When UK singer Mahalia was 13, she had a crush on this boy she knew. As with most crushes at that age, it quickly became all she could think about. And because Mahalia was intense and hypersensitive anyway – even for a teenager – she couldn't seem to shake it. Unfortunately, he just wanted to be friends. He might have liked her, but he certainly wasn't ready. And so, heartbroken, Mahalia did what she does best and channelled it into her music – which, at the time, was all chill guitar and clever wordplay, her beautiful but not-quite-grown-into-itself voice floating over the top of tentative melodies. "All my first love songs were about him," she says now, six years later.
She's telling me this story over burgers at Shake Shack in Covent Garden. In between each sentence, she picks up a crinkly fry, dunks it in a pot of ketchup, eats it, then continues. In the years that followed, she says, she moved away from Leicester (where she'd grown up) and dated a string of other guys. Her feelings never disappeared, as such, but faded into the background as just another part of her past. And then, after deciding to move back to Leicester, out of nowhere her teen crush asked her out on a date. "It was a bit weird because this was a guy who had always ignored the fact that I fancied him!" she says, laughing. But she relented and said yes – and now he's been her boyfriend for ages.
Her new track, "Hold On" – which we're premiering above – is about her feelings when they first got together, and how it took her a while to navigate them. Despite the semi-angsty narrative, it's an easygoing, R&B-flecked jam with the kind of slow, winding beat that makes you want to lie back and light a joint. "As much as I wanted it – and obviously I did want it, because we're together now – I didn't trust it. I didn't like the fact I had loved him for this long and now all of a sudden he was like 'OK cool'. So 'Hold On' is about not knowing if you want to jump in. And this song is basically me saying to that person, 'you can have me… if you can hold onto me.'" The track also features Buddy, an MC from Compton who offers up the guy's side of the story. "I don't want to waste no time / bring it over here slow wind," he raps, "I don't want to be alone for my whole life / baby girl you're the one that I want."
If you haven't yet heard of Mahalia, don't sleep on her output. She's released a bunch of tracks and EPs over the years, many of which are still on her Soundcloud, but her most recent singles are pretty different to the introspective acoustic love songs she was writing in her early teen years. The music she's making right now is woozy and warm, wise yet relatable, kind of like Erykah Badu, Sade or Fugees – but with a forward-facing, 2010s R&B spin. And while she often gravitates towards subjects like sex and love ("I'm a Taurus, so I'm a total romantic") she does so in a way that is totally different to the classic singers she sounds like, always coming at it from a fresh angle (check her track "Sober" for her cool, bleary-eyed take on the drunk dial).
"It's hard because you can very easily fall into that trap of just singing about love," she says, rolling her eyes, pushing her fries aside and moving onto her dripping double cheeseburger. "But I don't just want to do that! So for me, it's about coming at it from a different angle. For instance, normally, you'd be hearing someone say, 'I love you so much, I need to hold onto you,' whereas with 'Hold On' I'm saying 'No! You need to hold onto me! I'm amazing! And you didn't realise it for so long." She's come a long way from that 13-year-old girl, that's for sure.
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