Kali Uchis Makes Music Without Fear

“I never wanted a soaring rise to fame,” the Colombian-American singer says. “I want a silent ascent to iconic.”

by Malik Peay

Kali Uchis photographed by Jora Frantzis.

Kali Uchis is an artist determined to not be confined by the bounds of genre and language. With her just-released sophomore album, Sin Miedo (del Amor y Otros demonios)∞, the Colombian-American songstress explores the depths of her soul by embodying the vibrant music of her Latin American roots. Through 13 Spanish-language tracks, she takes her fans on a journey that reverberates with melancholic vintage pop melodies and references as varied as bolero, reggaeton and 90’s R&B.

Born Karly-Marina Loaiza in the Washington D.C. suburb of Alexandria, Virginia and raised between Colombia and the U.S., the moniker “Kali Uchis” was originally a nickname given to her by her father. Kali Uchis’ latest album’s title also comes from her family: Sin Miedo (which means “without fear”) was a phrase her aunt often repeated to her growing up, so much that she decided to have the phrase tattooed on herself when she was 15. Now 26 years old and poised for international superstardom (Sin Miedo ranks at #1 on the Apple Music Latin charts and is holding strong on the American rankings as well with over 60 million streams). Kali Uchis has made her chameleonic ability to switch between languages a central part of her path to success. Here, she opens up to W about her multicultural childhood, how the pandemic impacted the album-release process, and why she believes she is on her way to becoming an icon.

How has the release of Sin Miedo felt different than your other projects?

There were many similarities between how I created Isolation and Sin Miedo, I traveled the world to make both. This album was similar in that sense: I started production in Miami, then I came to Los Angeles, and then I refined most of the finishes in London. I always want to be able to show a range of different emotions and the diversity of all things that inspire me. Fortunately, I made Sin Miedo pre-quarantine, the only parts of the album that I made during the pandemic was the intro and the outro. I created those in my room at the beginning of quarantine.

When the world became aware that Covid-19 was beginning to spread across the world, you were in Italy, the epicenter of Europe’s outbreak at the time. How did it feel to be in the middle of that?

I heard the news when I first got to Italy. After I wrapped my performance at the GCDS fashion show, everything had to be shut down. I was supposed to release this album with a tour in Latin America the week that we got put into lockdown, and I was supposed to go to Peru for the first time. I was excited to see all my fans there and to be able to promote this album there, which is how normally you would try to break yourself into a new territory—by actually being there. But God had other plans for 2020. For all of us.

How does this major switch in language from English to Spanish mark a new chapter for your career and artistry as a whole?

My EP To Feel Alive really wasn’t in my plans, it was just a product of something I love to do which is songwriting and making music. Artistically, I am very much a creature of spontaneity and intuition. I don’t like things that are overly calculated and held on to for too long and meticulously perfected, because that’s not where I come from. I first got my start in music from putting together a mixtape of 17 songs that I made overnight. I do what feels natural and I am not afraid to put things out into the world. I learned to not be concerned about how I am going to be perceived or how people are going to view me. I look at life in general as like ripping off a Band-Aid, especially when I create music. I am not scared of criticism or how Sin Miedo is going to be received. That’s not the point of art. The point of art isn’t about how people are going to receive it. The point is for it to be for me.

Do you believe it’s important as an artist to explore many different sounds? (Especially considering your recent Grammy nomination for Best Dance Record.)

I grew up surrounded by so many different cultures, from my family being culturally diverse to where I grew up in Colombia. I learned how to read and write in Spanish before English. I went to school in Colombia when I was younger and then I came back to the United States to finish middle school and high school in Virginia. Also, I grew up in the DMV [an abbreviation for the District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia] which is very culturally diverse and all of my best friends were of different ethnic backgrounds. I wasn’t in my own house a lot. I spent many holidays with friends and their families, and I was so inspired by the variety of music that was around me . When I was younger, I was always excited to find obscure bands from other countries and listen to French music or African music or German music. I never really cared about what genre the music was or what language was being sung. I was just excited to discover these sounds and various forms of art.

The title, Sin Miedo (Del Amor y Otros Demonios) translates to “without fear (of love and other demons). What’s the story behind the name, and how does it relate to the songs on the album?

I have always loved the phrase, it has been a part of my life since I was a child. My aunt would always say to me, “Sin Miedo!” This is a phrase in Spanish that pushes my people to do things and in English it translates to “without fear.” In Spanish, it is a sacred phrase because it means: Don’t be scared. Don’t be scared to do anything and just live your life and be free and on your path. My first tattoo that I got when I was 15 years old has the title of the album in it. My artist name, Kali Uchis, is a name that was given to me when I was younger from my father as a nickname. I always try to go back to my grounding of where I come from and who I am. I felt like Sin Miedo was the perfect title for my first Spanish album because it’s been a part of my entire life and has pushed me to be where I’m at today.

What were some of the cultural inspirations for Sin Miedo?

Sin Miedo has many different influences. [The Puerto Rican musician] Ivy Queen inspired the song, “Te Pongo Mal” and [the English trip hop band] Portishead definitely inspired “Vaya Con Dios”. In general, boleros and Latin soul and mixing that with other cultural sounds was where I felt most inspired. “Fue Mejor” reminded me of Aaliyah and felt more R&B. Then, fusing all these sounds with my Latin American culture being from both Colombia and Virginia. Mixing English and Spanish together in my songwriting can be very difficult because it is way easier to write in English than it is in Spanish, first of all. I really had to push myself to be able to combine the languages and make it still sound poetic and cohesive. I’m definitely really proud of it.

The album features so many different sounds, from the vintage vibe of “Quiero Sentirme Bien”’ to the Bond movie-esque style of “Vaya Con Dios.”

With every song, I made sure that they didn’t sound the same and that each one released a different emotion. More than anything, I really wanted the album to feel very cinematic and for every song to transport the listener to a different scene in a different world. Some songs have a more healing energy and others might be for giving you confidence or even letting you feel the pain and sadness of a heartbreak.

What era of fashion and style has been influential in shaping your aesthetic?

When I started putting music out, I was always interested in the 1960s or ‘90s. For me, it was the cut creases and winged eyeliner or blue eye shadow, colorful two-sets and gogo boots to finish it off. I am still so inspired by vintage looks from the ‘60s and the ‘90s—I’m a 90’s baby!

What about your upbringing helped you find your voice?

I have such a widespread array of influences and I was very musically-grounded in jazz. Growing up, I used to play saxophone in a jazz band and took it very seriously. Jazz and soul music were my grounding for how I learned to produce and write—those genres more than anything have played a big role in my tone. Sometimes, I have to push myself to stay away from jazzy or soulful melodies because naturally I am drawn to do that.

Your first album, Isolation, was in English. How do you believe your sound has evolved through your various projects?

I’ve been able to grow my voice a lot because I basically had to teach myself how to sing when I was 19. I’m 26 now, it’s been quite a journey to become who I am. My voice naturally matured over time, I learned that I can hit whistle tones and lower registers, I have been really pushing my vocals more. Waking up every morning to write has tremendously helped me throughout this process of writing in Spanish for Sin Miedo.

You collaborated with many different artists on Sin Miedo, why did you feel it was important to have a variety of voices on this album?

This project was all about my upbringing. It was important for myself to collaborate with Rico Nasty because she is from the DMV where I am from. Many people don’t know that she is half Puerto Rican too. Jowell & Randy are perreo legends and I know I wanted to create a perreo song with them. Having Partynextdoor on “Fue Mejor” was amazing because I wanted to create an R&B song and I knew I would love collaborating with him. I wanted to make sure the artists on Sin Miedo were diverse and very different from each other to fit with the cinematic feeling of the song arrangements.

What do you hope to achieve or prove with this album?

I’m becoming older, I want to be focused on the bigger picture of my career. I am going to continue to follow my intuition and remember where I started and be rooted in that. I never wanted a soaring rise to fame. I want a silent ascent to iconic. When I look at the bigger picture, I believe the trajectory of my artistry is representative of how versatile I am as an artist. What feels most authentic to me is going between languages and being able to push between genres because that’s actually where I come from. This album was about being able to showcase my versatility and pay homage by honoring all of the different genres that were part of my Latin American heritage and identity.

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