Hot on the heels of a hard-earned BRIT nomination, END. visits Mahalia in London to talk growing up in the industry, defining her sound, and why we don't give the listeners the credit they deserve.
"I live just over there," Mahalia says, pointing beyond a line of silver birch trees in the middle of Weavers Fields. It's a windy morning in Bethnal Green and - although still not caught up on sleep from the all-nighter she pulled after the BRIT awards - she is present, correct, and ready to work.
Signing to a major label at just 13, Mahalia's work ethic and determinism were forged throughout her teens; honing her craft in the studios of London while her high-school peers were having their first kiss and sneaking alcohol from their parents' kitchen. Now, nearly a decade later, Mahalia is taking some well-deserved time to enjoy the fruits of her labour, before diving back into writing and exploring what's next.
Having dropped her debut album 'Love and Compromise' at the end of last year, Mahalia is one of those classic overnight success stories which was actually years of hard work in the making. First breaking through back in 2017 when she featured on 'Colors Berlin' with a now-iconic performance of her track 'Sober' (one of the platform's most successful sessions to date with 40 million views and counting), she's more than ready to tell you that the path from signing to success isn't a straight line. Tapping into her own unique power, it took letting go of doubt and the endless creative comparisons to discover who Mahalia - the artist - truly is; a realisation she's now ready to share with the next generation of young talent in Britain and beyond.
"Talk to me," she says as we settle on one of the benches that line the park's pathways and - much like the intimate dialogue she's cultivated growing up alongside her fans - we segue into an effortlessly frank conversation about the highs-and-lows she's experienced on the road to success and why she thinks being honest about her vulnerabilities is a responsibility as much as it's a right.
Like a lot of people, my first experience of your music was your Colors show of 'Sober.' When you were filming it, did it feel like a turning point or did it catch you off guard when it took off?
I don’t think I was really thinking about it like that at the time because it was all kind of quick. After 'Sober' came out as a single, I went to Berlin and shot the Colors session and to be honest it all kind of blurred into one. I didn’t really think of it as a moment in my head, but after it came out and I saw the reaction and saw it sort of climb quite quickly that was when I thought ‘okay, this is a proper moment for me.’
I’ve heard that shortly before then you were thinking of giving up on music and going to university - what had taken you to the point of not being sure you wanted to pursue music anymore?
By the time I was 18, I’d been working professionally in music for about 5 years. I guess because I started so young and when you’re that age 5 years can seem like 50 just because you're growing and learning so drastically all the time. It felt as though I'd been working for so long and never really seeing any development and I think I’d just had enough, you know? Watching my friends go to uni and take that trajectory, I think I was a little jealous because I’d taken this other path. I felt like I knew what I was doing but at the same time I didn’t and I missed having that structure. Being a creative, you’re sort of your own beast and I just had a moment of craving things being a bit more mapped out for me. A lot of it was me questioning my robustness and whether I was able to continue.
You signed to a major label at just 13, but you’ve been open about your experiences and how it’s not a clear line from signing to success. You don't often hear that side of things from artists - why is it important to you to be open and vulnerable in that way?
I think it’s important to set a real-life example for others coming up to know what this actually entails. Whenever I’m asked by kids younger than me if they should pursue a career in music I always say that it’s first about recognising if you’re strong enough. This is definitely not an industry for weak-minded people. You need to really know yourself, know who you are, and what message you want to put out. I think it’s important for artists to show that vulnerability and the journey it takes and be open about it. It’s not always glamorous; parts of it most definitely are and I’ve had some amazing experiences, but 80% of it is just really hard work. People need to know that.
In that first Colors show, I think it resonated with such a wide audience because it was a refreshing expression of a young artist enjoying their own vibe and the story they’re telling - and, as you say, just being really set on what they wanted to say. Was it hard staying that true to yourself when you were young and had people trying to push you in different directions?
Yes, for sure. When you’re young, you’re so susceptible to everyone and everything around you that it's easy to be swayed in different directions. When I was a kid, I was a lot more focused on everybody else and keeping them happy. I was constantly comparing myself to other artists but, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve let go of all of that stuff; learning to deal with that shit in my head and moving forward in a healthy way. It is hard when you’re young and you have all these eyes on you. I think signing a record deal but also trying to be a normal school girl, it was like having two full-time jobs that didn’t really overlap at all. Going into class on a Friday and trying to explain that your eyes are red and you’re tired and not going out that weekend because you were writing in London until late last night, it could be quite isolating at times.
A new show with Colors went up at the end of last year - this time of your track 'Hide Out' which samples the famous Eartha Kitt interview which inspired the name of your album - how have you changed between those two sessions which feel like quite pivotal milestones in your career so far?
It’s funny because when I sit and compare them I’ll always love my first one more, but only because I was so unaware at that point. I had no real understanding of where I was and what was about to happen next so I miss that sense of excitement. Putting this one out, the main difference is age and I’m a little bit more seasoned as a performer, but I kind of miss that feeling on spontaneity. For my second one, there was a lot more pressure: it was just after my debut album had dropped so I was riding the wave of that and there was a lot of pressure that just came with the idea of following the success of the first Colors session. I was a lot more aware of where I was and what was happening and who was watching. The first one was just me and my team having loads of fun and it was really raw.
It was the best part of 10 years between when you signed and when you released your debut album - what were some of the most important lessons you learned along the way to get you to a point of being ready to release a feature-length body of work?
The biggest is just knowing that you’re the driver of your own career. When I hit 18 I really had to come to terms with the fact that I was here living in London, working in London and it’s tough. I had to take my life into my own hands if I was going to make it work. I really had to push myself and believe in myself more than anybody else did. The comparisons had to stop and once I let go of all of that, that’s when I really started to believe in myself as my own brand and my own artist and my own person. Learning to be a businesswoman was a big part of it for me. Learning that, of course, I’m a creative and an artist and a songwriter, but at the end of the day I need to look at myself as essentially a brand. Working out who exactly is Mahalia? was a huge part of it. I was working that out for the whole ten years and I’m still working it out now. In fact, now I’m at that next crossroads where I’m figuring out, okay who am I now post-debut? It’s a constant thing - I think that’s something that people forget. When you come into this world you need to learn to be a great businesswoman. Even though you’ve got people around you, you have to be savvy. You have to know exactly what you want.
What sort of music did you grow up listening to?
My family had such diverse tastes that I grew up with this massively eclectic music library. My mum introduced me to all the amazing female soul singers and then my dad did the same, but with men. My eldest brother was listening to all the best American hip-hop and rap and then the brother below him was listening to all of the British indie bands. I had this blend of Billie Holiday to Aretha Franklin to Etta James; meets John Mayer and Jeff Buckley and Amos Lee; meets Tupac Biggie and Most Def; meets The Kooks. Adele’s debut album - 19 - was a huge record for me, too. It was the first time I’d seen a British artist sing in her own accent and play the guitar and just do her thing in a really beautiful, natural way. When I was making the album, I slowed down with a lot of music listening because it can be a lot of noise when you’re trying to create. I’m getting back into it now so I’m back in that experimental phase where I’m actively looking to discover new music which is nice.
That's so interesting because I've heard you describe your music as 'psycho-acoustic-soul' in the past when you've been pushed on it - a sort of mass collision of all the references you've mentioned - with music as diverse as it is now, do you think it's still relevant to 'define your sound'?
I don’t think it’s irrelevant, but I don’t think it’s as important as it was. I think we have to recognise that different territories and areas will hear you as something different. In America, I know that I’m totally R&B, whereas in the UK I can fit into the R&B/Alternative/Pop world and play off of those a bit more. People aren’t talking about it as much; when I was younger I was always asked to define my sound but now when people ask me I’m just like, ‘I don’t fucking know.’ Music is so subjective and it’s kind of whatever the listener thinks it is, I think.
I’ve read an interview with you where you spoke about how female artists are always pitted against one another and compared in a way we don’t see with male artists as much - why do you think that happens?
Do you know what? I actually don’t know. The reason that I’ve built in my head - maybe just to make myself feel better - is that people find it more difficult to understand women. Although, after all the skeletons in my closet, I firmly believe that men are the most complex creatures in the fucking world. I think the industry finds it easier to draw comparisons between female artists as a way to understand us. I’ve never found these comparisons intelligent, they’re almost always on the surface or about how we look. I don’t mind comparisons where they’re built on top of something that makes sense, but if it’s about how you look or where you’re from then I don’t get it. Maybe they think it makes it easier for the listener? In my mind, I don’t think we’re putting enough trust in the listener. I feel like we are most definitely underestimating the majority of the audience a lot of the time and that’s why we get the comparisons. I don’t think people want easy anymore, though. Everything is so easy with phones and streaming services so I think people are searching for complexity and the chance to find and understand things on their own.