it to that next level and he made it amazing. He made it big—something I couldn’t have done. So I still kept it myself and I still bring the songs, but I still have a lot to learn when it comes to producing.
B: Did it feel different with “Por Vida” now that people are watching and there may be expectations?
KU: No. I’ve never really been one to care what people think. At the end of the day, if people aren’t [messing] with it and it doesn’t work out, whatever. I know I’m going to be good no matter what. … I feel like when people are so focused on what other people are saying about their stuff, it becomes less genuine and less real. And that’s the most important thing to keep in your music—to take risks. That’s what people really want to hear, something raw.
B: Where does your personal style come from?
KU: I take influences from advertisements and films. Definitely like last year of my life, “Clueless” was a huge inspiration to my fashion. I love ’50s and ’60s and ’70s movies. I’ll just watch it and think to myself and just click everything in my head. And when I go thrifting or go to vintage stores, I’ll just pick up things that make sense and put it together the way I think it should be done.
B: Have you found that your looks take away from your music and what you’re bringing to the table?
KU: To be honest, it’s great. That’s another blessing. God gave me all these things for a reason. I can’t really help it, but I look like so many other people from the music industry. People are always comparing me to Gwen Stefani, Iggy Azalea, Lil Debbie, Lady Gaga, so it’s like no matter what, I’m going to get that. It’s not something I can change.
All I can really do about it is say I am bringing something different to the table musically. It can definitely be a downfall because when people look at me, they expect me to be vapid, and they expect me to be a rapper… But it’s cool because there’s no one out who looks like me and sounds like me. … It definitely did come from me being able to learn how to market myself and present myself to the world. Just by posting pictures of myself, people will be like “Oh who is that?” and then they’ll go look at my music. Whereas if I looked different, people probably wouldn’t care as much or be as interested.
B: What do you think of the DMV’s music scene right now?
KU: I feel like there’s a lot of talented people coming out of the DMV right now. Virginia as a state has harvested a lot of musical geniuses. I try not to really associate myself with a DMV movement just because people start comparing people to each other and people start thinking it’s a competition. People start making these [best-of] lists, and it creates bitterness and hostility between people when as a culture and a bunch of a young people coming from the same area, we should want the best for each other.