“IRL is such a broad album title,” Mahalia says of her second studio album. “I can go anywhere, essentially, and write anything, because it’s all about being present in real life. And it was nice to be able to create in different rooms again for this album, because I get inspired differently by my surroundings—especially what’s outside the window.” On 2020 EP Isolation Tapes, the singer displayed her central coping mechanism for all issues: penning revealingly emotive songs. “I think I have a great tone and I love my singing voice, but I’ve never been able to do all of the tricks and flips a lot of other R&B artists can do,” she says. “So songwriting always felt like my superpower. But I was being put into rooms with different co-writers at an age when I was still developing creatively. I think, eventually, I just lost confidence in my ability.” Mahalia celebrates the team that restored her confidence on IRL. Executive producer JD. Reid and songwriters Max Pope and Ben Hart—the latter becoming her partner during the summer 2020 lockdown—have helped add an edge to Mahalia’s poetic songwriting. Beyond this core team, the album’s 13 tracks look to something bigger as Mahalia’s most collaborative release to date. Linkups with rappers Kojey Radical and Stormzy enthrall on the ’90s-inspired “Wassup” and slow-burning ballad “November” respectively, while childhood hero JoJo jumps on breakup anthem (it’s not a Mahalia album without one) “Cheat.” But perhaps the most important person on Team Mahalia? That’s easy. “In real life, I’m now most myself around my therapist,” she says, of the professional she started meeting regularly in 2020 as the effects of a music career that began at 13 started to weigh heavy. “That makes me sound really problematic—but I think that’s the truth. I probably don’t make this album without her.” Here, Mahalia takes us through each track on IRL. “Ready” “This is really a letter to myself to say: ‘No matter what happens, I’m ready for this. I chose this.’ I was trying to figure out the intro for ages. I still remember the feeling of ‘Yep, this is it’ on my first record [Love and Compromise], when we wrote ‘Hide Out,’ but I just couldn’t figure it out here until I was playing Frank Ocean’s ‘Seigfried’ a lot. Frank is really fantastic at creating atmosphere and placing a really incredible, catchy lyric and melody on top of it. I wanted something like that to express this feeling of being here now with all the information I need. I’m ready.” “In My Bag” “This was the moment of the process where I genuinely felt locked in. When you start writing a record you can feel lost for a good few months; trying to figure out what’s next, or what’s the string that ties everything together? But when I came to this song, I realized, ‘I’m here, and I’ve worked hard for this.’” “Terms and Conditions” “In the past, I’ve always made music from the angle of a single woman figuring out the [dating] world. For this record, I’ve been in a long-term relationship for three years, and it’s almost refreshing that I can talk about it now. This is the perfect way to state where I’m at right now. It’s the last song we wrote for the album. Before this, I genuinely thought we were finished, until I got into a session with [London production duo] The Elements and RAYE. In a way, we almost wrote this song backwards. RAYE came in with just a title, and we decided to brainstorm ideas and the whole concept from there. Working with her was great because we’re also [good friends]. It’s a bit like playing tennis: knocking it back and forth, seeing where we’ll both end up eventually.” “In My Head” (feat. Joyce Wrice) “The reference that [London producer and DJ] JD. Reid and I had down for this one was [Drake’s 2011 track] ‘Marvins Room.’ There’s something about the soft [drum] beat of this track that reminds me of that Take Care-era Drake. I wrote this with my boyfriend [Ben Hart] and it was really easy as we both rooted this in our past relationships—when you’re with someone you desperately want to be with but you just can’t anymore. This is about making that tough decision to leave.” “Cheat” (feat. JoJo) “This is the only record I’ve ever put out that I haven’t written. And, initially, I was fearful of putting it out [as a single]. I definitely didn’t want to tell my parents, who are both songwriters and have always taken huge pride in the fact that I write my own music. But it was nice for me to let go of my stubbornness and allow others to create for me. This was written by [London singer-songwriter] Ryan Ashley and MNEK, who I’ve known since I was about 14. When I played [his reference track], I was just obsessed with it. I could not get the song out of my head, and it just felt like the perfect addition to this pool of music.” “November” (feat. Stormzy) “I wrote this with my partner, and it came to us pretty easily. It’s a love song about one another. I remember looking at each other with this giddy look of excitement in our eyes when we decided to send it to Stormzy. There’s a song on his second album [Heavy Is the Head] called ‘Lessons’ that I love. And when [2023 album] This Is What I Mean dropped at the time of writing this, we got to hear him singing on so many of the songs—and we felt like, why not? He’s deep in his singing bag right now.” “Hey Stranger” “This one’s very personal. I literally wrote this on my bed—about people that hit you up every few months just to say, ‘Hey stranger.’ There was a guy, I suppose he was my high school sweetheart, and for years after we left school, every few months he would message me just that. It became this ongoing joke. Each time he’d do it, I would feel this flutter in my stomach because we were the two kids that never got to be together. This is a song that I should have written years ago, because that’s when it all happened. But I feel like I never knew how to write it, as he was always quite a special person for me. So this is the right time to get it out.” “Isn’t It Strange?” “One day I said to my therapist, ‘I still don’t know how I got here.’ I was this kid who grew up in a tiny town [in Leicestershire], who used to go to the park on Fridays and sip on a bottle of Glen’s [vodka] with my mates, smoke roll-ups, and watch the football. When my friends would finish work, we’d hang out in the Midland pub and sink pints. I was a really normal kid. Sometimes being in a city like London, going to expensive restaurants and big events, drinking nice cocktails…all of that stuff, it just feels so far removed from where I’m from and how I grew up. Writing this track made me really think about how being this person now instead of that person really makes me feel.” “It’s Not Me, It’s You” (feat. DESTIN CONRAD) “As soon as I wrote this record, I knew this is the one I wanted to ask Destin to be on. The first time that I came across him was actually on [defunct video platform] Vine, back when I was in sixth form. He was a famous Viner, I guess. He posted a little bit of him singing online, and everybody went crazy for it. After that he went quiet. I became completely obsessed in lockdown when he put out his debut EP [in 2021], COLORWAY. This track feels much more in the kind of traditional R&B world than stuff here, and I just knew he was going to ride it exactly how I wanted.” “Wassup” (feat. Kojey Radical) “I can just hear it blasting over the speakers at the barbecue. It’s a song that makes me feel quite happy, even though the subject matter is essentially me saying to a guy, ‘If you don’t fix stuff, I’m going to let every man in this room say hello to me!’” “Lose Lose” “I just find this song really sad. I’ve always written breakup songs or sad songs because a situation hasn’t ended in the way I want it to. But going through this process with a partner means different topics and different stories. This track is about questioning if we we’re going to stay together. We actually wrote half of it together, and I finished the rest on my own. Which I probably needed to do so that I could get out everything that I wanted to say.” “Goodbyes” “This song started as an acoustic track, which made it feel desperately upsetting. So I said to JD, ‘How would you feel about turning it into a soft dance record? I’m not talking “oontz, oontz,” just give me something that makes me feel like I could move my head.’ Then we created that little moment where the guitar fades and it drops into the beat. It’s the reason why I love this song because that for me explains the ups and downs of heartbreak. One minute you’re crying. Next minute you’re dancing. Then you’re sipping a glass of wine. Next minute you’re dancing and then crying again.” “IRL” “This is a very reflective song. On my career, my family, and everything that I want out of life. But I just didn’t know where it was going to fit on the record, because that’s not really what I usually talk about. So I held it back for a while. Then I made the Letter to Ur Ex EP [in 2022] and it didn’t fit, so I saved the track. Soon after, my manager hit me on WhatsApp asking if we could save ‘IRL’ for the album? And I replied, ‘Maybe we should we call the album IRL?’”

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