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Mahalia on Her Debut Album ‘Love & Compromise’, Writing Genre-Bending Love Songs and Nearly Quitting Music

Mahalia Burkmar may be only 21 years of age, but the singer-songwriter's debut album is nearly 10 years in the making. Love & Compromise, her first LP (going simply as Mahalia), is a soul-inspired project influenced by a multitude of different genres including R&B, dancehall and pop ,and derives influence from seminal artists such as Erykah Badu, Amy Winehouse, and Lauryn Hill.

Mahalia's debut comes off the back of a string of impressive achievements, including signing to Atlantic Records at 13 years of age, recording with producers Sounwave, DJ Dahi, and Sam Dew, frequent collaborators of Kendrick Lamar and Taylor Swift, and touring internationally with R&B star, Ella Mai

But with these achievements also came obstacles. Mahalia details her share of heartbreak and unrequited love, which she defines as a result of "being young and a total romantic," as well her attempts to gain exposure as an artist in her predominantly white town of Leicester, England, where Mahalia felt she didn't fit in. "I was a dark-skinned girl with an afro playing the guitar and singing and people didn't understand me," she explains.

These struggles nearly made Mahalia quit music in 2017. "I think I was a little bit lost and I didn't know what to do or where to go next," she recalls. "I was young and I felt my music wasn't connecting." It was until Mahalia decided to perform on the Youtube music platform, COLORS that her career path finally shifted. Her 2017 performance went viral, garnering over 34 million views.

Now Mahalia's brand of soul music, filtered through her rich, distinctive voice is breaking through to the mainstream. On "Simmer," Mahalia crafts an infectious, dancehall-inspired summer anthem perfect for the club, about finding someone to dance and be intimate with. On "Square 1" and "I Wish I Missed My Ex," Mahalia also expresses wanting to disconnect from past flings and focus on her current love, which she communicates on a series of silky melodies.

In an extended discussion, Mahalia shares with Billboard the details of her artistic process, her influences, her potential collaborators and more.

Love & Compromise is coming out in less than a month. I was reading through one of your past interviews from around a year ago, and you said the first time you realized you wanted to be a musician you were 6 or 7 years old. So how do you feel now that your debut is coming out?

I mean, It’s pretty crazy. When I was a kid, I always knew that I wanted to sing but I didn’t ever really know in what capacity. And then when I was 11, I delved into the world of songwriting. The fact that I’ve gotten this far is amazing. So far it’s just been the most incredible rollercoaster, and I feel like so much of my heart and soul is in this record. 

You’ve had quite an eventful year, coming off the back of your own UK/Europe tour and a tour with Ella Mai, Glastonbury, and then you’ve performed at Rock En Seine. What has been your favorite place to visit on tour?

I’ve been in so many places now that I kind of get something different in every place. I always have a fun time because it's home and I know the culture quite well and I have the most amazing time here. But when I supported Ella Mai this year, I had the most amazing experience going around the smaller cities. I weirdly had the most amazing time in Tulsa, Oklahoma just because I wasn't expecting it. When I got there it was really artsy, and I had loads of nice food, and there have been so many cities that have really surprised me. And now I'm going to Asia for the next part of the tour, which for me is such a big deal and will definitely be one for the memory books.

Being able to tour that much globally, you’ve obviously developed a strong following and a busy schedule but how do you think starting so young, having been signed to Atlantic at 13 has shaped your artistry?

Being a signed artist is harder than I think people think it is. Growing up in a world where I'd always been a signed artist, people tended to look at signed artists as having had a helping hand. And I recognize the privilege that comes with that. But honestly as an artist, it shaped me in a way where I'm really good at handling myself in certain situations. I'm also really good at knowing what I want, to the songs I choose on my project, to the live show, to what I wear, that really made me really robust. And it made me think of what I wanted as an artist. It shaped me massively and my outlook on things.

Your music has such a varied range, from neo-soul-type songs like "Square 1" to just fun dancehall-inspired songs like "Simmer" — which samples Beenie Man and features Burna Boy. What was the writing/production process on the album, with having such a diverse range of musical influences?

I think we basically just said, "Let's not put any limits on ourselves." At the beginning I felt like everyone was so nervous, because we were worried we wouldn't create a record that people liked. Then once we stopped thinking about it so much and just said, "You know what — let's just go outside of the box and make what we want each day." It was a real kind of weird and wonderful 18 months to make my life's vision and then to work with different producers. I just made sure to not limit myself and work with loads of different people. And be completely experimental and authentic.

My producer and I were listening to "Simmer," and we both came to the realization that someone else would sound great on the track. I was looking at three people in the U.K., but then my producer said, "You should hit up Burna Boy." I was so amazed by his talent and his melodies, and I just thought that taking that step to experiment — especially with an artist like Burna Boy — was so worth it.

You’ve called your music "psycho acoustic-soul." How does that definition lend to the themes you’ve chosen to put into your album?

The "psycho" part comes me trying to say "My lyrics are a bit odd." Laughs.] The "acoustic" part came from me wanting people to know that I played my own songs — but I think now I play a lot less. So the "acoustic" part now just means that I incorporate live musicians, which is a must. And I think "soul" comes from me thinking that I am soulful. It's how I grew up, it's how I feel, and it's influenced so many artists that have influenced me.

You said in an interview with Vibe, “I just want to make Leicester proud of me, there’s so much music from here and I just want to represent where I’m from." That quote resonated with me, because you see a lot of non-London U.K.artists who are breaking through with great music, like Slowthai, Jorja Smith, and Rex Orange County. But how did that experience of being a regional, non-London artist shape your artistry?

It just basically means you don't expect anything to come to you… I was in this small, predominantly white town in Leicester where I was this dark-skinned girl with an afro playing the guitar and singing, and people didn't understand me. Living in Leicester gave me drive and hunger to want to go and chase something. I think me and those artists you named come from places where on paper, you're not supposed to do this — and that's why I think you see people in these regional areas excelling.

You have songs like "Grateful," which is just a beautiful ode to being in love and being happy — but then that contrasts with songs like "I Wish I Missed My Ex" and "Do Not Disturb." How do you differentiate in writing and crafting songs from those divergent themes?

You know, every love is different. People ask me, "Are you ever going to talk about anything but love?" But my response to that is, "Why wouldn't I talk about the one thing that can be talked about in a million different ways?" I've never met someone who had the same situation as me. So I think that's why I want to write about it, and I want to talk about it, and experience as much of it as I can. And that's what the album kind of is. It is about love, and it's about all of the compromises that I've had to make around love, whether that be work, family or friends. But honestly, the way I differentiate is, I just have loads of stories and friends who tell me their stories, and it inspires me.

And in this whole creative process, you obviously write and create the songs, but one thing I wanted to talk about was the depth of collaborations. You worked with Sounwave, DJ Dahi, and Sam Dew, producers who have worked with artists like Taylor Swift, Kendrick Lamar, and Zayn. What was it like collaborating with them?

It was crazy! Honestly, in my first session with them, I was really nervous. I just have this huge love for the projects they've worked on. But I had an immediate connection with all of them. What I felt with working with all of those people was that I felt like I was learning. If I walked in the room and felt I was the most talented, I don't think the album would have turned out as good. I love a challenge.

Being that you collaborated with Sounwave and DJ Dahi, I saw you tweet in April about wanting to potentially collaborate with Kendrick. Do you have any dream collaborations?

It's still Kendrick Laughs.] That's been my No. 1 for the past five years. Kendrick is someone that I always just wanted to be in a room with. There's so many amazing women in the industry as well though. I mean, I just love SZA. I've always just been so in awe. Ever since I heard her, to hear her melodies and the way she flows around her music. She's someone that I really admire.

And it’s crazy to think about the immense success you’ve seen after your COLORS performance of "Sober" — but prior to that, you’ve stated that you were unsure of continuing music. Why was that?

I don't think I was connecting well. Prior to when I did "Sober," I just felt like I hadn't cracked the code. I had been signed for five years, and nothing was really happening. And I felt like I was lost and resigning myself to something where nothing was really happening. And that can be really difficult. It was just a weird time. I think because of my age, I was naive. I went back home at 18 thinking I would quit and took a break for two weeks — but then I realized that I couldn't do anything but write music. And then I went on COLORS and now here we are.

What do you hope people take away from this album?

I hope that they listen to the album and feel honesty. I hope that they listen and don't feel like I'm being disingenous or dishonest. I hope people can find strength, especially young women to listen to this and feel strong. Which is maybe why I wrote songs like "I Wish I Missed My Ex" — to kind of say, "I'm fine without you and I'm good on my own." I just hope people can sing my songs to help get themselves out of bad situations.

Love & Compromise will be available on all platforms Sept. 6.

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