Kali Uchis would like to go home. But she’s also a bit scared. So when the 20-year-old singer speaks of her native Colombia while sprawled on a couch in Los Angeles, she chooses her words carefully. “I love Colombia, it’s just that the people there are not really…” she trails off. “A majority of my family is tainted by their environment. They’re either moochers or pedophiles and rapists and murderers, and it’s not good to keep that energy around you. California feels like Colombia, but with less threats. I don’t have to be constantly looking over my shoulder. But I’m definitely proud to be from Colombia. I’m just going to leave it at that.”
For the last year, LA has become both her home away from home and a potent muse. Kali’s 2013 debut, Drunken Babble, dives deep into the lowrider subculture of 1960s California, then samples and references the sweet soul that soundtracked it—Brenton Wood, Mary Wells, The Moments, The Whispers—all looped under pensive, lucid lyrics about love and loss. It’s mature for a girl born in ’94. “Modern day music is just drawing people away from their core—soul music makes me feel something,” she says of the dramatic strings and subtle, chipmunk-pitched vocals that back her. “A lot of people were getting million dollar deals from music I felt was trash, because their videos were going viral. I wanted to put out music that had soul, because that’s what was missing.”
Still, Kali’s aggressively aware of image. She took up piano and saxophone after emigrating at 7 with her family to Alexandria, Virginia, but band practice eventually lost out to hours spent in the computer lab tinkering with video editing software. She credits this as “the most important thing that high school taught me,” and it makes sense. Her videos are pastel-toned montages of palm trees and hot cars—see the dreamscape “Table for Two” or the trippy vignettes of “Por Vida (Down For Life).” And her heavy-handed chonga look has gained her as many ogling eyes as ears—a Tumblr search of her name produces thousands of grainy photos and jittery GIF loops of her likeness. Regarding her loud aesthetics—part FKA Twigs, part Kreayshawn—she explains that she’s just an artist of her time. “I’m young,” she says. “I’m from the same generation of people that grab from the same inspiration and styles as me. I’m constantly progressing. My style is changing every day.”
For now, the West Coast has embraced Kali with open arms. She’s clocked in records with Snoop Dogg and studio sessions with Tyler, the Creator–when we speak, she’s crashing at Earl Sweatshirt’s pad. But there’s more to Kali than cosigns, a cute face and cool clothes. Consider her cover of Jeanette’s 1976 hit “Por Que Te Vas,” sung in quick-tongued Spanish, which she recorded as an open letter to her aunt. “I love that song,” she says. “My aunt used to always play it. I wanted her to understand my music, and that I could actually sing. She didn’t even believe it was me. ‘Por Que Te Vas’ means ‘Why do you leave?’ It’s a sad song, but it sounds so sweet you wouldn’t even really know it’s sad.” Sweet and sad—the description fits Kali well.