"We have to give ourselves the space and the time to grow...."

Mere weeks ago Kali Uchis - full name Karly-Marina Loaiza - arrived for the unveiling of a mural in Los Angeles, coinciding with the release of her debut album. Clad in an arresting white outfit, leaning out the roof of a colour-coordinated limo, it was akin to a ‘Marilyn’ moment, the Colombian songstress basking in the dewy glow of newfound stardom. A perfectly staged photo-op, archived and disseminated through her socials; fans of all creeds were braced for an embrace or a Kali co-sign.

As our transatlantic chat unfurls, it’s clear that behind the stylized phantasm – a cross between icons of 60s cinema and a telenovela temptress – Uchis is warm, deeply empathetic, but also self-assured, steering her own career trajectory. It’s no wonder Kali has a legion of fans loyal to her.

Reaffirmed in her belief as an artist, Uchis shifted from her family home in Virginia to the insular circles of Los Angeles, where the likes of Snoop Dogg, Diplo and Tyler the Creator reached out. “In Virginia, my success was still localised, but in LA people were immediately susceptible to what I was putting out. I was staying at their houses, using their studios. Before I didn’t have those resources at all, and in LA those resources were now at my disposal.”

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‘Por Vida’, an EP, was released in 2015, imbuing her music with the languid Bossa nova-influence of Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto, merging Kali’s boudoir sound with the edge of futurist soul. Such was the appeal, her songs would go on to soundtrack cult hit shows like American Horror Story and HBO’s Insecure, “I didn’t have help getting me on to these platforms, it was just happening very organically, it was all word of mouth.”

The assiduous grinding paid off. Just last month Kali released her first official full-length, ‘Isolation’ to acclaim, fortifying her early potential as an artist playing the long game. Far from something ephemeral, the record is an all-encompassing cinematic reverie that took three years of meticulous design. “Honestly, I’m just so relieved,” she pauses in thought, “I’ve crossed so many hurdles to get to this point. I’m such a perfectionist, so it feels so good to finally have the record out, because I can’t alter it anymore.”

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I don’t want to be in competition with anyone, I always want to one-up myself...

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On ‘Isolation’, Uchis flips the script, eschewing dependence and despondency, never foregoing her creative autonomy. “I wasn’t going to have one of those (record) deals where my creativity is compromised. When you have a strong vision as an artist, it’s important to stick with that. I am where I am because I’ve always been true to myself. If I took a backseat on my art, it just wouldn’t work.”

‘Isolation’ boasts a curated selection of big-name collaborators with distinct monikers – Damon Albarn, Bootsy Collins, frequent studio partner Tyler, and Thundercat to name a few. Collectively they redefine the fuzzy, lo-fi feel of Uchis’ prior material into an amalgam soundscape - free-flowing and at times surrealist. “I’ve been lucky enough to have these crazy talented producers and artists help bring this vision to life. There’s this competitive mentality in music that’s quite outdated. We should be able to coexist. I don’t want to be in competition with anyone, I always want to one-up myself.”

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“I write my own music, this is all my vision”, she insists. It’s true. On ‘Isolation’ Uchis never allows her identity to be masked by the sonic imprint of others, dexterously bestowing herself with every musical whim. From the reggaeton Latina heat of ‘Nuestra Planeta’, to the Kevin Parker-produced hazy psychedelia of ‘Tomorrow’, all citations converge into one streamlined listen, nary a dud on a 15-track LP.

Kali gushes in retrospect about the latter track, “Kevin is a genius! I’m so honoured he agreed to work with me. We had two days together in LA and that one song was the only one we worked on, the one song I asked him to mix himself. I’m proud of what we created, it’s different tonally from the rest.”

Much of the ability to traverse genres is because of Kali’s voice; quietly impactful, pliable, and in keeping with the leisurely, palatial dreamscape she and her producers hone so artfully. Uchis is honest when assessing her range, “I don’t have the biggest voice. Some of my vocal influences like Sade, Gwen and Kelis don’t have huge voices either. Yet they have their own distinct sound, a signature voice that could be recognised from miles away.”

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I’ve always been interested in unique voices as opposed to perfect voices...

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She muses for a second, “I’ve always been interested in unique voices as opposed to perfect voices, that’s what made me the vocalist I am today, that sort of ethos. It was never about emulating someone’s voice, but about establishing a blueprint that was unique, and quirky.”

On ‘Isolation’ the trials and tribulations that have defined Kali’s life thus far, pop up like phantom threads. Kali cavorts with them but is never overawed. She penetrates the veil of falsehoods and double standards and what remains is a feminista manifesto on how to take ownership of one’s destiny. She spins the concept of remoteness into something positive and life-affirming. “Being viewed as alone is often perceived as negative. That’s such a damaging perception. We have to give ourselves the space and the time to grow. That allows you be more intuitive,” she stresses.

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A centrepiece of the record is ‘Miami’, a polyglot workers’ anthem home to the zinger, “He said he’d want me in his video like Bound 2, But why would I be Kim? I could be Kanye. In the land of opportunity and palm trees.” It’s a lyric that has drawn the ire of a contingent of Kardashian loyalists, but against a backdrop of fevered Yeezy rhetoric, it’s a timely commentary of ideology, gender roles and free agency.

“It’s not a diss at all, the fact that it’s even being viewed that way is reductive,” Uchis pledges. “It’s a reference to the imagery in ‘Bound 2’. Originally the line comes from my ex, he’d always say you’re the Kim to my Kanye. It was part of a larger cycle of control, and manipulation. A lot of guys want that, a mannequin they can dress, and Kanye was very vocal about the fact that he dressed Kim, that he was moulding her into a vision of someone they want to be with. I’m striving to be more than a muse; I want to be the creative genius.”

She continues, “Who do I want my little cousins to look up to? It’s been a long time coming, women have been repressed for so long, and we’ve been made to feel that the only thing we’re good for is our bodies. I think it’s important that we reclaim our bodies, we can be sexual without feeling shame for it. If I choose to be half-naked in a photo or a video that’s because I made that decision myself.”

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I think it’s important that we reclaim our bodies, we can be sexual without feeling shame for it...

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“There is so much pressure on women to be perfect, and walk straight, walk carefully and have a book balance on our head. Men can be comfortable, be a genius, and it comes off as edgy when it is no such thing. I want my cousins to grow up feeling comfortable about themselves, and their sexuality but also rise above the superficial.”

The quote “Life is like sex. Sometimes you have to change your position,” appears in Uchis’s own calligraphy on a poster inserted in every physical copy of her record. It derives from a conversation she overheard on a train ride through her native Colombia - a drop-out-the-sky epiphany. On the poster Uchis is laid out across a swath of sapphire satin, strikingly contrasted by her revealing ruby attire. The quote and the aesthetic captures Kali’s aspirational appeal – otherworldly escapism into an expansive alternate reality where dreams are realised, vindication achieved.

“This is for everyone who feels trapped in their positions, and hopefully this record will help you realise this. Find the inner strength to maybe get out of a toxic relationship or find the strength to chase your dreams. Get rid of the shit that isn’t substantial to your life and don’t satisfy someone’s notion of what they want you to be. Hopefully my music will enable people to see that more.”

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'Isolation' is out now.

Words: Shahzaib Hussain

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