Bridging the Gap Between Black & White, Acoustic & Synth, Heartbreak & Growth: A Q&A with Mahalia

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Seasons may change but one thing remains the same: Mahalia’s intrinsic gift for moving, lyrical storytelling. The 20-year-old critically-acclaimed R&B singer, songwriter, and artist turns heartbreak into anthems of empowerment in the vein of Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill with a catchy pop undertone. Yet, her brand of airy R&B is distinctively her own. Simultaneously nostalgic and novel, Mahalia’s music is informed by the likes the R&B greats before her as much as it is modern, electro-infused gospel. It is this impeccable music blend that has grown her a loyal fanbase both in her native UK and stateside. 

The feeling of palpable excitement that surrounds Mahalia has only be heightened of as late, with the release of her much-lauded EP, Seasons. A five-song collection that explores different phases of the R&B artist’s life thus far, it is bursting with moments of candor and passion. We sat down with Mahalia, following a string of sold-out headlining US shows, to gleam some insight into what goes into make an artist who is capable of such a striking project.

OTW: I read that you picked up the guitar at the age of 12. What lead you to that? I know that you’re also from a musical family, so what was your upbringing like?

Mahalia: So my dad’s a guitarist. I always used to watch him play, and I love how it sounds, I love how it sounds when you’re playing and singing. For a while, I talked about it a lot, and then my dad was like, “Let’s just get you lessons.” So I started learning in school, and I remember at first just being like, “I hate this.” I would go to school and I’d be learning, and I’d hate it, and I’d always skip my guitar lessons to go outside and have lunch. And then something clicked, and I just started to really love it. It was my dad actually who said you should try writing on the guitar. Because I always loved writing poems, and I obviously love to sing. And it literally feels like a distant memory; I don’t even remember not being able to play. It happened kind of in the span of six months.

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OTW: Where did you go from there to start pursuing it professionally?

Mahalia: So I’d written maybe four songs, and my parents asked me if I wanted to try open mics. And at first, I was like no, that feels like a bit too much. And then I went to one, hated it – no one was listening, and I had my eyes closed the whole time because I was really scared. I was 12 so it was a really big deal (laughs). I feel like something always clicks if you’re supposed to do something, and I remember doing an open mic in a place called Hinckley, which is still in Leicester, and and the audience responded really well. From there I kept writing, I kept playing music; I was getting better at the guitar, and then I just started going to loads all over the country. 

Loads of really little slots at open mic nights.

OTW: And when was the moment where you felt like it was really happening and you got noticed by a worldwide audience?

Mahalia: I guess there were two moments. The first was just before I got signed. So I was a huge fan of Ed Sheeran, and I said to my mum when I was like 11– I wanted to go on a talent contest on the telly, and they wouldn’t let me. My mum said, “What do you want? If you could have anything right now what would it be?” I said, “I just want to meet Ed Sheeran.” At this time he was just a young guy who played the guitar and wrote songs, and that’s what I wanted to be in female form. And she said, “Then let’s do it.”  

So she took me to like six of his shows and we went to all of the festivals where he was playing that summer. It was a real like mother-daughter expedition. Basically in this year when I was trying to meet this guy, I was meeting loads of people on the way, and I was getting better at the guitar, and I was doing more shows and open mics. I was meetings DJs and people that knew him, but I never met him. Then after a year, we met a writer, and she took me to his show near Birmingham. At the end, she said come with me. And she took me upstairs; I had no idea where I was going, and she walked me through this door and he was sat there on the sofa.

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OTW: How old were you?

Mahalia: I was 13 by this point! So I was like whoa. And I walked in and he said hello (laughs). And by that point I’d written these songs and put them on SoundCloud, so as I walked in he said “I just read an email about you!” And he picked up his phone and showed me where someone had sent him a SoundCloud link of mine. 

So I met Ed Sheeran, left the gig really nervous, and then 20 minutes later, he tweeted, “Everyone check out this girl.” That’s how I got signed.

OTW: So this was seven years ago…

Mahalia: The show that I went to was like 3,000, so he was low level compared to where he is now, but not low level. He was definitely on the come up. It was crazy.

OTW: Wasn’t that SoundCloud project about the same guy? Like you wrote six songs about the same guy?

Mahalia: Same guy.

OTW: Is he still in your life?

Mahalia: He actually was until January. He is “I Wish I Missed My Ex.”

Ohh. So you’re over it?

Mahalia: I wasn’t over it for years, but he’s been a massive part of my lyrical musical journey.

OTW: Is he “Sober” too?

Mahalia: He’s not – so I did get over it for a couple years and then it came back. (laughs)

OTW: Speaking of “Sober,” what would be your word of advice to girls who aren’t able to stop themselves from sending that drunk text? Asking for a friend…

Mahalia: There are two things. You have to give your phone to your friends. Or the second thing is, I change their name to “NO, Don’t Do It.”

OTW: That worked?

Mahalia: That worked for me!

OTW: How would you say you’ve evolved sonically up to the release of Seasons?

Mahalia: So Kate Nash, Amy Winehouse, Adele… I was really into that whole girl with a guitar, simple lyric, simple vocal. And then as I got a bit older, I started listening to people I loved when I was young, so like Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu and Angie Stone and Jill Scott. Real amazing American female singers, and I was just completely in love with the sound and how it made me feel. So I think that had a massive impact on me. In my mind, I thought I’m just going to go on stage with my guitar for the rest of my life; it’s just going to be me and my guitar. And then I started listening to songs with a live band, and all those sounds that you can’t create on your own. I want that feeling. I think also when I was a bit younger, I was writing more about funny things that happened to me. I’ve got like “Silly Girl” and a song called “17,” which are really about just things that happened to me at school at that time. 

I’m in that phase now where you’re transitioning from all the little things that matter to the big things that matter. 

At 20, for me, aside from music the things that matter are relationships and love. That’s just kind of the phase I’m in at the minute, which I guess is quite annoying because in my mind I’m like I wish I could stop just talking about men. But I’m at that age and that’s kind of what it is. So yeah, it’s totally an age things for me. With age, you change and you want to talk about different things. I also feel like love, relationships, heartbreak are so universal and that whole idea that love has no language is just so true. And I feel like people are connecting to that, so why would I not want to keep talking about it?

OTW: Tell us about Seasons.

Mahalia: I’ve always described moments of my life as seasons of my life. So, that’s what I mean when I talked about this phase of my life. It’s like when I was writing my first mixtape Diary of Me – that was that season. I was this loud-mouth Leicester girl who wanted to talk about girls at school being mean or me being confident. That’s what I wanted to talk about. 

And now I’m in that season where I am feeling like most of my emotion goes into love and heartbreak. I guess with this EP, it’s five tracks and five different moments in a relationship. 

But in my mind, I know what I want the album to be called and I know what I want it to do. And it’s not going to be an album just about love, but there’s a clip by Eartha Kitt called “Eartha Kitt on Love and Compromise” and that’s my inspiration for the whole album.

OTW: How was playing Afropunk?

Mahalia: It was so beautiful. It’s really amazing to play something like Afropunk because even just being there, you get a feeling of a real unity among the people. I love what Afropunk celebrates and to be an artist a part of it for me was just really special. Especially being from the UK. Because we have Afropunk London, and it’s good but Brooklyn was next level.

OTW: Speaking of the culture and identity, I read that you were one of only three black girls in your school growing up. How was that journey?

Mahalia: It’s really strange because I grew up in a predominantly white area, and my dad’s white and my mum’s black, so I’ve always known both sides of my family really well, and I never felt that I didn’t fit until I was at school. When you’re a minority in any sense, you don’t know how to be part of the majority and that’s the confusion comes in. I mean I was 11, all my friends were white, no one looks like me, which was fine, if they didn’t take the piss at me. 

Once I came in with my big fro out, and I remember it was always the boys who were like “You’re right bushy.” So I never wore it out again, and it’s always the little things like that that really affect you. 

And I think what happened is that I was in a school where I wasn’t really allowed to show my blackness, and at home I was. At home, me and my brothers were brought up totally black-identified, and just being super proud of that side of us and our white side. And I’d always known that, but at school I felt like I was trying to morph into this different kind of girl. 

And then I moved to Birmingham, and Birmingham is super diverse, and I went to a performing arts college. When I got there, it was so funny being in a class with so much mixture, and I was never accepted by the black girls. 

I find that with a lot of people of joint heritage because you’re trying to fit into both categories when in my eyes I’m just like, “Can I not just be me?” 

That’s why Afropunk was so special because I felt like for a long time as a kid, I wanted so much to be accepted by my black peers in school, and I never was. You wait so long to feel accepted and validated and being there was just really lovely. It was really nice.

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OTW: Who are your Ones to Watch?

Mahalia: There’s a few. There’s a girl called Elli Ingram in London has this old smooth jazz thing going on. She is stunning. She just recently put out an album called, “love you really” and it’s really beautiful. Another girl called Joy Crookes. Jazz singer. Beautiful. Tiana Major9, another London girl, beautiful voice. A guy called Jack James who is coming on tour with me in the UK, he’s great. There’s loads. London’s popping at the minute.

OTW: London’s always popping. How often are you over here in the States?

Mahalia: This is my second time in LA and third time in New York, and it’s sick. I love it here, I really do. London’s great, it’s really great. It’s just not the right energy for me all the time. I think it’s because I’m not from there. Even waking up this morning, I woke up at four and was like this is fantastic. I went out to sit on the balcony and just wanted to write music immediately, and it’s really nice to have that feeling.

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