A week before Mahalia’s 21st birthday, she hadn’t yet decided how to celebrate. She would be in Cincinnati that day, she explained to MTV News over the phone, for a stop on Ella Mai’s headlining tour. She was “really, really, really excited” for the month-long U.S. trek to get underway, and that was presently taking priority over her big day — which perhaps makes sense when you consider turning 21 is a bigger deal for Americans than for a U.K. native like herself.
Birthday non-plans aside, Mahalia’s new year is shaping up to be her busiest and buzziest yet — and maybe her happiest as well. In her music, she often vents about heartbreak and shattered relationships; take her 2017 breakout hit “Sober” or the bitingly sarcastic “I Wish I Missed My Ex.” But her most recent single, “Grateful,” shows off another side: one that’s sweet, sensual, elatedly in love, and wholly reflective of her life at the moment (to drive the point home, she recently got the word “grateful” tattooed on her arm).
“I spent a long time writing about the people who hurt me; I guess because I find it easy to draw inspiration from pain,” she explained. “But with [“Grateful”], I am in a situation where I met somebody and — for the first time in ages — I was like, oh my god, I want to write about how much you make me feel good. I just wanted people to see that side of me, as well as the ‘independent woman, bad bitch, no-one-can-fucking-hurt-me’ side.”
That side of Mahalia is what you hear on her other released single of 2019, the defiant “Do Not Disturb,” which finds her reflecting on a relationship that likely ended in a blocked number, and vowing not to give her ex the satisfaction of reaching her again. In it, she sings, “I’m putting myself on do not disturb,” intentionally choosing “myself” instead of “my phone.”
“The phone thing isn’t timeless; saying ‘I’m putting my phone on silent’ in 10 years might not be relevant anymore,” she said. “For me, I was just like, it should be about me saying, you don’t get to contact me, you don’t get to be in my life anymore. I want to take time for myself, basically. I think that was a really important message to convey and for people to sing.”
That’s definitely proven to be true — when she performs the song live, she sees fans screaming the lyrics along with her. It’s still “surprising” to her that people are relating to it in such a fervid way, but perhaps it shouldn’t be. Between “Do Not Disturb” and “Don’t Call Me Up,” a song from her R&B peer Mabel that was also released this year — not to mention, Dua Lipa’s viral smash “New Rules” — a growing number of women in pop are asserting their will to hang up on exes and move on fabulously.
“It’s so universal, right? I used to love screaming, ‘One, don’t pick up the phone / You know he’s only calling cause he’s drunk.’ I used to fucking love singing that in the car because it’s like, we can all relate to that,” Mahalia said. “I remember when Mabel’s ‘Don’t Call Me Up’ dropped just before ‘Do Not Disturb,’ I was like, this is so funny and we are literally all on the exact same wave.
“And I think there’s definitely a thing with women going, ‘No, I’m not just at your disposal,'” she continued. “My whole thing is, I have young girls looking at me going, ‘How do I go through life and be cool?’ And I think for me, it’s just about saying the right message. How do we get young women to grow up in a world where they are inspired to feel strong? And it’s totally not about hating men. It’s just about saying, ‘I need to be in control of my life and myself.'”
Control is something Mahalia has a lot of these days, and she’s spent years working for it. The Leicester, England, native signed a deal with Atlantic Records when she was just 13, and she’s since released one full-length and three EPs, including 2018’s critically adored Seasons. She’s become a magnetic performer who’s toured alongside Ed Sheeran and Mai, and this summer, she’s booked more than a dozen festival dates across the U.S. and Europe. It’s all leading up to her as-yet-untitled debut album, which she says will come around the “end of summer.”
“For me, it was such a slow and steady climb and build,” she said of the journey toward her new release. “It had been seven years being signed and working in the music industry, and I just thought, I can’t spend all this time working towards this and, now that things are taking off, rush an album in six months.
“As I’ve got older, I realized that a lot of the time I was putting pressure on myself more than anybody,” she continued. “Even now, finishing this album, it’s like, fuck… I think I’m just putting pressure on myself to make the best record that I can.”
Still, as tracks like “Grateful” prove, Mahalia is finally letting herself exhale. Twenty-one is going to be a good year for her.