R&B Singer Mahalia Wants to Create Excellence

If you look at any Artist on the Rise list, you’ll probably find Mahalia’s name somewhere toward the top. And if you’ve ever listened to her music, you know that she’s more than deserving of such recognition.

Since releasing her debut studio album, Love and Compromise, in 2019 the 23-year-old Jamaican-British artist has made a name for herself as one of the United Kingdom’s most promising R&B talents. Now, with a 2021 Grammy nomination for Best R&B Performance under her belt, she’s quickly becoming a recognizable name here in the United States too. And with her new single, “Whenever You’re Ready,” out today, she’s bound to launch further into stardom.

In 2019, her hit single “What You Did” featuring Ella Mai landed on the Billboard R&B charts; off Love and Compromise, the album was inspired by legendary actress-singer Eartha Kitt. The inspiration of R&B icons like Jill Scott and Lauryn Hill are apparent in all of Mahalia’s music, but the delicate, honest, and hypnotic sound of her voice is all her own. Her truthful and vulnerable lyrics light fires in your soul.

Though the pandemic left Mahalia searching for that spark within—she admits that she wasn’t as musically inspired as others seemed to be during the lockdown—she poured herself into other activities and rituals that helped kindle her creativity. Through cooking, hosting dinners for friends in her new flat, and revisiting the music and films she loved as a kid, she was able to tap into a side of her artistry she hadn’t seen before. Fueled by the new discovery, she now has an album in the works.

Over Zoom, Mahalia speaks to BAZAAR.com about the process of finding, learning, and, most importantly, loving all the multitudes of herself.

Your new song, “Whenever You’re Ready,” is here. Are you excited to share this new music?

Yes! I wrote this song with my really good friend, artist MNEK. I was going through some shit—like, super brokenhearted—and we sat in the studio and wrote this song. I was trying to kind of manifest this bad-bitch energy. It samples Montell Jordan’s “Get It On Tonite” from one of my favorite movies, Save the Last Dance. I’m excited to give the people something new.

I love that it uses a Montell sample; it’s such a throwback. Do you find yourself being super nostalgic these days when it comes to getting inspired by old movies and music?

I would say so. I remember when I downloaded Disney+ during lockdown. I started watching all the throwback stuff like That’s So Raven and High School Musical and all of that. Funny thing is, I found myself getting emotional watching those things. Remembering what life was like back then. Remembering certain films I used to love or remembering when I wanted to act and be in a musical because I loved the HSM movies.

Do you think you’d ever pursue musicals or being in movies? When you think of evolving as an artist and taking your career to the next level, what do you see?

I think that we would love to be on the screen. I recently did a big project with my brother, with his contemporary dancers and with me singing and those two worlds colliding.

Acting is something that actually scares me but also excites me. I would love to be on-screen and maybe do music for shows or cinema. It would make me so happy going to the cinema and hearing my music in the film. So who knows, I’m open to it.

How has your creative process changed or evolved as we’ve ebbed and flowed from total lockdown to reentering the world?

In the lockdown, I found it hard to be super creative. I was watching my peers on social media and online who were posting all of this music and doing all of these digital things and seeing how inspired they seemed to be, and I just … was not. I was kind of feeling the opposite. I didn’t really know what to do with myself.

I basically spent six months of lockdown cooking, which I hadn’t done … ever really. Spending so much time on the road, you get used to not making your own food.

What did you cook? Did you come up with a signature dish?

The funny thing is that there were certain dishes that whenever I would come home from a tour, I would cook and I would be excited to eat them. I think that was because I used to cook them every few months so they seemed exciting. But when I got to cook them more often in lockdown, they weren’t as special. But I will say, I think I finally perfected my mac and cheese, which I’ve been trying to do for years. My mum makes amazing mac and cheese, and I was always quite jealous of that.

Pasta overall has become my specialty, though—my spaghetti Bolognese is also fucking amazing.

What other ways did you see yourself creatively elevate or change during the lockdown?

I didn’t start writing music again until towards the end of the lockdown. I found it difficult to be creative within those four walls.

I honestly think that time and that space allowed me to find my life and allowed me to find my artistry again. While I was cooking, I was also listening to all my favorite albums and singing and dancing in the kitchen. I was watching shows and films I hadn’t seen in forever, which I think was a major source of inspiration for me.

I feel like I really know myself better than I ever have, and I’m confident in that.

What’s amazing is that on the other side of this, music has never felt as comfortable to me as it is now. I’m more at ease in the process. I feel like I really know myself better than I ever have, and I’m confident in that. When I go into the studio now, I’m more confident in speaking up about what I like and also about what I don’t like. I’m very clear in what I want to say and what I want my music to be. It all just seems to flow more naturally and easier now. I think that those six months of silence is why.

When you’re making art and something doesn’t work, do you stay open, and reassess and reapproach?

I think being signed to a label means that there’s certain boxes that I have to check, so there are moments when I’m just in the studio writing. I know that sometimes there may be a song that the label loves that I didn’t like the most, or my favorite song may not be the one the label likes.

Aside from the label stuff, though, I think overall, I approach music with the expectation of making greatness. Once someone told me that they came into the studio every day with the mindset of “I want to make excellence today,” and that stuck with me. I love the feeling of creating excellence, no matter where I am or what the expectations are.

I think when I was younger, I was pretty naive and I thought I didn’t know what I was writing for. I would be in the studio working with producers who would play me a beat and thought I liked the beat, [but] it would be hard to be inspired by it lyrically. So now when I’m in the studio, I wait for the beat that makes my heart jump.

I apply that to everything these days: my fashion, makeup, food, and music. Whatever makes me feel amazing the instant I put it on or hear it or taste it, then that’s what I go with.

Who are some of your icons or inspirations musically?

I have quite a few. Straight away, I would say Corinne Bailey Rae, Jill Scott (I listen to Jill every day, actually), and Lauryn Hill were huge inspirations to me growing up. SZA is a more contemporary artist that I love. I love SZA’s whole essence—her music, her fashion, her makeup, her vibe. She inspired my own style in lots of ways.

And, you know, I’d have to add India Arie to the list too. When I first heard “I Am Not My Hair,” man, that completely changed my whole perspective on my Afro when I was a kid. So I have to add her to that list.

Were you self-conscious about your hair as a child? Did you not like your ’fro?

Yeah. I grew up in a town that was predominantly white, and I think I was quite confused because my hair didn’t look like everyone’s else’s, and the only other girl in my class who had hair like mine always kept hers straight. So I remember when I would come to school with my Afro, I found it stressful. Kids touching it and putting things in it and laughing about it. But listening to India, she completely turned that around for me—the stress and shame of my hair. That was a pivotal moment for me and my hair journey for sure.

How do you approach body positivity in general?

I recognize that there’s a lot of people looking at me. I always get loads of messages from fans asking how they can be more confident with their body image. I try to tell all of them that body confidence (and confidence in general) fluctuates.

I go through phases of feeling so fantastic in myself. I’ve also had phases, like, over the past two months, where I didn’t feel so good about myself. I want people to know it’s fine to fluctuate in those feelings.

I know some people may feel ashamed of the way their body has changed over the past year. I feel like life’s too short to worry about those things.

After we’ve been in lockdown and are now reemerging, I know some people may feel ashamed of the way their body has changed over the past year. I feel like life’s too short to worry about those things. It’s really suffocating.

I think we need to let go of the idea that we need to be confident all the time. Sometimes it’s easier said than done, and even if you’re a generally positive person, you may have your periods of sadness or insecurity, and that’s okay.

You’ve been quite the style and beauty chameleon. How would you describe your style and your approach to beauty?

My style is about being comfortable but making it stylish. I wear basics but elevate them by playing with color, shapes, and pairings, like wearing a jogger pant with a big T-shirt.

I’m naturally quite curvy, and I’ve always had big boobs ever since I was a teen, so I’m always super conscious of those. I love my boobs, probably more than I’m supposed to, but I’m also aware of how sexualized big breasts are. That has always bothered me.

Overall, I like to dress my body in a way that is mature yet still fresh. I feel like finding the bridge between mature and youthful is always hard.


A post shared by mahalia (@mahalia)

You’re so raw and real in your music and on social media. What gives you the confidence to be that vulnerable with fans and the whole world?

My mom has always kind of spoken to me about how to be the most genuine and the most honest with my fans and with anybody following me. She reminds me to never pretend that I’m okay when I’m not. It’s not fair and it’s disingenuous to those around me, even those who are connected to me through music and social media. And I think the one thing that I always aim to be as an artist is to be as honest as I can be, in my music and out.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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