Kali Uchis: Young singer who's gone from grocery store to Gorillaz

Kali Uchis is a star of our times. One of the year’s coolest singers, this 23-year-old Colombian-American managed to plant the seeds of her success with little more than a laptop, mixtape website and Twitter.

Her early recordings went viral - grabbing the attention of the likes Snoop Dogg and Diplo - and after a subsequent EP, Uchis releases her debut album in the spring, preceded by a sell-out London show in March.

Her star has already been ascending fast, with Grammy nominations, slots at Coachella, a support tour with Lana del Rey and a guest slot on last year's Gorillaz album Humanz. Her latest single, the slinky pop confection After The Storm, features Tyler, The Creator and Bootsy Collins, and a surreal 60s Americana inspired music video by the acclaimed British photographer Nadia Lee Cohen.

We meet over afternoon tea in an upmarket Mayfair hotel, where she professes her love of old London Town ("I'd live here if it wasn't so expensive"), a sentiment perhaps fuelled by the madness of current US politics, and the fraught and toxic debate around immigration.

"Oh my god, it's heartbreaking. I'm first generation American, my family were illegal citizens in America and, you know, they've earned their place and they've earned their citizenship over time. They came illegally. That touches me as well," she says, her enormous saucer-like sunglasses making her by some stretch the coolest person in the room.

"I don't know, I feel like it's definitely a heavy time. I think everybody needs to be more empathetic. I think everyone's very divided at the moment, so that sucks. Everyone just needs to have empathy."

We switch to less depressing topics. Principally, how this High School jazz saxophonist raised in Alexandria, Virginia, managed to forge a path towards stardom with the help of a laptop, a $50 microphone and a couple of social media accounts.

"I never had any technical training, I never considered that one day I'm going to be Beyoncé like a lot of girls aspire to be, it just kind of happened.

"I had Garage Band on my Apple computer and I just started, that summer, every day recording demos."

The output was uploaded onto a mixtape website as “Drunken Babble”, which caught the ears of Snoop Dogg and Diplo. A video for one of her songs, the woozy Table for Two, caught fire online, after which she says: "Everyone started reaching out to me through Twitter, when I had like a hundred and something followers. I just made a Kali Uchis account, I'd literally never had any accounts before so nobody knew me. For people online it seems like I came out of nowhere, like 'who the f*** is this.

"I didn't know anyone, I didn't have any technical training, I was like 'I don't know what the f*** I was doing."

The feedback convinced this teenager working in a grocery store to pursue a life in music, very much against the wishes of her sceptical family, who moved back to their native Colombia after she graduated from high school.

"I didn't want to go to school because I wanted to be an artist and they were never going to teach me art. None of my family had ever done that kind of stuff either. It was a weird time. For my family they don't know who Tyler, the Creator is, they were just like 'what are you doing, go to school'.

"Also the life of a singer, you can be hot one second and not the next. It's not a very stable lifestyle at all and so they just never really wanted that for me? My parents and my family all live in Colombia still, they were like you're in America, so they were just kinda like 'you're over there in America where there are so many jobs and you could go to school and help get money and you'd rather make videos of yourself popping out of a box, what is wrong with you. They just didn't get it.

"The first time I did a show I definitely didn't get any money. My friend just let me do this show. I was so nervous my mic didn't work and I was like 'urgh'. It was terrible. It was a dingy club off of the highway, but all these people came. It was packed out. I felt like I disappointed everyone because I was trying to sing but I couldn't hear myself. I as like 'oh, get me out of here'. But when I got off stage everyone just wanted to meet me and talk to me. People were touched by this and wanted to hear more, which was great for me! After I felt like a dumbass, I just got jipped!"

She relocated to Los Angeles to record her upcoming debut album, where, at a party, she bumped into the drummer from Gorillaz.

“I was at my friend's house in LA, and this guy was there, he was like 'I'm the drummer for the Gorillaz'. I was like sure you are, totally blowing him off, like that's crazy. I was working on some stuff there and he was like this is really cool, really interesting.

“I was like thanks man. Then he left and I never from heard from him again. Apparently he'd kept up with my music since then. Then when I put out my first EP, Por Vida, he played Damon Loner and they reached out to me all of a sudden. They said Damon really loves you, they want you to work with Gorillaz and fly me out to New York.”

They recorded “She’s My Collar” in a single take, performing together on The Late Show before Uchis joined Gorillaz on stage at the O2 Academy Brixton in June, and at the Demon Dayz festival in Margate.

Surely her family are happier with her career choice?

“Yes. But only after I made a song with Juanes. He’s huge in Colombia and it was number one. I was on the news over there! They were like, “what?!”.