Hanna Schwinn ’19 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Singer-songwriter Mina Alali is an old soul, and she knows it. Every time she says something wiser than her years, she quickly adds an “I know I’m only nineteen,” or a “but I’m only nineteen,” to cover it up.
She really shouldn’t.
On the set of the music video for her recently released single, “22 Cents Less,” she was charmingly professional—friendly, but not too familiar; easygoing, but not a pushover; classy, but not stiff.
Today, Alali perches on the edge of a wooden chair at the Pavement Coffeehouse on Boylston Street in Boston, Massachusetts. The Berklee College of Music student looks like just another college girl on the go, clad in a navy blue sweater of her grandfather’s, black yoga pants with a hole in the left knee, and black-and-white-checked Vans. She is free of makeup, and declines to order, instead sipping a chocolate-soy-milk–banana concoction—“Add peanut butter, it just makes it so good”—from a red, thirty-two ounce water bottle.
But despite her relaxed appearance, she remains as put-together as she was on the set. Her maturity does not appear to be a facade put on by a nineteen-year-old girl desiring to impress, but rather a true part of who she is.
Alali’s music is in communion with how she presents herself in day-to-day life. At the first listen, it’s possible to interpret her music as formulaic pop about love and life. A second listen reveals so much more.
“What matters to me the most in my music is the lyrics,” Alali says. “I really strive to have unique lyrics in my songs because I don’t want them to sound like a cliché love song.”
Her avoidance of clichés began in her childhood in the ‘90s. Instead of listening to popular boy bands like the Backstreet Boys or NSYNC, she was encouraged by her father to love classical music; her mother sang along to Carol King, Melissa Etheridge, and Eva Cassidy. Today, though she enjoys radio’s Top 40 hits, her preferred genre is alternative pop (think India Arie, Imogen Heap, and the band Common Kings).
Alali’s voice is a soft but powerful croon. It belongs among the voices of the great soul singers of the 1960s. But if she were of that era, she probably wouldn’t be singing “22 Cents Less,” the first single on her upcoming album. The song is a feminist anthem in support of women who don’t compromise their values, despite being paid less than their male coworkers.
Alali folds her arms as she speaks. “I heard about the wage gap, and I had some thoughts on it. I sent them to [my cowriter] Arlene Mordeno, and asked her to write a song off of them.”
Mordeno, who Alali met through her singing coach, was in the process of writing the other songs on Alali’s upcoming studio album—as yet untitled—but she made time to write this one. It was recorded, along with the rest, in the whirlwind that was the summer of 2016. Alali and Mordeno spent six hours a day, six days a week, in producer David James’s studio. Alali remembers the craze, but she smiles, recalling the fun too.
“Music is art, but especially with ’22 Cents Less,’ I was making art that meant something to me,” she explains. “It’s like, I feel so differently about a phrase when it’s sung versus when it’s spoken. I try to pinpoint why, why is that? Lyrics, and a melody, and instruments . . . why is that combination so special?”
She pauses. “We hear a lot about women’s rights, and we shouldn’t because it’s 2016, but [22 Cents Less] is about being independent, being strong. . . . It’s a powerful message, and all the lyrics to my songs mean so much to me, but this is the first single for a reason.”
Alali grew up in Davis, California, the eldest daughter of an oncologist and the executive director of a non-profit organization that advocates for children in foster care. “I have really humanitarian parents who love helping people, and I want to have the means to help people in the future,” she says. To that end, she’s majoring in Music Business/Management at Berklee College of Music. Alali’s particular interest is in management, so that she can become an entertainment attorney.
She’s the first to admit that her first love is making music, but she sees entertainment law as the easiest way to combine music and the ability to help people. “I think it’s important for any musician or recording artist to study and know about [entertainment law] because you don’t want to get screwed over. But I also want to represent women in a male-dominated field, and law is one of those fields.”
She takes a sip of her drink, adding, “I think fans of my music are also fans of social justice.”
Alali’s album doesn’t have a name or a release date yet. She figures, in this epoch of iTunes, singles are more important than albums, so that’s where her focus lies right now.
At one point, she admits she doesn’t think she’ll be the next Ariana Grande—of course she won’t. She’s got too much to do as the only Mina Alali.