FWD: Ella Mai Is the Soulstress of the Future

FWD: Ella Mai Is the Soulstress of the Future

Written by Ashley Monaé

Published 3 weeks ago

Meet Ella Mai, soul music's latest UK transplant

Ella Mai has a cold.

She’s trying to sweat it out before her six-hour flight to Los Angeles, where she’ll be whisked away five days later to embark on an international excursion as an opening act for Kehlani’s SweetSexySavage World Tour. A runny nose, sore throat and fits of coughing is a Molotov cocktail for artists — a recipe for disaster. But for the 22-year-old singer who’s outwardly void of nerves at the moment, wallowing isn’t in the cards. “My life makes me smile these days. Not everybody gets to wake up and do what they love,” she conjures up in a remedying tone, the steam from her cup of tea pacifying her paled face. “I’m blessed.”

Just three years ago, Mai was living in her native UK, performing yet another balancing act, but with much more trepidation. She was one-third of a girl group named Arize that a friend of hers formed while they were enrolled at the British and Irish Modern Music Institute where Mai studied creative musicianship. Hesitant to join at first, she gave in and decided to give it a shot. “It was very difficult conforming,” she recalls. “Like, let’s say if I had a creative idea, I had to share it with two other people and they of course had to agree.” While it taught her teamwork, Ella had always dreamed of being a soloist since childhood. But soon after Arize brought their harmonies to life on British reality talent show The X Factor and failed to make it past the second round, they went their separate ways.

My life makes me smile these days. Not everybody gets to wake up and do what they love.

Born and raised in South London, Mai was destined for stardom just moments after she took her first breath. Her mother named her Ella after the Queen of Jazz, Ella Fitzgerald. “I think it was by coincidence,” Ella says now. “My brother’s name is Miles, after Miles Davis, but he doesn’t play any instruments anymore. But she did say to my grandma when I was first born, ‘Oh, she better be able to sing.’ But she never pressured me. It was something I enjoyed doing. It kind of just worked out.”

While Ella’s mother, an IT teacher, wasn’t musically inclined, her musical taste combined with mandatory Sundays at church and enrolling her daughter into a performing arts school proved to be powerful. And as expected, there was tons of jazz floating through their South London walkup. Being of Jamaican and Irish descent, reggae was always in rotation. There was also The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, which would become her favorite album (“I don’t feel like there’s anything fake about her music. She literally gives you herself in the song.”), alongside the first CD she purchased: Mariah Carey’s Emancipation of Mimi.  

As much as music became a constant force in Ella’s life, so did travel. From the time she was 12, she spent ample time living between New York City and the UK. Plucked from the diverse reality she knew across the pond, she found herself in the middle of Jamaica, Queens, a predominately Black area known as the stomping grounds for superstars like Nicki Minaj and 50 Cent, during her eighth grade year. “Everyone would say to me, ‘Oh, I didn’t know there was Black people in England. Do you guys have gangs?” she says, trying on a rugged East Coast accent for size. For Ella, it was the ultimate culture shock. “It was like, how does everyone not know, but going through the school system in New York I realized you only really learn about America and not too many other places in the world.” By the time she got to high school, which she praises as “a bit more diverse,” and explored other parts of the city, she settled right in. “I grew to like New York,” she says, sucking on a bright red cough suppressant, cozily sinking her body into the plush gray couch. “ I love New York now, but that first year was pretty tough.”

Until the summer of 2015,

Ella was a relatively unknown aspiring singer. Still in school and trying to pick the pieces of her passion for music up after Arize’s breakup, she found herself intrigued by a songwriting course she took and began to take it seriously. “I was always singing but not writing. I always just blocked it out,” she explains. “I would say to myself, ‘Oh, I can’t songwrite.’ I think it’s a thing where you think you have to have all this experience when technically songwriting is just expressing how you feel. It’s another way of writing a story, and I used to love writing in school. So, I started when I did that course, I was like, ‘Wow, I can actually do this.’ From there I started to explore and at the time my friend was making beats, so we just started putting things together.” Opening her eyes to the fact that she could in fact put pen to a pad and convey her logic for the enjoyment and consumption of others birthed her first song, “Thoughts,” which she describes as “being confused and being a yes or no situation, the kind where you’re wondering if you should stay or should you go.”

And so, Mai, whose musical tastes are heavily influenced by the '90s and 2000s eras of R&B, turned her childhood memories into sonic art. “I never really had an idea, it was really whatever came out,” she explains of her music. The sounds that spill from her mouth sit in the pocket of a dreamboat-like register, but she’s not afraid to take it to epic Mariah Carey levels every now and then. There’s a beguiling slow burn, too, that permeates through her vocals that show no sign of her thick English accent.

Around the same time that she began to venture into her solo endeavors and take singing and songwriting seriously, Ella had an epiphany. “One day I thought to myself, ‘My family knows I can sing, my friends know I can sing, but if I was to walk out on the street, nobody would know I could sing?’ So I was like, 'What can I do to get myself out there?'” Instead of using the resources of the music institute and on-campus shows because she “wasn’t really feeling it and it wasn’t her lane,” she realized the internet was the greatest tool she had at her disposal.

One day I thought to myself, ‘My family knows I can sing, my friends know I can sing, but if I was to walk out on the street nobody would know I could sing?’ So I was like, 'What can I do to get myself out there?'

“I was in the shower one day and '679' by Fetty Wap came on and it was like the most played song on the radio. I just started singing it and putting my own twist on it, and I was like, ‘I’m going to upload this to Instagram.’” Somehow, The Shade Room, Black entertainment’s gossip-y, tea-spilling source for celebrity news, reposted her 15-second clip on their Instagram and her 500 followers quickly grew to thousands. “That’s honestly where I got my following from,” she says, still looking astonished by the impression it made among strangers. “You know how the internet is,” she continues, “I knew I couldn’t please everyone with what I was uploading so I was expecting there to be people on my videos talking s**t. But surprisingly, 99 percent of it was extremely positive.” From then on, people would request more covers of everything from Big Sean’s “Blessed” to Kanye West’s “All Day” with her soulful twist. “I think originality is something that’s important and catches peoples eye,” she says, visibly replaying every baby step that brought her here today. “At the time, I didn’t really actually realize what I was doing, like the extent of it, but I knew I should keep going.”

At the time I didn’t really actually realize what I was doing, like the extent of it, but I knew I should keep going.

As Ella kept singing and uploading, producer DJ Mustard,

known for lending his bouncy, California rattle to the hottest, chart-topping artists in contemporary rap and R&B, came knocking. Not literally, though. Instead, he slid in her DMs ready to talk business like most Gen Y executives. “He messaged me and was like, ‘Your voice is amazing, what’s your situation?” With no management or team behind her, Ella took a leap of faith and agreed to meet him face-to-face with three friends in tow just for safe measure. Ironically, she had plans to be in New York in September and Mustard was performing at Made in America Festival just hours away in Philadelphia. “He drove down and we did a session and that’s where it all started.”  

Their first studio session sounds like the stuff ripped out of a fairytale. “I remember when we first got there, we were just waiting and my best friend was like, ‘Aren’t you nervous?’ I wasn’t; I was more apprehensive because I didn’t know what to expect. But when he came in the room, he was super friendly and spoke to all my friends. He didn’t have that presence where it felt like ‘I’m better than you’ or ‘I’m higher than you.’ The interest was genuinely there, he wasn’t like, "Let’s just make a song." It was more like, ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’” That night, Ella and Mustard made three songs and spoke in depth not only about her vision for herself but his own venture 10 Summers, a Interscope-distributed label aptly named after his debut studio album. Naturally, Ella was a contender to be a signee.

 

“It just made sense, we got on really well,” she explained. “I’ve been in situations where it didn’t make sense and you try and force it because it’s an opportunity but you know it’s not the right thing to do. But with Mustard, it immediately felt like the right thing to do.” After two trips to L.A. in the span of four months and completing 40 songs, Mustard finally said, “Yo, I want to sign you.”

On January 16, 2016, Mustard made a guest appearance on OVO Sound Radio, using the global platform to introduce the world to his newest signee. Soon after came her debut single, “She Don’t” featuring Ty Dolla $ign, and “No Rush.”

These days, Ella lives in Los Angeles with her older brother. She’s been there for four months and is still having a tough time adjusting to it’s sleepy crawl. “L.A. is so slow. Everyone is so chill and the weather, of course, makes everything better, but it’s just a different vibe. But it’s been really productive for me.” In the span of a year, the shameless homebody and studio rat has released three EPs: Time, Change and Ready.

“Being in the situation that I was in with Mustard helped a lot. If I didn’t have someone steering me or helping me understand how things really work, I might have been like, 'No, I’m ready for an album now,'" she explains. “But I’m glad we’ve done it the way we have because it’s important for people to get to know you before you throw something at them and they’re confused about who you even are. I think with the EPs, you get to digest me and what I’m about.”

Guess my mother knew what she was doing when she named me Ella.

Each project is romantic in its own way, riddled with narratives of every emotion you feel in a relationship: the good, the bad and the ugly. While some of the songs are based off of personal experiences, many are her take on the relationships of others. “A lot of Time was actually about a friend’s relationship and me seeing what she went through and how she felt. I kind of felt like I was involved in it because she was my close friend and I knew everything that happened in the relationship. So it was easier for me to sing about it even though it wasn’t something I went through.”

Having released her third EP, Ready, in February, Ella promises it’s her final one. “When I get back from tour, it’s album time,” she says, her airy voice fluttering full steam ahead with excitement. “Even if you ask me right now if I can believe what’s happening all from Instagram, I’d tell you I’d never expected this to happen… Guess my mother knew what she was doing when she named me Ella.”

 

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