“I worry that people don’t always believe stories about songs,” Mahalia tells me over the phone. “But I was drunk. Like genuinely…” So begins the story behind the creation of her most successful song to date. Aptly named “Sober”, the track came about after the 19-year-old decided to defy her drunk dialing tendencies in favour of making music instead. “I was seeing a guy and he was really cool in the beginning. I was completely head over heels for this guy I didn’t even really know,” she explains. “And then he ended it, which was fair enough because we barely knew each other, but I used to go out and go partying and I would get drunk, or even a bit tipsy, and then I would call him. And it was this ongoing thing of like ‘oh my god, what are you doing?’ Then this one night I’d been out with friends and I was a little bit drunk again, and I came back and was like, I’m not going to call him, I’m just going to try and write.”
Deciding to throw her phone across the room instead of slurring down the line (if only we had the same self-control), the Leicester based songstress began penning the beautiful “Sober”. Finishing the track over the space of six months, it was released earlier this year, being subsequently massively lauded online and pushing Mahalia into the spotlight where she belongs. “It’s fucking weird!” She exclaims when I ask how the reaction has been. “It’s so weird, I think that’s the best way to describe it. I did a special for this [YouTube channel] called Colors Berlin and after that came out, honestly the reaction has been crazy. The other night someone did a Twitter handle with #UnderratedUK and they shared the Colors video and it got like 4000 retweets. It’s always been a slow and steady growth, and honestly at the minute I feel like I’m flying a little bit. Which is funny because I’m not in the charts, I don’t have paper success, but I feel really happy, and when people talk about success, these are my small successes.”
First getting into music after following in the footsteps of her musician parents, Mahalia was brought up listening to the old greats – “Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, sometimes people like Aretha Franklin, loads of great female singers” – before being drawn towards bands like The Kooks and Arctic Monkeys during her classic indie phase (we all had one, don’t lie). Writing her first song at eight years old and learning how to play guitar at 12, she eventually uploaded the music she had been writing onto Soundcloud and instantly drew the attention of a major label, signing when she was only 13.
“I was excited by it. I didn’t think of how it would affect me.” She says when I ask what it was like having all of this happen at such a young age. “And it’s not affected me in crazy ways – I’m really happy and healthy and I’m really calm – but I do think there’s an element of sacrifice when you do something like that so young, and I think I didn’t realise I was that young… It’s weird. I don’t think I lost my childhood but I do think ‘oh I’m so serious’ or everything I think about is always to do with work. I think it’s a hard one. But I just have to deal with it basically, because that’s my experience and that’s how I’ve lived it.”
Now, six years on from when she first signed, Mahalia has matured into an incredible songwriter and a creative force to be reckoned with. Sporting the kind of velvety smooth voice that instantly soothes your soul, her latest track “Hold On” is the perfect example of what an incredible star the young artist is. Incorporating a bit of 90s nostalgia into the beat, the track details Mahalia’s original scepticism and confusion over her now boyfriend’s initial feelings. “I moved to Leicester at the start of this year and I fell upon a guy who all my first songs were about in school, he was kind of an old flame. He took me on a date and showed quite a lot of interest but I didn’t know how to be because it always felt unrequited before. And it got to this point where I think he really liked me and I was like ‘oh, what is this?’ because I’ve always been ignored.”
Recruiting Compton MC Buddy to give the guy’s perspective, their studio time together really brought the groove-filled R&B track together. “I has a session with Buddy in London and he was such a great energy, he was so nice and we totally got on, and he just gave me the male perspective, and it was really cool to hear him talk to me about what he thought the song was about. He said he felt like it was about a girl who isn’t sure they can trust a guy, and of course that was it! Then he came in with the other perspective like, ‘come on babes, I’m here.’ So ‘Hold On’ has got this thing where I wasn’t sad, I was confused, but like happy confused.’”
Currently working on her debut album, this is clearly just the beginning for the stunning singer. I ask her what her next big project is and her excitement is palpable down the phone. “I definitely feel like I’m writing my album which is awesome, because I thought when I wrote my last project [2016’s] Diary of Me, I definitely thought that was going to be an album, but actually it just wasn’t the right time.” She pauses. “Now I feel like it’s right.”
Photography - Alice French