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Ahead of Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival, genre-mashing musician Kali Uchis discusses 'Isolation,' touring and commercial success

Ahead of Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival, genre-mashing musician Kali Uchis discusses 'Isolation,' touring and commercial success
Kali Uchis performs at the Tropicalia Music Festival at Queen Mary Park in Long Beach on Nov. 3. She'll headline Odd Future's annual Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival on Saturday. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Singer, rapper and songwriter Kali Uchis was coy when asked of her whereabouts during a recent phone interview. The Los Angeles-based, Virginia-raised, Colombian-born artist, who is performing at this weekend’s sold-out Camp Flog Gnaw Festival on the grounds of Dodger Stadium, had just closed her first headlining tour and as such was unavailable to meet in person.

“I’m hidden in a distant place,” said the artist, born Karly-Marina Loaiza, laughing a little.

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Until recently, the same could be said of Uchis’ music, but over the past few years the artist has used her ear and her voice to ascend from the laptop-produced mixtape world onto the main stage. Mixing soul, experimental R&B, reggae, doo-wop, cumbia and pop, her debut album, “Isolation,” suggests that whatever faraway land she’s calling from vibrates with genre-mashing, lyrically thrilling intensity.

Best known for her collaborations with artists including Colombian superstar Juanes, rapper Tyler, the Creator and British concept group Gorillaz, last year Uchis was nominated for an R&B performance Grammy Award for her collaboration with singer Daniel Caesar. Earlier in the year she drew a bounty of new fans after singer Lana Del Rey invited Uchis to be the support act.

They’re likely drawn to the Uchis approach. A self-described “music nerd,” her obsession was born of an early exposure to a shuffle-mode playlist of new and old records. “I’m a ’90s baby, and I felt like even when I was really little I was drawn to my aunt’s music and my dad’s music and my uncle’s music when they listened to older stuff.” In interviews she’s expressed affection for artists ranging from Astrud Gilberto and Brigitte Bardot to M.I.A. and Lily Allen.

Her family used to joke about her taste for music of the ’60s and ’70s. Her response: “But I feel it, though.”

She added, “I do feel like I’ve lived a lot of different lifetimes, so sometimes I feel like that’s where it comes from.”

The singer and songwriter Omar Banos, who performs as Cuco, toured as an opening act on Uchis’ 2018 tour — at least until a van crash put him and his band out of commission halfway through. (All survived and are recovering.) Saying that he was a fan of Uchis’ music long before he got to know her, he was initially drawn to her affection for vintage sounds.

“It always reminded me of old-school romantic music with a modern touch — like old- and new-school at the same time,” Cuco said. “It’s this dreamy rendition of turning sounds from an old era into something really unique and adding modern elements to it. It’s just a fresh sound, you know?”

Uchis’ early life, at least in this incarnation, hasn’t been easy. Her music has documented a toxic relationship, and a time during high school spent living out of her car. Said Uchis, “The way that I was raised was very much like, ‘Do what you gotta do.’ I was raised in respect, but in a mind-your-own-business type of way.”

She always knew she’d end up in L.A., and landed here about four years ago. One of the first people she met was songwriting producer Steve Lacy, part of a friend circle that also featured then-Odd Future members Tyler, the Creator and Sydney “Syd” Bennett. Within a few years she was collaborating with now-acclaimed artists including Lacy, rapper Vince Staples and Canadian producer Kaytranada.

After signing her label deal, she set to work on her debut.

Describing “Isolation” as “really just a more put-together version of what I have been doing for the past few years,” Uchis says that the Universal Music-released record offered her the opportunity, for the first time, to collaborate in professional studios with professional musicians. Among those whom she worked with: funk bassist Thundercat, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, Kendrick Lamar-affiliated producer Sounwave and frequent Drake producer DJ Dahi.

At early sessions, she was a little intimidated: “I felt like I really had to play catch-up for a while,” Uchis said. She was adamant, however, that her artistic goal has never been to be a Britney Spears-style pop music superstar.

When she addresses commercial pop music, her tone of voice shifts. As if she’s just removed her sunglasses for a heart-to-heart, she says, “To be real with you, I’m not the type of artist — or type of being at all — that wants to be Britney Spears. That’s not how I was raised, you know? I just started making music as an adult, so I wasn’t really trained to do this stuff or raised in those type of head-spaces.”

Her life was incredibly difficult and now it’s not, “so for me, I will die happy knowing that I’m able to do whatever I want to do right now. I take care of myself by myself, I’m able to take care of my family and I do whatever the … I want to every day.”

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Chart success, she said, is secondary to respect from what she calls “people who have taste, by other musicians, by my peers, by other artists. As far as the masses? I really wasn’t trying to reach them at all. So anybody that I’ve reached beyond that, I’m surprised.”

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