Getting to know the romantic, soul-bearing songwriter
Mahalia is an open book. Over the course of an hour, and between mouthfuls of a lavish mac and cheese at London’s Shoreditch House, she displays the same frank self-analysis in conversation as she does on her songs. In keeping with the soul-baring lyricism of tracks like “Sober”, we talk through everything from drunk texting, her £600 wigs, and her love of literature, to whether she could spice up this season of Love Island. “With my double Hs and my stretch marks?” she laughs. “No!”
Though we may not see her on ITV2 anytime soon, she’s taken a lot of time trying to understand where she does fit in. After being signed at 13, she’s spent years experimenting with her sound (“I tried to sing like Kate Nash until my mum told me to stop”) and working on projects she didn’t feel “had longevity”. She’s decided to carve an entirely new space for herself instead.
The now 20-year-old Midlander calls her music “psycho-acoustic soul”, a genre she invented so that she doesn’t get boxed in musically, and can experiment with her sound without being told to stick to R&B. In a previous interview with FACT, she broke down that the “psycho” refers to her mindful lyrics, “acoustic” to her love of guitar, and “soul” because soul music runs through her blood. And, throughout her journey to become one of 2018’s most hotly tipped new singers, she’s also had to fight to go at her own pace. Now, signed to Atlantic Records and working on a debut album, she’s knows that she’s ready, she knows who she truly is, and she’s comfortable enough to share that with the world.
Tell me a bit about your background. How did you get started so young?
Mahalia: My parents were both singer-songwriters, and I learnt a lot just from watching them, singing their songs, and listening to them. I had a really big crush on a guy at school, and I was just like, ‘I want to write about how I feel’, and so I did. It was my first ever song. He didn’t like me too much after. My mum then introduced me to loads of female singers. We used to play a game called ‘Who’s singing?’, where she’d play me voices and I’d have to guess ‘Nina Simone’ or ‘Ella Fitzgerald’ or ‘Mahalia Jackson’. That’s how I got into those real soulful, strong female voices. I fell in love with songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Carole King, and Dolly Parton, and then my dad fed me Gil Scott-Heron, Marvin Gaye, and Bob Marley. My brother would play Dre and Lupe Fiasco around the house. It all just fed into my style.
Your songs recently have most been about love. Did you want that to be a key focus in your lyrics?
Mahalia: I feel like I put a lot of pressure on myself because I’m like, ‘Hey, stop talking about love, that’s not all you can write about.’ But at this moment in time, that’s all that I’m going through! When I was younger I could write songs like ‘Silly Girl’ (a song about falling out with a friend) and ‘17’ (where she outlines how comfortable she finally felt in her own teenage skin) because I was going through that. But from October to now, I just keep having really bad luck with guys, so that’s the season I’m in. I’m a lover of love, and I love romance. I don’t love heartbreak, but I guess I love what it does to my writing. Everyone’s like, ‘I don’t know who is hurting Mahalia, but keep going.
I don’t like it when people say I ‘only’ write love songs, because there’s a whole back catalogue which isn’t just love songs. I know that I want to put out an album at this start of the next year, 100 per cent, so I need start experiencing something else to be able to give people something else. I’m not just a man-hater! I fucking love men. My mum keeps saying that I’m ‘in heat’ which makes it sound like I’m a cat.
How does this feed into your creative process? Are you the type of songwriter that just gets ideas in their sleep?
Mahalia: No. I wish that I could! I’m a proper sleeper, I wake up looking like I’ve been dragged through a bush. I have a mirror next to my bed and I always wake up like, ‘What the fuck?’ No wig, my headscarf has fallen off…
Normally my ideas come when a producer I’m working with sends me a melody, or if I’m playing the guitar or something.
“I’m a lover of love, and I love romance. I don’t love heartbreak, but I guess I love what it does to my writing” – Mahalia
What else you have you been up to recently?
Mahalia: I’ve been away for a week. I went to Barcelona, I got off my phone for five days. I’m a bit attached to my phone, purely because of work. I spend so much time scrolling, and when I’m drunk, that’s when I end up texting someone I shouldn’t. There are some guys that are saved as ‘NO, don’t do it!’ on my phone, and it works when you’ve had a little bit too much to drink.
What’s the workload like right now anyway?
Mahalia: Now, it’s just constant. It’s (a lot of) really high highs, and weirdly low lows. You’re constantly up and down. I love live shows, even when it’s: ‘(fly) in, show, (fly) out’. It’s a lot, but it’s such an adrenaline rush. I want to travel and meet everyone that’s listened to my music. On the last tour, I came out every night and chatted; we normally get an hour where there’s a bunch of people left at the end, and you get to talk, and you get to hug, and you get to laugh.
With all these experiences under your belt, do you feel annoyed when people call you an up-and-coming artist, given you’ve been writing for a decade?
Mahalia: Fucking yeah! Too right. I’m literally an OAP. But you can’t be bitter about that stuff, because that’s not anybody’s fault. It’d be nice to have that recognised, because someone said to me recently, ‘Oh my god, you’ve done it so quick. ‘Sober’ came out last year, and now you’re here!’ But I’m super happy with where I am now. Super happy. Everything’s moving nicely and growing nicely. It’s been eight years – I signed at 13. It’s been solidly me just working everything out: doing music, not doing music, fighting with my label, fighting with my parents, saying ‘No, I’m quitting, I’m not doing it anymore.’ It’s a whole emotional journey. And so, although it’s annoying being called an emerging artist or up-and-coming, I actually feel really blessed, because there are so many artists that I’ve met along the way who are no longer on the scene and are no longer doing it.
If you’re on a night out and someone puts on your song, how does it feel?
Mahalia: You know what? My mates do it all the time, purely for jokes. On holiday, I’d texted a guy and I was drunk – it was a ‘NO, don't do it!’ Then in the morning they woke me up to ‘Sober’ and I was like, ‘You're all bitches, I hate you all.’ But you know, it’s really sweet, and I always wanted to have songs that people could play and relate to and enjoy. Whenever I get videos of people playing my songs in DJ sets on nights out I’m like, ‘Oh my god, that’s all I’ve ever wanted.’