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For Mahalia, making music is a means of self-discovery. Growing up as part of a mixed heritage family in a small, mostly white town called Syston, on the outskirts of Leicester, it forced her to interrogate her identity from a young age. “I’ve always felt like a really big fish in a little pond. I think that, weirdly, helped with my growth. I was surrounded by people who didn’t look like me, or who weren’t like me, so I had to go and find out about myself. I think that’s why I started making music.”
One of her formative experiences, she recalls, was her mum introducing her to ‘I Am Not My Hair’, by India Arie. It was the first song she connected with. “I really struggled because I had this crazy, amazing afro, and when I was a kid I was always like, ‘Mum, why is my hair so frizzy? Why is my hair like this and everyone else’s is long and lovely?’ And my mum was like, ‘Okay, you need to listen to this song.’ It’s India Arie saying she’s not defined by her hair, and I loved it. That was my eight-year-old anthem.”
It didn’t take long for Mahalia to find her own voice. By the age of 11 she was learning guitar and by 13 she had a record deal, on the back of one of the first songs she recorded - ‘Let The World See The Light’. Hers is a precocious talent, clearly. “Signing that deal was quite crazy. When you’re 13-and-a-half and someone says ‘Here, do you want this?’ it’s almost like they’re dangling a shiny necklace in your face and you grab it. It was like that for me.”
Fast forward to 2017 and the 19-year-old singer-songwriter has a Soundcloud album and two EPs under her belt, and is working on her debut LP while gearing up for a UK and Ireland tour. Her first official single, ‘Sober’ - a bittersweet break-up call to a non-committal ex - came out earlier this year, immediately catching the attention of Radio 1’s BBC Introducing. The single represents a move away from the soulful acoustic work of her younger years, into coolly contemporary, hazy, nuanced R&B. Two of her biggest current influences, she says, are Frank Ocean and SZA, and while ‘Sober’ is in no way derivative, it has a layer of calm cynicism that marks it apart from her teenage output.
Right now, though, Mahalia has “nothing to complain about”. She’s looking forward to her tour, with the self-described “homebug” saying her only worry is how she won’t get to sleep in her own bed. “It’s so sick to meet people who listen to your music and have bought tickets to see you on stage. That’s the most exciting thing.”
WHAT: Stylish R&B with nods to Jill Scott, Lauryn Hill and Abra
GET 3 SONGS: ‘Sober’, ‘Marry Me’, ‘Let The World See The Light’
FACT: As a kid, Mahalia would sit on the ledge of her family’s large Victorian bathtub and look into the mirror when writing songs.
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Words: Alex McFadyen
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