Photo: Sirui Ma

Mahalia Is In Her Content Era

The last time Mahalia released an album – 2019’s LOVE AND COMPROMISE – she was in her messy era. Her relationship was on the rocks, she had parted ways with her manager, was in a phase of feeling burned out, and found it hard to relish in her success. Even though fans were left waiting almost four years for another LP, her long-awaited second album, simply titled IRL (an acronym for In Real Life), is a real testament that the 25-year-old is creatively stronger than ever and hasn’t been affected by the so-called “sophomore slump.” Inspired by her traumatic breakup, therapy sessions, and new relationship, Mahalia makes it known that she is in a much better place. As she likes to call it in her own words, “her content era.”

We’re both in London talking over Zoom on a warm Wednesday afternoon in the middle of September. Mahalia is preparing for London Fashion Week and feeling a little stressed. Nevertheless, she still has everything under control. “I just had a fish finger sandwich and I’m watching Ugly Betty, so I’m actually having a great day,” she says, reassuring herself. It’s been over two months since Mahalia put out IRL and she admits that it felt as if a weight had been lifted off her shoulders. “It’s been lovely to sit back and enjoy it,” she says about soaking in the reception. While she notes that the streaming numbers have been considerably less than the previous, she doesn’t seem to care.

“Some of the responses that I’ve seen, some of the messages that I’ve got, and some of the reviews that have been written about this one felt like it was taken in really, really well. That has left me with nothing but pride which was kind of my aim when I was writing it,” Mahalia says. “I kind of wanted to make an album that felt really true to me and the woman that was at the time of creating and also really classic. I think I succeeded in that. And I think it’s been really genuinely lovely to see people think the same and say the same.”

Prior to the album’s release, Mahalia made it known to fans that she was setting herself a target to get IRL in the Top 10 in the UK. This was both a personal goal and one where she felt like she had something to prove. “In my mind, I have always wanted to be able to make music, like the music I make, and be successful maybe on a commercial level or just successful to the point where I’m able to travel and go to different territories and perform everywhere,” Mahalia explains. “Whenever I speak to any of my friends who also make music, I think a lot of us have the same ideas that we do wanna do this forever and we are in it for the long haul. I think it was a personal goal, but also I think there was definitely pressure for sure.”

Admittedly, Mahalia didn’t enter the top 10 with IRL. However, she was able to secure herself another Top 40 album in the UK, an accomplishment that even some of her contemporaries (Ella Mai and Nao) have struggled to achieve in recent years. “I was kind of disappointed for about an hour and I remember kind of saying to myself, ‘Okay, I’m gonna give myself an hour to be disappointed about this,’” she recalls. “I remember talking to my parents and my mum being like, ‘You have to look at everything that you’ve done this week. The amount of people that you got to buy your album, people that don’t buy albums have bought your album. That means thousands of kids have this vinyl in their house and they may not have any others, but yours is there.’ I think that’s a really big achievement.” 

Mahalia’s mission meant she had to graft her ass off on release week. That consisted of busking on the streets in different cities, performing intimate shows, hosting signings in record shops, and reminding her followers on social media to share their support. That kind of hard work Mahalia endured is a motive she knows all so well. When she was just 13, she signed a record deal with Atlantic Records and quickly found herself performing up and down the country with her guitar to anyone who would listen. Coming full circle, Mahalia was now singing to an audience of fans who have followed her journey and stuck around. Upon reflection, Mahalia realizes that despite the album not reaching the position where she initially hoped it would, the campaign was a beautiful way to see how far she’d come. “I got to do stuff that I never get to do,” she says. “It was kind of bittersweet to begin with, but now there is no bitterness at all. It was really just a celebration.”  

Photo: Sirui Ma

Streaming numbers and chart positions aside, Mahalia has given the album a new goal that fulfills her purpose a lot more. “When I really thought about it what I would want for this album in say, 20 years, I would just wanna know that people are still playing it and people see it as one of their favorite albums,” she says. “I do think IRL is one of those albums which, I hope, will be timeless. I think it potentially will be an album that that people passed down to their daughters or to their sons or to anyone.”          

Leading up to IRL, Mahalia posted a Twitter thread where she spoke about the lack of support she felt amongst artists, the industry, and record labels. “Do you know how many incredible UK R&B/Soul female artists have made incredible projects that have just flown under the radar because of lack of support?” she wrote, adding, “If you REALLY want to support your favorite artists, buy tickets to their shows and BUY their music.” Gaining a lot of attention and becoming a big discussion point, Mahalia states it’s the first time she “really felt heard.” Clearing up any confusion that she might have beef with her label, Mahalia says, “Look, I have to be totally transparent and say that I’ve obviously been with my label for a long time, and having a longstanding relationship means that there are going to be rollercoaster moments and there’s gonna be massive ups and massive downs.” 

She continues, “Sometimes I forget that being there for so long, these people have been in my life since I was fucking just turned 13 years old. Like god, we all know each other so well. Some of these people are almost like parental figures in my life.”

Photo: Sirui Ma

Despite any frustrations she may have felt, Mahalia insists the label did give her album the support it deserved. On the other hand, she recognizes that the industry is in a transitional phase right now and that artists are feeling the pressure to meet their standards. “We’re in quite a difficult time because the climate is totally changing in the music industry and I think a lot of stuff is falling into the artist’s hands,” she says. “I think a lot of pressure is going on for artists to be the front runners. You’ve gotta be able to be a talker now, you’ve gotta get on threads, now you’ve gotta tweet, you need to be posting pictures. What I think is happening is that I think artists are taking a shit ton of the load. Labels are trying to figure out how to slightly change the business model to fit what’s going on. I don’t think that’s gonna last for a long time. I also think it’s no surprise that artists are feeling burnt out and they’re feeling like they dunno what to do next.”

Just one week into the release of her album, Mahalia confesses that the same pressure even impacted her mental health. “I literally was like, ‘Oh my god, I don’t know how to fucking do this anymore,’” she says. “When I started you just had to do enough gigs, post a couple of pics on Instagram, and maybe tweet your music. But that was it. It was really simple. And now, there’s so much to keep up with. You’ve gotta be vocal, you’ve gotta be out and about and be seen, and there’s just a lot more that goes into it now.” In addition to the support she received from the label, she was also grateful for the love she felt from her fellow musicians. “I think the main surprise for me actually was the artist support. I thought that was really, really lovely, to be honest,” Mahalia adds.   

That artist support she’s referring to is something that has always been important to Mahalia. She currently hosts her own events in London, under the name Mahalia Presents, every other month, which has been shining a light on emerging R&B talent such as FLO, Debbie, and Nia Sultana, to name a few, for the past year and a half. Although it might seem like a new concept, the first-ever Mahalia Presents event actually took place in her home city while she was still in school. “Mahalia Presents started when I was 16 in Leicester. I think back then I only did about three of them because I was doing my A Levels, so I was pretty busy with that,” she says as she begins to laugh. “Me and my parents started them in Leicester and I think the point back then was just to get artists to come to Leicester because people would always go on tours and always forget about Leicester.”

“I loved hosting, I loved being able to kind of speak and introduce artists and be in that role for a second,” Mahalia continues. After moving to London, Mahalia began to crave that role again but had to put plans on hold once covid hit. Slightly forgetting about the idea, her ongoing conversations about the lack of representation of R&B artists in the UK fueled her fire to help make a change. 

Photo: Sirui Ma

“There just came a point when I thought, ‘What is the fucking point in me shouting about this change and not actively trying to enforce it myself?’ So I think that was really the main reason why I wanted to start it back up again. I just love it and it’s an amazing way for me to discover music and artists that I maybe wanna work with later down the line or even artists that I wanna bring out on the road with me to maybe support me on tour if they wanna do that,” she explains. “I think it’s just a way to kind of connect us all together because I definitely think that if the industry isn’t gonna get on board yet, then we need to get on board with one another and be showing that we are all there are so many of us and we’re all doing different things. I also think that’s why UK R&B is just so fucking brilliant because there’s no real blueprint.”

The opportunity to change the conversation and open up people’s ears has proved to be a success. With the London shows originally taking place at Hackney’s Moth Club, Mahalia Presents has since upgraded its venue to Camden’s Jazz Cafe and is now international with events in New York. “It’s definitely bigger than I ever thought it was going to be for sure. I didn’t think that I was going to still be doing it,” Mahalia admits. “We’re already in our second year and I can’t imagine it stopping anytime soon.”

The next Mahalia Presents in London is taking place on October 4 with performances from Tamera, Mychelle, and Tyler Lewis. Days later, Mahalia will kick off the UK and European leg of her “In Real Life” tour in Leeds and will visit all over. To say that Mahalia is excited is an understatement, especially when the stage is where she has always felt most at home. “That’s also where I feel most happy,” she shares. “The second that I get on onto a tour bus, I know that I’m gonna be moving from there to stage for the next six weeks and I just don’t have any worries, ever. And it’s really funny because I don’t think anything else makes me feel like that. I love being in the studio and coming home and living that life, that kind of more structured life, but there’s something about being on the road knowing that I’m gonna be able to do that every night that just makes me incredibly happy.”

Thankfully, the European leg is not where Mahalia’s life on the road will end. She has just announced that from February she will also be performing across the US, and she’s definitely buzzing. “North America!!!! I’m coming back,” she shared with excitement to her Instagram followers, adding, “I can’t wait to get over to all of you again ~ IRL.”

In the meantime, the positive reaction from IRL has already motivated Mahalia to get back into the studio and create the next chapter. “I think as soon as I feel myself going into a new era personally, that’s when I know that it’s time to get back in and start figuring out what that era and that space is,” she says. “I definitely feel like I’m already mapping it out and just figuring out the sound and what I want. I remember a few years ago, I did an interview with Corine Bailey Rae where I was interviewing her for Apple Music, which was one of the most mental fucking experiences of my life, and she said this thing to me where you have to look at your albums as records of your life. Like, yes, they’re records of music, but they’re records of your life. And every time you make one, it’s like you slot it into a library. And I was like, ‘Wow, that’s, that’s really interesting.'”

Mahalia continues, “My first album was one sound and it was one version of me. And then IRL is another one. I think going into the process for my third, I think I just wanna do something completely different and keep testing the boundaries of what it means to be an R&B artist in the UK.”

Tickets for Mahalia’s US tour go on sale Friday, October 6th at 10 am local.