SSENSE : Kali Uchis’ Climb Towards Paradise
Interview and Styling: Nazanin Shahnavaz
Photography: Sandy Kim
High-up on a Los Angeles rooftop, Kali Uchis appears fearless. Eyes shut, she gently leans back and dangles her shoulders over the building’s edge as her long hair spills over the city below. She is unhurried and relaxed. A breeze kisses her face and reminds her of the mountains of her childhood, where she would climb to the highest point in the dead of night. The 22-year-old artist from Colombia-via-Virginia has captivated audiences with her soul-inflected pop since her debut mixtape. 2012’s Drunken Babble ushered her into the music industry and made possible collaborations with Snoop Dogg and Tyler, The Creator, along with a host of other famous voices. Her music has now reached every corner of the globe, although not without costs. From her childhood in Colombia, to her years of early musical experimentation in L.A., Kali Uchis’ path to success has been defined by a maelstrom of challenges—culture shock, authority clash, family struggle, shit-talking exes. All of this has led the singer to establish herself within the pop world on her own unique terms. Shaded under a thicket of flowers, the singer-songwriter discusses how themes of burning love, the frailty of human endeavor, and the transience of worldly things, have informed all of her work.
Nazanin Shahnavaz: When people ask you where you are from, what do you say?
Kali Uchis: I say Colombian and American. Technically, I’m a dual citizen and I grew up in both places. I don’t feel directly affiliated with one more than the other, so I say both.
How do you feel when people ask you that? Is it any of their business?
I mean, I did it to myself. I’m so proud of where I come from that I’ve always had my roots at the forefront of my identity. I’ve always said “I’m Colombian. I love my country. I love my city. I love my family.” It’s always been a big part of me.
What are your childhood memories of Colombia?
Sudden downpours of rain. Warm rain, rainbows, and giant colorful butterflies. It felt like such a magical place to have a childhood. Sleeping on the roof with my cousins, under the stars. Going to the farm where we could ride horses and be friends with the animals, or milk cows. Then you could be in the city and you could go to the coast, and you could go to Cali or Barranquilla, or to the islands and shit. I remember long car rides in my Dad’s Wrangler, we would drive all the way up the mountain in the middle of the night. It would be totally pitch black. It was fun, but I remember trusting my dad with my life. I feel like you can have so many different experiences in Colombia, even though it’s a country that is so much smaller than the United States.
And how did that compare to adolescence in Virginia?
Virginia felt less magical. I no longer had the unpredictable weather, I no longer had the nature. I no longer had my mountain-top swing where my feet would dangle 300ft above the river beneath me. But, I still had family with me. In Colombia, I grew up with my cousins, uncles, and aunts. We all lived in the same house. When I went to Virginia, it was similar. My dad was bringing people over from Colombia and it was kind of like an immigrant house. It was like, “Come here first, get on your feet, and then find somewhere to live.” As I got older, a lot of my family ended up moving back to Colombia, including my parents. After they left, I started to feel lonely, and that’s when I moved to L.A.
"I wouldn't want to be in L.A. trying to make Latin music with a German guy or something."
When you feel homesick, where do you feel homesick for?
It’s hard! When I go back to Virginia most of the places that I experienced as a child are torn-down and gentrified. They’ve built big houses where little houses used to be. It’s not the same experience. It doesn’t feel like the Virginia I grew up in. For the most part, I just go back to Colombia to see my parents.
I’m actually going at the end of August to visit and shoot a couple of videos. I’m coming out with a lot more Latin songs, and I think it’s important to spend more time with the community there. In the same way, I came to L.A. for a couple years to be around like-minded people and make music. All the people I was working with at the time on the album were people that happened to be in L.A. Now, I’m trying to focus more on Latin music, so it’s vital for me to immerse myself in Latino culture. I wouldn’t want to be in L.A. trying to make Latin music with a German guy or something.
Describe yourself as a teenager—what were you into?
I struggled a lot with authority figures.
I can imagine that.
I struggled with the idea of having to do something just because someone told me to. I was good at school, but I never wanted to be there. I lost interest in the public-school system, and I felt like most of the teachers weren’t there to teach kids, they were there to boss someone around. I got over it quickly. It felt more like a power struggle than an education. I focused more on my art classes, photography and video. Those teachers actually cared about the kids and wanted us to learn more about ourselves and what we wanted to do. I wanted to emancipate and get my GED. I wanted to grow up fast. I wanted to be on my own and do my own thing.
And what did you end up doing?
I decided to stick it out and graduate high school. But as soon as I turned 17, I left my parent’s house. I had this strong sense of like, “I don’t want to go to art school to learn how to make music or learn how to make videos. I want to build myself as an artist.” Everyone is different, but for me the best way to learn was through experience. I was learning shit by doing it myself and figuring out how to make shit work. I always had this idea in my head that anything I decided to do, I was going to be successful at, and I just had to decide. And, I just chose this. I thought it was what would genuinely make me happiest, and I thought it was my actual purpose.
It’s difficult when you’re a teenager—if you don’t conform you’re labelled as a bad seed. You can’t see much further into the future than tomorrow, and you have all these people coming at you from all these different angles, telling you what you should be doing with your life. I think the most important thing to do is have a strong sense of self, be an independent thinker, and understand that what worked for someone else may not necessarily work for you. You put yourself in a rut if you live for other people. You’re not letting yourself synchronize. You’re blocking yourself.
Did you always know what you wanted to be?
I think with a lot of kids that come from a difficult childhood, you imagine adulthood as this place where you can finally be free. I was just like, “I just want my own apartment, I just want my own space where no one will tell me what to do, I can do whatever I want and no one will bother me ever again.” I just wanted to be free.
What did you do for fun as a teen?
When I was like 15, we just used to get drunk, sneak out of the house. We were the worst kids. I used to lie so much to my parents. It was terrible. We’d go to college parties because we thought we were cool being 15-year-olds at a college party, hanging out with older guys, hanging out with gang bangers and shit! Hanging out with gang members, female gangs. I used to think that was really cool, and just kind of being a mess. What else did I do? I did a lot of bad shit when I was little, I was such a little brat.
Was self-image something you thought about at that age?
I didn’t really start thinking about beauty until I started becoming more of a woman. Now, if I look at a picture of myself from when I was younger, I’ll be like, “Oh my god.” You know how you always do, like, “What the fuck was I thinking?” It was cute, though. I didn’t wear makeup. I was very tomboy, then I was very punk-rock. I went through a chola phase. I used to box-dye and cut my own hair, it was always different shades of blonde because I didn’t know how to match tones. I used to do press-on nails from CVS and they would always be coming off. I was that cashier with my press-on nails that would come off in your bag when I was bagging groceries. I just didn’t want to waste money on these things. I was like, “Nail salon, $25? Fuck no.” I always thought that was so extra, like, “Who the hell goes to the hair salon? Who the hell goes to the nail salon? I can do that shit myself for free.” It seemed so indulgent. Even now, I still cut my own hair, my friend dyes it—except I don’t use box dyes anymore. And I got my nails done today!
"I was that cashier with my press-on nails that would come off in your bag when I was bagging groceries."
What makes someone beautiful?
For me the most beautiful thing about people is humor. I used to think confidence, because a lot of people would tell me confidence is the most beautiful thing a woman can have. For a long time, I tried to overcompensate with confidence, because I wasn’t secure in myself. I thought as long as I own it, then whatever. And there’s truth to that, but I also find shy people beautiful and people that aren’t so confident beautiful, too. I also think imperfections are beautiful. A lot of people are starting to look the same with all the procedures they’re getting, they are losing their unique qualities. Uniqueness is the most beautiful thing.
Are you a confident woman now?
I would like to say I am.
Is confidence something that grows as you mature?
When I was growing up and life was shitty, my friends would be like, “You’re so strong, you’re so strong,” because when I would go through something I would never show it. A lot of fucked up things happened to me and my family that none of my friends in Virginia had even heard of. They’d be like, “Wow, you’re a survivor,” and I’d be like, “What are these bitches talking about?” It took a lot of time to be able to reflect on that period, but it helped me understand that no matter what I’m going through, everything is fleeting and momentary. Another thing that helped me find strength was to imagine my life as a movie. I would say to myself, “This is just the shitty part in the movie, every movie has that moment where everything goes to shit and everything is so terrible, and this just means something better is around the corner.” This helped me persevere a lot. I was able to be like, “I’m still in the movie and I’m still me. I’m the main character, and as long as I’m still here, I have an opportunity to have a better life someday.”
What was the shit that was going down with you and your family?
It was a lot of really personal things happening at once, and over time. I don’t think they would like me to talk about it.
You’ve got a new album coming out this year. I understand that it was like a two-year process putting it together. Is the album a snapshot of that period of your life?
Everything I write is autobiographical, so every song I wrote is about a different experience I had—not even within those last two years of my life, but something I was reflecting on, maybe from my childhood or something that resonated so deeply that I felt the need to make a song about it. I can go from a heartbreak song, to a song about the oppression of working class people, to a song about escaping a life as an involuntarily sex worker.
Why do these topics resonate with you?
A lot of it just came from my experiences and my upbringing—the things I witnessed people doing, the things people were forced to do for money. Life is so fleeting, but there are people where all that matters to them is this inconceivable thing, this piece of paper that can get you whatever you want with, if you have enough of it. It’s so important to people. They would slave their lives away, doing things they hate, for a guy that has his feet up on the desk. The guy who exploits others to make money, who lets people work for minimum wage while he collects the thousands and thousands of dollars that they deserve. Is this what life is about? Is this what society is about? Doing what I’m doing now, I knew I was taking the risk of potentially being hungry and having to do things I didn’t necessarily want to do for money. But I made things work in whatever capacity I could. I feel like that is an important discussion to have.
"As an artist, in order to help people heal, we have to bare our own truths and bare our own pain into the music."
Some people say that suffering is necessary to make great art. Do you think that’s true?
From my last project, the songs that resonated most with people were the songs that came from a place of sadness. “Loner” is about being used like a cigarette. Someone needs you, uses you, and then tosses you away. The idea was that I would rather be alone than used as an object in someone’s life. And “Riding Around,” that came from a really hurtful time. I had already started making music and I was in a relationship with someone that was popular in the city. We had a bad split, and he was making things up about me. I felt like I was being attacked by my peers and by people who didn’t know me and didn’t know what happened. I wrote the song as a way of getting that off my chest. Both of those songs came from times of hurt and, at the end of the day, music is intended to help people heal. As artists, in order to help people heal, we have to bare our own truths and bare our own pain in the music. There are so many songs I’ve listened to where I was able to cry, and get shit out of my system, and without those songs I wouldn’t have been able to.
What songs do you listen to when you cry?
I wouldn’t want to share those. I don’t want you to listen to them and be like, “this is what she cries to.”
What does your paradise look like?
For a long time, one of my long-term goals was to buy an island and to create a new civilization. I understand realistically it would take a lot of money. Islands aren’t necessarily that expensive, but then I’m going to need Wi-Fi out there, and an airport in case I need to leave for any reason. I started thinking about all the logistics. On this island, anyone who was nasty or committed a crime wouldn’t be put in prison—there would be no jail—but we would rehabilitate them and teach them how to be better people. There wouldn’t be greed because we would all be rich. I would have so much money I’d fund everyone in the town and they would all have comfort. Anyone that seemed like they weren’t going to fit in our society, which will be made up of people with good energy and good intentions, we would all decide to kick off the island. It would just be as simple as that.