Deva Mahal is a force of nature. You can hear it in her records – 2018’s debut Run Deep and a string of winning singles, including Silver Scroll finalist Stand In, 2021’s Sister (featuring her sister Zoe Moon) and Goddamn from 2019. The new single, Run Me Through, leads the charge for the highly anticipated EP Future Classic: Vol 1 – Classic, due out in early 2023.
With new songs to share, Deva will be poised to take WOMAD by storm when she headlines the festival in March. She’s a gifted songwriter and producer with a once-in-a-lifetime voice,
but to experience the whole package in the flesh is something else entirely. The first time I saw her take control of an audience it was like discovering a rare and precious thing. Although performing in an ensemble production, in that moment it was so completely her show that it almost seemed unfair to the other performers onstage.
Talking to her later, at home on a weekday afternoon, she’s a more restrained presence but there’s still an undeniable authority to Deva Mahal. Child of American blues legend Taj Mahal and born and bred on the Hawaiian island of Kaua’i before being transplanted to Aotearoa at 17, Deva is joined in this musical legacy by brother Imon Star and sister Zoe Moon. “You know, I didn’t realise it so much as a youth, but as an adult I see I experienced a very unique upbringing. There were a lot of things that I experienced as a youth you realise later that a lot of people don’t. You only live your life through your own lens, right? You don’t isolate yourself out of your body, and go, ‘oh wow, my life is so different from everybody else’s’.”
The young family travelled with Taj Mahal’s band and was steeped in his music, but there was also mother Inshirah’s Nina Simone and Billie Holiday records informing the family’s musical culture. By 10 years old Deva had found her own music in Prince, Salt-N-Pepa, Janet Jackson and Michael Jackson. Then there was the giddy discovery of fandom – for a while her heart belonged to early ’90s hip-hop stars TLC.
“I was a big TLC fan – I desperately wanted to be T-Boz! And then I started listening to torch songs – Toni Braxton, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey. It was with the female vocalists where I went, ‘Okay, this is where I feel myself’.”
In particular, Inshirah’s Billie Holiday records provided an emotional lodestar for Deva. “Billie is one of the ones who has shown me the way of emotionally conveying what you’re experiencing through tone and intention, of fully submitting to channelling what it is that you’re feeling and then penetrating somebody’s chest cavity into their heart. Because she could stop you with one sound, one note and it would be so gut-wrenching. She was definitely one of my teachers.” Mining rich veins of classic soul, funk and jazz, the influence of Curtis Mayfield, Aretha, Donny Hathaway, Lauryn Hill, Lalah Hathaway and club music divas like CeCe Peniston is lovingly reborn in Deva’s hands.
Living the mantra “imagination plus perseverance equals manifestation”, she’s applied serious craft to her rare natural talent and harnessing the power of her live performances in the studio remains a priority. “If I could spread my entire spirit and energy across the audience so that they felt enveloped by me, everybody feels safe and open and connected to themselves in a real way and not just a performative way. So, I highly value that connection and am always aspiring to reach that space.”
She is wary of overcooking her physical recordings, shunning the anodyne glossiness of a lot of modern auto-tuned R&B.
“My music is always going to have a rawness to it and I want you to feel me in it. I try to find that magic, that arc. Like a movie or a classical piece of music with a dramatic build through it, I love that. I think everybody’s style is so different, I just try to be as honest as I can.”
Speaking to her latest project, Future Classic: Vol 1 – Classic, she describes the process of dividing this current work into two separate EPs.
“The first one is classic, the second one is future. I wanted to pay homage to the classic music, the classic teachers that I’ve had, that have come before to influence me. It makes sense to do the classic one first, while the future is more unbridled, with a lot more sonic scapes that I haven’t really been in before.
“No matter what I write, whether based in the future or based in the past, I want my songs to always be timeless. I’m always going to be a songwriter and a lyricist first and foremost.”
Now Pōneke-based, she describes herself as a “global human” who nonetheless feels connections to places where she’s “put energy into the earth”, Aotearoa being one of those. Important years were spent in Brooklyn, NYC, where she invested time “fortifying my craft, kind of like expanding as a human being there.” A collaboration with the Resistance Revival Chorus (an activist collective of women and non-binary singers) produced the spine-tingling Everybody Deserves To Be Free.
“Personally, I really strive to make my creative endeavours open and welcoming to all non-binary, BIPOC human beings. I try not to be driven by hetero-male spaces, I really want to make sure that wherever I can I want to uplift women, I can uplift non-binary human beings that don’t subscribe to that linear binary narrative. It’s so much about making space for us to do the work, not just be the product or be the ‘face’ of something. Not to be an object. Unless that’s what we decide to do.”
As an independent artist not aligned with a major label, Deva feels the tension between the workload and the freedom that comes with managing her own affairs. “I have a lot of rebuilding after the pandemic that I’m having to do. Mentally, physically and creatively, I’m making a lot of decisions for myself and trying to find the power in it and trying to find the way to manifest that into success – the kind of success that I want.”
Female agency is writ large across the video to the latest single Run Me Through. Featuring an all-female cast and nearly all-female film crew, it taps into Black women’s Western heritage. Here is Deva on horseback, packing real weapons (she namechecks Bethany Tibbo, who created the armoury for the shoot), regally caped and hatted. But this is no cosplay moment for horsewoman Deva Mahal.
“For me it never really felt like stepping into a male tradition because I grew up riding horses, I grew up around bonfires, I grew up drinking straight out of a bottle. But women in the Wild West, especially Black women, had to be tough and hard. So it’s in my history.”
For now, she’s happily settled back in Aotearoa, but quietly acknowledges the challenges of the last couple of years. She has overcome a personal health reckoning as well as the loss of touring due to the pandemic – digging deep takes its toll. “It can be heartbreaking, I find that I’m digging into deeper spaces than I ever have before.”
She has some words for other women who are going through a time: “I think that we are MAGNIFICENT. I don’t say that lightly and I think that there’s so much that the world doesn’t understand about women. And there’s so many things that we do in the world that go unnoticed and unappreciated. So many things we endure that would break a lot of people. So I just want to applaud us. I want to say to other women, and honestly? I’m just one of them, I’m not sure how important it is to be a leading voice, but if I can I’ll contribute what my experience is. It’s really important to surround yourself with people who really love you, just for who you are, as you are. And make sure you are loving on yourself – actively.”
Maya Angelou said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time”. Deva Mahal exists in her music – in her song Stand In, a testament to self, she sings, “I’m a diamond.”
Sistergirl, you said it.