Mahalia asks to meet me in the bar of the Connaught Hotel in Mayfair and I think, well of course, if you were 20 years old and had been signed to a major label record deal since you were 13, you’d hang out in places like this all the time. It must be a home from home, this grand lodging where you can hop out of your Bentley and enjoy a lobster club sandwich for 50 quid. Then she tries to take a sip of her gin and tonic through the solid plastic stirrer, laughs, and it becomes clear that one seven-year-old contract does not equal automatic glamour.
“I signed young and thought, this must be it,” she tells me of joining Asylum Records, a subsidiary of Warner and home of Ed Sheeran, Rudimental and Charli XCX, in her early teens. “I was this kid who thought that was the end game.”
If only it was so easy. It’s only now that the singer born Mahalia Burkmar in Leicester is making real inroads, shortlisted for both the Brits Critics’ Choice award and the BBC Sound of 2019, then beating the winners of those prizes for next big things, Sam Fender and Octavian, to come top in YouTube’s first Ones to Watch list. That one, rather than asking industry types to vote, used statistics for video views and subscribers to come to a decision, so may well be a more accurate yardstick for future success.
The video for her velvety, leisurely R&B song Sober, made for the minimalist German web channel Colors, has been watched over 28 million times in 18 months. “That was the tipping point,” she says. “Just before that went out, I’d said to my mum I was going to quit. It was summer of 2017. I’d moved to London and it really sent me into a bit of a hole. I didn’t know what I was doing there. There was also the pressure of having been signed for five years and nothing really happening. I felt like I was wasting my time – like I’d been shelved.”
In the beginning, things moved at a clip. Singing seemed like an obvious thing to pursue, with a mother who had fronted the 4AD-signed Eighties electronic act Colourbox and a father who had toured as a singer and session guitarist with Erasure. It was dad who suggested she take up the guitar and start writing her own songs at 11. “It wasn’t a case of my parents having connections, but I got into it because I’d been around it. If my dad was studying rocks I’d have been interested in rocks,” she says.
The first album she bought for herself was Corinne Bailey Rae’s debut. She also worshipped Adele and Kate Nash, and references Amy Winehouse in a song from last year, Proud of Me, that makes a neat attempt to tell her own life story: “See I once had an idol/Got her voice on a vinyl/And then she turned suicidal.” In her earlier material you can hear hints of Nash’s distinctive mockney vocal style. “I was trying to do that British thing when I was singing but it didn’t sound good because of my Leicester accent,” she says. On newer songs such as I Wish I Missed My Ex and the latest single, Do Not Disturb, she comes closer to the sound of American neo soul, with a smoother, feline vocal that resembles Erykah Badu’s.
She put a few songs on a Soundcloud page in 2011, and in October of that year was tipped on a music blog, This Kid is a Problem, that was well read in the business. Then her mum emailed the music to Amy Wadge, a songwriter who was working with Ed Sheeran at the time (he released an EP in 2010 called Songs I Wrote With Amy). Impressed, Wadge asked to meet Mahalia and they wrote two songs together, one called Bring On the Rain and one called Boomerang Boy. In January 2012 they went to watch a Sheeran concert at Wolverhampton Civic Hall, at a point when he was riding high on the number one success of his debut album.
“I screamed the whole way through the gig and afterwards Amy said, ‘Come with me, let’s go upstairs.’ I didn’t know about gigs or what a backstage looked like. She handed me this pass and I didn’t even clock what it was. We walked into this room and he was just sat there on a sofa. What in the world! I don’t think I even spoke. We took a photo, he signed my poster, gave me a T-shirt. I left the venue and within 20 minutes he had tweeted about me.”
After that she was besieged by record company people. One took her whole family to Nobu, where her little brother would only eat plain rice and she wasn’t old enough to appreciate the famous black cod in miso. She ended up signing with the people who took her to Wagamama’s.
Despite all this fuss, she kept it fairly quiet. She moved to Birmingham to study at Ormiston Academy, a performing arts school that is a sister to Croydon’s BRIT School, where Adele and Amy Winehouse went. But she took acting classes rather than music. The first her classmates knew of her songwriting aspirations was when most of them went to see Ed Sheeran play at Birmingham’s Ballroom venue in October 2012, and Mahalia was the support act. “The next day at school I had to tell everyone I was signed,” she says. “I had just wanted to go and do drama.”
A debut EP that year, Head Space, included a cover of the Arctic Monkeys song Mardy Bum. A 10-track, guitar-dominated collection called Diary of Me, which today she calls a “project” rather than her debut album, arrived in 2016. Nothing seemed to grab the wider public. The tone of a 2017 single, No Pressure, suggested she was struggling: “Someone fills up your diary/Can you just turn up on time please/And make something we can vibe with/No pressure/Fifteen hundred for the studio but no pressure.”
“I definitely lost confidence in my writing,” she says. “I think that came from doing too many sessions with co-writers. I used to be an introverted writer, sitting on my own on the rim of my empty bath, singing into the mirror.”
Having zoomed ahead so young, she started to feel left behind. “My friends were all going to uni. I think I secretly wanted to go too, and be in debt and go drinking and do what they were doing. It’s true what they say, that if you do something you love you’ll never work a day in your life, but it’s also not true at all, because you’ll work so hard, you’ll try so hard, and you’ll take everything really personally because it’s the thing you love most in the world.”
Now, after a string of excellent singles, she finally feels like she has some momentum. Having retreated to Leicester after that first spell in London, she’s now settled in Bethnal Green and loving it. A European headline tour starting next week includes a night at the 2,000-capacity Shepherd’s Bush Empire. Then she’s off around the US supporting Ella Mai, the British R&B singer whose album recently went platinum over there. She promises her own debut album before the end of the year.
“When this album’s done, I will feel calm, definitely,” she says. “It’s so stressful – the pressure, the numbers. It’s really difficult. But it feels like it’s snowballing to me.” After a long wait for someone so young, this is her year.
April 10, O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, W12 (o2shepherdsbushempire.co.uk)