If you've ever wondered what it's like to be hit by a wave of creative inspiration, it's just as unpredictable as you'd imagine. "Sometimes when I am on the train or on the bus, I will ever so quietly sing into my phone and put my head down and try and hide,” Mahalia explains of her process. It works, too; the British singer-songwriter has racked up millions of monthly streams, and earned plaudits from celebrity fans including H.E.R, Katy B, and even the legendary Elton John.
What separates Mahalia from many of her contemporaries is her ability to write music that is extremely relatable. Her song "I Wish I Missed My Ex," which has been streamed over 7 million times on YouTube and been remixed by Wale, is a case in point. Remembering the inspiration for the song, Mahalia explains writing it was almost a form of therapy. “I was literally going through it on the night and I was talking to my friends about it and that's how we started writing," she explains. "It just felt very natural and they were listening to me talk and they were like ‘You need to write about this, just get it out of you.'"
The 21-year-old recently wrapped up a tour supporting fellow Brit Ella Mai, and she's now preparing for Glastonbury Festival, and she's also one of the faces featured in Apple's new Behind the Mac campaign, which celebrates the way artists use their devices to record their tracks. But despite her growing profile, Mahalia is far from new to the scene. Hailing from Birmingham, she first signed a record deal at 13, and moved to London at 16 to kickstart her career. Success wasn't immediate, and in that initial period, she wrote “No Pressure,” thus developing her intimate and personal approach to songwriting.
"No Pressure" for me is one of my most personal songs and I never expected it to be as relatable as it has been. A lot of fans always talk to me about that particular song. When I wrote that song I felt a lot of frustration with the industry and how I felt how it was treating me; it was definitely a moment for me of feeling all this pressure and all these people saying 'Oh, there's no pressure babe, just do your thing' and I just felt that isn’t true, there is pressure, and I am not handling it well.
"I definitely forget actually how much of the stuff I go through that thousands of people go through it as well," she adds. "I think that's why some of my songs are so relatable because so many of us go through the same problems, go through the same worries and same issues and we don't even realise."
Once she's got the experience in mind that she wants to write about, the method behind creating her chart-topping hits is “pretty simple,” she says. “First of all, I hear something, it's normally a melody and I will write it down into my iPhone (probably into my voice memos)," she says. "I get my guitar and my Mac out and I record a lot of stuff on my laptop, melodies and just feel the sounds in the room and just lay down any guitars strings that I am hearing, and then I just start writing." Sometimes that process takes two weeks, other times two days, and sometimes just two hours. “There are been times when I have surprised myself with how fast I can move when I have time,” she recalls. “Most of the times I never have lyrical ideas, it’s mostly melodic ideas," she adds, explaining that she's most likely to be on her Mac from the comfort of her living room, studio, or a residential retreat.
It's a formula that seems to be working. She appeared on YouTube Music's first-ever British "Ones To Watch" list, and was crowned BBC 1Xtra’s #HotFor2018. But more exposure can bring with it more challenges. “I feel pressure as a woman to look a certain way," she tells me. "For a long time I thought ‘Oh my belly is too big’, ‘Oh my boobs are too big,' 'Oh my God, my bum isn’t peachy’ and I think all of that is [due to] social pressures and this idea of beauty.”
But now I am older, I am having so many more days where I am looking in the mirror and being like ‘F*cking hell, I am beautiful and I am privileged because I am healthy.’ I forget that I have two eyes that can see, and two ears that can hear, and a nose that can smell, I can speak, I have legs and I am healthy, I don't even have allergies.
“For so long, as women, we can feel pressure to break it down and fix it,” she recalls, noting a memorable quote that her father taught her — "Don't fix something that isn't broken.” It's a mantra that has come to resonate with her. "I remember really hearing that and being like ‘Yeah, you are right and I am not broken.'"
She also says she has experienced pressure due to her race. “Especially as a woman of colour," she adds. "I was a young black girl growing up in Leicester and I grew up in a tiny little town which is predominantly white and I didn't know my place. I definitely felt pressure in school to have straight hair and the pressure to fit in a way that nobody notices me, which now I think is really sad.”
Within her own work, Mahalia has featured dark-skinned women rocking afros in her music videos, though she feels the industry has a long way to go and should do more to celebrate black beauty and black hair. “I just feel like there's a space for people and, like, yes, we have made progress but I am looking at women, and I am looking at women who are darker skinned than me, and thinking, 'Where is the space for them?'” She adds: “I know darker-skinned women, who are my friends in the industry feel who feel ignored and their needs are made to feel irrelevant.”
When it comes to attention to detail, Mahalia is definitely sharp and meaningful with it. With her latest single, “Do Not Disturb,” which has been named Mista Jam’s song of the week on 1Xtra, she plays upon the iPhone's Do Not Disturb feature, and the artwork for the single features the moon icon. “I am someone who always puts their phone on Do Not Disturb, especially when I am writing songs and I will zone out," she explains. "But I got a tattoo [of the] Do Not Disturb moon on my arm, and it’s actually called waning crescent and it basically means the removal of negative energy from your life. Last year that was a massive thing for me, removing this particular person from my life.” Sounds relatable? Just wait for the track.
Find out more on Behind the Mac and watch the film here