A storyteller at heart, Mahalia’s unassuming songwriting manages to express an instinctively innocent gift for melody with a mature complexity in composition and a natural affinity for imaginative narratives.
This is subtle and delicate music emboldened by exultant choruses and a vocal that is both sparingly sweet and refreshingly raw. There is nothing forced about Mahalia’s music and it is testament to her innate talent that she has been championed by Ed Sheeran and Rudimental, while enlisting esteemed producers including Supa Dups (Rihanna, Bruno Mars), 1985 (Drake, Nicki Minaj) and Steve Fitzmaurice (Sam Smith) for her forthcoming EP and debut album.
As a child growing up in Leicester – where she lived until moving to Birmingham two years ago – Mahalia’s mum would drive her to and from school to the sounds of Etta James, Floetry, Aaliyah and Tweet. But it was hearing Corinne Bailey Rae’s self-titled debut album that immediately captivated the then nine year-old’s creative imagination. “My mum bought me the album for Christmas. I put it on and immediately wanted to dance and sing and jump around. Within days, I knew every word of that album by heart and slowly I discovered I had a voice of my own.” Mahalia didn’t start singing in public until three years later, when a friend of hers died of cancer. “Her death had a huge effect on me. It was Christmas and I went out carol singing to raise money for a cancer charity.” This was to be Mahalia’s initial stimulus to explore singing and songwriting. “It was the first time I’d ever sung completely on my own in front of people that weren’t my family. I’ve always wanted to use my voice for good.”
A few weeks later, the 12 year-old picked up the guitar and began playing open mic nights in the Midlands. Her breakthrough song was the utterly arresting Let The World See Your Light, which captured the attention of platforms such as SBTV, and Amy Wadge, a little known writer who later found success with Ed Sheeran on the #1 single Thinking Out Loud. Wadge took Mahalia to see her friend Ed play in Wolverhampton, much to Mahalia’s delight. “I was such a huge fan, so I was really excited not just to meet him but to see him perform,” she remembers. “We talked for a little bit, he wrote a really lovely tweet about me and it all kicked off from there.” Ed invited Mahalia to join him on several dates to perform a duet of Goldrush; with his own star in the ascendant, record labels were keen to find out more about the 14 year-old guitar playing songwriter able to hold her own alongside Sheeran. Mahalia ended up signing with Asylum, the same label as Ed.
Both Asylum and Mahalia were keen for her to concentrate on school and let her musical inclinations develop over time. Over the following three years, Mahalia took things at her own pace, studying Acting and Dance at college in Birmingham while developing herself as a performer. In 2014, she supported Ed Sheeran and Emeli Sandé on their respective UK tours, and performed with Labrinth and Rizzle Kicks at the Royal Albert Hall for the Teenage Cancer Trust. Earlier this year Mahalia went into the studio with Rudimental; the result was the title track from their #1 album, We The Generation, co-written and sung by Mahalia. “That was huge for me, to be involved in the process and then to see the record do so well. It’s been so fun to go on the journey with them; they’re become like big brothers to me.” Mahalia played with the Hackney quartet at Lovebox over the summer and on Jools Holland (“the most nerve-wracking thing I’ve ever done”), earning such a distinguished live reputation that she’s since been asked to support Leon Bridges, Kwabs, Frances and Lianne Le Havas.
With her college career coming to an end, Mahalia is now ready to explore the options of becoming a full-time singer. “It’s scary, because I’ve spent so long in my own head with my music, so now I have to put it out to people on a plate,” she grins. “But supporting artists like Rudimental and Kwabs and seeing how people are responding to my music, I finally feel like I’m ready for people to hear it.”
With a debut album set for 2016, Mahalia closed last year with the EP Never Change, four tracks of sublime songwriting. The tantalizing Maisie, Mahalia’s childhood nickname, is produced by Supa Dups and 1985 and is a letter to her older self from her younger self. “I’d just turned 17 when I wrote it and I didn’t know if I wanted to focus on music or go back to school. I had feelings of wanting to move out and find my freedom but also of wanting to be around my friends and family. The song is from the younger me, telling myself to slow down, don’t rush to grow up, enjoy this time while you can because life will get harder soon enough.” The stunning Borrowers has echoes of an Amy Winehouse or Adele; laden with metaphor, it’s a bittersweet reflection on the naivety of first love. The fuzzy guitar of Up sees Mahalia encourage the inert and insecure to rise up. ‘Don’t be sleeping with your eyes open when you could be throwing doors wide open’. The title track Never Change takes the tempo up a notch as Mahalia tells her boy if he can’t fix up, she’s off. The EP is stripped back and subtle, refusing to be stifled by genre, while retaining a cohesiveness that is inventive, youthful and utterly mesmerising.
“I want my music to feel like a diary of my teenage years. Some of the songs I write might seem as though they’re about romantic love, but I write about friendships, family, bullying. Not all songs are what they seem. The one thing I want people to take from my music is a sense of honesty,” Mahalia points out. “I always aim to be honest, real and relatable, My biggest fear is for someone to listen to my music and think I’m not being truthful.”
It’s what makes Mahalia such a truly exciting prospect; like Adele, Amy or Ed before her, Mahalia doesn’t attempt to chase hit singles or court the cool crowd. She’s a real teenager writing real music that’s relatable regardless of age. “I’m a 17 year-old girl from the Midlands who likes to sing and write songs,” she says simply. “I know I’m still young and I’ve got a lot to learn about life and love, but I want to evolve through my writing like artists before me have done. Even though I’ve been singing for five years, I feel like my journey is just beginning.”
Photo Credit: J Foxton