Interview: Mali-Koa on Hunger, her 5SOS family and social movements

Western Sydney-born, London-residing Mali-Koa is best known as the older sister of Calum Hood – the bassist of global sensations 5 Seconds of Summer. However, she’s been cutting through the industry and making a name for herself outside of her family ties.

In 2020, she released her debut album Hunger, featuring collaborators such as Grammy-Award winning producer Maestro (Rihanna, J Hus) and arranged by Onree Gill (Alicia Keys, will.i.am). Written and recorded across Nashville, Sweden and London, the body of work is a powerful introduction for Mali-Koa.

I had the chance to chat to her about the record, her DJing chops and what’s on the cards for her future.

Hey Mali-Koa, where are you right now?

I’m actually in London. I’m at home and it’s 8:30am in the morning. I’m just getting everything started. But yeah, I’m originally from Australia and moved here eight or nine years ago now, so it’s my second home.

Proper veteran! Would you say you’ve lived most, most of your adult life then in London?

Yeah, definitely my adult life, like learning life. My teenage years were in Sydney, but I think a learned a lot of the hard lessons here.

I wanted to talk about 2020 for you because obviously it was a really big year – you released Hunger. Was that nerve wracking in amongst the pandemic to release such a big body of work?

I definitely didn’t anticipate how difficult it was going to be, but I’m super proud to have it out there. And I think, you know, you’re nervous about things in a normal kind of world where everything is going as it should be. So, it was a difficult choice, but I wanted to put it out because I feel like it’s a good time as any to put music out. Something that really helps people to come together and I thought that that was appropriate, you know. So yeah, I’m really proud that it’s out there and I wouldn’t have changed the way that I did it really.

Absolutely, and it also had the backing of some amazing collaborators on it, so in my eyes, it’s almost foolproof. You’ve got Maestro who’s worked with Rihanna; Onree Gill, who’s worked with Alicia Keys, John Mayor, Justin Timberlake… What was the process in the room with these sorts of creatives?

I was extremely excited to work with such amazing collaborators. You know, this little girl from Western Sydney and I was with these were amazing people who are really humble and super grounded that always made me feel comfortable. And I just write songs and they also love to do that too.

But you can’t help but think about that whilst you’re sitting there thinking, “is this really my life? Am I really working with somebody who’s like calls John Mayor a friend?” Which is cool! It’s cool to be able to be creative with those people and listening back to the songs, I’m obviously going to be super proud of them. And I think that they’re going to age really well, just because of the quality of song writing and the producer I worked with.

Are you able to speak to the production side of it in those rooms? I’m conscious you’ve come from a DJ-ing background as well.

I think when it comes to production, I executive produced my album. I was very involved in the process when it came to mixing and mastering also just like elements. So, including the sound of it, I really wanted to make sure that the sound was exactly as I had imagined it all of those years. I play a lot of keys, I play piano, so it’s just a lot of chord progressions and stuff like that. I’m kind of involved.

I’d like to be a little bit more developed in terms of actually being the producer, but for my record, it was just more like an executive producer role. But I also was able to, in the pandemic, kind of learn to cut and comp vocals from home so some of the vocals on few of the songs – backing vocals, actually, none of the lead ones – a few of the backing vocals. I actually did myself, which is something I learned. So there you go, silver lining.

Do you have a nice home studio set up then?

I actually just worked from my bedroom. I have a studio in Shoreditch here that I work usually out of, but, you know, in the middle of the pandemic… I’ve actually moved houses and I released my album. I spent a lot of 2020 working on the record and like everyday wake up and work.

So I had to kind of have a fresh start off about five new flats, but I worked out of like a little basement in East London which I am really am grateful for. But after the album was out, I was like, right. I’m done with the basement studio; I need to get a new space.

I wanted to talk to you specifically about your track “Revolution”, because I feel like it’s quite pertinent right now.  And specifically, I wanted to check in with you though over the like discourse of the past month. Obviously, we’ve recently seen the horror surrounding Sarah Everard in the UK. How are you doing?

I think it’s been… Firstly on “Revolution”, I wrote that song in 2019. I’m not saying that nothing was happening then because all of these issues have been around have been on the back burner for a long time. So, when I wrote “Revolution”, it’s more about a personal change. It was about being the best person you want to be in your individual life, and I didn’t realise how appropriate that might become.

Especially the last two years, whether it was the BLM movement last year… We released the music video around that time. And I think that was a tough time for everyone. So, I was proud to put it out then, but what you said, it’s still very much a present-day issue. It’s all intersectional when it comes to all these issues that affect not only women, but people of colour… I think it can be quite stressful for people’s mental health. And I know here in the UK, every female in my phone book gave me a call and we’ve all been trying to be there for each other.

I’m just glad that we’re able to have these open discussions about things that are important, and they might be uncomfortable to talk about. And I’m just glad that I can say something with my music that supports that kind of cause about making a positive change in the world that we live in.

Even just having the discussion – as you said: being the change you want to see in the world. Do you use your platform to encouraged discourse over these topics?

Yeah, definitely. I’m 29 and I’ve been raised in a strong line of Maori females, and I’ve always been encouraged to speak my mind and I’ve always had that example in my life. I’m a bit older and I have formed and developed ideas for myself and values for myself and I had conversations in 2020, before I put out “Revolution” or the music video, I was having conversations with activists here in the UK and in America, learning myself about how to be a better ally and you know, about how to support my friends who were in the black community. you know, being Maori myself, like a person of colour, how to accept that cultural identity and how to just sit in that space.

I’m happy to have those conversations on my Instagram and stuff, and the good thing for me is a lot of people who follow me, they’re from all different kinds of walks of life and a lot of young people predominantly, they’re into it. They want to have the chat. They want to sit in that uncomfortable space. They want to learn and grow and they’re way more involved than I think I was at that age. So, I think we’ve got a good future with those generations.

Let’s talk about your family – your brother Calum [Hood] is obviously very musical, but what about the rest of them?

My brother and I are kind of the only musical ones in family. I mean, actually to be honest, in my extended family, we’ve got a few cousins and stuff. My mum’s like one of 11, so we have a very big family, but in terms of just my parents and whatnot, my dad loves Robbie Williams and The Proclaimers – he’s Scottish.

And my mum… we listened to top 40 radio growing up. It’s not like how some people say, “Oh yeah, I listened to Fleetwood Mac and The Rolling Stones and The Beatles.” It wasn’t really like that in my family. We just kind of grew up on whatever was on and we just love listening to music. But in terms of doing it as a job and being able to be songwriters and performance stuff, it’s kind of just us. We have a cousin called Angel who has an artist project in Australia as well. She’s doing super well.

What was it like as Calum’s older sister seeing a sort of pandemonium start around your younger brother little band? I feel like from my perspective if that was happening in my family, I’d be like, “Okay… Sure…” Was it strange?

To be honest with you, I wasn’t really there for that stuff. Like I moved, he moved, we both moved overseas. We are a family that’s across three continents. And he was touring all the time, so it was exciting to watch him do this thing but at the same time equally, I was on the other side of the world. I think he is killing it because he does so well.

Him and I, we’ve worked together and whether it’s just writing songs and talking about music, we’re able to still catch up and it’s as if nothing’s changed. It doesn’t really affect our relationships. So yeah, really, really lucky for that. But otherwise, I think he loves the life he leads and I’m a big fan of him and his music. I’m excited to see what comes for him.

So you guys do collaborate together!

Yeah, he wrote a song with me on the album, he produced it. “The Art of Letting Go”. So him and I write songs like a bunch of times, cause he also writes and I write songs for other people. So we’ve collaborated on songs that we write for other people and yeah, he was on the album.

So what’s on the horizon? What’s coming up in your world?

I started an electronic dance project [called AR/CO] here with another singer-songwriter who’s amazing, called Leo Stannard. So him and I are starting to look into a completely different world. So, delving a bit more into writing songs in the dance world and kind of exploring this duo dynamic which is cool. That’s something I’m super excited about. And then probably write a second record, but I’m going to take a break from it. Last year’s a lot, I think.

It was just definitely a lot of hard work, but I think I’m just going to continue writing songs. Like I said, I write songs for other people and have kind of created a space for myself in the songwriting community here in UK. So once everything is up again, start traveling to LA and maybe write a few songs and yeah, just keep chasing the one that might change my life.

The grind never stops does it. It was so great to talk to you, Mali. I really appreciate your time.

Stream Hunger NOW.

Keep up to date with Mali-Koa on her Instagram, YouTube and Spotify.

Main image credit: Josh Nesden.

Tait McGregor

@taitmcgregor

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