Mahalia on the lack of support for UK R&B: “Why can I not exist and thrive where I’m from?”

HUNGER sits down with the singer-songwriter to take a look back at a bumper year which included the release of her latest album, 'IRL', and a monumental European tour.

Mahalia joins me over Zoom on an overcast November afternoon, where the weather has taken a turn for the worse here in the UK. Rain batters against my window as the singer-songwriter tells me of her experience on her latest European tour, which ended the week prior. “Touring is a rollercoaster in itself, there’s highs and lows, pushes and pulls,” she explains. The 25-year-old describes returning home as a “come down” – unsurprisingly, too, considering she covered five countries and 15 shows in just under a month, appearing in front of thousands of adoring fans and pushing her vocal cords to the extreme. However, it acted as a shining example of just how far the Leicester-born artist had come and the incredibly dedicated fanbase she’s acquired over the past few years. 

After releasing her debut album, Love & Compromise, in 2019, Mahalia was poised for a breakout, as her penchant for breakup anthems (‘I Wish I Missed My Ex’ and ‘What You Did’) resonated with fans who were looking to escape their volatile relationships. However, the pandemic crushed her touring aspirations six months after the album’s release. Throughout a tumultuous lockdown, Mahalia struggled to rediscover her creative spark, questioning if it would ever return. But thankfully, when studios reopened in 2021, the musician captured lightning in a bottle in the form of her latest album, IRL.

Released in July this year, the 13-track effort highlights her polish as a songwriter who unabashedly shares her wins and losses during the pandemic. With songs highlighting everything from the confidence she found during therapy sessions to relationship trauma she thought she’d already resolved, IRL is Mahalia at her most authentic and daring self. And when Mahalia isn’t riding solo, her guest features Jojo, Stormzy, Joyce Wrice and Dustin Conrad do a stellar job co-piloting the expedition. Still, despite all of her success and accolades, there’s no time for rest for the star, and in February 2024, she’ll embark on yet another tour, this time in the US. But until then, for a couple of months at least, Mahalia can bask in all her deserved glory.

Here, we catch up with Mahalia to discuss her time on the road, IRL, and becoming an ambassador for Pandora…

HUNGER: Congrats on your European tour, Mahalia! Now that it’s over, how do you feel about the whole experience?

Mahalia: It was fucking gorgeous! It was exactly what I needed. I think sometimes, as artists, we forget it’s really important we are also nurtured. And there are things that I think are in our lives that can make us feel that. For every artist, it’s different, but for me, being on stage and seeing people smiling and singing songs just really does something to me. It’s an hour and a half of just pure connection. And it was great to go back to Europe because I haven’t been there since pre-pandemic.

You also had the massive show at the Hammersmith Apollo, which, from the outside looking in, seemed like a career-defining moment for you. Did it feel that way for you, too?

Mahalia: It was definitely something different for sure. Leading up to it, I was really scared. London’s always quite intimidating because you tend to be told these are the publications coming, these people are coming from the label, these people are coming from the publisher, there’s a long list of people that are coming to, I wouldn’t necessarily say critique you, but it can feel like that. Honestly, It was absolutely mental. You have these moments where you’re just like, fucking hell, that’s what 5,000 people look like, and it’s a really weird adjustment. But I had the best time, and it was really nice that it was not the final show. We finished in Birmingham the night after, and I think it was good to come back down a little bit because I knew everybody was on a high after Hammersmith.

You brought out a bunch of big names that night, like No Guidnce, Stormzy and many more. But who haven’t you shared a stage with that would be on your personal bucket list?

Mahalia: Right now, I would say Victoria Monét. I’ve been seeing so many clips of her live shows, and her energy and presence just look completely infectious.

You’re clearly in a positive place right now, but I read that you found yourself in a massive creative block during the pandemic. Did you ever think you’d get to this point where you are now with all this success, and how did you get yourself out of that difficult position?

Mahalia: No, I never thought I was going to get here. It’s quite weird, I think whenever you’re in a bit of a rut, it’s really difficult to imagine yourself breaking out of it. Therapy is what did it for me. I started therapy at the end of 2020, and at that point, it really felt like a lifeline. I was having a really, really bad time. For all these years, I’ve been able to communicate and share my feelings, whether that be through music or even just with my friends and family. And then, in the pandemic, I suppose just because we were all stuck inside, I think it really made me have this block that I’ve never really experienced before. When I started therapy, being able to have this new person who was really dedicated to hearing me and not having an opinion really helped. I still see her every Friday at five, and it’s been three years. I still feel like that time and space is valuable. It keeps me above water and allows me to say anything I’m feeling without any sort of judgement. I think it’s a really key thing that everybody needs.

For sure, it’s always a weight off your shoulders having someone outside of your life to express things, too. It’s been a few months since the release of FML. Looking back, how do you feel about all the success that’s come from that project? And do you look back at the time you spent creating it fondly?

Mahalia: Oh my god, yes. There was a moment in the middle of making the album where it was intense. And I felt like I was in the gutter for quite a lot of it. You’re kind of trudging along, and when making an album, it can really feel like an uphill climb because you’re creating stuff that you like one day, and then you’re creating stuff that you don’t like the next, and you’re questioning everything all the time. Now, I’m just really proud of it, and I’m really excited about what I’m going to do next and where I want to go musically. And it’s been really amazing just seeing it on tour and seeing how it’s resonating and how people are taking it in.

On the track ‘November’, I read that the inspiration behind it was wanting to create a wedding song. So, it got me wondering: what would be your wedding song?

Mahalia: I have a different idea every time, but I think one song that has always stuck with me is a song by JP Cooper and it’s called ‘The Only Reason’. But it would have to be live because, do you ever have those songs you love, but there’s a specific YouTube video of them singing it live, and nothing else hits the same? He did a version of it online, and it’s just so beautiful. Every time I hear it, I just think what an incredible way to confess your love to somebody.

And do you think there’ll be a lot of people having ‘November’ as their wedding song then?

Mahalia: I bloody hope so! Because it’s a waltz, I think it makes for the perfect slow dance song. But also lyrically, it’s really clear that it’s just saying I love you, and I will love you unconditionally forever, regardless of anything that happens. I’m hoping, and I’m waiting to see some videos one day. That one’s been going down so well at the shows, and it’s been really beautiful seeing couples holding on to each other when we sing that, so yeah, I hope so.

I’m sure the videos will come! So, you recently turned 25, which is a big milestone. How do you think your younger self would feel about the position you are in now, both in your career and personally?

Mahalia: I love that question because I think when I turned 25, I had a little quarter-life crisis. I had a mini weekend breakdown before my birthday. I was looking at myself thinking, you’re not where you wanted to be, all the kind of stuff as you push through your 20s. I used to say that I think my younger self would be shocked, but when I actually think about it, I don’t think she would be. When I was a kid, I was so clear on what I wanted and so clear that I wanted to do music, and that’s what I was going to do. And I think sometimes it’s important to have that kind of mindset, to really be able to push yourself forward, and so I don’t think my younger self would be shocked. But I definitely think she would be proud, and sometimes I find comfort in that thought because anytime I doubt myself, I think about where I was versus where I am now.

Definitely, when you’re in the moment, it’s always hard to appreciate everything that’s going on around you. Earlier this year, you were at the Brits, and you wore the “Long Live R&B” jacket in support of British R&B artists. I know it’s been a short period of time since then, but have you seen any changes towards the treatment of the genre since then?

Mahalia: I don’t know if I’ve necessarily seen changes, but I’ve definitely seen a change in the conversation. I think people are much more willing to have the conversation now. I don’t think everybody’s listening, but I do think that people are starting to hear what so many R&B artists from the UK are saying. For a long time, everybody’s opinion was you just need to go to America, and I think that’s a super disappointing outlook because why can I not exist and thrive here where I’m from? So much R&B from this country does so well everywhere else. So, I definitely think people are talking about it. Do I think it’s changing? I’m not sure, but I think that sometimes it’s important to focus on how the world that you have created is changing. I’ve been running these nights now for almost two years called Mahalia Presents, which is solely focused on UK R&B and soul and having a platform where people can come and play and sing to a live crowd. I think that as long as I’m doing enough in my world, then I don’t mind if it takes a bit longer for other people to get on board with that.

As you said, at least the conversation is happening, and there are platforms bubbling up. As a creative, is there somewhere you feel most comfortable creating? Anyone in particular you want to be around? Or are you more of a solo creative?

Mahalia: I used to be more of a solo creative. Now, I have people that I feel super comfortable around. My partner’s definitely become one of them. It probably helps that we’re together and we connect emotionally as well as creatively, but when I’m writing with him, I just feel like there are no walls that can’t be broken down. There are no barriers, and it just feels really natural.

Fashion is obviously a big part of your expression as well, and you’ve recently partnered with Pandora as an ambassador. What is it about Pandora that you connect with?

Mahalia: They have been in my life since I was a kid, and I think whenever I get to do anything that taps into a bit of nostalgia, it always feels really special. When I was a kid, I begged my mum to get me the Pandora charm bracelet. Everybody had that bloody bracelet, and I was always really jealous. I don’t think I let it go for about a year, and then one Christmas, she got me one when I was about 14, and it was a really big moment. Just the fact that I could finally wear this bracelet that all of my girlfriends and all the other girls in school had, and I could start adding to it. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up, but we also didn’t really go without, and my mum made sure that whenever something was really important to us, she would do anything she could to get it. 

When I got asked to do the campaign, it felt like a real full-circle moment. And it was really exciting for my mum, knowing that was such a big thing for me as a teenager. I’ve not done many campaigns, but I’ve done a good few now, and this has definitely been the easiest, loveliest experience.

What’s your favourite piece from Pandora right now?

Mahalia: I’ve got it literally next to me right now. My favourite piece is the Loaded Charm Necklace. I just posted about it, and I’ve been waiting to post about it for two fucking months. I got it early, and it’s my favourite because of the charms and what they mean to me as a teenager. But also, It really feels like a statement piece, and I think as much as I love to kind of pretend that I am dainty and tender, I do love statement pieces.

And finally, what’s one piece of advice that you would say changed your life?

Mahalia: I think it’s probably something from my therapist. My therapist said something to me before about making decisions. I’ve come to realise I’m a very impulsive person. And if I have a feeling about someone, I’ll either let them know immediately or cut it off. Or, if I’m in a relationship and I have a moment where I feel like this isn’t going to work, I run away immediately. And over the last year, since she said it, I’ve just noticed how much calmer I am. She said, “never make a decision in the middle of an emotion”. And I don’t think I realised how important or monumental that would be for me when she said it. But now I feel like I’m so much more level-headed and calmer. It’s funny because my friends have started referring to me as the level-headed friend, which is a big deal because I was sometimes feisty, irate and reactive. Now, if they’ve got an issue that they want to talk through, they’ll call me, and it’s been really nice seeing that change of dynamic in my friendship group and how people now look at me.

WriterChris Saunders