Nine Songs: Mahalia
“Basically everything is gone. It’s mental, and quite a scary time, particularly if you’re an artist where the majority of your income comes from [playing] live.”
What do you do when a worldwide pandemic means your whole life suddenly stops? It’s a question that looms large for Mahalia. “I’ve definitely been keeping myself up at night thinking ‘fucking hell, we never could have predicted this time, where we can’t do what we do’.”
It’s no surprise the sudden stillness has been a shock to the Leicester-born singer. Last year saw multiple single drops, a world tour, and the release of her second album, Love and Compromise. Having so much time on her hands has been an unexpected joy: In lieu of being able to perform or record, she’s been using the lockdown as a chance to reconsider the tracks that didn’t make it onto her album, reworking three of them into her new EP, Isolation Tapes.
“I was going through an old folder of music laptop labelled “’potential music’ - music that was meant to be on the album”, she explains. “I realised I might be missing some really brilliant music, and I found three songs that I just loved. So I called my producer and everybody that was involved and then just got going with finishing them.”
Love and Compromise was grounded in the ‘90s R&B and classic soul that shaped Mahalia; but channelled through her distinctive voice, and the songs that make up Isolation Tapes are true to form. "Too Nice" opens like a lost TLC deep cut and "BRB" is a rich and yearning soul track, finding Mahalia in the midst of a long-distance relationship on tour. However, it’s opener, "Plastic Plants", that signals her continuing maturity as a songwriter, moving away from the plain-spoken storytelling she’s perfected towards a newfound use of wordplay. Lyrical metaphors play over jazz-leaning piano loops and classic ‘90s-tinged R&B production to illustrate the intricacies of a relationship’s slow fade.
“I remember when my friend Felix [Joseph] and I were writing ["Plastic Plants"] thinking “this is the smartest shit I’ve ever fucking written!’ To revisit it now is amazing. We get to finish it how we want to finish it, I got to go over all the lyrics and make sure it made sense, and honestly, for me, it’s my proudest piece of writing in a long time. It felt like my inner Year 8 English Literature student came out of me!” she laughs. “Writing in that way was so much fun, and takes an issue in my love life that is quite serious, and makes it flowery, and you can bop to it. I really like the message and I’m really happy that people are going to get to hear it.”
In case anyone was expecting the tracks to be odes to social distancing, she’s quick to explain the title. “I called the EP Isolation Tapes because even though I didn’t technically [write] this stuff in isolation, being in isolation made me listen to the music, and listening to the music made me finish it. It was really nice for me to be able to resurrect music like that,” she tells me, “because honestly it never happens!”
Her life under lockdown - as a new Mum to puppy Loki - is being well documented on her Instagram, and a three-part YouTube documentary dropped last month. The Story of Mahalia charts her progression from thirteen-year-old prodigy to confident and outspoken performer. “I don’t know where the idea [for the documentary] came from,’ she tells me. “I’d never thought about telling my story like that, because I’ve told it so many times I almost felt like everybody knew it, even though that’s never the case.”
The series features interviews with people from every stage of her life, from her school teachers to her musical collaborators. “It was lovely to get my parents involved and my teachers, and just to go back and see everybody. I never really get to go back home to Leicester and Birmingham” she admits “so it was lovely to be able to spend time with the people that grew me.”
The conversation turns to the highs and lows of being stuck at home indefinitely. Has this time prompted a rush of new writing? “I don’t know if I’m creating more, but to me it feels like I’m creating differently,” she tells me cheerfully.
“This time has made me so excited, wondering what I’m going to write at the end of this. As a songwriter, all you ask for is time and experience. At first I thought I’d find no inspiration, sitting in a room looking out a window, but I’m getting so much time to connect, to experience things, and have arguments and fall in love again, that I’m coming out of this with more inspiration than I thought I was going to - literally because I’ve been forced to sit still. I’m enjoying the challenge for my brain.”
Talk turns to Mahalia's favourite songs; a handful of classics both old and new, and very much shaped by the people most important to her from the very start.
"This is a magic one for me, because I first heard it when I was ten or eleven. I was growing up in Leicester, I was living in a predominantly white area and going to a good school. I had a good group of friends and I was just starting to make music. I was having a great time, but I was struggling with the idea of self-identity.
"My Mum would have played me India.Arie when I was a kid, but I found her again as a young teen and her music completely resonated with me. I remember hearing it and singing it and dancing to it in my Mum’s bedroom - she had one of those wardrobes that ran all the way along one wall, it was mirrored, so I’d use it as a little dance studio – really fucking boujie!
“I loved the premise of “I Am Not My Hair”, that 'I’m more than a hairstyle, I’m more than my physical appearance.’ As a black woman, my hair is so noticeable. When I have an afro and I go outside, the first person I see will say 'Oh, your hair is amazing,' or 'Your hair is sick,' or 'Your hair’s so big.'
“As a kid, whenever anyone would make a comment about my hair, that would make me tie it up, but that song played such a huge part in the growth of me becoming confident, in my skin and my hair and myself."
"Corinne Bailey Rae was the first album that I ever bought, and I got a poster with it, which I put up on the left side of my bed. I have a hilarious photo of me one Christmas, in horrible red silky pyjamas, lying on my bed looking up at a gorgeous photo of Corinne Bailey Rae.
"I had to put her on this list, because she was the reason I started writing music - between her and Adele they’re the reason I picked up a guitar. I was just like “these girls did it, so can I”. "Put Your Records On" feels good when you hear it - it makes me happy and I love the video."
"This track is off her debut album 19. That album as a whole, like Corrine Bailey Rae’s, just resonated with me. It’s one of the main reasons I started writing. I was so inspired by the way Adele played guitar, and the way she sang - with all her colloquialisms.
“She’d sing exactly the way that she spoke and I loved it. I’d never seen an artist do that before."
"This is a really personal one for me. When I was a kid I really struggled to find a solid bunch of girls that were my girls; us against the world, my ‘ride or dies’.
"When I got to high school and into sixth form, I finally found this squad, this gang of girls. We’d spend all day in school laughing and joking, and we’d go out together and go dancing. We all lived together in our second year of sixth form and it was the happiest time.This song was the soundtrack to that year.
"Even now it makes me choke up - that time was so happy: me and four other girls, we were the best of friends. If I could name a song that captured that year it would be “Girl”. It’s one of those amazing feel-good tracks about singing to your girls and just saying 'you need to leave this guy babes.' I’ve loved this song for years."
"My Mum used to play Tweet in the car on our journeys to Birmingham to go to dance class, and one of the first songs I heard of hers was a song called “Boogie 2Nite.” That song used to make me so happy, my brothers and my Mum and I would all sing along in the car.
“When I got older and I went back to Tweet, I listened to that whole album Southern Hummingbird and I realised I didn’t notice how amazing it was as a kid. This song is on that album, and honestly, it is the most beautiful way of saying to somebody, 'Please come back to me. I love you so much and all I want is for you to come back.' She does it so elegantly.
"My taste is definitely eclectic. I listen to a lot of singer/songwriters, and the majority of these artists are older! So much of what made me who I am are these amazing singer/songwriters, who write these beautiful love and heartbreak songs that I was obsessed with as a kid, because I’ve always been a romantic. This song for me is just a wonderful piece of writing, and it will always be timeless."
"This song is off his debut record +. I remember loving it because all of the other songs on the record had guitar on them, and this is the only song he sung with just him and a piano. I remember hearing it and thinking, “Oh my god, this is Ed Sheeran with a piano, this is so cool”.
"I loved what he had to say and I loved how he said it. At that time [when the album was released] I was such a massive fan of Ed, so it didn’t feel right not to put one of his songs on here. Once again, “Wake Me Up” has this conversational tone. I can still sing every single one of the lyrics now.”
"I’ve always been a fan of Bon Iver. My eldest brother who introduced me to this song, and I think that is also a crucial part of [why it’s so important]."
"I listen to this song every day. That sounds pathetic but it’s the God’s honest truth. I listen to “re:stacks” Every. Single. Day. Sometimes it changes, sometimes it’s in the morning, sometimes in the evening, but that song is the only song I can listen to that makes me feel really happy and calm, or will make me cry.
“I’ll listen to it a million times over to try and work out what I’m feeling. It’s just one of those songs.”
"This is a big one for me, because we used to sing this song to my little brother when he was born. Stevie Wonder was always played in the house when I was a kid, so his voice is always going to be soothing, and is always going to be familiar.
“I had to put this song on here because I used to sing it when I was a kid. My Mum would sing it to me, and then we sang it to my little brother. It’s a song that as a family we really loved, it’s an important one for me."
"My Mum first played me the video on of Rose Royce performing "Love Don’t Live Here Anymore" on Top Of The Pops on YouTube.
“The writing on this song just absolutely kills me. To me, it’s an ideal heartbreak song that I wish I’d written. It’s one of the songs I’ve never let go of, and the way that it’s written is heart-wrenching.
“It’s special because my Mum showed it to me, and she’s played a massive part in playing and showing me new music. My Mum was the one who showed me the Eartha Kitt interview [sampled on “Hide Out”, the lead track from Love and Compromise], there’s loads of references like that which I get from my Mum."