At just 20 years old, Mahalia, the Leicester-born, Birmingham-raised artist, speaks with a confidence and maturity beyond her years. Having been signed at just thirteen, she spent her teenage years battling similar problems to most teenagers, with the added pressure of growing up as a mixed-race girl among peers who had never even seen hair like hers before—as well as fighting for her voice with the label. It’s these experiences that have led Mahalia to this point where she’s in the most successful place she has ever been, career-wise, and able to push on to the next stage with no shortage of things to say.
After the slow-burn success of her song “Sober”, particularly after her COLORS session, Mahalia’s stock has risen and she has since worked with the likes of platinum-selling rapper Russ, had her music appear in Insecure (the popular American-based TV show), all while being a firm fixture on summer 2018’s festival circuit. She also recently dropped a 5-track project entitled Seasons, which she describes as “a prelude” to her debut album that is set to drop early next year. As Mahalia was about to kick off the UK leg of her tour, she sat down with Complex to talk about her upbringing, and the troubles she faced being of mixed heritage, to the current state of British R&B, working with Kojey Radical and how Adele’s 19 album spoke directly to her.
“love and relationships is what 20-year-olds are talking about, and what me and my girls are still talking about.”
You signed your first record deal at the age of 13, which is super young. Where did your love of music first come from?
I’ve always been around music. There’s a video of my mum doing an open mic gig when I was like 7 months due in her tummy, and I’m just like, “It’s no wonder I do this!” I’ve literally been doing it my whole life. Growing up, my mum used to play a lot of soul and R&B, and my dad a lot of funk. I remember playing the guitar at around 11 years old, and I started writing songs at around 12. And I used to go to gigs with my parents and perform in the same spots they performed at, so it’s just something I’ve always been around.
Who inspires your sound and who did you listen to growing up?
I’d say artists like Amy Winehouse, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott and Lauryn Hill all definitely influenced my sound—and Adele’s 19 album? Oh. My. God! When I first heard that, I knew that’s how I’d want to sound because it was so honest and raw. You could feel all the emotion, especially as young girl; I felt like she was singing about my life.
You’ve described your sound as “psycho-acoustic soul”—what do you mean by that?
I think I called it that so I didn’t feel like I was forced into making a particular type of sound, but had the freedom to make whatever kind of music I want without feeling boxed in. But I’d say that “psycho” is because I think I say things in a weird way when I write. “Acoustic” is because I obviously play the guitar, and “soul” is because of the subject matter and the core influences in my sound.
“Sober” seems to be the song that put you on a lot of people’s radar. Did you expect it to be as big as it has been?
No, to be honest. I mean, when I first wrote it, it was kind of just me having a bit of a moment. I was in a bit of pain, I guess, and was trying to get it out and heal. It was mad as well because even when it dropped, it wasn’t really doing anything and then I flew to Berlin to do it on COLORS. It wasn’t until, like, a month later after it had come out that it went viral on Twitter. It’s been mad because I’ve kinda been riding off of “Sober” for the past year, so now I’ve been putting new music out and people are loving that as well, so it’s been really exciting. I’ve been surprised, but I’m super grateful.
How did you feel when you found out it was going to be on Insecure season 3?
Weirdly, I found out a few hours before the episode aired because of the time zones in America. My manager emailed me, and then I saw people tweeting about it and was like: “Oh my god! What is going on?” But that was super exciting and I really need to start watching the show. I feel like it’s my kind of programme.
Is it a dream of yours to crack America?
I think every artist thinks about making it big in America, but for me, it was always about getting recognised over here first. But when I started getting a lot of love over in America, I realised that the end goal for any artist is to be global, so I guess it didn’t matter which way it happened as long as there was growth and I was reaching more people.
How do you feel about the state of R&B in the UK when you see other artists like Ella Mai going Stateside and succeeding?
I think it’s really sad. I think it’s sad that we have to leave home before we can be accepted here, but the truth is that labels in the UK don’t know how to market R&B. There’s so many talented artists but all they seem to want to do is make you a pop artist, rather than market your talent properly. But R&B is so popular in the States—they know what they’re doing when it comes down to it.
“it’s important that my my team and the people who listen to me understand me as an artist, and don’t ever feel like I’m being disingenuous with them.”
What was it like working with Russ on ZOO, his sophomore album?
It was so good! He’s so lovely. I know he gets a bad rep and a lot of people hate on him, and I get why, but I think he just says things the wrong way. I actually agree with some of the things he says but I would never say it in the way he says it. We’re all individuals, though, and I can honestly say that he’s one of the most genuine and lovely artists I’ve had the pleasure of working with.
Speaking of collaborations, you already had an amazing song in “Water” with Kojey Radical and now he’s returned the favour on “One Night Only”. What’s it like working with him, and why do you think you guys work so well together?
I think me and Kojey work well together because there’s no boundaries with me and him. We don’t ever hold back when it comes to writing, and I think that’s very important when it comes to any working relationship. He’s really sick to work with and he’s a really amazing writer; he always made me feel so easy in the studio and comfortable and calm, so I think that’s how the magic happened. But I love “Water”, I love “One Night Only”, they’re two of my favourite songs.
Me and Kojey met really randomly, though. I was doing a show at Afropunk London, and this guy came over to me and he was like: “I really like your music. I’m a big fan.” But I was running late to be on stage so I was a bit rude, and was like: “Oh sick! Cool, cool, cool.” I didn’t mean to be [laughs], I was just literally running to get on stage. But afterwards, I was stood outside and my mum came over to me and was like: “Mahalia, this man is trying to talk to you and you’re not talking to him—you’re being really rude.” At this point, I didn’t know who she was talking about; I’d just got off stage, I was all flustered, chatting to people, meeting people, and it turned out to be Kojey! That’s how we became friends. Mumzy set it all up, really.
How difficult was it to film the “I Wish I Missed My Ex” video?
Don’t get me started on that video. I think it was like a 17-hour shoot, and by the end of it... I think there’s a video of me somewhere in the back of a car talking but I think I was actually delirious. It was such a hard video to film. I remember asking the director and my team if we could stop or change the concept, but I’m so glad they made me keep going and that I trusted in them because it came out amazing.
So, Seasons—what was going through your mind during the making of this project, and the title: what’s it all about?
I’ve always written when I felt something deeply about something or somebody, and so I've always referred to it as ‘seasons’ of my life; ‘that was that season, and now this is this season. That guy was in that season.’ So with this EP, I wanted to do a five-track—or five-stage—idea of a relationship.
What’s your songwriting process like because, more recently, you’ve been releasing love-themed songs but you’ve explored other themes in the past?
My process varies between what kind mood I’m in and what season I’m in, in life. When I was younger and wrote Diary Of Me, my first mixtape, I was in school and was like... I was bothered by girls in school, and I was talking about my age and I was talking about all the funny things that me and my friends used to talk about. But as I get older, you know—apart from music—in my personal life, love and relationships is what 20-year-olds are talking about, and what me and my girls are still talking about. So I think exploring that theme of love and relationships and compromising, I don’t think that’s a problem necessarily. I think that in a year, I’ll find a whole other theme.
A lot of your older songs were about teenager problems and feeling good in your own skin. What challenges would you say you faced growing up in Leicester and then in Birmingham?
I faced many challenges, definitely. When I was in Leicester—and it’s a great city, really multicultural—but my experience of it it was quite segregated, and I grew up in a way where I was seen as “different”. I was one of maybe three mixed girls in my school, which was a really big deal because, you know, we all kind of… well, I can’t speak for anybody else, but I know myself: I was definitely trying to conform to what everyone else wanted me to be, and what they wanted me to look like. So when I hit 17, which is when I wrote the song “17”, it was the first time that I was looking at myself and being truly unapologetic about what I look like, about my heritage and where I came from. It’s hard. Growing up where kids don’t understand you, and where they’re like “why do you look like that?”, it’s confusing and I was definitely confused in school. But I would say now, as a 20-year-old woman, I’m really grateful for that experience because it made me have to go and look at myself and understand myself, and become really in-tune with my heritage, my emotions, and my feelings.
Are there any artists we should be on the lookout for in Birmingham or Leicester, like Trillary Banks—do you know her?
I don’t know her, no, but I’ll definitely check her out. There’s loads of talent there, though, and it’s just about them getting the platforms and opportunities the same way that London artists do. I don’t know all the artists personally, but I know the talent is there. Like, I actually want to shout-out my brother and his group, Kamikaze, and also Morgan Monroe—she’s a more traditional R&B artist and she’s absolutely beautiful. She has everything she needs to be a huge star.
You’ve spoken before about wanting to quit at times, and having arguments with your label. How important is it to you to have your own voice come through on your songs?
It’s so important for me. But arguments with your label—as a signed artist—I think that’s really normal. You’re not supposed to like your label at all times, and you’re supposed to tell them to go away and do one. But, for me, it’s now about being unapologetic and saying to people: “I hear you. Thank you for your opinion, but you signed me as an artist so let me be an artist.” And that’s the most important thing for me, to not let big voices shout you down. At the end of the day, it’s my career and it falls back on me, so I like to make sure that even if people think it’s small that things are run by me first. I think it’s super important. I think it’s important that my team and the people who listen to me understand me as an artist, and don’t ever feel like I’m being disingenuous with them.
Having spent the summer performing at festivals, which one was your favourite and what are you looking forward to most about your own tour of the UK, Europe and Australia?
I think my favourite festival in the summer had to be Lowlands Festival, in Holland. It was so wavey! And pretty. The audience were just nuts and they were screaming—it was all just wild. Touring, for me, and playing the songs live, that’s my favourite thing in the world and, I think, the most important part of this whole thing. I think it’s the part where you really get to connect with the people on a level, and I find that really exciting.
You’ll also be supporting Rudimental at the legendary Alexandra Palace—what does that feel like?
It’s so exciting, and I’ve known them for a long time so it was really nice that they asked me to do it. I actually performed with them at Ally Pally before, maybe about four years ago, so it’s nice that this time it’s as a support act and I’m an established artist in my own right. I’m really excited for it.
Finally, what can we expect from the debut album?
I’d just say more of the same as what you’ve heard on Seasons. This EP could almost act as like a prelude to the album because this is the season I’m currently in. It’s a conceptual album based around a video that my mum showed me that I’ve been obsessed with for about four years now. I can’t tell you what that is just yet, but I can say that the album will definitely explore themes of love, love within friendship, family, guys, self-love—all different kinds of love.