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It’s hard to believe that an artist with an output and reputation as strong as Mahalia’s hasn’t released an album yet. But having signed to Asylum Records via Atlantic at the age of 13, before taking the time to finish school in her hometown of Leicester and find her sound, Mahalia’s entire career has been an exercise in intuition and patience.
A testament to the success of major label patience, even at a young age Mahalia, born Mahalia Burkmar, chose not to allow the pressure of signing to rush her process and growth as a young artist. She began releasing acoustic music in her late teens before moving down to London to pursue her career after high school. Appreciative of the relationships she’s been able to nurture with her record label, Mahalia once even joked that she’s a ‘label baby’ though she strives to maintain a level of creative independence at all times.
Raised in a musical family, her confidence and prowess at the tender age of 21 is impressive but expected. “I grew up in a house where my mum would tell me if a lyric was shit. And when she said that, she meant, you can do better and she was right.” Her mother hails from a singing background and was in a band called Colourbox in the 80s, while her dad was also a session musician and songwriter. She also shares her passion for music with all three of her brothers who she reckons instilled in her a deep desire to just be heard: “when you’re a girl among boys you just don’t get listened to.” All these details contextualising her love for connecting with others through her music and live shows, as well as her openness in her music.
Despite her age, her journey to this record has definitely ebbed and flowed over the years. “When I got to 18 and I moved to London, I was confused because I thought that I was ready but I really wasn’t.” Mahalia bounced around the houses of friends and family for over a year, with very little money or motivation to create: “I was just finding life really difficult.” She details one particular low point when she called on her usual friends for a place to crash in London, but one by one the plans all fell through. She found herself at Paddington with her suitcase and nowhere to stay: “I remember jumping the barrier and getting a train back up to Leicester that night to stay at a friend’s house. It was just a mad time” she revels.
It wasn’t until she decided to move back to Leicester in 2017 that she wrote and released breakout single ‘Sober’. “All of that was just me losing confidence and feeling insecure, watching other artists surpass me and I hadn’t even worked out who I was yet.” Fast forward to present day, via a viral COLORS session that travelled globally and “changed everything”, international tours - both support and headline - a string of infectious singles and collaborations with the likes of Little Simz and Kojey Radical, Mahalia has been back in London for over a year now and writing her debut album for just as long.
Her jam-packed schedule of activity seems to go against the traditional album-mode exile that many artists practice these days - isolating themselves from their everyday lives and social media to focus solely on writing for prolonged periods of time. Instead Mahalia utilises the everyday to draw inspiration and energy from, explaining “I find that the busy periods away mean that when I’m back, I’m truly excited to return to the studio.”
Inspired by Eartha Kitt, Mahalia’s debut album is titled “Love and Compromise”. Named after the clip of Kitt that resurfaced and went viral a few years ago, where she unapologetically addresses her views on relationship and the idea of compromise. Mahalia explains, “I watched that clip religiously and it was such a huge part of my growth and understanding myself in relationships with men.” In the 3-minute snippet, the iconic triple threat star who was a singer, dancer, actor is posed the question of whether she’d be prepared to compromise if a man entered her life. In response, Kitt cackles dramatically and proceeds to return the question repeatedly, asking the interviewer to unpack everything from exactly what reasons she would have to compromise, all the way to the meaning of the word itself. Her own signature blend of fascinating and empowering - something that Mahalia channels effortlessly through her own candid lyrics and refreshing outlooks.
“The album talks about me falling in love, and falling out of love, breaking hearts and having my heart broken and me compromising for things but also at the same time being really uncompromising.” And it’s that back and forth that inspired a lot of the writing on this record, before eventually coming to the resolution that while we can choose to compromise on the material, there’s power in choosing to remain strong in your character and spirit.
Musically, the record is surprising even to Mahalia, excitedly she admits “it’s not what I thought it was going to be!” Continuing on a distinct departure from her earlier stripped-back acoustic style for a more diverse and open sonic palette. “Every song is different, which to me is so much more exciting.” She cites Jill Scott’s Woman and Billie Eilish’s debut album as sharing a similar ethos: one where you’re able to feel something different in each moment. Mapping it out track by track, the record invites you on a journey through relationships of all kinds: exploring sentiments of confusion, addiction, rejection and infatuation before circling back to the search for love.
And her influences are as broad as her emotional spectrum. “I’ve been playing with the idea of putting out a playlist of songs that inspired the album, but I don’t know if people are going to get it.” When considering who would occupy the playlist, she simply says, “Everything. Everything I heard in a restaurant, or coming out of someone else’s phone on the street, or while I’m watching TV.” More practically, she lists everything from Bon Iver and Carole King to Summer Walker and H.E.R and of course Lauryn Hill as artists that would make the cut. Drawing on the vulnerability of the Summer Walker that she endeavours to capture in her own art, the raw sentiment of Bon Iver and the intricate musicality of H.E.R, as well as the all round strength of storytelling on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Ultimately finding honesty and emotion at the heart of her music. And in this case, the openness Mahalia radiates in her art is nothing but a genuine reflection of her real life presence - effervescent and warmly familiar. A key factor that suggests this album will be the first in a long line of self portraits that she can paint authentically over her career. And though she cites her parents ability to follow their gut and talents through different career paths, when asked if she thinks she’ll make music forever she nods and smiles dreamily: “It just makes me really happy.”