Annabel Kean / Chelsea Prastiti / Wednesday 28th July, 2021 2:27PM
2021 APRA Silver Scroll shortlister Deva Mahal begins her extensive ‘Kinship’ national tour next month, taking fellow songwriting dynamo Georgia Lines along as support for all seven shows. While Georgia kindly answered a few quickfire questions for us last week, Mahal dove deep into the nitty gritty with interviewer Chelsea Prastiti, aka the brains behind neo-soul outfit Skilaa. Mahal unpacked her songwriting process, the cultural influences found in her soulful harmonies, and the myriad musical impressions her parents made on her growing up. It’s not too late to nab a ticket to one of Mahal’s shows, but we recommend your get onto it ASAP…
Deva Mahal ‘Kinship’ Tour Dates
Saturday 7th August – Loons, Lyttelton*
Sunday 8th August – The Shelter, Selwyn District
Thursday 12th August – San Fran, Wellington*
Friday 20th August – Totara St, Mount Maunganui
Saturday 21st August – The Hollywood Avondale, Auckland*
Friday 27th August – Black Barn, Havelock North*
Sunday 29th August – Sherwood, Queenstown*
*Tickets available HERE via UTR
Chelsea Prastiti: I’ve been listening to your music and my goodness, me, it’s very beautiful. I’m kind of blown away. My first favourite question to ask is what did your parents grow up listening to? What did you hear as a baby? I love knowing about this.
Deva Mahal: My parents listened to very eclectic music. Eclectic’s kind of a funny word, but really my parents — my dad always said he likes all music as long as it was good music.
Good tunes is good tunes. I like that. What a wise man.
I would probably say the only thing that I didn’t really listen to in my house from my parents was metal. I would say that metal was one of the only things that my parents probably weren’t really into.
So would you say that you got into metal yourself?
I mean, I found my way to it obviously, because I’m naturally a little rebellious and I grew up in the nineties. So I listened to a lot of different types of music and I definitely had a grunge phase. I was really into Rage Against The Machine. I definitely listened to some punk music, I listened to The Sex Pistols. I was definitely in that phase. And then I also liked my emo, Smashing Pumpkins. I listened to a lot of Bjork. I think I had like, I don’t know, like five Bjork records.
Hell yeah. Holy shit. That’s a lot more than I ever listened to Bjork.
Yeah. Well, you know, I listened to everything, but then I also was like super deeply into SWV and like En Vogue and TLC. And I listened to a lot of Madonna and Toni Braxton.
It was a nice era to grow up in I think the nineties, it was an unusual time, but some cool stuff was happening.
Yeah so alternative music and indie music was kind of at the forefront. And this was probably when your record charts are really segregated. So like, if you listen to mainstream music it meant that you listened to pop and alternative music a lot, and then if you listened to the RnB charts and the RnB radio stations, then that’s where you got your soul and RnB. It was very rare that it crossed over.
People were quite tribal, I guess, with the way they sort of listened to music. That’s interesting.
Yeah. And now Lil Nas X is number one. I mean, Lil Nas X beat Mariah Carey for number one charting song, like the longest charting number one single. Which is amazing to me, I’m stoked about that. But you know, growing up in my house I listened to everything. My parents played Ravi Shankar and my mom introduced me to artists like Angelica Quito, or like Vusi Mahlasela, so listening to lots of African music. My mum was a big Sting fan. My mum was a big Sting and Seal fan. Then also lots of blues, lots of jazz. Ella. She was a big Thelonious Monk fan.
I’m a huge Thelonius fan. I mean, he’s my favourite musician of all time without a doubt. Can she do the whole tone lick thing that he does down the piano?
Yeah I think she tries, it’s probably not in tune, but she knows what she’s doing.
She knows the art. Respect to your mum.
It’s wild. You know, road trips where dad would try to really impress us and he’d be like ‘yo, I’ve got this serious, serious beat’ and then he’d put on Tone Lōc. Or like he really thought he was gonna impress us when he brought home Bobby Brown’s first record. But he really did get me, coz he’s the person who gave me my first En Vogue record. And he was like, you’re going to love this. When anything was something I needed to listen to he’d say it was ‘really serious’. He was serious about En Vogue and Toni Braxton, and I was like, ‘oh my god’.
Speaking of Toni Braxton, I know we’re totally going off topic here, but have you heard that latest release that she’s put out?
Is it Love And Cigarettes? Yeah. That record came out the same day my record came out and we were charting on iTunes at the same time, and can I tell you I was like losing my mind. I was watching all the international iTunes charts being like, wait my record was a couple of places above Toni Braxton. What the hell. I just couldn’t believe it, coz I used to sing all of Toni Braxton’s songs in song competitions when I was a kid, you know. I’d be like 10 years old singing ‘Un-Break My Heart’.
What a beautiful moment. That’s so cool. Fucking congrats. This all makes a heaps of sense to me because one thing that I’ve noticed about all of the musicians that I work with or listen to is that they always, all of the best musicians I think have that, no matter what — if you’re widely listened it just seems to have this extra, sparkly effect on your music.
I mean, there are many times I was listening to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and then I’d be like belting ‘Black Hole Sun’ at the top of my lungs. I’d borrow my brother’s CD, and my brother also had a huge influence on me because he had all the hip hop and all the wildly interesting guitar music, and he played in a punk band. I used to go to all the like local punk shows and stuff like that coz it was kind of the only thing to do on the island. Go and listen to the reggae band or go listen to the punk band, there was not a lot in between.
That’s a real polarised choice that you have there.
I mean, it worked for me coz I liked it all, but yeah, I would listen to crazy stuff, like Insane Clown Posse or like Mr Bungle or you know, wild shit when I was growing up. I think I was like twelve and Jagged Little Pill came out and I was like, oh my god. I have a very distinct memory of myself standing in front of our really old massive — you know the TVs that probably weighed like a cool tonne? We had this stupid TV in our lounge and I remember watching it come on MTV, when MTV was like worth watching, and I remember the first time I saw ‘You Oughta Know’, and she’s in the desert and the white suit and black hair. And I was like, ‘oh right on!’.
I wanted to ask you actually before we nerd any further, I wanted to ask you about your latest single called ‘Sister’ which I am absolutely in love with. I think there was like these strings that I could hear in the background. Can you tell me a bit about the process that you go through when you’re trying to mould what a song’s going to be like?
I love strings and you know, it was lockdown and I didn’t know anybody that I could just —you’re in your bubble, you can’t just go ‘Hey, let’s work on writing some strings’. I had to record into Garageband, me singing all the parts and create the arrangement for the strings, so that I could send it to my friend Amanda Lowe so she could decipher my really intense classical singing into strings.
That’s amazing that you’ve been the one actually writing those parts. That’s so awesome that you were hearing those voicings in the background like that. Hell yeah.
Yeah and Zoe (Zoe Moon) was with me while I was doing it, she was definitely in there giving input. Then Amanda, who is an amazing improviser and a classical musician, added her touch to it. It’s not just the ideas that I had in my head, but that’s the core of whats being heard. Then Amanda just put her magic in too and then retranslated my vocal demo of the string arrangement to what it is on the track. It was the first time arranging like that. It’s pretty cool.
As I understand it you were here from when you were 17, your family moved here?
My family moved here before that, I moved here after. Zoe’s been here longer than anywhere else she’s ever lived. She moved when she was nine. My family has been here for decades now at this point. Then I moved here and went to uni and then decided to go to New York, coz it was a dream of mine since I was little, and try to make something of myself in the big city, you know, the big smoke. It’s kind of funny, coz I moved from New Zealand to New York to New Orleans, so lots of ‘New’s. I’m also an island girl, I grew up in Hawaii, and I literally moved from like island to island to island.
Yeah. I guess it’s just something your soul needs.
Yeah my soul definitely needs the ocean, growing up in the Pacific. I’ve discovered that it doesn’t suit me to not be near the Pacific ocean.
I loved the backing vocals arrangement [in ‘Stand In’] and there was this almost kind of Aretha reminiscent thing that happens at the end that I really, really loved. Can you tell me about the BV arrangements? I’m assuming you did those as well.
Yeah, I just did those on the spot in the studio at Surgery. I had created like a demo for them in my bedroom, so I was just tracking the backing vocals for it before I went into the studio and then I just expanded on them. Actually this song has a lot of inspiration from Hawaiian music that I’ve grown up with. If you listen to Hawaiian music from like the eighties and nineties there’s the most incredible, beautiful harmony arrangements. The singing voices in traditional Hawaiian music and contemporary Hawaiian music, it’s just something that’s stunning, but I feel like you find that across the Pacific and in the Caribbean, the sound of many voices together, singing in harmony really beautifully.
The thing that amazes me as a singing tutor that I noticed the most about children who are from those cultures — their sense of key for one is just amazing because they’re able to hold key perfectly. It’s amazing this ability, always I’d find these kids could just harmonise and then hold key so so strongly and so well.
It’s very intrinsic. It’s ingrained in your fibre as part of who you are, and being somebody who’s of Caribbean descent, which is also an island culture and then being raised in the Pacific, like it just makes sense to me. You know what I mean? Like when you listen to old school roots music and you listen to like old school Bob Marley And The Wailers, or like when you listen to any of the Studio One stuff there’s so much harmony. A lot of that just comes from like indigenous culture, like working and communing together and singing together. If you look at indigenous culture, like everywhere, when it comes to the music of those places, there’s a real strong understanding of togetherness and harmony. And rhythm.
Yes, 100%. Yeah, and you notice as well that the sense of rhythm and time, to a Western ear it is so hard to understand, because you realise that people have been singing this music for centuries and they’ve never had to write it down and do anything like that, they just passed it on. To come as an outsider ear and hear that, you’re like ‘How the fuck is this happening? Like, how is this music existing?’
Well it’s folk music right? It’s music of the people it’s spoken, it’s passed down. Like you said, it’s generational. It’s in the DNA of the culture, and it tells the story. It tells its own story. When I hear that kind of sound, like that wall of harmony I feel really embraced by it. So with that song, especially with the sentiment and the content of the lyrics of what I was trying to convey, I wanted the listener to be held by the voices.
I’ve noticed when I was listening to your music you clearly have very, very, very strong, very well-educated ears. Your tonalities can turn on a dime. I wanted to know how much of that is a conscious practice for you?
Well, I don’t know, sometimes I try not to think about it too much. I find if I think too hard about it, if I go too ‘think singing’ about it, that I don’t get to the place that I want to get to. You know what I mean? So a lot of it is instinctual. But yeah, I’ve spent a lot of time understanding my voice and it’s a continual journey, you know coz your voice is always changing. I think maybe it has to do with also singing a lot in different types of music and again maybe going back to listening to a lot of different types of music. I try not to put rules on myself of what I can and can’t do.
I was listening to all these beautiful, different textures that seem to keep cropping up in your voice. I was very very moved by the way you’re able to kind of show different corners of your sound. How aware of that are you?
I’m a fan of nuance, being able to cover all the different bases. I don’t know. I don’t think I would be satisfied if I just sung one way. You want to hear the person in the voice, and the person is varied and people are varied and very complicated and dynamic. So if your voice is only doing one thing, you’re not really getting a sense of who that person is you know?
What is your lyric writing process? There was one lyric actually that I absolutely adored, you said ‘chemistry is dynamite, like Vogel bread and Marmite’ in the ‘Can’t Call It Love’ tune. I heard that and I was like ‘Aha she’s been to Aotearoa. I knew it’.
Especially now that they’ve got the gluten free one. Yeah I’m a Vogels girl.
What’s your process?
Well, right now I’m actually working on trying to write some lyrics and it’s doing my head in. It just feels like sometimes they — the lyrics for ‘Stand In’ just really came to me, you know, and the lyrics for ‘Sister’, Zoe and I wrote that together and my lyrics that I added, for both of us, they just kind of were there for us when we needed them. But sometimes lyrics are not there because you’re not fully sure what it is that you want to say. I have to find clarity first and what exactly it is that I want to say and then I find that it comes from my head and my heart to my hand on the paper.
Do you ever find that you have to go through a process of almost distilling what you need to say down to the bare, straight up bit? Or is it something where you want to extrapolate on one aspect first?
I don’t really have one way. Sometimes I can just be very succinct about it and know exactly — I can be quite brutal with my own lyrics and just figure out what’s the best way to say things the simplest, in the simplest possible way without being too verbose. I really do chalk it up to clarity of vision and what you want to say, and sometimes lyrics are just a mood you know, they’re not about saying something explicitly direct.
I love that perspective of lyrics being a mood. That’s also sounds like what you might get from just listening to a lot of hip hop, the way that some hip hop artists, they’ve got a story to tell. Like sometimes they’ve got a song where it’s like, there’s something they’ve got to tell you and something to say, but a lot of it’s just a vibe.
Totally. Like, 100%.
Should we wrap it up Deva Mahal?
Yeah. It was a pleasure chatting with you Chelsea.
Deva Mahal’s ‘Kinship’ tour begins Saturday August 7th.