“I’m not a Barbie doll, I’m just a multidimensional human being who likes to make things,” Kali Uchis says over the phone. The singer’s debut album Isolation — released after years of catchy, retro-inspired singles, a mixtape, and EP — collects Uchis’s eclectic musical taste and her mantras, and collapses them into a pop-music potpourri. The album’s title feels more self-imposed and empowering than a product of loneliness: “Stop holding me back, quit pushing me forward,” she sings on “Coming Home.” “’Cause I’m too this and I’m too that / I’m too skinny, I’m too fat / I’m all good ’cuz where I’m at, I keep it moving.” We’re all keeping up, as Uchis grinds reggaeton against slow-motion soul, then ends Isolation with a ballad she’s been working on since she was 17. Uchis talked to Vulture about self-reliance, how she takes inspiration from movies, and her friendship with Tyler, the Creator.
Can you talk me through some of your influences? Isolation’s sound is so varied.
I’m just inspired by life and, growing up, I listened to all types of different sounds, genres, and areas of music. I think I’m just at a place where I don’t really believe in labeling things, or trying to fit anything into boxes, trying to make things on brand all the time. I’m not a Barbie doll, I’m just a multidimensional human being who likes to make things.
Do you remember what you listened to growing up?
I listened to so much different, random stuff. My dad’s job was to manage apartment complexes, so when people would move out, or when people would die or whatever, people left things in their apartments, he would always bring me home people’s collection of music that they left behind. I was excited because I didn’t really have money to go to the CD store all the time. I liked to go in [those stores] and look at all the stuff, but I could never take any of it home. I was going in with headphones on, listening to all the different things that I could listen to. I liked to look at all the cover art, and then later listen to it at home and I liked to just indulge in all different types of inspirations. Not ’cause I wanted to make music of my own, but just because it was my escapism. It would put my headphones on and all of a sudden I’m in a whole other world, walking in a music video, or it was as if the world was brighter.
How did music help you or change you during that time?
Music is your way to change the frequencies of everything around you and move your own body, move your whole environment. It’s the same way when someone scores a movie: It’s so important what song or type of sound they put in a certain scene. It changes the whole entire mood of the setting, and the whole entire experience of that scene. That’s why music always meant so much to me growing up, because it was my way to control my environment. Internally, externally, music is power, you know?
You’ve been the creative director of a lot of your recent music videos, and some of them — “After the Storm” especially — feel so cinematic. Would you want to direct?
I would love to score movies. And I would love to direct films one day. That would be amazing. That’s actually a dream of mine.
Can you tell me about some of your favorite movies?
I like a lot of older films. Not necessarily for the class of them. I’m interested in the camera operation and the shots. The styles from back then just felt a little bit more thought out than some of the work of people from now. I like to watch a lot of different miscellaneous films from the ’70s. I like to look up movies by year and see all the movies that came out in eras. It’s actually really interesting when you see what came out of every year. Just from 1990 to 1993, you can see how much film evolved over every single year, rather than just the eras.
I think you can feel that in your music too. A lot of Isolation feels retro.
I think it’s important to explore and just let your curiosity help you find things. If you happen to have the time when you have an off day and you’re just hanging out at your house, those are the times where I ask, “What should I watch today?” And I’ll just look and try to find something where the cover looks like it’d be interesting. Or I look at a certain director’s stuff and you end up finding things that are inspiring.
It feels like carrying out a specific vision is important to you. Has that been frustrating in this industry, which prefers one-dimensional artists? Have you felt supported, either by your fans or the industry?
My fans are always really supportive of everything that I direct and that I work on. Actually, the one time that I really trusted someone else, when I let them take over creatively on something, that was probably my least successful video release. It’s not like I intentionally said, “I’m just going to let someone else do this because I don’t want it.” Most of my ideas and concepts are really big and tough to execute properly. [This collaborator] was just so passionate about it, and he really wanted to do it, and I didn’t really have that many resources to make what I wanted to make. So I was like, “You know what? Fuck it. I’m going to keep make more and more music videos.” It let me perform a social experiment to see what would happen.
It made me realize that it is entirely all about the fact that I’m honing my own creative visual craft. Because then when something like “After the Storm” comes out, that song is super true to me and my sound. It’s something that just completely intuitively came into me, came out of me, and came through me. Everything was so organic, and it’s been probably one of my most successful releases to date. It’s important that if you have an idea, you should be the one to execute it because you have the vision.
The idea of self-reliance weighs heavy on Isolation, too — “Miami” is a “Bitch Better Have My Money”–style anthem, and on “After the Storm” you say, “So if you need a hero, just look in the mirror.”
It’s kind of where it all started from, too — even just starting to make music. It’s always just about being the person who believes in yourself. You don’t need to do what anyone else tells you that you should do, because then if you do it to take the advice of others, or to see what will happen if you do what other people want you to do, more likely than not you’re going to find that you just feel down. It doesn’t even end up being successful, plus you were untrue to yourself. I had fun experimenting, for like a second.
But does that pressure ever get to you?
I think that the most successful way that I’ve learned to deal with pressure is give yourself moments to step away, to remind yourself, as corny as it might sound, it’s a journey. It isn’t a destination. Maybe you made something right now that isn’t the thing that gets you ten steps further, but at the end of the day, I just remind myself, I’m always going to keep growing. I’ll constantly make the changes that I have to make internally, spiritually, and mentally to grow as an artist and as a human being. And as long as I’m doing that, either way, I’m taking steps. So, when something ends up being the baby step, and another thing ends up being a leap, either way I’m stepping. Everything has to happen when it’s ready to happen. You just can’t put the pressure on yourself to do something overnight that’s going to take 15 steps.
Can you tell me about your relationship with Tyler, the Creator? You seem to have a great working relationship and friendship. How did you meet?
It was 2014. Tyler had hit me up online because I was living in Northern Virginia at the time. He wrote me and said he really loved my old song “What They Say.” He said he wanted to work me and invited to me to his studio in L.A., if I was ever in town. I ended up going to L.A. because a lot of people from there were hitting me up trying to work with me, do photo shoots, and put me in all kinds of different productions. Everyone wanted to get to know me.
I didn’t realize how much work I was getting done out here and I fell in love with it. And me and Tyler immediately just hit it off. I was super nervous, and shy, ’cause I had never been in the studio before, and I felt kind of like, Oh, wow.
Going back to your journey, I read that you wrote and recorded an early demo of “Killer” when you were 17. How has that song, and your relationship to it, changed as you put together this album?
I put that song on this album even though it’s probably the one that I wrote the longest ago. That’s why I think it’s so special. I’m 23, and so much time has passed by, and I’ve had a couple of relationships since then. And it’s so timeless: It still can touch me and it still can touch people that listen to it. And it’s so different, obviously, than when I wrote it, because when I wrote it, it was me still trying to learn how to sing. So, at the time, my voice was super raw because I never really sang before. It was just me and a little toy keyboard.
When I came to L.A., I took that demo to a few people to build it out and nobody got it right. There are a few versions of that song, but the [version of “Killer”] on the album is my most tea-time version, but I’m always going to love things as stripped down as possible. I really want to do a stripped-down version that’s a little bit more like the original.
I like the idea of growing with this great little ballad, and how it can continue to transform.
A song can go so many ways. You can take the same vocal to a million different people and work on it with a million different people, and it’s going to come out so differently because everyone’s contribution is unique. And it’s really just about finding the right person for the right song. I think that’s why every song on this album feels like me with somebody else. Every single song has a different person that contributed on it, production-wise. That’s what made making the record exciting for me. I got to feel and see what it’s like to travel the world and work with so many amazing people for these records.
This interview has been edited and condensed.