An interview by Mikey Fresh for Vibe.
Mahalia grew up roughly a hundred miles from London in a quiet section of Leicester. While her town lacked the well-known clubs and trendsetting music scenes of the big city, Mahalia’s dream of being heard by the world was never deterred by her geography.
“I think I might have an advantage being from Leicester because I don’t know all the cool people in London,” she tells VIBE with a laugh. “The thing about the U.K. is that underground music always takes over. It’s not just about the radio.”
The 19-year old started penning songs at an early age, with encouragement from her musical family, and she always carried a passion for the creative arts. Mahalia’s musicis wise beyond her years and some. It’s getting harder to find R&B songs from ’90s born artists that don’t include an overabundance of Instagram references and chatter about designer clothes, but this profound voice is hellbent on keeping her songs clutter-free.
“It’s something in the water, I think,” says the Atlantic Records signee about the U.K.’s overwhelming talent pool. “I just want to make Leicester proud of me, there’s so much music from here and I just want to represent where I’m from.”
While catching the train back home, Mahalia spoke to VIBE about her childhood struggles, how a tweet from Ed Sheeran helped her get a record deal, what motivates her and more.
VIBE: I came across your music randomly on Youtube the other day. It was your Colors performance that really caught my attention. You sound like you have been doing music your whole life, but how did it really start for you?
Mahalia: I started writing songs when I was like 11, and I started playing guitar around that time, too. Both my mom and dad are singers, and they both encouraged me to write. Then I started performing at open mics and different places in Leicester a few years later. After that, [things] kind of progressed very quickly. Next, I released this EP called Head Space that kind of had my first signature style tunes on there. Then, I met a lot of writers like Amy Wadge who introduced me to Ed Sheeran, and then he tweeted about me and the next thing I knew I was signing to Asylum/Atlantic when I was 13.
Were you focused on becoming a songwriter first?
Before I signed, I guess it was just me having fun with music, and maybe if I hadn’t signed my first deal I may not be an artist today. It was almost like a wake up call for me. Kind of like ‘wow, you’re good at this, you should roll with it.’ It really got me into gear, and I kind of just been rolling with it for 6 years. I’ve been winging-it for 6 years now [laughs].
Did you go to school for music?
I was in regular school when I started playing music, but after I got my deal, I went into performing arts school in Birmingham, but for acting. I was completely set on that, too. I thought studying music might not be worth it for me — like maybe it wouldn’t be challenging enough for me. I think I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I was just testing the water.
What was your childhood like in Leicester?
I’m from a really small town in Leicester. I was just one of three black girls in my school, and I think that affected me a lot. I felt like I really didn’t fit in and maybe that’s why I always felt like a big fish in a small pond. I just felt different, I was this little girl with an Afro [laughs] in a mostly all white school. But with that said, Leicester is home and it’s sick. I moved back there and I love it, still.
I can relate to that, I was one of like five Asian people in my schools until I moved to New York City when I was 18. You pretty much experience racism on a daily basis in one form or another.
I totally did, too. I don’t talk about it much now, but I think for the white kids I was ‘too black,’ plus I was very in-tune with my Caribbean side. My mom is from the Caribbean and my dad is British. I have two very “woke” parents basically and my views were similar. I don’t think everyone liked that in high school. Then when I moved to Birmingham, they always said I was too much like a ‘white girl.’ So I was very confused but it all helped me grow as a person.
Who were some of the artists that inspired you growing up?
A lot of women, people like Lauyrn Hill, Erykah Badu, India Arie, Amy Winehouse, Adele, Billie Holiday and so many more. For guys, it was people like Gil Scott-Heron, Palo!, Talib Kweli, Ed Sheeran and others.
That is such a diverse group of talent. I was listening to your Diary of Me project recently and “Back Up Plan,” and I noticed you have some really deep songs. Where does your inspiration come from when you want to touch on subjects like self identity and women’s issues?
It’s harder as you get older because you tend to lose some of that “exploring nature.” But I think every thing I’ve ever written is personal to me. But with songs like “Silly Girl,” it comes from my experiences being hated on in school. With “Backup Plan,” it comes from a teacher telling me I couldn’t be a singer. People would always say “you shouldn’t write about this or that,” but it is like a release for me. Every song, even if it has similar subject matter to my last one, is a a release for me.
And then you have songs like “Sober” which obviously come from a more lighthearted place.
That was me every Sunday morning [laughs]. Honestly, when I was 18 I was in my Girls Gone Wild phase [laughs], but it was so much fun. At that time, I was also completely in love with a guy who was no good for me.
Hilarious! Before we go, are you working on an album for release this year?
It probably won’t come out this year but I’m definitely working on my full length project right now. I’ll be honest I’ve always wanted to work with Chance The Rapper, and I would definitely want to work with guys like Smino.