For the latest edition of FRONTPAGE, we talked to the ever-radiant alt-pop queen Kali Uchis. Speaking to us on the day of the release of her new EP ‘TO FEEL ALIVE,’ we find her taking stock of a whirlwind project which reinvigorated her sense of artistry.
A circular room with curtains pulled back reveals a blue sky with pristine tufted white clouds and a ferris wheel, one of the carts ablaze, its flames extending into charred smoke as it taints an otherwise serene sky. Inside the room there’s a bottle of champagne and two glasses, but the main focus is centerfold, on a circular pink couch on top of a pink rug — it is brunette Isolation-era Kali Uchis going down on blonde Por Vida-era Kali Uchis.
It is a fantasy world painted by the artist Oh de Laval under the direction of Uchis herself for her new EP, TO FEEL ALIVE, which dropped last Friday — otherwise known as week six of quarantine, for those still counting. TO FEEL ALIVE is a four-track release of new songs and re-recorded demos, including the track “i want war (BUT I NEED PEACE).” It is perhaps the first true pandemic record of the era, not just because of its drop in the middle of quarantine, but because everything about it — from its raison d’être to its creation and the impulsive release — was borne as a consequence of self-isolation.
A bit of context: Uchis (and her label) have been all but set to release her highly-anticipated second studio album, details of which — save the fact that it will be in Spanish — are still tightly kept under wraps, but, just like the rest of the world, plans have changed and been replaced with uncharted uncertainty. So, with the world (and her record) upturned, Uchis had a thought: “I’m just gonna do this, and fuck it,” she tells me over the phone.
TO FEEL ALIVE was recorded in three days in Uchis’ home in Los Angeles, as a way to not only keep herself sane, but as a way to keep her fans sane, too, especially since album two, as Uchis refers to it, stays momentarily by the wayside. The experience of recording TFA wasn’t just cathartic to Uchis as a way to stay creative and expressive, it ended up being a nostalgic experience as well, harkening back to her creativity pre-Por Vida, the launchpad to a continuously burgeoning career.
“When I started making music, it was always by myself in my room, in my little set, and I was just feeling the same way, pretty much, that I felt when I was younger,” Uchis explains, her speaking voice softer than the honey-laden raspy croon which sounds plucked from a genre-less, time-less era. “I wanted to feel that again, not worrying about releasing an album and my label and all this other stuff. I just wanted to make stuff in my room, record everything myself, produce some of it myself, write everything… just me.”
I tell her I’ve been feeling something similar in the relationship with my room during quarantine, that there is some sort of adolescent familiarity with self-exploring in the confines of our own space. “Exactly,” she says, expanding on how the creativity, paired with the impulsivity to release, made her feel alive. “Sometimes when you’re going through the motions all the time and everything is overly calculated, and everything is how you want people to see you or how you want things to come across more than just, like, doing them… this was a very defining pinpoint of ‘This is my impulsive EP.’” Hence, the title.
Uchis’ artistic development is quintessentially 21st century; as in, an artist expressed, shaped, and educated by the internet, which is also where she had her first major success. And like many others who found their breakthrough online, the internet was the easiest available access to a larger world. A first generation Colombian-American born in Virginia, she spent her time toggling between the two.
“As a young girl who was always kind of looking for an escape when I was little, I turned to art and I turned to film and to music and to creating as ways to escape my household and the things that were going on in my life.” She felt connected to foreign films, to old music, to nostalgia, and to uniqueness in general. “Music helps me bring those things to life,” she threads the needle.
She recorded her first mixtape, Drunken Babble, on her computer and released it on the internet, not thinking anything would come out of it — let alone a career which has led to collaborations with the likes of Tyler, the Creator, Bootsy Collins, Snoop Dogg, and Little Dragon, as well as a record deal with Universal Music, leading to the release of her first studio album Isolation in 2018. Foraying into the corporate, business side of music opened Uchis’ eyes to some of the industry’s innerworkings, including the amount of time and resources that are put behind developing a studio artist.
Kali came in hot and raw, with an already confident sense of identity and aesthetic influenced by her actual influences, not by execs making decisions out of interest to their investment. “I never liked to look at myself like [a business], I just like to look at myself as an artist.” And though she explains herself as a perfectionist, perfection is something she doesn’t care for. “I accepted that that’s the type of artist I am; I’m the type of artist that I want to do whatever the fuck I want and that’s what makes me happy.” But even though her process of recording and release has changed dramatically since that first mixtape (including a camp in Miami for the creation of album two), her independent rise has actually served as a protective armor surrounding her creative vision.
“I don’t ever feel restricted when I’m making music, because when I’m making music, I try to be as honest and as vulnerable as I possibly can and take from my own experiences. Even when I do work with other people, I never let anyone [restrict me] — and no one ever tried, either, because people already know that I’m very protective over my work.” It’s freedoms like these that have allowed her to bend the rules a bit in her favor, like releasing an EP from the confines of her home, directing the NSFW artwork behind it, and deciding to create a Spanish language album for her second studio release.
/ Amber Asaly / top PREEN BY THORTON BREGAZZI, bottom I.AM.GIA, shoes GUCCI, jewelry VIDA KUSH
Uchis’ choice to make an album in Spanish is natural; not only has she recorded songs in Spanish in the past (the latest being “Solita,” in anticipation of what’s to come), she is also, y’know, Colombian. But even when things are spelled out so obviously (in two languages, no less) she understands there could be a quick misunderstanding by people who think it’s a decision to jump on the very high-grossing bandwagon that is the Latin music market.
Kali is understandably protective over her bi-culturality and her bi-lingualness, something I tell her I relate to as an immigrant from Mexico City. She is meticulous in explaining this component of her identity. “Since I grew up with both worlds, I wanted to incorporate both into the album as well. I didn’t want it to feel like it’s just a Spanish album — I wanted it to be me.” From the little that she revealed, she did let on that there will be exciting collaborations from both worlds.
While we’re on the topic, we expand and touch back on Latin music’s stellar rise to the mainstream, where it had previously been cast aside as its own niche category, looked down upon culturally until the profitability became something worth noting for the money at the top (the story of its rise to prominence echoes the history of hip-hop). So, naturally, the sincerity of many Latin projects leads to questions of authenticity and intention — for every Bad Bunny’s groundbreaking work, there is the dubious collaboration between X pop star and any of the hot names in Spanish-language music. “Certain people who… [have] never really been proud of Latin culture, or people who don’t even belong to Latin culture… it’s very cringey and it’s definitely exploitive, but I think the people who matter can see that. Like, Bad Bunny is the most streamed artist in the world right now — that’s so important for our culture and that’s beautiful.”
It’s important to recognize that behind the rise of those streams and the power that Latin music now exerts, there are countless stories of exploitation, racism, and disrespect. Kali herself explains that near the beginning of her career, the media would try to get her to engage in displays of Latin stereotyping, bundling together a slew of cultures and creating one-dimensional representations. “‘Yeah we wanna watch you ordering taquitos,’ and like, ‘What we wanna do with Kali today is like go to a little Mexican…’ like, it always has to be about that.”
But it’s not just in the American industry where bigotry exists, as Uchis points out that Latin American Entertainment industries still represent a very white, Euro-centric version of reality as the only one worth supporting, leaving behind a vibrant array of stories, experiences, and attributes that comprise the diverse landscape of countries like Colombia and Mexico. “I don’t think that Afro-Latinos get enough credit as they deserve in the music industry. It’s important to talk about it, because maybe somebody reads this and it inspires them to put more Afro-Latin or Indigenous-looking women on the cover of these playlists, or to give them more space in general.”
Uchis herself uses her privilege any chance she gets to highlight others that do not have the same access she does — like Mabiland, the Afro-Latina Colombian musician who was set to open for Kali at some of this year’s shows, or like the girls she herself has cast to be a part of her videos, which were, for the most part, filmed in Colombia. “People have to understand,” she says, “that girls in Colombia don’t just look like Sofía Vergara or like Shakira or like me. We have so many Afro-Latina women and so many Indigenous women. It’s so important for people to understand that Latin literally comes in every shape, every color, every size, and I would love to see more diversity.”
The precision with which she expresses her need to use her privilege so people understand the full array of the culture, and to open space for herself and leave more than enough for other Latin artists to come tell their stories, too, is an active deliberation behind her Spanish album. And there’s also the responsibility of representation that falls upon somebody when many others don’t have the ability to represent themselves. “I grew up as a United States citizen; my family didn’t have that opportunity, that luxury, so I’ve always been very aware that I have to represent as best as I can.”
I ask her to tell me what she misses most about Colombia. “In general, the feeling of being there is so different than anywhere in the world. There is so much magic in our country. In the street, you can feel how much people have so much character, they have so much life, so much energy. Versus a lot of the places I go, where people are just going through the motions and being very robotic, content in mediocrity and getting by and not being passionate or being expressive… just like being so ~cool~ all the time.
She continues: “Everyone is so expressive and people are on the street saying hi to you and talking to you and making art and jumping on top of your car to wash it, and trying to sell you shit and painting graffiti on the walls. There’s food smells in the air, people are selling food everywhere, and bracelets and things that they made, just trying to make money and stay active and do whatever they can. That’s what I really, really love about my people — life is just fun to us. Like, we’ll be serious for a second, but then we can still get up and turn some music on and just dance and feel better 10 minutes later. Constant music and constant life all around. It’s inspiring and beautiful. The colors, the insects, everything is so much more exaggerated than here. It’s a magical place,” she concludes.
I am taken aback by a hypnosis of my own nostalgia, expecting her to go on narrating my visions of home, and so dreamily answer “Mmmmm yes,” then catch myself and say, “I mean, yeah,” as though I had stumbled upon a crack mid-sentence.
Uchis’ education on uniqueness, whether from the streets of Colombia to the artistic influences that shaped her growing up, translated into a uniqueness of her own. An aesthete intended to bring her own colorful world to those who want to live with it, uncompromised by any other voice that would want to encourage her to be less herself and more like anyone else. It is a world in which she can commission artwork of herself going down on herself, feel alive again on impulse, and hope to bring solace to her fans through her work. “I think the ultimate thing that people should strive for is to free themselves,” Kali says when I ask about her definition of happiness. “I think happiness is freedom.”
Fashion Credits: Cover Image: top ZIRAN, sunglasses AKILA jewelry VIDA KUSH