In the past 12 months alone, Leicester-born singer/songwriter Mahalia has announced her biggest nationwide tour to date and has been named “one to watch” by the likes of The Guardian, NME and i-D, and more recently, Radio 1’s Clara Amfo named her track ‘I Miss I Wished My Ex’ her Song Of The Week.
But while it might seem like the talented 20-year-old’s ascent has come from nowhere, her music career is something she’s actually been getting ready for since childhood.
“I started writing songs when I was 11 or 12. My parents were both songwriters, and I had a bit of a crush on a boy at school,” she tells HuffPost UK, with a laugh. “I was always really into poetry, and my dad basically told me, ‘why don’t you try writing about it?’
“I’d just started learning to play the guitar, so I kind of went upstairs, and I remember just sitting in the bathroom because there were mirrors, and the room sounded really good for my voice because of the little echo.”
Within a short space of time, she’d written a handful of songs and with her parents’ encouragement, began performing at open mic nights, first locally and later around Birmingham and London.
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From that point on, things began moving very quickly for the then-12-year-old singer.
“It was super weird,” she admits. “I started meeting loads of people, literally from travelling around and them seeing what I was doing, and then my mum introduced me to a songwriter called Amy Wadge. She was based in Wales, and she had been writing with Ed Sheeran who at that time he was one of my biggest inspirations, I guess.
“So I went with her to a show in Wolverhampton to see him play, and I met him, and it was all very scary. I was a bit... Embarrassing, but that’s fine, I was, like, 12. And then I met him, and he tweeted about me. Within two months it went from zero to 100 and I signed with Atlantic pretty soon after.”
Mahalia acknowledges that being signed to a major label at just 13 is “definitely a different way to grow up”, but insists her parents were keen she have as normal an adolescence as possible.
She explains: “I had such great parents... say, if I had a gig on a Saturday at 7pm in London, but I had a party starting in Leicester at 9pm, I would do the show and then my mum would get me in the car, and she’d drive me all the way and drop me off.
“My mum was always like, ‘no, Mahalia needs to go to this party’ or ‘no she needs to go to that one because that boy is going to be there’. She totally got it.
“[My parents] were always like, ‘look, you can do whatever you want, but just play your guitar as much as you can, and just warm up your voice every day, and then you can do whatever you want’. And I think that’s what it was.
“I think they were just trying to teach me discipline, which is what I kind of have now with when I go out, and what I do, and if I drink, or if I don’t drink, and that’s because of that thing that my parents built inside me - you do what you want to do after you do what you have to do. And that’s made me so much more sensible but also I have a huge place for the fun side of my life too.”
Her debut album ‘Diary Of Me’ eventually came in 2016, compiled of songs written between the ages of 13 and 18, which Mahalia said she wound up “literally begging” her label to allow her to release.
“I was like, ‘guys I can’t put these songs out when I’m 22, because it’s me when I’m 14’,” she jokes. “Even though everyone else might get it, I’m going to feel strange about it. So putting it out lifted a massive weight off my shoulders.
“But it’s funny now looking at it because that feels so far away from me now… but it’s funny actually, because I’m super proud of it and it’s really funny when people come and hear the music I’m putting out now and then go back. That makes me happy, because then they get to see that even though I’m this now, that is where I came from, and I like the connection between the two.”
Since then, she’s been hard at work on her sophomore album, which Mahalia says she’s taken a markedly different approach to.
Naming Amy Winehouse, Lauryn Hill and fellow Midlands star Jorja Smith as her recent inspirations, Mahalia says she’s hoping her new material will be less insular and more personable than her past efforts, admitting: “When I was younger, I think my songwriting was always very inward, I would always write about things that were getting to me that day or that week.
“I guess now… I don’t really write outwards, I think I should do that more… but, if something happens to me, I tend to just use a little bit of my story, and then I’ll try and make it as universal as possible, so that people can relate to it more.
“I guess I’ve always said that I wanted people to feel honesty, and I still kind of hold that. I don’t want people to think that I’m being dishonest, I think that would upset me most.
“But I think essentially, I want people to be able to connect to it and relate to it. If it’s not relatable then I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing, basically.”
The hype around Mahalia is showing no signs of slowing down, thanks in no small part to the success and critical acclaim of recent single ‘I Wish I Missed My Ex’, which understandably caught the attention of one or two men from her past.
“Do you know what, they definitely did,” she confesses, when asked whether any of her ex-boyfriends slid into her DMs when the song debuted. “I felt a bit bad actually because I was kind of trying to say to people, ‘guys, it’s not specifically about one ex’. But I did, I had a couple kind of be like, ‘Mahalia… are we cool?’, and I was just like, ‘yeah we’re fine’.
“But ‘I Wish I Missed My Ex’, people took it as a song where I was dissing, but actually… it’s the opposite. It’s kind of me saying, ‘I wish that I missed you, I wish that I did, because you’re so nice’. That’s what it was, it was actually me being a bitch to the person.”
This new-found attention is something the up-and-coming star says she’s still grappling with.
“I think I find it scarier now just literally having a tiny bit more success,” she says. “Even just telling the same stories that I was when I was younger, because when I’m on stage I tend to tell stories about what [inspired the songs].
“Even now it’s like, you get a little bit more protective of yourself and of your being, because you don’t want to give too much away otherwise… I don’t know, it’s just like, how much of yourself can you be left with if you’re just giving it all away?
“And so I’m very, I think I’m really careful with how I put stuff out and how much I say about it, and that kind of stuff, because I also want people to… I don’t want people’s opinion to be dictated by me, I want them to listen and take their own thing from it.”
Similarly, she notes that she’s particularly careful about what she posts on social media, and while Mahalia has recently posted about body positivity and the importance of self-acceptance, she’s reluctant to tackle anything heavier just yet.
“Genuinely, as somebody who grew up in a world in this digital social media world, I am very wary, and I know the backlash that can happen on people now,” she says.
“I don’t always voice my opinions online because it freaks me out that I could say one thing, and it can be taken completely another way, and then people hate you. I would love to stay out of that, but I would definitely like to be more political in my music, and I guess… I don’t want people to think that I’m just the girl that writes about hating men, because I don’t!
“I just think the past year has left a taste in my mouth and as artists, you feel things at different times... I guess it’s kind of a whole journey, and I think I’ll definitely find that political voice, but it’ll just take some time. Finding your political voice takes confidence as well, it’s quite scary to put yourself out there in that way.”
Agreeing that people on social media are far more likely to pounce on a young woman, particularly one “on the come-up”, Mahalia adds: “It’s not like I’m established and I’ve got this massive following... I’m definitely a strong-minded, opinionated bitch. But I just have to chill it down around everybody else.”
While she claims she’s finding this acclaim both “flattering” and “mad”, she also says that it feels like validation, as despite her youth, Mahalia has endured plenty of moments of self-doubt.
“I’ve been playing music and being in and out of the industry for, like, eight years, she says. “I definitely got to a point where I was like, ‘oh this isn’t going to happen for me’.
“I think it’s just really funny now thinking about that version of me that doubted herself so much, and thought that this wasn’t going to work or that people wouldn’t like me.
“And now it’s just really, really, really kind of… it’s a bit of a gift. It’s really nice to be able to see that and be like, ‘here I am, I’m ready to go. Let’s do it, basically’.”
Watch the video for Mahalia’s ‘I Wish I Missed My Ex’ below: