An Interview with Ella Mai | “I know where I fit in and if that’s not the norm that’s fine”
Ella Mai has catapulted into the limelight this past year in a way most of us could only dream of. The 23-year-old British singer got signed to DJ Mustard’s record label in 2016 after being discovered on Instagram. Since then, Ella Mai has taken the music industry by storm, with her two hit singles: Boo’d Up and Trip playing just about everywhere you go. A couple days ago her very first album was released – a self-titled 15 track album making us all our heads bob and arm hair rise.
I got the chance to sit down and interview the rising star a few weeks ago when she was in Berlin for promo of her album. She walked into Universal Studios with a casual and confident aura, dressed in a big bomber jacket. Her skin was exceptionally glowy and the smirk on her face let you know that this young woman knows what she wants and is anything but a pushover. We talked about music videos, the new wave of Rnb and how to slow down in an otherwise hectic industry…
You just released your music video for Trip. I also watched your video for Boo’d Up, I feel like all your visuals have this really classic 90’s vibe. How are your visuals connected to your music?
I’m big on storytelling, so for me, the visual has to enhance the music almost perfectly. I am quite descriptive in my songs anyways so even without the video you can understand it but the video enhances it, it communicates my understanding of the song.
With music, it’s down to interpretation. Someone can listen to your music and it reminds them of a situation similar to mine, but music is so versatile and people take it however they do, so music videos are how I feel when I wrote the song.
I also sense this clarity in your visuals. It feels toned down when you compare it to other music videos right now and I feel like that’s also true for your music. It’s really stripped down to the authentic emotion without all the heavy production and bling bling.
Yeah, I’m very much myself in my music. I’m not even into bling bling. I’m very focused on the music and expressing exactly how I’m feeling. To me, that’s what’s important because at the end of the day, when someone is listening to your music, all that other stuff doesn’t matter. It’s just about how the music makes you feel.
I read that way back you were in a music group, and like I said, I think your music is really open and honest. I would imagine working with such honesty and openness you need solitude. Do you need to be alone to create really vulnerable art?
A hundred percent. I mean I wouldn’t take the experience of working in a group back because I feel like it taught me a lot but just having complete creative control and being able to say exactly what it is that I want to say you definitely have to be by yourself, have solitude, be grounded and know exactly what it is that you want to say. In a group there are so many different opinions and compromises that have to be made, you kind of have to make sure that everyone is happy. When you are a solo artist you have to come to this middle ground with the producer or if you are writing with someone else, but in my situation I’m lucky to have people who give me a lot of creative freedom to do whatever I want and they listen to it after and maybe give me a few comments about what they think I should fix. Yeah I definitely like to be in the studio by myself, I know some people work with a lot of different people in the studio, but unless I’m writing with someone else it really only is the producer who’s in the studio with me.
When I watched some interviews with you I sensed that you are a really private person. But the music industry and the media is a place where privacy is invaded a lot. How do you cope with that?
I’m quite good at speaking, so when people try to go somewhere I don’t wanna go, I know how to control the narrative. But I think a lot of people see that I’m private and they try to knock but I don’t really give in so they divert. And I haven’t had a situation where someone continuously tried to push further. But probably I will experience that at some point cause that’s just the industry.
Yeah I mean at the end of the day nobody can force you to say something. But then again, we also live at a time when the consumer is so interested in the artist and so uninterested in the art. Why do you think that is?
I think social media has almost gone to a place where you are letting people into your whole life. Like when I grew up if you wanted to see your favorite artist you had to either buy a magazine and read the interview they did, or watch tv when they had an interview there. So you couldn’t just click and see what they were doing right at that second. Now people are posting all the time, and I think people are so invested in what social media makes anyone’s life in the industry look like but we have to remember that people only post what they want you to see. For me, I’m invested in someone if I like their music but not to the point where I’m like “what are they doing at this second”.
I think it also makes the consumer dumb because you don’t really have to put in the work to understand the art because everything is explained when you can connect it to everything you know about the artist.
Yeah literally like baby steps, you are being walked through it without having to sit with the music. It’s like what I said about music videos, I want to portray the story how I wrote it. But if you’re being told what everything means, then you don’t have a chance to interpret it your own way.
Like I said, your music really has the soul of 90’s Rnb and Rnb is full of honest, timeless emotions. Do you think as soon as someone starts to make honest art, it becomes timeless because emotion is timeless?
I feel like it’s 50/50. Because honesty is subjective, so I think timeless music is more about the feeling.
Rnb was on the backburner the last years and pop music was everywhere, but I feel like right now there is a group of young women who bring it back really well. Why was Rnb even on the backburner, do you think pop music is easier to consume?
I definitely think pop is easier to consume, not to say it’s not great, I love pop music, but when you go in to write a pop song, there’s like a formula, where with Rnb you just go in there and pour your heart out. There’s not really a formula.
I read that you have the same best friends since you were three and I feel like we live in a really fast paced world and things that last, be it art or relationships, are not that common anymore. How do you slow down and prioritize the things that are really important to you?
I think my friends are one of those things, just at the end of the day, to call my family or friends and keep this base of things I had before music. Like I might be really busy but I make sure to at least speak to everyone more than once a week. That just keeps me grounded. My best friends, there’s three of us and we have known each other since kindergarten and it’s really interesting cause all of our lives are completely different and we all do really different things and a lot of the time you would think that growing up and everyone kind of going their own ways career wise, it would be very hard on a friendship. But it almost feels like the three of us being so different is what works and that’s why its better for me at the end of the week to come to them and hear about their days that are completely different, than to the people who are around me 24/7 and do the same thing as me. Not that that’s not interesting, but it kinda just gives me a feeling of home.
Speaking of the music industry, or rather all creative industries, they are all so ego driven and fake at times. I feel like having people in your life who actually live in the “real world“ and have jobs where they are working for other people… I feel like that really brings you back down to earth, it does so at least for me.
I think in creative industries it’s definitely hard because everyone is just trying to get where they need to be and many people don’t really care whether or not they hurt someone on the way. So I think it’s definitely like you said, people who do stuff for other people, or just in general – I have a puppy and I think he helped me a lot, because I think I was becoming anxious, because everything is so fast paced and I was just thrown into it really quickly, and he is my calmness. When I’m around him I’m just focused on his wellbeing.
When I listen to your music, it feels really stripped down, and focused on the vocals, kind of minimalistic. I feel like that makes the emotion come across too. Do you think we live at a time, because it’s so fast-paced and because there’s so much going on, do you think we long for simplicity?
Yeah I think so, and I think that’s why Rnb is coming back. In a world where everything is so in your face, sometimes people just want to take a moment and chill and don’t feel like there’s so much going on. And I think Rnb is that simplicity of just taking a moment to feel. And that is why I love Rnb so much. I always say Lauryn Hill is my biggest inspiration. Growing up listening to Miseducation I might not have understood everything ’cause I was young. But it still gave me the same feeling as it gives me now when I understand it.
When we strip back all the expectations there are for Ella Mai, everything people might want from you, who do you want to be? How do you want to be remembered?
I want people to say that I was really myself and that I didn’t try to fit in. Even before I was an artist I was like that. Not that I do everything to make myself comfortable and others uncomfortable, I just knew where I fit, always, and if that is not the norm that’s fine. I’m cool being alone or around 200 people, I know what I want to do and I want to speak my truth.