“I’d tell my story, how I was found on Instagram and talk about how much can really benefit young people. I’d tell everybody to never give up on their dreams as much as people may tell you no, you should always believe in yourself, that’s the most important thing.”
Ella Mai always had her reservations when she heard stories about musicians being discovered on YouTube, she questioned how true it was; that shot from bedroom to stardom. Then it happened to her. Her take on a Fetty Wap track went viral, and she landed in the hands of DJ Mustard.
“This sounds very cheesy! But it’s actually very true.” She laughs. The phone line is quiet, my ear pressed so hard against the receiver that it’s almost sucking me in, but I hear her London accent clearly, words spoken with assurance and from experience.
Three EPs in two years capture two sides to that journey, both from a personal headspace and an industry insight, from CHANGE to Time and more recently, READY. The tracks are lathered in her silky soulful vocals where the gloss has a hint of naughtiness, and the delivery is sultry. Putting her own contemporary take on 90s RnB, the lyrics document today’s dating culture and open up unashamedly to offer her innermost thoughts. They declare truth and and act as a beacon of self-love and care.
“I personally feel like my music is a really great representation of me as a person, I’m quite a confident person and have always been pretty outgoing. I’ve always known how to stand up for myself and I think that my music is very much that.” Ella explains, on the no-shit method to her lyrics and the people that are no longer worth her time. “People keep saying that I’m ‘queen of the break up anthem’ but I like to show in my music that we’re human so you can feel down about a situation or whatever but it’s more from the view of how you’re going to pick yourself back up and I like to put that in my music. A lot of people have told me that they feel that’s what differentiates me from the typical break up songs where you’re really upset and crying.
“I feel like when you pick yourself up, that’s the most important part.”
‘Anymore’ the closing track to the latest EP lushes a chorus of strong reflection, ‘’cause I’m not gonna call anymore, don’t fuck with you at all anymore’ cradled in a soft dancehall rhythm. ‘Makes Me Wonder’ struts with a sun-kissed swagger, whilst ‘Boo’d Up’ shows hints of vulnerability in passion spills.
Writing a diary has always been an interest for Ella, and a gift from a friend means that her current book has five columns to fill in each day over five years, allowing you to have a much more personal version of your daily Timehop.
“I’ve always been big on writing about how my day has gone and I think it helps me to have a point of reference. Like if I’m writing about something that I’m experiencing, even if the diary entry is quite short, it’s not a big part of the song, but I can look back at it like this is what I did, what did I see or what did I feel.” She says. Named after Ella Fitzgerald, and referencing a particular love for greats Amy Winehouse and Lauryn Hill, the songstress ensures her tracks have a trademark – her spoken word. She asks, “are you even listening?” and confesses “this is such a crazy feeling though, I don’t want to get too attached but I feel like I already am”, giving insight into her daily entries. “Releasing emotions is like the best part of making music.”
Describing herself as a more glass-half-full person, Ella says, “I try to be an optimist, but sometimes emotions can get the better of us.” Though her trail blazing career has made the intent even clearer. “Day by day I’m like ‘wow I never thought that things would be this way or things would happen that way’. So I like to take a lesson from my brothers and if it’s a negative situation, rather than how I’m actually feeling I like to be like well, what did I actually learn from this that I won’t do again? If you get what I mean.”
Her voice is untouchable and effortlessly commanding on top of minimal, but effective production. It takes the spotlight, shining as brightly as it is important for Ella to always remember where she came from. Born and raised in London, her favourite city, until she was twelve, Ella then moved to New York and attended high school there before moving back. Living in New York she says, “shaped me a lot music wise because now when I think about my music, even though I grew up listening to American artists, it’s like made a huge impact on how I make my music because I feel like I understand the culture better having lived here.” Managing to merge both cultures that she so fully immersed in; yep she was every American teen film lead rolled into one – an American soccer jock, on the honor roll, and “a cool kid, but that sounds weird”, Ella’s music is vibrant, understood and well cared for. The music nods to the very core and humble beginnings of RnB and rap with honeyed tones and gospel harmony. Whilst her distinctively British accent portrays the ‘carry on’ attitudes and values.
Ella Mai is the girl who would throw her arm around you in support without second thought. She listens and takes in what is happening around her, and transfers very real emotions into honest songs that could burst with charisma. She is unafraid to make poignant statements and to bare her soul, because she knows who she is and where she wants to be. Her back catalogue proves it, she has a lot more to say.
Words by Tanyel Gumushan