Mahalia talks surprise ‘Isolation Tapes’ EP release: “I don’t want to compromise on who I am”

The British R&B star was supposed to be playing Brixton Academy to bring in her 22nd birthday but this intimate release is a present for us all

How would you celebrate your 22nd birthday? In the case of rising R&B talent Mahalia, it was meant to be her biggest headline show so far at a sold-out Brixton Academy – which certainly beats a night on the sticky floors of your local Vodka Revs.

After releasing her debut album ‘Love and Compromise’ in mid-2019 Mahalia has toured it around the world. At the front of British R&B wave that’s seen acts like Jorja Smith and Ella Mai receive global acclaim, Mahalia was due to play the South London venue to 5000 eager punters ahead of a busy summer of festivals; but the current pandemic forced things to change.

“We were holding the date for as long as possible,” Mahalia tells NME over video chat from her London flat, where she’s isolating with her housemates and puppy, Loki. “Then my manager called me and just said ‘Listen, we need to talk about Brixton’.” The show has now been rescheduled to mid-August; but that doesn’t mean Mahalia isn’t pulling out all the stops for her birthday this week, and she’s now bringing in her 22nd year by releasing ‘The Isolation Tapes’ EP.

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The three-song release is a collection of songs that either she couldn’t quite finish for her album, or had half written since. Mahalia had initially planned to write entirely new music for the EP, but then started looking over the logs for ‘Love and Compromise’. “It was all stuff that I loved and that nobody ever gets to hear”, she explains. So with a new mindset and plenty of free time in isolation, Mahalia started looking over these old cuts and set about finishing them.

‘The Isolation Tapes’ is made up of ‘Plastic Plants’, which see’s Mahalia trademark sound run through a jazz-flecked kaleidoscope, where Mahalia tells a new love interest that she wants a real relationship, not something shallow and fake; ‘BRB’, a sultry cut of the emotive R&B that Mahalia became renowned for on 2017 viral smash ‘Sober’; and peppy earworm, ‘Too Nice’, a catchy ‘00s R&B jam filled with percussive, Destiny’s Child infused beats and slinky acoustic guitar riffs.

All of them are filled with the deeply personal lyrics that permeated Mahalia’s debut. ‘BRB’ – her favourite on the release – was started in February of this year, after Mahalia hadn’t written anything in six months, she’d just begun a new relationship and was lamenting the fact that she was going to be separated from her partner whilst touring. “Writing ‘BRB’ was so personal. I felt it so much at that time because I missed him so much.”

This honesty is one of the things that makes Mahalia’s music so engaging, but that means putting songs out into the world can be nerve-wracking for her. “My songs aren’t nearly about people, they’re really about them. So when I’m showing them the people the song is about], I’m just like ‘be warned that everything in this is the truth’”. Sometimes, though, she tries to keep some of the lyrics to herself: “I have one song about a guy that I’m still very good friends with, and he’s never known that that song’s about him purely because we’re friends and every time that song plays and we’re together it freaks me the fuck out!”

Mahalia’s equally candid and relatable outside of her music. Over the past few years she’s become a beacon of body positivity, sharing posts on Twitter telling fans they’re “more than their fucking thighs and tummys”, and feeling more comfortable to wear what she wants to onstage, instead of the baggy clothes she was donning a few years ago. Signing her first record label at the age of 13, Mahalia generally enjoyed growing up in the music industry; but she did sometimes struggle with being told she had to look a certain way.

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“I remember meeting a stylist and I must have been 15; and I was trying on the clothes and they weren’t fitting in the right way. 15-year-old girls hate doing that shit anyway, going into the New Look fitting room with the horrible lighting and trying on clothes. And you’re so sensitive at that age. I hated being told what to wear and how to have my hair,” she says.

Now eight years into her career, though, Mahalia is reluctant to compromise herself. This is a theme that runs through the entirety of ‘Love and Compromise’. On album opener ‘Hide Out’, there’s a quote from Eartha Kitt, which sees the late American actress and activist defiantly assert that you should never compromise yourself for a man. “Compromise? What is compromise?” she quips, “Compromising for what? Compromising for what reason?”.

The Eartha Kitt quote was something Mahalia discovered when she was 16 when her Mum showed her a video clip of it. “I’ve had three relationships serious relationships, and I think with each one I’ve learned new lessons and always gone back to watch that clip.”

Credit: Mahalia

“It’s the same shit,” she continues, “The reason why I’m failing in relationships is because I don’t want to compromise on who I am. I think a lot of the people that I attract like me to do that, and even when I was writing the album, I was kind of working that out.”

The process of creating the album helped affirm to Mahalia that compromising herself for a man was something she never wanted to do. In the beginning of the album process she’d just gotten into a new relationship, and was creating “lovey dovey” songs. Throughout the 18-month writing process things started to go sour, and as she finished the album, she also ended the relationship.

“By writing the album and watching the Eartha Kitt clip, and going through the motions in my head, I realised that I was in a bad relationship,” she explains. “When I write music it’s a total emotional journey for me, and it’s definitely made me have too many fucking epiphanies; but it also saved me in a lot of situations.”

Reliving the emotions she put into the album when performing it live was painful at times – ”I had this one show in Dallas, where for some reason I was just spinning out about this whole situation, and I cried six times on stage,” she reveals. Now, eight months on from its release and an international tour later, Mahalia’s able to disconnect from the feelings from the album and enjoy performing it on stage.

The time since releasing ‘Love and Compromise’ has also been time for Mahalia to relax, as after eight years in the industry the stress around putting out her first album had turned into a “huge ball of pressure”.

“Putting out the album, for me, was like giving birth. It really felt like a whole world was lifted off me. I don’t think I slept for the last two months before it was released,” she says.

“I loved the process, and I love the album and I’m still extremely proud of it; but I definitely don’t miss that feeling of having all of that stuff around you,” she says. For many musicians it’s the difficult second album that causes a total headache, but Mahalia’s already experienced that pressure so is unphased by the thought of creating a follow up. “Also, because ‘Love and Compromise’ didn’t – this is gonna sound so industry – ‘do the numbers’,” she says putting air quotes around the phrase, “I don’t feel any pressure to kind of chase after it.”

Despite the album being loved by fans and receiving positive reviews, ‘Love and Compromise’ didn’t make a huge dent in the charts (peaking at number 28 in the UK), but Mahalia is adamant that that wasn’t the intent for it. “’Love and Compromise’ did exactly what I wanted it to do. It’s taken me fucking all over the world and that was what I wanted. So for me, I’m more excited about the second and the third and then onwards. I think I’m just excited about that step up to that next level.”

The pre-lockdown plan was for Mahalia to head back into the studio with new people and possibly start working on the next record. While in self-isolation she’s put that on pause, and instead set herself a routine that means she tries to do a bit of writing each day. Mahalia says she’s writing to “challenge her mind”; but this challenging has resulted in a few things that may fit on the next album.

It’s also been an opportunity for Mahalia to write without collaborators for the first time in a while, something she’s been relishing.

On Mahalia’s debut album she was working with songwriters (including WSTRN and Kojey Radical), producers and guest artists (like Ella Mai and Burna Boy), but her lockdown situation means “there’s nobody telling me this line doesn’t work, or that doesn’t go with that, or you shouldn’t sing it like that,” she reveals.

“I think it’s nice to just be able to sit on my own and just not have anybody else’s opinions anywhere,” she explains. “I think it helps with my overall musical independence, and there’s a part of me that kind of hopes that after all this is done, I can work more like this.”

For now, though, Mahalia is just ensuring she enjoys the time she can write on her own. Whilst restricted to lockdown she, like the rest of us, is getting used to virtual socialising, and this includes an online party for fans on Instagram live in the build-up to ‘The Isolation Tapes’ being released at midnight on Thursday.

It may not be Brixton; but releasing the excellent ‘The Isolation Tapes’ seems like a worthy way for Mahalia to bring in her 22nd birthday. A slick stop-gap between her debut and future releases, we’ll be cracking open a cold one to toast from afar.

‘The Isolation Tapes’ are out May 1

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