The BRIT nominee opens up about finding her voice, teenage struggles, and why she now considers her fans her "fucking family".
It’s cliché to admit, but when I meet Mahalia on a cloudy Wednesday morning she seems significantly older than her 21 years, an age when most are only just getting comfortable in their skin. Spending the afternoon with her is like a lesson in how to attain the perfect balance between personable and professional, all delivered in a broad Midlands accent. Stepping onto set, she takes time to individually introduce herself to everyone and spends time between takes laughing with the team whilst sipping on a green tea. Behind the camera, she’s still perfectly at ease but drops the girl next door vibe to seamlessly slide from one pose to the next.
Realistically, though, this is exactly what I should have been anticipating. Signed for almost a decade, when she was just a girl with a guitar in Leicestershire, she’s had years to get photoshoots and PR-friendly soundbites down to a fine art. But finding success with a brand of diaristic RnB that pulls on her most intimate experiences, relatability is as essential a part of her artistic DNA as the music she writes. This is something she freely admits talking to me some days later over the phone. “I’ve never been scared of being honest,” Mahalia says, with a laugh. “It’s definitely helped me as a musician, it’s almost been like my unique selling point.”
With songs like “Sober” lamenting a habit for drunk texting or “I Wish I Missed My Ex” venting about a clingy ex-boyfriend, Mahalia’s come-up came from catchy tracks about the regrettable, but utterly human, mistakes we make as we navigate our teens and early twenties. A BBC profile even dubs her “the singer drunk-dialling her way to fame” but her debut album LOVE AND COMPROMISE which came out last September marks a new phase for the musician. Sure, it’s still intimate, but it comes from a hard-won place of maturity that’s been some years in the making. “I first moved to London when I was really young, at 17. I had no money, no friends and I really struggled in the big city,” Mahalia explains. “Now, I trust myself more than I trust anybody else. I’ve become more confident with the artist that I am and worked out what I want to say.”
Layering her lyrics over slick production, LOVE AND COMPROMISE celebrates self-love and sends down fuck boys in a fashion that would be fairly standard, were it not for Mahalia’s signature candour and for the voices she interweaves with her own. Sampling an interview with Eartha Kitt, where the singer and activist straight-up refuses to buy into the notion of compromising for a man, opening track “Hide Out” is a way for Mahalia to announce that it’s her, rather than anyone she’s dating, who’s her number one priority. As Mahalia explains, that Kitt interview means a lot to her, as it allowed a younger version of herself to envisage the person she has become today. “My mum introduced me to that interview when I was 17,” she says. “I’d never heard a woman speaking in such a confident way before and it really inspired me; she was everything I wanted to be and more.”
There are standout features, too, from chart-toppers like Burna Boy but the highlights are the quieter moments. Her friend Isaac, for example, talking about the emotional toll of a codependent relationship on “Karma” or fragments of real-life conversations dotted over the tracks, like an excited phone call with a friend or the whole studio making cups of tea. To Mahalia’s 400,000-something Instagram followers, these glimpses into her world are much more satisfying than any flashy guest spot. No doubt, this is also one of the reasons why she still sings with her authentic British twang despite RnB traditionally being a US genre, though she cites different reasons. “I think it’s important people know I’m a UK artist, I’m proud of that and it’s something I want to show off, “she explains.
Savvily understanding that a traditional PR tour might not cut it with her fanbase, for the fifty days leading up to LOVE AND COMPROMISE’s release she connected with her followers by posting a different behind the scenes moment to her feed each day. With this, and in most of what she does as an artist, she wanted to make it clear that she values the people who took her from busking to stateside success and touring with Ella Mai.
“For me, it’s really important to be 100% real with my fans, with the people who are supporting to me,” she says. “It feels like we’re all in this together. If you’re listening to my music and coming to shows or if you’re watching the videos this is our journey.” Perhaps noting a hint of cynicism in my voice, she doubles down; “I really do believe that, my fans are like my fucking family” You can understand Mahalia’s impulse towards gratitude but if LOVE AND COMPROMISE proves anything, it’s that her fans are only part of the reason she’s found industry success; the rest of it was all up to her.
LOVE AND COMPROMISE is out now.
18 March 2020