Kali Uchis operates like a one-woman chorus. She loves the immaculately plotted backing vocals that were popular in the ’60s and ’70s, and she reproduces them all by herself — sometimes putting together a whole song in less than ten minutes. Tyler, The Creator, Kaytranada, and BADBADNOTGOOD all contribute production to Por Vida, but Uchis’s voice defines the project. She plays with tone and technique, heaping layers of vocals into smooth, warm waves.
“Music nowadays is all about having no feelings and being too cool,” the singer Kali Uchis tells Billboard. She’s looking to change that with her latest project, Por Vida, due Wednesday, Feb. 4. In 9 songs, she cycles through soul, funk, and reggae, but that doesn’t mean this is a gentle throwback project. Take “Ridin’ Round,” which tempers an innocent, child-like vocal with a no-nonsense approach: “baby understand, I don’t need a man,” sings Uchis. “F— me over, I’ll f— you worse and take off to Japan.”
Billboard caught up with Uchis to talk about her song-writing process, working with Tyler, the Creator and stalking the legendary bassist Bootsy Collins on Twitter.
Kali Uchis Channels Billie Holiday on ‘All or Nothing’: Exclusive Song Premiere
Let’s start with your last release, the Drunken Babble mixtape. Did you put that whole thing together on your laptop?
When I got my MacBook, I started playing around with Garageband a lot. It was just a creative outlet. I put everything into it. I would skip all my classes just to be making my songs. Stuff like that made me feel good.
How did you come across your samples?
Just being a music nerd. I was just obsessed with music and also writing. I realized that everything that I liked doing — everything that made me happy — had to do with this. People were always like telling me I was weird. I stuck out anyway, so I don’t even care. You know a lot of people don’t want to put out stuff because you have to hear everybody’s bullshit. But even as a civilian, I was always hearing people’s bullshit about the way I look, or the way I talk, or the way that I like weird shit. So I was just like, “might as well get paid for this shit.” [Laughs.]
Now you’re sampling less and you’re working more with producers. Has that changed your approach to writing songs?
Usually I make the track with whoever I’m working with. They’ll show me instrumentals, and I’ll build on that. I want to start producing. The way [“Know What I Want”] was made, I sat with the producer, and I was listening to a lot of lover’s rock. I was like, “I want something like this, a little more reggae, a little more bouncy.” He made that on the spot, and I was like, “that’ll do.” [Laughs.] I just started writing to it, and we made it in like ten minutes.
You also do some more rapping
Two years ago, I was doing more talk rap. But now I’m doing no talk rap, just singing. I’m expanding my vocal range. I’m hitting notes.
You really channel a lot of the classic backing vocals from doo-wop and soul. How do you think about your vocals?
You are what you eat. As a musician, you are all the music that you absorb into your mind; that just subconsciously connects. Then, when I’m hearing something, I’ll get those melodies. I love the way in old music a lot of times people would use their voice as an instrument underneath. You hear me doing “ooooh” and then there’s “da da, da da” — that’s stuff people use to do back in the day and they don’t do it much now. Because I listened to so much of that music, when I’m making the song I just hear it in my head. I’m just like, “wait, hold on, I need to add this.” It just comes together.
How did you connect with Tyler the Creator and Snoop Dogg?
Snoop saw “What They Say” I think. Someone put him on to it — it was all word of mouth shit. He loved that I sampled Brenton Wood and loved the aesthetic and the low-rider culture behind it, so he was like, “I have to work with her.” He gave me a song on his mixtape.
Did you go into the studio with him? What was that like?
It was awesome, he’s great. He had a table with all blunts just lined [up] on it. He had a bowl of candy. [Laughs.] It was his own personal studio. There was this gate that we had to go through and all these low-rider cars in the parking lot. It was the way you would imagine going to meet up with Snoop to make a song.
What about Tyler? It’s easy to see the connection between you and Snoop — he loves old samples, he’s got a melodic voice for a rapper. Tyler is not known for making melodic music.
He’s not known for it, but he’s very good at it. Someone told him about my music. He reached out to me on Twitter like, “hey, when you come to California, hit me up.” When I went to California, I [did]. It started like, “oh yeah, get on this song. Do these little ‘do do do do’s.’” And then he started realizing, “oh damn, you work really fast! Oh wow, you’re writing all this stuff right now.” We just respect the shit out of each other as artists, so that’s why we work so well.
How long does it take you to write a track?
Five minutes. Everyone I go into the studio with is like, “how the fuck do you do that?” Do you know Dam-Funk? I went in the studio with him — we have a couple of songs. After I wrote the whole thing and did a one-take, [the engineer] was just like, “what the fuck? I’ve worked with Keyshia Cole, Alicia Keys, [and] all these people. I’ve never seen someone just go in and do a whole take and write a whole song that fast.” That was really nice to hear.
When we premiered “All or Nothing” you said that you thought a lot of modern music lacked soul.
I just like stuff that’s raw, itself, real and genuine. I think that’s the way art should be. That’s the kind of stuff that people can connect to more. You can consciously make a difference with music. Bob Marley is one of those few artists that everyone can say that they love. He makes you feel good. It’s very real. Back in the day, reggae used to be illegal. It made people think in out of the box ways that the government didn’t want them to think. The fact that music can be illegal kind of puts it in perspective. It can really actually change shit and change perspectives. I just feel like there should be more music that can reach more people — conscious music that’s trying to help human beings be progressive. In 2015, it’s crazy to think about how ignorant and close-minded people are.
Is there anyone who you haven’t worked with yet who you want to work with?
Bootsy Collins. I followed him on Twitter and he still hasn’t followed me back, so I’m just waiting for him to follow me. He tweets the weirdest shit. He just tweeted the other day “happy birthday to the wonderful Jay Z,” and I’m like, what are you talking about Booty Collins? What are you really thinking? [Laughs.]
You have to tweet some music at him.
I’m going to use my Twitter account just to tweet at Bootsy Collins every day.