Ones to Watch: Mahalia Is The Jorja Smith-Approved Vocalist You Need to Know
We first came across sultry R&B vocalist, Mahalia, when she opened for Jorja Smith’s tour last year; needless to say, we’ve been hooked ever since. Growing up in Leicester, England, Mahalia is a self-proclaimed “goofball with a weird way of explaining the world.” She’s prepared to drop her next full-length album this later this year, so we caught up with her while she’s still in the process of making it all come together. We dropped by her neighborhood in London to chat about the misconceptions about tour, her hypothetical alternate career paths, and the dreamy feeling of hearing your lyrics sung back while on stage.
What are you up to right now?
I live in one of those tiny flats, and it just gets really warm, so I just came outside for some air. It’s such a beautiful day and it’s finally really nice outside. So I’m actually just sat on the steps outside of my flat.
What music are you working on right now? During the shoot you were playing one of your new tracks on your phone—when is that coming out?
We’re just finalizing it, we’re just getting it finished. I think it’s going to be great. Right now, I’m just finishing off my album, which is so stressful…oh my god. I was just on the phone and I just burst into tears. I think it’s either my time of the month or I’m just stressed out. I think when something has been your baby for so long, it’s so difficult to now be finalizing it and to be getting ready to put it out.
What’s the timeline that you’ve been working on this record?
Some of these songs are around two years old, but I’ve been focused on it for the past year…wow. I think some people will have different processes, for example, some people will literally say, “Okay, I’m going to sit down and write an album,” and then they’ll do that. Whereas, I’ve just been writing for a year; kind of writing sporadically. And then now, for the past couple months, I’ve been picking up all the songs that I love and putting them all together.
Because you’ve been writing for so long, there are obviously songs that you chose to include in this record and songs that you didn’t—what brought them all together?
I think once I worked out what I wanted this album to be, it was so much easier to pull the songs together. I knew what I wanted to do, and I knew what it was going to be about, and I knew how everything was going to link. I think that was really important. Once I figured out the album title and the concept, I could make it all work.
Can you tell us anything about the new record, or is it still a surprise?
The title is definitely a surprise, but the concept itself, it’s totally just an extension of what I am right now, and what people know me as already. For anyone that’s kind of coming in new, I guess it’s really just the diary of a 20-year-old woman; all the trials, and all the tests; falling in love, and falling out of love, losing friends, and gaining friends. I talk about some issues I always wanted to talk about, some social issues, and some stuff that is really close to my heart. It’s also totally about compromise, and about being so stubborn; it’s just every little piece of me tied into one record.
Awesome—when’s the projected date that’ll come out?
So right now it’s hopefully later this year. I’m really excited. Time is just moving so quickly. I want to put out another single, and I want to pull out another I’d say like a “soft single”, like something that I’m not really expecting people to get on, it’s just more of a passion project. It’s something that I really wanted to do, and then possibly another song before the album comes out, so maybe three more drops and then the album.
How have you seen your music change over the years?
When I started, I was just purely a little girl with a guitar and a songwriting book, and I was super introverted. I mean I’m pretty introverted now, but I was just this kid who just wanted to be on her own wanting to write songs. I never even slightly expected that I was going to do this for a career. And then I guess, musically, I just found things that I loved. I started working musicians, and working with producers, and finding soulful R&B sounds that I really loved growing up, but never knew how to make on my own. So I just think it sonically changed, but I guess lyrically and contextually, it’s pretty the same; I’ve always been pretty honest in my music, and I’ve always said things that I mean. I have a weird, quirky way of saying things, but that kind of always stayed the same. I’m a little goofball from Leicester who has kind of weird ways of talking about the world.
I read that you started writing when you were eight; did the music come first, or were you always interested in writing, say short stories or poetry for example?
I was writing poetry when I was in primary school. And then when I was about 11 or 12, that was when I started playing the guitar; that was mostly because my parents were both musicians. I used to watch my dad writing songs and I remember how beautiful I thought it was that he could write and play the music. I just remember thinking, “I want to do that.” And I think when you’re a kid you absorb things really quickly and you’re so willing to learn. I was just so excited to learn; it was pretty seamless when I was young.
You signed a record deal at 13—how have you navigated the business side of music since such a young age? Can you describe that experience?
Oh my God, it’s a strange one. When I was young, I think the naivety of just being a 13-year-old kid was kind of amazing, because I didn’t really get it. I was also sheltered from a lot of stuff just because I was so young. But it’s changed. I mean it’s a really difficult business to navigate, definitely. And you have to be really strong in yourself. You have to understand yourself. And that took me a long time. I mean, even now, I just had a conversation where I burst into tears. It’s really difficult, but it’s a really special place to be. And I feel really grateful that I’m here, but oh my God, it’s difficult. There are so many people that you have to talk to and, and so many people who are twice or even triple the age of you, that you have to conversate with and make understand you, which is definitely a hard job in itself; but I feel like I’m getting used to it. I still have my problems and I still have my troubles with it, but I think, all in all, I’m not doing too bad.
Do you ever feel like you have too much on your plate?
Yes. Honestly, I have that right now. I’m in that phase and I guess it’s because this album; there’s just so much going on. I’m having conversations about a video and then conversations about what’s next, and then a conversation about tour, and then a conversation about stage design, and then a conversation about what I’m going to wear, and then a conversation about the music. You have all of those conversations in the space of like six hours, so it’s about finding that time to switch off, and then switch back on; I find that difficult. But I think that’s a universal artist feeling; I feel like a lot of people feel that. It’s a lot, and I only really remember that when I have downtime and then I’m like, “Whoa, I’m really stressed.”
How do you spend your downtime?
I read books, and I watch a lot of really bad TV just to make sure that I’m taking my mind off of things.
“Celebs Go Dating”, which is so bad. Like, it’s pretty bad. I feel like whenever you’re really busy, you have to find something that’s so bad that your mind can just really calm down. I don’t meditate, but I have this meditation music on at night when I sleep just to make sure that I sleep deep because if I’ve got stuff on my mind, I’m pretty bad at sleeping. It’s just about putting things in place to keep your mind healthy.
If you didn’t pursue music, which path would you have taken?
Oh, I think would have definitely worked with either animals or kids. I’ve got a little brother; I was 10 when he was born. And I just remember really, really loving him and all of his friends. I’m a bit of a kid myself. I love animals and I love talking to kids hearing what they have to say. I love their honesty; I miss not being so conscious and aware of everything. In high school, I was pretty good at science, so maybe I would have done something more academic like that.
Switching gears—what was tour like?
Tour is amazing; tour is just the most special part about it. Even when you’re having a bad time…
I had a pop-up show last night in Manchester. I went into the store around 500 people came. It was honestly so beautiful. I remember walking off stage, and I went straight and got on a train and I was just so happy the whole way home; that stuff is genuinely, genuinely irreplaceable. For me, if it was purely business, I probably wouldn’t be doing it. I’m meeting friends, and meeting people who listen to my music; that’s just the most special thing in the world.
You’ve posted videos of people singing back your lyrics, and it actually gives me goosebumps. I can’t imagine how it makes you feel.
Oh, it’s amazing. I remember the first time it happened, and I was just so shocked. I remember in the beginning, it was the odd couple people, and now when you hear a whole room of people doing it, it’s amazing. It’s kind of dreamlike. I just feel like every time I got out on stage, I feel like I’m just singing in the clouds. I don’t even really know if the people who come know that that’s how it makes me feel, but it’s amazing; looking at them smile makes me smile, and when they dance, I dance and it’s like a party. It’s like hanging out with your friends.
You said that your music was like the diary of a 20-year-old woman. I’m 24 and there have been instances when my friend and I are screaming the lyrics to “Sober” in the car on a Friday coming home from work in LA; or my other best friend and I both were in long distance relationships, and I remember us sending the lyrics of “Surprise Me” back and forth to each other saying, “Oh my god.. this is me!” I think the fact that your lyrics are so relatable, it brings another level of when people sing along—it feels like they’re talking about their lives in a way.
Oh my god, yes.
When you have to perform a song that born out of experiencing something so painful or so exciting—is it ever hard to perform live?
Oh yeah. I mean not so much anymore because I feel like I’ve got pretty good at disconnecting from it. But when it is your first time doing it, that can be quite difficult. It’s the first time that you’re opening up to people with that particular song or that particular lyric.
What would you say was the most surprising thing or one of the biggest misconceptions about being on tour?
The glamor; it is so not glamorous. Most of the time you’re in pajamas or scrubs walking around different cities. I remember doing a tour literally in the middle of winter, and it was just freezing and the venues were super cold. Touring in the summer is pretty nice. When you get to festival season, that’s kind of cool. I guess it’s different once you get to a bigger level, but at the level that I’m at, it’s not glamorous at all. In my experience, I’m cooped up in a van with 3 boys, and we’re on the road talking about shit that I don’t want to talk about; but it’s also so fun. It’s being in a van with your friends, and you’re just playing music every night. It does definitely have upsides.
What is your favorite city to perform in?
In the UK, I have three. London is always loads of fun. Manchester is the best crack ever, the people are so amazing. I just love when I go up there, and I get to meet everybody. They’re just so much fun, and they just make so much noise, and they’re so exciting. But definitely, when I did a gig in Leicester, a few years ago, which is my hometown, that was beyond anything; that’s like family. Even if I don’t know some of the people in the audience, it still feels like I’m singing to my family every day, which is just like the most amazing thing. Leicester is really great because it kind of has this thing where, if you’re from there, it will always kind of hold you up like, “This is our girl, and we’re going to support her.”
Which up-and-comers are you listening to?
I have loads on my playlist. There’s actually a girl who is based out of LA, her name is Snoh Aalegra; I think she’s great. Joy Crookes is great, she’s kind of more like a jazz singer, but she comes out of South Loudon. She’s awesome. I love Elli Ingram, I think she’s amazing. She’s from Brighton.
Last question—if you could interview one person dead or alive, who would it be?
Amy Winehouse. I would have loved to have spoken to her.
Images courtesy of Lauren Maccabee
Stay tuned to Milk for more from across the pond.