Despite being a musician since before she can remember, Deva (pronounced Diva) Mahal is surprisingly humble. Throughout our shoot, she regularly checks in with how people are doing, exclaiming, “it’s so weird to have all these people here for me”. When she hears her voice emerging through the speakers, halfway through a soulful playlist, she looks taken aback, pleasantly surprised.
The soul singer has been surrounded by music her whole life, so it only seemed natural for this to be the path she followed, “I was always finding an excuse to sing or play music anywhere that I could”. Despite a short-lived dream of becoming a lawyer and varied interests at school – nothing ever felt as good as music; music was her norm. Deva has been recording, performing and writing music since she was a child.
“The first time I remember being in the studio I was 9 or maybe a little bit younger and- I didn’t know how profound it was at the time ‘cause I was really young – I recorded with Cedella Marley Booker who is Bob Marleys mum!
I recorded this children’s album with her and made a music video to [a song] called brown girl in the ring. That was the first time I got paid to record and when I say paid, they paid me with a little tiny guitar, and I was like ‘this is amazing’. When I look back I’m like how did that happen you know it was such a wonderful experience”.
“The first song I ever wrote was called ‘Angel of Love’ and I was probably 7 or 8. It was a terrible song [but] I’ve never [thought] I cant write a song, I just wrote songs even if they were bad, until they weren’t bad”. It paid off. Now Deva is being recognised by the likes of Sir Elton John’s is about to release her debut album.
“I really love this album” she gushes, “it’s my first studio album and it’s the first time I’ve put something out that I’ve had complete creative control over. There are songs on this album that I started writing a decade ago… some songs are like just a melody for years till you’ve had another experience [that] coincides with that one idea that you had and then it can ultimately develop from that”.
Deva’s music expresses pain and heartache, and touch upon personal and true stories from her life. Whilst baring her intimate thoughts and feelings to the world does make her feel nervous, she says “I’m most honest when I’m coming from a place of emotion. I’ve tried writing things based on style or aesthetic, trying to go with what is solely contemporary and I never feel as connected to it. As naked as you feel when you’re doing it I feel like it’s the only way I should be doing it”.
As the industry stands today, it’s difficult to stay true to yourself; what’s even harder, is to gain visibility as a black artist singing soulful music. There is, unfortunately, a clear lack of support for black women, especially those who aren’t of lighter skin and a slender frame.
“I started feeling that kind of imbalance in the standard of quality of music when I was really young. I would do lots of talent competitions and the worst singer would win cause she was more cute or more palatable or relatable to wherever I was”.
“As a black woman vocalist [people] automatically assume you’re going to sound a certain way and they think that they have some sort of ownership or knowledge of what you’re going to do. So it’s always been a challenge. It’s a real shame [that] people are more excited by the unexpected these days, so if you look a different way then you sound that’s really exciting to people; if you look a certain way and sound [the] way that people [think] you should sound, they don’t give you the credit of all of the work you’ve put into and how amazing you are. This is what a lot of black people are faced with. They’re always having to do something that no one else has done before, the bar is always set so much higher; there’s that saying that we have to work 10 times harder to get noticed. But if I let that stop me from doing what I was doing, then whoever is trying to maintain that ideology and standard wins and I’m far too stubborn to let that be the case [laughs].
Though, having a father who’s in the music business must be helpful when trying to navigate the industry – Deva’s dad is Taj Mahal, Grammy winner and legendary blues singer. “One of the things he instilled from me at a young age was to really understand the business and not just the music, because the business is very complex and it doesn’t always balance with being a artist. Most of the time you just want to be an artist but that I think can ultimately get you in a lot of trouble, not understanding the other side of music.
History has shown that so many artists have been totally taken advantage of or lost in history because they didn’t understand the business so I think that was probably the most important think that he bestowed on me”.
Besides music, Deva’s dad also inspired another talent of hers – cooking. “I didn’t see [my dad] very often when I was growing up but when he would come home and throw down in the kitchen and it was an exciting time cause it was the time that we all got to be together. He was an amazing cook so I love cooking. If I wasn’t going to make music it would be really cool to open up a bistro or something and make delicious food”.
After leaving her birthplace of Hawaii at 17, moving to New Zealand and then New York, Deva says that home is wherever your family is or wherever you are comfortable enough to make a home cooked meal. I ask her what dishes she would create if she were to host a dinner party and she delivers the extremely well thought out and appealing menu: “So dessert would be caramel sticky date cake and I would make ginger ice cream. Then, because its spicy I would make curry [for the main], a daal, because my daal is banging [and] marinated chicken thighs with the skin on. I would broil them and serve with winter roasted veg and sautéed kale. For the starter I would make tikki and homemade samosas. I worked backwards so the spiciness of the dessert would go with all the other flavours. I would like to pair with different courses of beverage as well. A ginger whiskey cocktail with fresh lime and some sort of herb like cilantro and mint in the cocktail – like a ginger punch; a red wine and to finish, a chai tea”.
“I’m learning a lot more about what [food] is actually beneficial for your body and what of the rest are just bullshit – which is just most of it. I’m pretty much convinced that the whole world and all the powers that be are committed to poisoning everyone. I’m trying to reeducate myself on food and how it can help you and heal you and how it can kill you… It’s important to take care of yourself. Self love and self care [is] something I’m still struggling with, understanding that if you haven’t filled up your tank, and taken care of your needs, you cant really give anything to anyone else cause you’re just running on empty.
Deva Mahal’s debut album, Run Deep, is out March 23rd. Preorder it here.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.