Kali Uchis Tackles Heartbreak and Self-Doubt on Glossy Debut Album ‘Isolation’

Lead Photo: Kali Uchis performs on Camp Stage during day two of Tyler, the Creator's 5th Annual Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival. Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images
Kali Uchis performs on Camp Stage during day two of Tyler, the Creator's 5th Annual Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival. Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images
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With a rich, warm coo, Colombian-American singer Kali Uchis welcomes you into her debut album Isolation. Her vocals unfurl over the intro, “Body Language,” which starts with a twinkle of cosmic chimes that meld into an astral bossa nova melody. The sound is as lush and lavish as the crushed blue velvet on her album cover, swanky as a heart-shaped loveseat — and all of it feels like an exercise in high-gloss and carefully styled presentation.

The irony is that 48 hours before Isolation was set to come out, Uchis was on her computer, emailing her label to see if she could make last-minute changes to the tracks. The night before, she’d been listening back to a few songs while editing some videos she’s planning to release soon, and a couple of vocal and instrumental flourishes were irking her.

“They were like, ‘You can’t change it anymore, it’s literally coming out in two days,’” she said, laughing. “But I was hearing these little things…Like, my voice isn’t always perfect — I don’t have a lot of training — and I’m a super perfectionist, where I hear things back and I’m like, ‘Argh, I could have done this one part better.’… I want to change this and I want to change that, but I don’t know. I feel like sometimes you have to let go and rip things off, like a Band-Aid.”

That’s easier said than done, especially when Isolation is made up of music that Uchis has been clinging onto since early 2017. A highly anticipated project, it’s eluded fans eager for more of the cotton candy dreamworld she served up on her 2015 EP Por Vida. Uchis fed hungry appetites by doling out tastes of what she was experimenting with over the last year: She offered up the Reykon-assisted reggaeton track “Nuestro Planeta;” the slinky 70s throwback “After The Storm,” amped up by Tyler, the Creator and funk legend Bootsy Collins; the suave Jorja Smith duet “Tyrant,” presented with a glowing Lite-Brite of a video.

When an artist is as conceptual and image-driven as Uchis, it’s thrilling to speculate where her work will land: Would Isolation be another macaroon-pink universe? Or had the allure of pastels faded and been replaced instead with neon-hued glitz? The answer, it turns out, is neither. Uchis saw the album as a chance to tear down the landscapes she’d built and shape her music on a flat, clean surface. She tried to wipe the slate completely: “I didn’t want to put it in a box; I didn’t want it to be constrained to anything in particular, so I just let it be free, you know?”

The result is a miscellany of sounds, like a jewelry box overflowing with all kinds of baubles, odds, and ends. There’s greater versatility here than on Uchis’ previous projects, from the zippy, fuzz-filled 80s euphoria on “In My Dreams,” which features Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn, to the electric R&B wooziness of “Just A Stranger,” a song that includes The Internet’s Steve Lacy. The production is tight and complex — Uchis has had an impressive handle on melody and contrasts since her early days of putting together her own demos, but she opts for more organic, refined instrumentation now, and the experience of working with Albarn and Tyler, the Creator shines through on the album.

What ties it all together is Uchis’ jazz-inspired voice, known for its frequent comparisons to Amy Winehouse (an uncanny resemblance appears the vintage-minded “Feel Like A Fool.”) There’s a newer elasticity to her vocals, which she says she’s focused on developing, and her singing has evolved from occasionally bland to, more often than not, full-bodied and robust.

And while the title “isolation” may have connoted “loneliness” or “sadness,” this album isn’t brooding, although touches of melancholy exist here and there.

“I always felt like an underdog and misunderstood and isolated as well, and musically, my music doesn’t correlate necessarily with what’s trending or current,” she said. But the secluded moments here function as a quiet space for the music to flourish, and despite Uchis’ diffidence, the sound does feel current — sometimes even forward-thinking, like on the swirling “Dead To Me.”

Courtesy of Kali Uchis
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Much has been written about musicians who double as shapeshifters, about stars who live as a frame within a frame, from Marilyn Monroe to David Bowie to Lana Del Rey. Uchis has faced this celebrity quagmire while playing up her stage persona of a glammed-out retro vixen, masked in winged eyeliner. A profile in The FADER inquired, “Who is the real Kali Uchis?” and to those following along, Isolation may have represented a chance to follow her on a labyrinthine quest to find a “true self.” But to be honest, Uchis says questions of self-revelation weren’t really central to the work here: “I’ve always had a strong sense of myself since I was born,” she says, explaining that some of the confusion about who she is may have had to do with an abstract and spiritual idea she’s always had of her soul and physical body inhabiting two different worlds.

Instead, Uchis focused on making Isolation “an open diary” and “a reflection of everything that’s internally going on, and experiences and fantasies and fantasies based off of experiences.” If people are curious, they can flip through lyrics like, “I move at my own pace, just leave me alone/’Cause I’m too this and I’m too that/I’m too skinny, I’m too fat/I’m all good, ’cause where I’m at” for closer glimpses. But she’s comfortable talking directly about her insecurities, too: On the phone from Los Angeles, Uchis is softspoken and can seem guarded at times, but she talks breezily and openly about the challenges that went into the meticulously crafted music. The imperative on the album, she explains, was more about maturation and growing past her own self-imposed standards and expectations, which can often be tougher than the external criticism she gets.

“I can never sleep; I can never let myself get too comfortable without giving myself a kick in the ass and reminding myself that I have to get up and work harder because everything can be taken away from me at any given moment,” she said. “When you come from where I come from, where you don’t really have help or support from many people and you don’t necessarily know what you’re doing and you don’t have experience or training, you feel like you have to prove it to yourself and work even harder. Any moment you take to rest is a moment that you’re letting yourself get lazy.”

While making Isolation, Uchis took a vacation in Colombia with her family — a rare time-out for her. She also spent time in Colombia while shooting the video for “Nuestro Planeta.” That song is the most obvious nod to her Latinidad on the album, although she also speaks in Spanish during the closing bars of “Tomorrow” and enlists Italian-Boricua rapper BIA for “Miami.” But her Colombian identity has also been the subject of speculation; the same FADER profile outlines a clash that unfolded on Twitter when followers claimed she was embracing a darker look and image to capitalize on her Latinidad and adopt a brown girl narrative.

When I prod her about how she separated herself from that criticism, she replies, succinctly, “I’m Latina. I’m proud of my roots and I love my culture, and it’s something no one can take away from me, and every day I know I’m making my ancestors proud, I know I’m being guided and protected and I think being a Latina comes in every shape, every color, every personality. People should just embrace who they are and not let themselves be defined by stereotypes or expectations or guidelines.”

Uchis has almost a Zen way of watching, detached, as people try to figure who she is and what she means and what she represents. It’s hard to tell if the scrutiny flabbergasts her or bores her, but she always folds back into her music and uses it as a vehicle to keep throttling ahead. On the escapist song “Body Language,” there is one revealing lyric: “Now I’m packing all my bags, and I am leaving it behind/There’s no tracking where I’m going/There’s no me for them to find.”