Kali Uchis has been practicing for her debut release since she was 18 years old. Shut in her room in suburban Virginia, Kali was making mixtapes and dreaming up treatments for imaginary music videos. The Colombian-born singer's major label debut Isolation, out now, is a tribute to overcoming heartache and being your own hero and an appreciation for the musical inspirations that have brought her to this moment.
Kali didn't plan for her first mixtape, 2012's Drunken Babble, to be anything more than that — a creative outlet to house her scattered thoughts. But her 2015 EP Por Vida gave her the legitimacy as a vocalist and songwriter to later collaborate with Tyler, The Creator, Snoop Dogg, Juanes and more.
On Isolation, Kali sings in English and Spanish over lush instrumentals with a myriad of influences. From the silky funk of "After The Storm" to the reggaeton rush provided in "Nuestro Planeta," Kali fires up her creative cylinders, all while telling stories of being kicked out of her house, leaving ex-lovers in the dust and learning to appreciate family.
Click on the audio link to hear the full interview with NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro.
On her relationship with her family growing up and the song "Killer"
["Killer"]'s the oldest song on the album. In that era of my life, I was still really young and I was just kind of figuring everything out. I didn't really have anywhere to stay towards the ends of my high school days. I was in a relationship for five years from when I was 15 to when I was 19 and it was very toxic. That's kind of where it stemmed from, but also it can relate to all of the other relationships that were in my life at that moment. My relationship with my family was really, really bad. I was kicked out of the house and I was really difficult as a kid. I'm happy it happened because I was able to grow so much from it, you know?
It's always hurtful to feel that you can't be on the same page with people that you love as much as your family. Sometimes they don't know how to deal with all the things that are coming at them. It was really important for me to understand that I needed to provide for myself and I needed to become a provider for my own family, too.
On Spanish-language pop entering the mainstream
It's about time. I think about [when I was] a little girl in Colombia, always having English speaking songs playing on the radio and, like, blasting in the streets. We've always been supportive of [English music]; the majority of the world has been. So I think it's about time. Spanish is such an important language globally.
On how she went from couch-surfing to breaking into the music industry
Honestly, I worked really, really hard. I locked myself in my room. My dad would get so mad at me because he was doing construction at the time and I was supposed to be helping him build some stuff, filling some walls and painting. Part of my summertime was that I would have to work. I was neglecting a lot of my work to go and work on this mixtape that I had decided randomly that I wanted to make. At the time I wasn't really thinking 'I'm going to make this to release it.' When I start something I have to finish it and I'm a super perfectionist, too. I'll just be working on it and working on it and it just never feels finished. I was getting really obsessive about it. And [my dad] was just like, 'What are you doing?!' I was like, 'You don't understand! This is bigger than construction! This is music!'
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIAMI")
KALI UCHIS: (Singing) Oh, Miami, Miami, Miami.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Reviews call her an icon in the making. Since the age of 18, she's been collaborating with musical greats like Snoop Dog, Tyler the Creator and Juanes. The Colombian-American singer, whose real name is Karly-Marina Loaiza, is now front and center with her new album "Isolation," where she sings about being from an immigrant family.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIAMI")
UCHIS: (Singing) Set on a bigger world - got myself a visa.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: She joins me now from our studios in Culver City, Calif. Welcome to the program.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hi. So why is this album called "Isolation"?
UCHIS: I mean, there were a lot of reasons. During the process of making it, I was very much in an isolated state of mind, which was kind of how it's been, you know, since I was young - of just kind of giving myself the space to heal, to grow, to create - stuff like that.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You had a tough time in your upbringing. I want to listen to a song called "Killer."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KILLER")
UCHIS: (Singing) And if you loved me, you'd never do this. No, if you loved, you wouldn't put me through this. That makes you a killer, a killer, a killer.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you tell us what it's about?
UCHIS: In that era of my life, I was still really young, and I was just kind of figuring everything out. I didn't really have anywhere to stay. And I was in a relationship for five years from when I was like 15 to when I was 19. And it was very toxic. And then I guess that's kind of where it stemmed from. But also it can relate to all of the other relationships that were in my life at that moment. Like, my relationship with my family was really, really bad.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: They kicked you out of the house - right? - at a certain point.
UCHIS: Yeah, yeah, I was kicked out of the house. But that's like normal where I come from, and I was really difficult as a kid. And so they didn't really know what to do with me or what - where to go next besides to kick me out and make me like figure it out on my own. And I'm happy it happened because I was able to grow so much from it, you know.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KILLER")
UCHIS: (Singing) A killer, a killer, a killer. That makes you a killer. That makes you a killer.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do they support your music?
UCHIS: They never really said much about it until later. Like recently, my dad and my brother came to like my show. You know, my dad worked really, really hard to get an education. He worked really, really hard to learn English, get degrees - and coming from, you know, a country where he only had fourth-grade education in Columbia. And when he came to the United States, he had to really just like figure everything out on his own. And most parents that come from that type of background they're going to feel kind of like you're being a bad - like why don't you take advantage of the opportunity that you live somewhere that could like give you a scholarship to go to school?
And, you know, also being artist is a risk. You know, it's a huge risk deciding to do this with your life unless you have some type of funding or some type of machine behind you, which I didn't. I didn't know anyone. I think that was really scary for them, you know. And so yeah, it was difficult for them to accept at first. But I think once I started getting enough success for myself that I was comfortable and able to help everyone around me the way that I am now, it's like, you know, they're OK.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Your dad gave you the nickname Kali Uchis, no?
UCHIS: Karluchis (ph).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Karluchis - and so you changed it to Kali Uchis?
UCHIS: Kind of like how I'd be like Karlita (ph), Karlucha (ph) - like that's how my family used to call me. And so I just took the R out of it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's listen now to "Nuestro Planeta."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NUESTRO PLANETA")
UCHIS: (Singing in Spanish).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is Spanish pop now mainstream in America - do you think? We're hearing so much more bilingualism in music these days. Do you think it's becoming more mainstream?
UCHIS: I definitely think it's becoming more mainstream - yeah, for sure. And it's about time because for so long - you know, I can think about from a little girl in Colombia like always having like English-speaking songs playing on the radio and like blasting on the streets. And so I think it's about time. I mean, Spanish is such an important language globally.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I do want to ask you. How did you break into the music business? I mean, coming from couchsurfing to all of a sudden playing with megastars - how does that happen?
UCHIS: Honestly, I worked really, really hard. I mean, I locked myself in my room. My parents would get so mad at me. My dad would get so mad at me because he was doing construction at the time. And I was supposed to be helping him because it was summertime. And so part of my summertime stuff was that I would have to work.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Help, of course.
UCHIS: Yeah, I would work. Yeah, so I was like neglecting a lot of my work to like go run and work on this mixtape. So I was getting really like obsessive about it. And he was just like, what are you doing? What are you doing? And I'm like, you don't understand. This is bigger than construction.
UCHIS: Like, this is music. And it was just like such a release for me. And it also made me feel a lot closer to God because it just felt like - in those moments, I felt so powerful, and I felt so revitalized and alive.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Kali Uchis's new album is "Isolation." Thank you so much. Muchas gracias.
UCHIS: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST A STRANGER")
UCHIS: (Singing) She's a hurricane. Feel the Earth shake. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.