21-year-old Mahalia is in control of her ‘psycho-acoustic soul’ sound

Mahalia, playing The Sinclair on Wednesday, is in control of her own "psycho-acoustic soul" sound. –Atlantic Records

Mahalia’s new album may be titled “Love and Compromise,” but listeners can expect significantly more of the first than the second.

The R&B singer, 21, has been rising steadily through the industry since first signing a record deal at 13; even at that young age, she showcased an impressive amount of foresight by opting to complete her education before diving into music full-time, and her iron grip over her career has only tightened since then.

“At first, it was a real state of confusion,” says Mahalia (pronounced: ma-HAYL-ia), speaking by phone ahead of a sold-out show this Wednesday at the Sinclair in Cambridge. “But, as I got older, I realized gradually I could navigate for myself. It was about control. Once I took control, so many things started to make sense.”

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Her album, “Love and Compromise,” is a testament to that control. Filled with thick neo-soul guitar, impossibly catchy hooks, even soundbites from an Eartha Kitt interview, it blends modern and classic in a way that’s both reverential of R&B’s rich history and forward-thinking in the extreme.

Q. How has tour been so far?

A. Honestly, it’s all been so positive. It’s mental when you’re so proud of something, and you’re waiting for everyone else to feel the same way you do. That was my thing. I loved it so much, and I was hoping in my heart that everyone else would, too. I cannot lie when I say I’m incredibly happy right now.

Q. You wrote your first song at age 8 and signed to a label in your early teens. What was it like to navigate the music industry at such a young age?

A. I was so young. I didn’t know what I was doing. But it’s been a natural, developing process. When I signed, I stayed in school until I was 18. I did all my exams. Then, I left my hometown, moved to London, and did that thinking something amazing was going to happen. But it doesn’t really happen like that. It actually more had to be about me taking control of my own career. I struggled between 18 and 19, finding myself, fresh out of school.  But when I did my first Colors recording session, at 19 – which now, God, it’s two years ago – that’s when it felt like I’d really got on a train and wasn’t going to get off.

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Q. Do you remember much about your headspace in those early years?

A. I’ve always just been somebody who went with the flow. That centered me, at the beginning. If I’d been sharper with my thought process back then, I could have done more, but I think going with the flow made me centered when things started kicking off. I had no expectations, and I was just moving through the process of being a working artist living in London. I kind of struggled with it, but not really. Because of those five years when I was so confused, from 13 to 18, I’d worked so much out about myself, my character, and people I worked with. By the time I was 18, I felt like I was built for it.

Q. I really felt that, listening to “Love and Compromise.” You’re writing and singing from this place of emotional clarity, even though the arc of the album explores all these tumultuous life events, from flirtations to break-ups to self-acceptance. Was there any kind of key to unlocking the tone of this album?

A. Whenever I was going into the studio, it was with different producers and songwriters. I always found the people I was working with would have a folder on their laptop, named “Mahalia.” And inside were 10 different beats and types of music they thought I might like. So, when I was walking into the studio, by the last six months, I was telling them, “Play me something that’s not in my folder.” That’s part of how I found the musical versatility, was that I was looking for music people never expected from me.

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Q. How about on the songwriting side of it?

A. I wanted to tell all sides of the stories I’d gone through in my life, up until the age of 21. I wanted to tell them in the most truthful, genuine way I could. Writing it wasn’t actually that stressful, because I had thousands of stories to share, but it was toward the end where I was two songs away and trying to piece it all together. That’s when I got stressed. But it was amazing. And very empowering.

Q. How did growing up in Leicester influence your sound?

A. There’s a massive folk scene and also a huge hip-hop scene, a lot of young emcees coming through. When I was in Leicester, in my younger years, all my really good friends from school were into folk and indie, so I used to go to all the little indie boy band gig nights in London. That really influenced me, because that’s when I started playing guitar and found all my favorite artists, from like ages 8 to 14. My brother was a hip-hop artist, so I would go to the club and watch them do their thing. So it was this mix of boys on guitar, and boys rapping on a mic. I was properly thrown into both of those two genres. And then at home, my parents were playing all of the great, soulful R&B they’d carried from when they were young. It was always all around me. When I got older, I took all of those and tried to make my own sound. My dad used to call it “psycho-acoustic soul.” But it isn’t really until the past two years when I’ve felt like an R&B artist. I used to get frustrated by that term, because I was influenced by so much more than just that one genre. Now I’m older, I can see that my songs are through-and-through rhythm-and-blues, in its truest sense.