Vocalist Deva Mahal returns to the Exit Zero Jazz Festival Saturday, April 21.
Daughter of the legendary Taj Mahal, Deva Mahal was born with the blues in her blood. Becoming the genre-defying artist, powerhouse vocalist and astute songwriter that she is today could only be achieved through living a life rich with pain, joy, loss, love, heartache and experience. A soul as singular as Deva’s can only find voice through an equally unique sound, which she’s forged by growing her blues roots through the fertile soil of modern R&B, indie-pop, soul, rock and gospel.
Listeners will get their first taste of that distinctive approach in October 2017 with the release of Deva’s debut EP from Motéma Music. The full scope of her voice and vision will be revealed in 2018 on Run Deep, her aptly-named first album, produced by Scott Jacoby (Vampire Weekend, José James, Coldplay) with two tracks produced by Jarrett Wetherell. The title captures not only her estimable musical bloodline but the finely-hewn emotions that course through her songs. Deva plumbs her own emotional depths to explore issues of overcoming adversity, battling one’s own demons and dealing with the pains of love and loss, alongside wry observations on contemporary romance. She breathes vivid life into those songs with a knockout voice that combines pulse-pounding soul with a decidedly modern edge.
Deva (presciently, or perhaps an example of self-fulfilling prophecy, her name is pronounced “Diva” but given a slight twist) is the daughter of blues icon Taj Mahal and Inshirah Mahal, a dancer, artist and educator who Deva refers to as “my rock.” Their support and influence combined with Deva’s inborn passion and soaring talents make her a formidable and inspirational artist. Those remarkable facets come together strikingly on Run Deep, which is composed of ten new songs and a powerful cover of a King/Goffin hit from the 1970s. Deva’s songs are as infectious as they are stirringly personal, placing her powerfully moving voice in the service of raw, vulnerable explorations of resonant emotion.
The sultry grit of “Can’t Call It Love” kicks off the album, followed by the bold R&B stomp of “Snakes,” a warning sent to Deva’s younger self (and girls like her) to watch out for people with less than your best intentions in mind. The late-night groove of “Turnt Up”, (a duet with Allen Stone), sways under the trance of Deva’s whiskey-soaked seductiveness, and Stone’s equally sly counterpoint, while the elegiac spirituality of “Fire” traces a path through trial and demons. The album’s title track is a celebration of the power of music itself, featuring Deva’s sister Coco Peila; despite its title, “Dream” is a clear-eyed, wide-awake reflection on a love gone wrong.
An organ-driven rock beat propels “Optimist,” which could serve as Deva’s one-word mission statement. “It’s Down To You” shows off Deva’s soulful balladry, “Shards” her ability to reveal her very core in a stark, confessional anthem. “Wicked” is an electro-soul call to action in the vein of Stevie Wonder’s politically charged classics. The album comes full circle with a cover of the Carole King/Gerry Goffin song “Take a Giant Step” originally recorded by The Monkees and famously covered by Taj Mahal in 1969, but rendered profoundly current and personal in Deva’s own rendition.
Her songs draw on a deep well of personal experience, serving as revelations, cautionary tales, and empowerment anthems. “When you are bullied and treated like you don’t belong, or faced with great adversity at a young age,” she says, “you learn ways to cope. Music gave me an outlet to express the pain of those experiences and the strength to challenge racial, physical and gender stereotypes.”
She is defiant in voice as well as in person, bravely putting herself forward as an exemplar of positive body image and overcoming the travails of bullying and discrimination. She’s also lent her support and talents to organizations like “Voices of a People’s History of the United States” which are working to cast the light of truth on racial inequality, gender stereotypes, and bias as well as issues surrounding poverty.
“It’s incredibly important to me to not succumb to pressure to conform to any standard of beauty or body type,” Deva asserts. “I believe that beauty has no size or skin color and I want to smash down those preconceptions.”
Raised in Kauai, Hawaii, Deva discovered her passion for music at a very young age. Despite her parental role models, her talent and drive arose naturally, long before she became aware that she was following in their footsteps. Even before her earliest memories, Deva’s family recall her seizing any opportunity to sing in front of a crowd, gradually improving and always feeding off the positive energy of an audience, however small. She had her first real gig at the age of 5 and made her professional debut at 12 and has rarely stayed away from a stage for long since.
Initially aspiring to a career on Broadway, Deva moved to the mainland to study theater at Southern Oregon University, but those plans were derailed by the unexpected death of her sister. To regroup, she moved to the Bay Area with two of her other sisters, until the events of 9/11 prompted her to join her mother in New Zealand. While there she decided to study jazz and vocal performance and slowly began to make a name for herself on the Wellington music scene.
A successful tour of Europe with “hi-tek soul” band Fat Freddy’s Drop opened the wider world to Deva, and in 2007 she determined to try her luck in New York City, a long-abandoned dream finally coming to belated fruition. Once there she became a fixture at Brooklyn jam sessions, tirelessly set her experiences to music, and earned a significant buzz as half of the duo Fredericks Brown, with fellow New Zealand ex-pat Steph Brown.
The wider world started to realize Deva’s songwriting talents in 2008, when “Never Let You Go,” a co-write with her father, gained acclaim on the Grammy-nominated album Maestro. She’s also collaborated with a wide-ranging array of artists, including members of TV on the Radio, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, and Fat Freddy’s Drop. She’s performed at such renowned venues and festivals as Sonar, Womad, Carnegie Hall, The Apollo the Atlanta Jazz Festival, North Sea Jazz Festival and Montreux Jazz Festival
“Every experience in life leaves a mark,” Deva sums up. “Evidence of its existence. Some experiences leave scars, deep grooves inside your very soul that never truly leave you. That is where Run Deep comes from. I never want to wade in the shallow places in life because it’s easier, safer or more comfortable. My music speaks a lot about pain and heartache, but I dive into those feelings, submerge myself in them so I can work through them and get to the other side.”