How Mahalia Became a Full Time Music Nerd

We spoke to the 20-year-old UK soul singer as part of the Unearthed project with NTS Radio, and powered by YouTube Music.

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14 December 2018, 10:00am

Most of us consider ourselves music nerds – at least, if you’re reading this site you probably do. Maybe you’re the kind of person who spends hours scrolling through forums in search of the perfect Alice Deejay Who Needs Guitars Anyway? cassette tape (I’ve looked, can’t find). Maybe you make a monthly ambient drone playlist that nobody subscribes to, but you don’t care because you’re convinced you’re an undiscovered curational genius (me too m8). Or maybe you just spend a lot of time online, scrolling through YouTube vids, constantly replacing your favourite track with a new one until seven hours have passed and it’s dark outside.

Mahalia has always been a music nerd. And so she was the perfect interviewee, for YouTube Music’s Unearthed series in partnership with us and NTS Radio. When I ask her any questions about music, she answers immediately and without hesitation, as if she has a precise map of her tastes on a screen inside her brain. When I put this to her – during a mild Wednesday morning, after a radio interview with NTS – the 20-year-old UK soul singer looks surprised for a second. “Do you think so??” she asks, beaming, before seeming to consider it properly: “Yeah, yeah I guess I am.”

When you listen to her music, though, it’s clear Mahalia has always been that kind of consumer. You can hear it all over her sound, from the wise lyrical wordplay that recalls Miseducation-era Lauryn Hill, to the the R&B and soul inflections of her voice that conjure up the likes of Erykah Badu or D’Angelo, but pushed into the present day. With all that in mind, we had a music nerd to music nerd conversation about obscure discoveries, how tastes change with age and go-to aux cord tracks. You can head here to see a playlist of her picks on the YouTube Music app.

Noisey: What was the first musical thing that you can remember recommending to you?
Mahalia: Lalah Hathaway. She’s a jazz singer, and there’s this video of her with Snarky Puppy. She basically sings chords – I think it’s called ‘throat singing’? It’s mad, it’s really special. There’s this clip on YouTube, and she does this whole tune, and then midway through she literally sings chords. That was the first recommendation that I can remember really loving.

What’s the most iconic live performance that you’ve seen video footage of?
I’m going to say Amy Winehouse on Other Voices in Dingle in Ireland. I did it a couple of years ago, and I’m about to go again this year, but her performance is online. It’s so beautiful. But to be honest, all of her performances – all the stuff at the beginning, of her in tiny jazz cafes and stuff – they’re my favourite to watch.

What’s the weirdest or best thing your parents have recommended to you?
My mum told me to watch this Eartha Kitt clip, and it’s her talking about love and compromise. It’s this little interview, and without giving away too much, it’s the clip that is inspiring my debut album. So it’s really special to me. My mum got me to watch it a few years ago and it’s one of those things that I’ll never let go of. It’s sick. She has this crazy laugh.

What’s the most obscure discovery you’ve made on your own?
Mr Methane? That dude who farts. You know the band Jethro Tull – the drummer Barry has a residential place in Henley, and I go there to write songs sometimes. He’s like my dad. He’s one of the loves of my life. It’s sick when you’re young and you have a mentor. Anyway, I go and see him and he showed me Mr Methane and I was like “Baz, why are you showing me this?”

Wow, that’s more obscure than I expected. What is the musical obsession people would be surprised to know you’re into?
Jeff Buckley. I’m into him like crazy. I love his song “Everybody Here Wants You” and “Last Goodbye.” I guess as a musician you pick your inspiration from wherever you want to pick it from. Jeff Buckley was someone that my dad played, and I was kind of like… as you get older you rebel from your parents and want to find your own shit. And that’s what I was like for a long time. Then my mum played me “Last Goodbye” once in the car and was like “he’s amazing.” His voice is so special, and Grace as an album is so beautiful.

What three albums that you’ve discovered accurately capture you as a child, teenager and adult?
As a child, it was India Arie Acoustic Soul – that’s the album with “I Am Not My Hair” on it. She just totally spoke to me. I must have been about ten, just before secondary school. For me, as a kid, growing up in the town that I did, my hair always confused me. I was like “why does everyone else have straight hair and I have curly hair? Why is my hair so big?” Everyone used to take the piss out of my hair. This song was the first time I’d heard anyone talk about my hair. I tried to get it relaxed, I straightened it, then I got pressed – it’s the hair journey. It was an important moment for me as a young black girl growing up, and that’s why it was the soundtrack to my childhood.

And then, as a teenager, it was probably Adele – 19. When I heard that album I was in the midst of liking guys and not liking guys, and getting my heart broken, and she really spoke to me. I found her so authentic and real.

And now I’m older, as an adult, there are so many. I’m split between Miseducation by Lauryn Hill, and Freudian by Daniel Ceasar. When I first heard Freudian, I couldn’t get over it. Even now, it’s the only album I’ll listen to on a plane – I find his voice so calming. I relate a lot to that album. There’s this song on it called “Loose” where he’s basically saying ‘you’ve got to cut that girl loose.’ I remember I was in LA this year and I was getting my heart broken – again – and I was running on the beach and listening to that song, no shame whatsoever, but I wanted the guy to let me go.

What song have you discovered recently that you want played at your funeral?
I’m going to live forever, so I’m not sure about this question, but if I didn’t it would be an interlude on Angie Stone’s album Mahogany Soul. That’s my sad option, but then straight after I’d probably play “Smile Jamaica” by Chronic. I always sing it with my grandma. That’s a tune.

What’s the worst thing someone’s recommended to you?
*Laughs* I don’t know. Wow. Oh my God, this is really bad of me to say, but I watched Fergie doing the national anthem and I was in shock. I was thinking “no… this didn’t happen”. There’s one bit where she just goes… “WAAAAAAAH.” I’ve never seen anything like it.

What’s the strangest remix or sample that’s stuck in your mind?
Gotye “Somebody That I Used To Know” is “Baa Baa Black Sheep”. It’s mad. When I heard the tune and everyone was like “yo, this wavy”, I was like “this is ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’! You twats. Of course it’s wavy. You’ve heard that song you’re entire life.” It’s smart though. One day I’m going to sample “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star”. If you sample a nursery rhyme, no one can ask you for money. That’s a good loop, boy.

Who was the last artist you feel like you discovered on your own, without influences?
That’s a great question, because now I feel like everything you find you just see online. But I recently got into Gary Clark Jr. He’s this amazing soul singer who plays the guitar. It’s blues through and through. And he’s got this song called “Things Are Changing”, and it’s the live acoustic version that I love the most.

And finally, what’s your go-to aux cord track?
Drake “In My Feelings”. I can’t help it. All the bits where the girl is doing the shouting – that’s me, bro. This is exactly what I’m talking about [ shows video of her dancing to it in a car] – this is why it’s my problem.

Discover more gems to unearth on the YouTube Music app (Apple; Android), and listen to YouTube Music's Ones to Watch artists' special NTS Radio shows here.

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