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Mahalia: ‘I love creating something fun out of something ugly, and painful’ | Pop and rock

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Mahalia Burkmar has a knack for penning earworm-strewn pop about relationship drama: complex feelings, shady exes, just being generally irked by your lover. It’s fitting, then, that the day that we meet for a coffee close to her east London home she’s just had a row with her boyfriend. Happily it’s just a minor tiff: he passes by soon after to collect a set of keys en route to the gym, and the pair kiss and make up. As for the exes that appear frequently in her music, “it’s almost like they had a sonar signal that told them when I was single again … Every man in my life has done it. I’d come out of a relationship and then I would get a message from them and be like … ‘What?!’” She’s written a song about it for her new album, but it isn’t behaviour she endorses. “When I see, ‘Hey stranger’” – the title of the track – “I think: ‘Urgh, go away!’”

Burkmar – better known simply by her first name – has garnered a fervent following in recent years, tackling breakups and growing up with honeyed, occasionally talky vocals that can turn a two-and-a-half minute pop song into a one-act play, reminiscent of Frank-era Amy Winehouse. On I Wish I Missed My Ex, from her 2019 debut album Love and Compromise, she laments the inevitability of an old flame popping up again (you can almost hear the sigh as she sings “You’ll be like ‘Babe, come over’ / I know how this goes, yeah”; today she describes it as “a painful experience that I was trying to play off as being hilarious”). On recent single Cheat, with the 00s pop great JoJo, the pair unite against a philandering man, for what feels like an updated version of Brandy and Monica’s 90s hit The Boy Is Mine.

Mahalia. Photograph: Sirui

Although she hasn’t released a full-length record since Love and Compromise, the accolades have poured in nonetheless. Alongside Brit nominations and Mobo wins, in 2021, All I Need, the song by jazz musician Jacob Collier on which she featured with rapper-singer Ty Dolla $ign, was nominated for a Grammy. In 2022 she was among the all-women supports for Adele’s Hyde Park shows, while her London club night Mahalia Presents is now expanding to New York.

It is hard to believe she once kept her voice a secret from her schoolmates at the performing arts college she attended in Birmingham. In fact, they only found out she had a record deal when she was spotted aged 14, supporting Ed Sheeran. She had been playing open mics, “in old man pubs” at home in Leicester before her mum, a former musician with the 80s band Colourbox, started sending her demos out. Meanwhile, her dad – a songwriter and session guitarist – came up with a tagline for his daughter’s music: “He called it psycho-acoustic-soul”.

“I think at the time as a brown-skinned girl with big curly hair playing the guitar and singing in a British accent, it was a bit confusing for some people,” she says. “Which, looking back, was extremely small-minded. The reason he did that was so I couldn’t be put in a box … ” A deal soon followed with Atlantic Records’ Asylum imprint but, she explains, there was “lots of bitching and jealousy” at school. A rumour went around that her parents had “paid” for her deal. “And some vulgar rumours, too – misogynistic bullshit about girls doing things to get to where they got to,” she says. “I can say, as an adult, that all of that shit comes from envy. But at the time I was fuming.”

Moving to London was supposed to be the start of an exciting adventure, but things quickly stalled. “I didn’t really have any friends, I had no money, I was living with strangers from SpareRoom,” she says. “I really struggled. London can be the loneliest city in the world.” She moved back to Leicester, but – when she was least expecting it – things started to pick up, and she was back in the capital. Yet while Love and Compromise was met with positivity from the music press, lockdown proved a challenging time. “Twenty-five is young to a lot of people, but losing two and a half years to the pandemic … I lost momentum on the first album,” she says. “I don’t know if I’m where I wanted to be at this age.” She says she often feels worried about whether her voice is good enough. “I’m so insecure about it, I’ve just never really admitted it,” she says. “I was on Jools Holland recently and I was so scared.”

Then there is the music business itself, which arguably doesn’t always do right by its female artists, let alone its female artists of colour. She speaks at length about black artists being ignored or having their work labelled as R&B by default, as well the “impenetrable” nature of an industry that often follows the flavour of the month on TikTok rather than nurturing rising stars. It makes moments like her Mobo wins in 2020 and 2022 feel all the more important. “I cried so much when I won a Mobo,” she says. “And all of my friends were like, ‘What?! Nobody else is crying!’ But it was because everything has felt like an uphill climb. I don’t think awards are the be-all, end-all, but it’s a reminder that you’re doing something right.”

She used to think she had thick skin but now says “every year something else happens that makes me go, ‘Oh my God, this is really difficult.’ I’m comfortable saying that sometimes I have moments where I’m like: ‘Why don’t I just stop now and have some babies?’ Because it can feel like a fucking marathon. But then there are those moments that everything feels like it aligns, and there are these bursts of magic.”

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Her new album, IRL, does indeed feel like it’s been sprinkled with something special. Mahalia describes it as “feeling like a big exhale. I was just creating, I wasn’t trying to follow trends”. In My Bag is a vibrant, swaggering pop song about finding that much-needed inner confidence, or as Mahalia puts it “you get to let go. You get to be like, I am that bitch”. It is, she adds, “an ode to the haters, the people saying I couldn’t do it”. Terms and Conditions was co-written with Raye, who had a chart breakthrough earlier in the year with Escapism, and has a similar lo-fi, instant-replay quality.

Mahalia at the 2023 Glastonbury festival.
Mahalia at the 2023 Glastonbury Festival. Photograph: Adam Vaughan/EPA

As for JoJo, she was “kind of huge when we were younger, and I love her. I’m trying to go and see her on Broadway [the singer is currently playing the role of Satine in Moulin Rouge]. I’m not sure the label understood at first just how important she was to me, but I told them to trust me”. UK rap royalty Michael Omari, better known as Stormzy, makes an appearance on a hit-’em-in-the-feels number called November. “I got him to sing a 3/4 waltz love song, which is everything that I could have wanted. Mike is fucking lovely, and he’s got a beautiful singing voice. I love him rapping, but I love him singing. And I really wanted to make a wedding song, I wanted to make something that could be a first dance.”

It wouldn’t be a Mahalia record without some heartache, of course. Drake’s 2022 album Honestly, Nevermind inspired a track called Goodbyes, which was supposed to make listeners “want to move, but it’s sad, too. It’s saying, ‘Why the fuck have you left me?’ I love creating something fun out of something ugly, and painful.” Ultimately, she says, improving her headspace was crucial to getting the record across the line – even if she forgot to include one very important album thank you. “I should have mentioned my therapist,” she says with a sigh. “I thought about it two weeks after I wrote them. I couldn’t have made this record without those Friday sessions.” Now she’s ready for the world to hear it, “and to hopefully connect with it”. She laughs nervously, but it seems she’s ready to set it free. “I hope that people like it. And if they do, I might not need two more years of therapy!”

IRL is out now; Mahalia tours the UK from 8 to 20 October.


Mahalia Burkmar has a knack for penning earworm-strewn pop about relationship drama: complex feelings, shady exes, just being generally irked by your lover. It’s fitting, then, that the day that we meet for a coffee close to her east London home she’s just had a row with her boyfriend. Happily it’s just a minor tiff: he passes by soon after to collect a set of keys en route to the gym, and the pair kiss and make up. As for the exes that appear frequently in her music, “it’s almost like they had a sonar signal that told them when I was single again … Every man in my life has done it. I’d come out of a relationship and then I would get a message from them and be like … ‘What?!’” She’s written a song about it for her new album, but it isn’t behaviour she endorses. “When I see, ‘Hey stranger’” – the title of the track – “I think: ‘Urgh, go away!’”

Burkmar – better known simply by her first name – has garnered a fervent following in recent years, tackling breakups and growing up with honeyed, occasionally talky vocals that can turn a two-and-a-half minute pop song into a one-act play, reminiscent of Frank-era Amy Winehouse. On I Wish I Missed My Ex, from her 2019 debut album Love and Compromise, she laments the inevitability of an old flame popping up again (you can almost hear the sigh as she sings “You’ll be like ‘Babe, come over’ / I know how this goes, yeah”; today she describes it as “a painful experience that I was trying to play off as being hilarious”). On recent single Cheat, with the 00s pop great JoJo, the pair unite against a philandering man, for what feels like an updated version of Brandy and Monica’s 90s hit The Boy Is Mine.

Mahalia.
Mahalia. Photograph: Sirui

Although she hasn’t released a full-length record since Love and Compromise, the accolades have poured in nonetheless. Alongside Brit nominations and Mobo wins, in 2021, All I Need, the song by jazz musician Jacob Collier on which she featured with rapper-singer Ty Dolla $ign, was nominated for a Grammy. In 2022 she was among the all-women supports for Adele’s Hyde Park shows, while her London club night Mahalia Presents is now expanding to New York.

It is hard to believe she once kept her voice a secret from her schoolmates at the performing arts college she attended in Birmingham. In fact, they only found out she had a record deal when she was spotted aged 14, supporting Ed Sheeran. She had been playing open mics, “in old man pubs” at home in Leicester before her mum, a former musician with the 80s band Colourbox, started sending her demos out. Meanwhile, her dad – a songwriter and session guitarist – came up with a tagline for his daughter’s music: “He called it psycho-acoustic-soul”.

“I think at the time as a brown-skinned girl with big curly hair playing the guitar and singing in a British accent, it was a bit confusing for some people,” she says. “Which, looking back, was extremely small-minded. The reason he did that was so I couldn’t be put in a box … ” A deal soon followed with Atlantic Records’ Asylum imprint but, she explains, there was “lots of bitching and jealousy” at school. A rumour went around that her parents had “paid” for her deal. “And some vulgar rumours, too – misogynistic bullshit about girls doing things to get to where they got to,” she says. “I can say, as an adult, that all of that shit comes from envy. But at the time I was fuming.”

Moving to London was supposed to be the start of an exciting adventure, but things quickly stalled. “I didn’t really have any friends, I had no money, I was living with strangers from SpareRoom,” she says. “I really struggled. London can be the loneliest city in the world.” She moved back to Leicester, but – when she was least expecting it – things started to pick up, and she was back in the capital. Yet while Love and Compromise was met with positivity from the music press, lockdown proved a challenging time. “Twenty-five is young to a lot of people, but losing two and a half years to the pandemic … I lost momentum on the first album,” she says. “I don’t know if I’m where I wanted to be at this age.” She says she often feels worried about whether her voice is good enough. “I’m so insecure about it, I’ve just never really admitted it,” she says. “I was on Jools Holland recently and I was so scared.”

Then there is the music business itself, which arguably doesn’t always do right by its female artists, let alone its female artists of colour. She speaks at length about black artists being ignored or having their work labelled as R&B by default, as well the “impenetrable” nature of an industry that often follows the flavour of the month on TikTok rather than nurturing rising stars. It makes moments like her Mobo wins in 2020 and 2022 feel all the more important. “I cried so much when I won a Mobo,” she says. “And all of my friends were like, ‘What?! Nobody else is crying!’ But it was because everything has felt like an uphill climb. I don’t think awards are the be-all, end-all, but it’s a reminder that you’re doing something right.”

She used to think she had thick skin but now says “every year something else happens that makes me go, ‘Oh my God, this is really difficult.’ I’m comfortable saying that sometimes I have moments where I’m like: ‘Why don’t I just stop now and have some babies?’ Because it can feel like a fucking marathon. But then there are those moments that everything feels like it aligns, and there are these bursts of magic.”

skip past newsletter promotion

Her new album, IRL, does indeed feel like it’s been sprinkled with something special. Mahalia describes it as “feeling like a big exhale. I was just creating, I wasn’t trying to follow trends”. In My Bag is a vibrant, swaggering pop song about finding that much-needed inner confidence, or as Mahalia puts it “you get to let go. You get to be like, I am that bitch”. It is, she adds, “an ode to the haters, the people saying I couldn’t do it”. Terms and Conditions was co-written with Raye, who had a chart breakthrough earlier in the year with Escapism, and has a similar lo-fi, instant-replay quality.

Mahalia at the 2023 Glastonbury festival.
Mahalia at the 2023 Glastonbury Festival. Photograph: Adam Vaughan/EPA

As for JoJo, she was “kind of huge when we were younger, and I love her. I’m trying to go and see her on Broadway [the singer is currently playing the role of Satine in Moulin Rouge]. I’m not sure the label understood at first just how important she was to me, but I told them to trust me”. UK rap royalty Michael Omari, better known as Stormzy, makes an appearance on a hit-’em-in-the-feels number called November. “I got him to sing a 3/4 waltz love song, which is everything that I could have wanted. Mike is fucking lovely, and he’s got a beautiful singing voice. I love him rapping, but I love him singing. And I really wanted to make a wedding song, I wanted to make something that could be a first dance.”

It wouldn’t be a Mahalia record without some heartache, of course. Drake’s 2022 album Honestly, Nevermind inspired a track called Goodbyes, which was supposed to make listeners “want to move, but it’s sad, too. It’s saying, ‘Why the fuck have you left me?’ I love creating something fun out of something ugly, and painful.” Ultimately, she says, improving her headspace was crucial to getting the record across the line – even if she forgot to include one very important album thank you. “I should have mentioned my therapist,” she says with a sigh. “I thought about it two weeks after I wrote them. I couldn’t have made this record without those Friday sessions.” Now she’s ready for the world to hear it, “and to hopefully connect with it”. She laughs nervously, but it seems she’s ready to set it free. “I hope that people like it. And if they do, I might not need two more years of therapy!”

IRL is out now; Mahalia tours the UK from 8 to 20 October.

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