Ella Mai On Chris Brown's Legacy And How Her Brother Shaped Her Debut Album
Ella Mai spoke to VIBE about the circularity of her career and collaboration with Pepsi’s Sound Drop series.
At the age of 23, Ella Mai basks in gratitude. Staying grounded through the will of her family and friends, the R&B singer often finds herself taking time to digest the surreality of her new life.
Last time VIBE caught up with Mai was earlier this year at a barcade as her hit single "Boo'd Up" subtly climbed the charts. Within three years, the singer propelled herself from an Instagram cover-artist to a Top 20 heavyweight– bringing unheard of stats to today’s R&B game. Securing an early co-signature from Mustard in 2015, Mai signed to 10 Summers within six months of being discovered, releasing 3 EPs, 7 singles and a studio album since her 2016 music debut.
Refusing to erase to roots of her artistry, Mai is prideful of her Instagram cover clips, as they have brought her full-circle through initiatives like Pepsi’s The Sound Drop.
Created by Pepsi for emerging artists to share their art and connect directly with new and existing fans through the amplification of their music, Ella Mai recently released her episode of The Sound Drop, where she sits with YouTube sensation JamieBoy as he covers her platinum-certified single, “Trip.”
Despite her radiant glow up, the singer is just getting started. Speaking to VIBE about her collaboration with Pepsi, the singer shares her love for storytelling, working with Chris Brown, upcoming tour and more.
Read the full interview below.
VIBE: Pepsi’s The Sound Drop Platform was literally made for artists like you. I know you talk a bit about how you appreciate and understand the journey of trying to get yourself out there through covers, but I feel like everything has been different for you since you’ve been moving so fast. Can you speak a little bit on that?
Ella Mai: I started doing covers three years ago and three years might sound like a long time, but in industry years that's not long at all, especially considering this last year has been insane for me. I was really excited to be apart of Pepsi Sound Drop because, like you said, it's made for artists like me.
To meet JamieBoy, the guy who reinterpreted my song "Trip,” and to really have a one on one conversation with him, hear him sing his version, and kind of pick his brain about what he wants to do in his career, it was almost like a mirror effect because I was in that same position not too long ago.
This past year has been amazing. I don't think anyone could've imagined that this would happen and so quickly and I'm just super grateful that I could live my dream. I still have my covers on my Instagram page, and I’ve always said I'm not taking them down because I feel like it's such an important part of my story–a story that is quite common in this day and age because of social media. I know a lot of people get found on YouTube and a lot of people get found on Instagram, but because of the success of “Boo'd Up,” “Trip,” and now my album this year, it kind of makes it that bit more unbelievable–the fact that I started on Instagram– because it seems like everything was really planned out, if that makes sense.
Yeah, of course. Everything came so full-circle for you. It’s funny because when you go on your Instagram, you don't even have to scroll far down to get to your covers and I think that's what makes everything so surreal. They're so recent.
[Laughs] Oh yeah, yeah.
How have you been processing everything that came your way? Do you ever wake up in disbelief that you’re traveling, doing what you love, and making music?
To be honest I think I have that realization every morning.
Yeah, I can imagine.
I think in the moments that I get to really think about exactly what's happening, I really sit and think, "Wow, this is all I ever dreamed of." I did an Interview with Ebro on Hot97 and the first question he asked me was, "Is this what you thought it would be?" and I said to him “Yes” because, to be honest, it's even more than what I thought that it would be.
I've wanted to be an artist since I was little, and you always have this idea in your head of what it would be like and what releasing your debut album would be like and to be and on the charts and getting award nominations and all the different stuff that you see your idols doing, so when it really starts to happen to you it's almost like a cross between the fact that it still feels like a dream, but your dream is now is now your reality, especially in these last two weeks with releasing the album. I just found out I got nominated for four Soul Train awards this year.
That's amazing, congrats!
Thank you! Just in general it's been crazy so taking it in, I definitely try and do it as much as possible because stuff is coming at me so fast. I feel like I'll miss it if I don't really get to sit down and take it in.
I'm so glad you brought up your idols. You started out by covering Chris Brown songs back in 2015, to getting him to shout out your song in like May of 2017, to working with him in the studio by September 2017, to finally releasing your single together earlier month. What it was like meeting one of your idols? It’s not often that artists actually sit down together and work in the studio.
It was amazing. I had to gear myself up for it ‘cause I respect Chris Brown so much musically. I think he's one of the most talented artists we have of this generation, so to be able to sit down and just watch him work when I've been such a fan of him since I was 11-years-old, and for him to be so excited to work with me and tell me how much of a fan he is of me, I was like “This doesn't make sense cause I'm supposed to be telling you how much of a fan I am of you.” So yeah, it was incredible.
I don't think I'll ever forget that session, I remember just sitting there and listening to him in the booth while he just nails everything like first take like doesn't even have to try, it's so easy for him, so it was inspiring to watch him. Like you said, collaborating a lot these days with schedules and stuff, people don't really get to sit down and work together. Those two other features on my album, John Legend and H.E.R., I didn't get to work with them in the studio, so I'm glad that for one of the features I really got to sit down and make the song together.
Did he give you any specific tips for you to take with you later into your career?
We spoke about a lot. He was just telling me to make sure you have the right people around you, that's probably one of the big things he was saying. The people around you are very important.
Yeah I mean you were saying that he's such a fan of yours and it's hard not to be when, as you were saying, you've been breaking so many records. I know it went quadruple platinum since the last time I checked. That's insane.
Your album went gold insanely fast, it seems like you've been racing yourself on the charts rather than anybody else. Do you stress your past numbers in your creative process, or do you just do things for you and let the recognition come as a plus?
I think a lot of people don't remember as well as musicians we music for our fans, of course and for everybody else and because we love it but it's also like therapeutic for us, so it's like a therapy session like writing our own feelings so as much as songs can mean a lot to our fans, the songs mean a lot to us to so I feel like the moment you're making music and you don't enjoy it or you don't love it, there's an issue.
For me, the accolades and the recognition are a bonus. Being able to tour the world and meet your fans in all these different places and have people sing the words back to you, that's all a bonus cause at the end of the day I make music cause I love to make music and to be able to touch people, even if it's one person, is a bonus. To be able to have everything else on top of that is like a super bonus I hardly can explain it.
The way you speak about love is wise and earnest and way beyond your years. I know you're young, but that’s what makes your music so much more relatable.
Speaking of that, I know you kind of transition your way through your album by spelling out your name through words revolving about love and lust and everything in between. How did you come up with that?
I've always been a big fan of storytelling. All my EPs also have skits in between to tie the stories together and as much as I feel like the songs are great storytellers in themselves, I like to add that little extra part at the end just to tie it all properly, 100 percent. Mustard and I were sitting down trying to figure out how we would do it and he actually came up with the idea to spell my name out.
We knew the album was gonna be self-titled, so based things around the stuff that was really me. Once we came up with that idea, I was like “Let me really go through these letters and tell the story of what I think is me through words.” At this point, we basically had the tracklist, so coming up with the words were a little bit easier because I knew where they could fit.
I remember calling my brother, cause my brother is a really good writer, and I said to him “Listen, I have these words and I wanna do skits on my album and I want you to help me write some of the stuff.” Some of them were definitions, but others of them were a couple sentences, so I sat there on the phone with my brother and we wrote them out together and that's how the skits came about. But yeah, I'm just very big on storytelling and I like to feel when I read something that there's a good introduction, there's a good middle piece and there's a good climax and ending, so that's basically what we went for.
I actually didn't even realize until a few listens in that I was spelling out your name.
[Laughs] I think a lot of people don't– I mean it's only been 12 days, which is crazy because it feels like longer, but yeah, a lot of people don't realize.
I know you were on the road with Bruno Mars earlier this month, but you’ll also be going on your Debut Tour in 2019, right?
Is there a specific song, a new song that you’re particularly excited to bring to the stage?
You know what, I'm excited to perform the whole album. I worked so hard on this album and I've been performing the same things from my three EPs for a little while now, so to be able to sit down with my band and come up with different arrangements for the songs I put my heart into means a lot to me. I'm really excited to perform every single song.
Is there a city you're excited to visit?
Every city. [Laughs]
Do you have a favorite city that you’ve performed, whether it be from performing at the 24k Magic World Tour or from your sold out Boo’d Up Tour from a little while back?
I'm super excited to do London, of course. That's my home and I'm always excited to be home and get the reception that I get at home. I'm actually really excited to go to Seattle because Seattle is actually one of my favorite places that I've been to in the States, actually. But we're also doing the show on Valentine's Day and since the album is basically all about love I'm excited to see how that goes down.
Oh, it'll be a vibe.
Oh yeah! [Laughs] it's definitely gonna be like in your feelings, everyone's gonna be in their feelings.
Last question, it seems like you’re constantly working. How do you practice self-care or take time for yourself with everything that goes on around you?
There's not like a particular way I would say. I think just making sure that I speak to my family every day. Making sure I speak to my mom, making sure I speak to my brother and my friends, just making sure that I can keep that aspect of my life like as normal as possible and to talk about everything that's going on is– I'm a big talker, I like to talk so I think that's what kind of helps me. I don't do like yoga or anything. [Laughs].
Watch Ella’s episode of The Sound Drop up top.