Kali Uchis went from sleeping rough in the back of her car to working with Gorillaz and Snoop Dogg. The Colombian-American star tells us the story of her hard-won success.
At the age of 17, Kali Uchis was thrown out of her parents’ house for repeatedly breaking her curfew.
For months she lived on the streets, sleeping in the back of her Subaru and working in a grocery store to make ends meet.
Her rebellious streak first started to cause problems two years earlier, when she’d begun skipping class to spend time making experimental short films and working on her music.
It makes the lyrics to the opening song on her latest album, Isolation, particularly fitting.
“There’s no tracking where I’m going,” she sings on Body Language.
It’s not just a boast, it’s a promise – one that’s fulfilled by the wild profusion of ideas she presents over the following 50 minutes.
The album glides effortlessly between soul, bossa nova, reggaeton, Cumbia, bedroom pop and elastic funk – all wrapped up in Uchis’ sun-baked, jazzy vocals.
It’s a reflection of her open-minded approach to music, which all began with her father’s job.
“My dad managed apartment complexes and a lot of people, when they would leave the apartments they would leave their old music behind,” she explains.
“So my dad would bring me home little boxes of CDs sometimes. That’s how I found out about Kenna [Zemedkun, Ethiopian-American musician], and there was a group called Cerar who were super-weird, almost demonic.
“I’m pretty sure they were putting some type of curse on me, but I would still listen to it.”
Kali deliberately sought out the strange and obscure – the more bizarre the better.
“I wanted to feel like music was my secret,” she says. “I wouldn’t want to just turn the radio on and everyone be singing the same song as me.”
That musical curiosity fuelled her own songwriting, to the point where she’s suspicious of singers who stick with a single style.
“To just have one aesthetic or one thing you sing about is a little bit gimmicky,” she decrees.
As you might have noticed, Kali Uchis is not lacking in confidence.
She’s funny, smart and friendly too – but carries the hard-won determination of a woman who’s had to fight for her place in the world.
Born Karly-Marina Loaiza, she was raised in her parents’ native Colombia before violence forced them to flee to Alexandria, Virginia in 2000.
Home life was often chaotic, with her parents and four older siblings joined by a rotating cast of relatives who’d come from Pereira to find work.
Her father would get them jobs as cleaners and construction workers on the properties he managed. When money was tight, he’d rope his daughter in too.
“I was caulking and putting up dry-walls,” she says. “We all did it, me and my brothers and everyone – construction and auto-mechanic repairs.
“I had no problem at all with hard work.”
In school she played saxophone and piano, eventually becoming first chair of the jazz band.
But it was around this time her rebellious streak started to surface, with her parents eventually throwing her out as a result of her class-skipping and curfew-breaking.
She’s since reconciled with her family – Kali Uchis is a nickname her father gave her – but the experience taught her to be self-reliant.
“It was kind of like, ‘You are your own saviour,'” she says.
“People look so much to others for validation, for support, for comfort: ‘Do I look okay? Is this too desperate? Am I good enough? Am I good enough?’
“If you’re good enough for yourself, then you’re good enough.”
Shortly after moving back into her old bedroom, in August 2012, the teenager summoned up the courage to post some of her music online.
“I made 17 songs in one night,” she recalls. “I didn’t really expect anyone to hear it.”
But her lo-fi mixtape, Drunken Babble, caught the attention of people like Snoop Dogg, Gorillaz and and Tyler, the Creator, who invited her to appear on their albums.
Typically, it didn’t bother her.
“Numbers lie,” she says. “Some of these people who have hit songs, they’re paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to get played on the radio every five minutes – but they can’t sell out the venues that I’m selling out.
“My fans will stay with me no matter what. They don’t care about me just because of a hit song.”
Those fans sustained her during the laborious, three-year process of recording her debut album.
“I like to be able to let my fans into my life,” she says. “To connect with them in a personal way and not just have them see the parts you want them to see.”
But is that openness compatible with her self-professed desire for privacy? After all, her album is called Isolation, and one of her previous singles carries the refrain: “I’d rather be a loner.”
“I guess it’s just finding a balance,” she says. “I give my phone to my assistant a lot and she lets me know if there’s a text message that I need to answer.”
Sometimes, she says, “I don’t even want the phone to touch me. It can become really addictive and really distracting.”
Instead she throws herself into her career – not just making music but styling her photo shoots and directing her videos. In other words, she’s building her own world.
Many of her songs revolve around the desire to have it all, without giving anything away. As she sings on Miami, “Why would I be Kim?/I could be Kanye.”
“It’s not a jab at Kim,” the singer stresses. “It’s more about being a creative person. Although Kim is an entrepreneur, I think it’s fair to say she is not creative.”
Elsewhere her lyrics dwell on the idea of travel and escape, reflecting a childhood desire to rise above her circumstance.
She makes the connection most directly on Teeth In Your Neck – a diatribe against the system that traps immigrants in a cycle of poverty.
“My entire childhood I watched everyone around me lose their lives to trying to make money,” she says of the relatives who worked day and night in the US to support families in Colombia.
“So you get to know that your kid is ok and that they’re eating, but you don’t get to actually be at any of their birthday parties or see them graduate.
Her upbringing has given her a perspective on success that many of her contemporaries lack.
“I make a lot of sacrifices in my career but I’m really thankful that I’m not doing something that makes me miserable.
“Now I’m going to be able to invest in myself, to train myself to be a better performer. I don’t think there’s any time to be afraid or be safe.”
Like she says, there’s no tracking where she’s going.
Isolation is out now.