Kali Uchis is mapping a "silent ascent to iconic"

Photo by Jora Frantzis

When Kali Uchis released her second studio album, Sin Miedo (del Amor y Otros Demonios), in November, the Colombian-American singer knew she was taking a risk. The project features 13 tracks in Spanish, and fuses reggaetón and bolero — a language and culture barrier for many of Uchis’ English-speaking fans. “I really wanted to show with this album how multi-dimensional Latin music actually is, and also pay homage to some of the artists and styles that inspired me growing up,” she tells Mic. “It was definitely scary because I felt the majority of people wouldn't understand it, including my past collaborators.”

Uchis, who was born Karly-Marina Loaiza, has always followed her own boundless path when it comes to creativity. Growing up between Northern Virginia and Colombia, the 26-year-old singer learned early on that she was different, and the only way to stay true to her authentic self was through genuine self expression, highlighting both her American and Latin cultures.

She attended a culturally-mixed high school which was predominantly Black, openly queer, and welcomed unique styles and perspectives. Uchis gravitated toward her photography and videography classes, and quickly picked up skills that would set up her music career years later (In 2012 she recorded a 17-track mixtape on her laptop, using a microphone and GarageBand). “We had a dark room, and they let us take cameras home. I feel that was really important for kids to be able to have those tools and access different levels of creativity within themselves and have that outlet,” she says. Uchis would stay in class through lunch and after school to work on her projects with the school’s equipment.

My goal has always just been a silent ascent to iconic.

Growing up, Uchis participated as first chair in a jazz band and would enter poetry competitions, often taking home gold. At the time, singing was not on her radar, but she still took pride in her artistic capabilities. “I was always a shy kid. I didn't like to be the center of attention. I definitely tried to stay away from that for the most part,” she says. Even today, with 2.1 million followers on Instagram and a chart-topping album under her belt, Uchis still doesn’t consider herself famous. “I still don't feel that I'm a celebrity or that I'm famous or anything. I've never wanted some type of soaring rise to fame. My goal has always just been a silent ascent to iconic, because I think the most important thing is to make music and art that's timeless, and that transcends all of that.”

While this is her first full project in Spanish, the artist hasn't been shy about involving the language in her music before — often dropping Spanish lines into her verses and covering songs in Spanish. As a bilingual musician, it’s important to her to stay true to her roots, but fans have not always been receptive. “I always incorporated Spanish into my sets. I remember when I would perform at festivals and start doing a cover in Spanish, people would start leaving, or laughing. They just wouldn’t appreciate it,” she says. Even some of her past collaborators have not supported her latest album, and have yet to acknowledge that she released it, which Uchis believes is a common reaction to Latin music. “There are a lot of people who look at Latin music as a joke and that it isn’t serious, and that we're not actually talented. They think of it only as dance music and they don't know why other people like it, or they think it’s overall tacky,” she says.

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And while Uchis considers Latin music a big part of her identity, she comes from a culturally diverse background made up of more than just American and Colombian influences. As a kid, she found joy in searching for music online and discovering obscure bands and artists from all over the world in record stores. “I loved that. I loved that culture and language is something that is not so important. It's more just about the way that things make you feel and the way that things sound,” she says. As a teen, Uchis indulged in other languages, listening to music from artists in France, Germany, and West Africa. It explains why her sound is limitless and genreless. In Sin Miedo (del Amor y Otros Demonios), or Without Fear (of Love and Other Demons) in English, a combination of beautiful Spanish vocals and moody production make for a strong album wholly unique from her earlier releases.

Now living a more laid back life in California, Uchis is not one to rush her creative process. Conceptually, she doesn’t like when she’s listened to a project and it feels like listening to one song through the entire album. “I want to show versatility and I want to take people to different places. I want you to be able to have a song for every mood and every emotion that I have and that you might have,“ she says. With Sin Miedo (del Amor y Otros Demonios), Uchis’ main focus was creating a collection of songs and as many demos as she wanted, then picking out her favorites. If two songs sounded too similar she’d opt for the one that she liked more, making sure that every track showcases something different. “I won't pick songs that sound the same or that sound too alike. I might pick cousins, but I won't pick sisters.”

This month, Uchis is performing Sin Miedo (del Amor y Otros Demonios) for the first time. She’s touring alongside other Latin music sensations including J Balvin, Sky Rompiendo, and Karol G at the online streamed series Red Bull Estados Unidos de Bass. “I think it's really important in general for our communities to support each other and celebrate where we come from — and celebrate new artists and old artists in general,” she says. “Something that I've always tried to do in my career is to just do what I want to do, and make sure that I'm always doing what feels right to me, what makes me happy, and contributing genuine, authentic art that I feel isn't just for the moment or for a trend.”