Mahalia is in the middle of a string of interviews when we finally get on a call over zoom. Usually when this happens — an artist exposed to the many questions of various interviewers — they can appear slightly downtrodden, even bored. Yet Mahalia seems to be neither of these, in fact, she seems genuinely upbeat, even excited, “I literally have just put this Oprah Winfrey and Meghan Markle interview on pause, and then after these interviews, I’m gonna watch it!” she says.
What this says about Mahalia is that she is effortlessly down-to-earth. A surprising fact considering the history of her rise to the limelight. At just 13 she was signed, with fans like Ed Sheeran retweeting links to her Soundcloud. And now, between then and the age of 22, she’s gone on to release a debut album (Love and Compromise), secure the fourth most-watched COLORS performance on Youtube, and been featured on tracks aside some of the best, including Pa Salieu, Burna Boy and Ty Dolla $ign. Yet she’s still to reach her peak.
Her latest collaboration with Rico Nasty is just another step upwards. Titled ‘Jealous’, the track stands as a tribute to Mahalia’s uncanny ability to subvert popularly held beliefs of love, instead of being weak, being strong, instead of self-deprecation, self-love. Messages that have held true since 13-year-old Mahalia’s 2012’s Headspace. With much more success on the horizon, and In celebration of the ‘Jealous’ release we chat to the up-and-comer about new music, young beginnings and climbing into fame.
Congratulations on everything that’s been going on for you lately, especially the release of ‘Jealous’ with Rico Nasty. How did that collaboration come about and what was it like working with her?
So, me and my two friends, Miraa May and Cadenza, we wrote ‘Jealous’ at the end of Summer last year. What’s funny is we finished it and then when we got to the end I think we all kind of talked about possibly having a feature. Then I went away, kind of forgot about it for a little bit, cause I was in between writing and making lots of music. I had a chat with my manager and we were talking about getting a collab’ on it, and I really kind of knew immediately that I wanted it to be a woman, and I wanted someone to stand next to me and be able to be a powerhouse. Be able to say everything that I wanted them to say in the right way. Rico just felt like the perfect fit. I just think she’s incredible. I think she is so powerful in what she says and she’s an icon. I just love her. Weirdly we have a mutual friend in the states. A girl that we both worked with, and I literally just texted her, and I said ‘Babe, do you think Rico would be up for doing this?’ and she said ‘Yeah, send it to me and I’ll send it to her and see what she says’, and then it literally was done in a couple of weeks. It was so exciting and I remember she sent me a video of her in the studio. It all happened pretty quickly.
I love the music video for it too, it seems different to the others you’ve made in the past, maybe a bit more choreographed and stylised. I definitely think it’s one of my favourites of yours. What was it like making the video?
Do you know what? It was strange, obviously ‘cause we’re still in a COVID lockdown, but it was amazing. It was fun being able to collaborate with the director Melody (Maker) on the idea and the concept, and it’s totally inspired by Hype Williams film Belly from ‘98. I’ve always been obsessed with the late 90’s. I’m a 90’s baby and most of Hype Williams videos were my favourite videos. But yeah it was an amazing video to make! It was kind of a weird day because everyone was distancing and everyone was kind of away from each other, and Rico had to shoot her bits in LA, but it was great and it all came together so quickly. It definitely felt slicker and it felt more planned, which I think is quite nice, but yeah no, I’m really proud of it for sure.
So going back to the start of your career, I know you started off quite young, you were signed at 13. I can’t actually find the story behind how though. How did that come about when you were 13?
So I started quite young, I was 11. So I started writing songs, I put a few songs on soundcloud and I was kind of just doing the rounds. I was doing some open mics in Leicester where I’m from, and I was busking at the weekends. My mum and dad would take me busking, both my parents did music for a long time, they still do music actually. They both came from London and were both kind of in the industry when they were younger, and so they had a few people that they knew. But there was one guy we met, a great guy called UCHAY did a blog about me and that kind of took off a little bit. Then my mum knew this artist called Amy Wadge and so she took me down to Wales to write with her. We wrote some songs together, so this is when I was 13. She had written in the past with Ed Sheeran and she took me to see a show of his in North Hampton because I was a huge, huge fan of him. So she took me to see the show and then at the end of the show she took me out to meet him, which was crazy. I specifically remember not being able to say a word or speak, like I didn’t even know what to say to him because I loved him so much that I kind of just stood there like a 13 year old does. That was the first time that I’d ever really done anything like that or been in a situation where I was meeting one of my heroes. It was after the show that I was on the way home that he tweeted my Soundcloud link and he said everyone should check out this girl, and it wasn’t even a few months later that I got signed. It was pretty crazy and it definitely wasn’t something that I expected.
Do you remember your conversation when you met him?
God, I mean, I remember walking in and he asked my name, I told him my name and then he said, “That’s so weird, somebody just sent me your Soundcloud link”, which I couldn’t believe because at that time I was just starting out. I didn’t really, I think I had four songs on Soundcloud and one of them was a cover, but somebody had sent it to him and then, God, he said, “I got sent your link, I’m gonna look at it”, and then we took a picture, and then he said, “I’ll get you a t-shirt”, and that was it, then next thing I knew I was leaving and he was tweeting.
So you were saying before that both your parents were into music, they were both singer-songwriters while you were growing up. How do you think that influenced you in how you write today?
Well, I think that was huge! So I started playing the guitar because I used to watch my Dad play his guitar and I would be so jealous that he could make music with his fingers. It wasn’t long after that that I then started to learn guitar myself, I started to play in school. My mum would write songs with my dad. My dad was an amazing songwriter and they would write together. Sometimes I’d come home and I’d have an idea for a song and then my dad would help me, and then my mum would help me, and then we would all kind of sit and write together. Then sometimes I would write with my brothers. It was always really creative in the house and it meant that I constantly wanted to be creating ‘cause they were so willing to help me and push me to be able to achieve what I wanted to achieve.
Did you ever put on performances for each other?
Oh my god, all the time! You see those memes, say it’s a kid dressed up in a costume and it says ‘this is me as a kid’ making my family sit down in the living room watch me do a dance routine. That was very me and if you had a chat with my mum, she would definitely tell you about all the times that I literally made everybody quiet just so that I could sing them a song, or do a little dance. So I was definitely one of those kids. They definitely had a good balance of helping me through it and watching me do it, and kind of watching me go out on my own, and I think that actually has been a huge part of why I’m so independent as an artist now.
Starting off so young, at 13, and now being 22, over the years you must have been watching your fan base slowly growing as you become more well known. Daily life must be changing pretty radically for you. What’s it been like coming-of-age through music and then moving into this arena of fame?
I mean it’s been amazing, watching it climb for me. When it first started to climb was about three years ago and I remember I must have had about — I mean I don’t remember monthly listeners or anything like that — but I remember having about 7000 followers on Instagram for about 4 or 5 years. And then when I was 19 and I put out my COLORS session of me singing my song ‘Sober’ that was when everything really started to go. I remember watching it grow and my family have always actually kind of watched it more, like my brother might message me and say “Oh my god, your monthly listeners have gone up by this much”, or “Omg, look at your Instagram or look at this video”. But it’s quite a hard feeling to describe, it’s exciting, it’s also quite scary watching how many people are now looking at you. It’s definitely, definitely weird, and you kind of have to get used to it, I guess. I had to teach myself not to be phased by that, you’re constantly growing and you’re growing a fanbase and you’re almost growing a little family. But no, I love it!
Over the years there must have been many different eras of Mahalia. Do you have a favourite era or a favourite era of releases?
God, I think putting out my debut album was definitely a huge one. I think that was so exciting. That was Love and Compromise in 2019. I’d never felt like that before, I’d always put music out, I’d put EPs out, a tape called Diary of Me a couple of years before, but this really felt like the moment. It felt like I was building up to that point for 8 years. It was huge! That was an era I don’t think I’ll forget quickly. But also I’m really excited about what’s happening right now, and just kind of having released the album two years ago watching everything grow, touring in the way I did after, cause I toured for about 6 months after that album and then I finished my tour in Australia last year and then we had lockdown and I’ve been in lockdown since, so this feels like a really exciting moment cause I’ve been locked away for so long.
One thing that definitely stays the same though is the way you sing about love, how you flip the narrative of power in relationships around so that the story revolves around being strong rather than being weak, and I think that was one thing ‘Jealous’ was about too. Were you always conscious of including themes like that in your music?
Definitely! I’ve always made that the focus no matter what, even if the song is about loss, or pain, or heartbreak, it’s always been about empowerment and always been about me making sure that I feel okay at the end of something.
What has the response from fans been like to your music? Are people connecting the way that you expected?
Definitely, if anything I feel like it’s completely exceeded all of my expectations! I think watching people come online and say how my music’s helped them, and just how they feel listening to it is kind of the most exciting thing. I think I’ve had hundreds of messages from girls just literally letting me know that I’ve helped them through a breakup, that I’ve helped them feel confident about themselves, and that’s really important to me, it’s always been important to me. And I read everything, I read all the comments, even the negative ones sometimes. So yeah, it’s all really important to me to see that, and I love being able to see what people think.
Follow Mahalia here for more and check out below ‘Jealous’ ft. Rico Nasty below.