‘IRL’ IS A STATEMENT OF SUCCESS FOR R&Bs RISING ICON.14.7.23
British R&B singer and songwriter Mahalia is no stranger to career milestones. Having been signed to Atlantic Records at 13 after an early start performing at open mics and busking , she caught the attention of the iconic label and has been accomplishing new heights with every release.
Now, two years after she had originally planned to release her second album due to the pandemic draining her creative momentum, she returns with an album that explores her growth as an artist, navigating personal relationships, and self-acceptance.
If you treat yourself to her debut album, "Love and Compromise," you’ll understand why the hype around this next project, "IRL" (out July 15), is so palpable. a decorated creator of modern, anthemic RnB who blends the full spectrum of romance with tales of self-assurance and contradictions. Her heartfelt lyrics float across instrumentals from some of the best producers in the business, making Mahalia contend as a generational R&B icon.
Contrary to the name of the album, we did not speak "IRL," but over Zoom, in the middle of a long press day for the young artist. Having assumedly been asked similar questions for a few hours, she admirably maintained the warmth of character that she has become renowned for in pretty much every article attributed to her.
Initially intrigued by a video she had posted to social media explaining the emotions of releasing an album as being "2 parts fear and 1 part excitement," I was interested to know how the scales tipped with only a few days to the release date.
"Yeah, it’s less fear now, for sure." I think this last week, I actually just felt happy. I took a holiday last week because I was like, "I need to!" I need to get out of here! It's funny, actually, because I think everybody was kind of like, "Why the fuck are you taking a holiday right before your album?" but I was like, "Because you're all stressing me the fuck out!" and I just want to be away. But yeah, I think for the past few months since I announced it, it was all fear, then excitement came in, and the fear just kind of stayed. "But now I'm just excited."
Being excited about the album is understandable once you hear it. It’s a collection of tracks that bring the nostalgic heart of early 00’s RnB while demonstrating a diverse range of styles. Groovy slow jams like "Ready" and "Hey Stranger" flow with faster radio-ready hits like "T&C’s" and "Cheat." Plus, a tender love ballad with a singing Stromzy called "November" is a guaranteed tearjerker to complete this incredibly well-rounded album.
an album that may have been shaped completely differently if the world hadn’t stopped in 2020. Mahalia had planned to wait just 2 years after her debut album in 2019, but unlike some of her peers, she found the lockdown creative process a struggle. I asked how that album that never came may have compared to "IRL."
"I think it probably would have been really similar to my first one." which is why I'm kind of happy that it got delayed, or just that I had more time. I think when I was younger, I only really wanted to talk about love and stuff like that. "Whereas now, I think making this record, I had so much more that I wanted to delve into and just talk about some more interesting sh*t."
I think as you kind of move through your 20s, each year almost feels like 10, like 20 to 25, and I feel like I don't know who that girl is over there. So I think that album would have been way different. To be honest, This one definitely feels reflective of, like, my life and some of the relationships that I've been in and just some stuff that's happened. So I think that the album definitely wouldn't have been as reflective because I wouldn't have had the time to look back, you know?
While Mahalia has experienced exponential growth the past few years, her career extends back to her early teens, as evidenced by a magazine clipping she posted to Instagram recently with the highlighted quote "I THINK IT’S IMPORTANT PEOPLE KNOW I’M 15"—I had to ask if she felt the same way 10 years on.
"Not at all!" The other day I got ID’d in Tesco, and I was so fucking happy when it happened. I was like, "Thank you." I'm going to take that. "Yes, I have it."
But while the pressures of Tesco’s "Think 25" policy are one thing, Mahalia extends her thoughts:
"Do you know what? The industry has a way of making girls feel like they're really getting along, if that makes sense?" I would like to think that it's the same with guys, but actually, I feel like the older guys get, the more appealing they get. They kind of start to become these, you know, gorgeous older men. Whereas I think for us, we always feel like there's a little bit of a ticking clock, so I don't think everyone needs to know that I'm 25, but I'm also trying to embrace it and not be freaked out by the fact that I'm getting older. For sure."
As an artist who has been in the thick of the music industry for nearly more than half her life, her views on the business feel incomparably reputable, with demographic equality not being the sole cause for the change she wants to see. Having repped a Burberry coat at this year's Brit Awards, I donning the slogan "Long Live RnB," addressing the lack of representation of nominees in the genre and the shoehorning of it into the "Pop" category. I was intrigued to know if the artist had noticed any change in the months after the ceremony.
"I don't even know." I think it's quite hard to even see it. I think it's probably something that happens gradually over time. I mean, the one thing that I do see though is that everybody talks about, you know, UK R&B and how we can do better, but it's interesting because sometimes I'll be asked by, like, a radio host, and I kind of want to be like, "Well, it's kind of you." You guys. "You guys are part of this." So it's nice that people are talking about it, but I think we'll know as time goes on.
There are definitely things; you know, even being able to see a girl group like Flo play at the Capital Summertime Ball was, I think, a huge moment. I don't think I've ever seen a R&B artist play that stage before, so things like that help 100%, but I think it's important that we're getting the music out to people who are home listening, and then we can let them decide if they like it or not.
If we think about everything that we had on the radio growing up, coming from America, that was all R&B and soul; we all grew up on that music. Everybody. If you have a party, no matter what music anybody's into, every fucker knows Destiny's Child's "Say My Name." So where's the disconnect? "And I think the disconnect is just that the music isn't being played enough."
The issue of underrepresentation for R&B acts is something that Mahalia has taken beyond red-carpet slogans. She launched her own night last March called "Mahalia Presents," a club night starting in London and recently expanding into New York. I was interested in the idea behind the night, so I asked how it came about.
“I think I wanted to be able to give brand new or just up-and-coming artists, R&B and soul artists, a platform to be able to play music to sold-out rooms. I think there aren't many people doing that. And I wanted to create a space where that could start happening. I think more people could be doing it. I think we could be doing it generally for up-and-coming artists, as there aren't many stages that people can come and perform on. "So I just wanted it to be one of them."
Take a look at the videos from the nights, and it’s easy to tell that "Mahalia Presents" goes beyond a gig. The weight of support from the namesake artist to emerging acts seems tenfold compared to regular shows, with high-quality visual content and well-curated lineups making the night feel like a real professional platform for the artists.
While R&B may be looked down upon in Britain, Mahalia feels the music industry in the US is miles ahead in terms of respect for the genre. I asked if she sees much difference when it comes to audiences between the two continents.
"The American crowd is definitely more vocal in that everybody loves to kind of, like, "WOO’s," or "You got it, girl," and they love to kind of shout at you. I really enjoy that because I just like that dynamic. But no one screams as loud as the UK. like mental here, but I think it's because I'm from here. "I think you naturally feel like you want to hold your own ice."
That’s all fair and well, but with two Irish dates coming up in October (Dublin on the 13th and Belfast on the 14th), Mahalia is incredibly well-travelled as an artist, having been on tour for the vast majority of the year pre-covid. I was interested to know about her rituals on the road and if she had any memories of playing in Ireland.
"The main guy that I've always toured with is my musical director and bassist." His name is Charlie, and I remember we did a tour of Ireland. It was literally me and him in a car; I was in the front seat, and he was driving, listening to a podcast, and driving across Ireland just having the best time. He's a proper foodie, and like, I'm really bad with food on tour because I'm always knackered, so the first thing I want immediately is just some fries. I'm knackered, and I would like some carbohydrates, preferably some salty carbohydrates. He's the opposite; he's like, "No, there's this amazing place in this city we're going to go to," so I think now the first thing that we all think about is food.
Finding something that is incredible In the city, not just any food, you know, so I think that's it, but also I just like to walk around. If the weather's nice, I'll hop off the bus and just take a walk. And I always like to walk on my own because I basically spend six weeks locked in a tin can with fucking 10 boys when I'm in America. "Yeah, all I want to do is just go and, like, get my nails done or just do something really normal that I might do at home but completely alone with nobody around."
That sentiment is something that Mahalia catchily addresses on the certified jam that is "Isn’t That Strange" through lyrics that long for the simpler times before the whirlwind of a life as a successful recording artist. She questions the contradictory aspects of her desires and actions, so I asked if the process of making that song had inspired any changes in her life.
"I mean, honestly, I wish I could change what I've tried to." I don't think it's made me change them, but it's made me think about them more for sure. I call my mom more now. and I don't spend I don't spend money that I don't have on stupid shit. I don't pretend that I like cocktails. I am now back to drinking pints, and there are definitely things that I've changed since writing that song. I also much more enjoy my alone time now, whereas when I was writing that record, I think I was feeling a little bit like, "Oh, I don't want to sit in my house on my own because I feel fucking lonely."
I feel safe in saying that Mahalia becoming more confident in herself has worked as an incredible genesis for one of the albums of the year. For fans of groovy R&B and soulful vocals, this album will surely be on heavy rotation throughout the summer, whether you’re deep in thought on the London Underground, partying on the rooftops of Manhattan, or sitting in the Botanic Gardens with a special someone.
Go stream ‘IRL’ and grab tickets to Mahalia at Mandela Hall here.