No one talks about love anymore. In an era where everything we consume is either immediate or temporary, using the four-letter word in conversation or even in song feels fleeting. But the way 23-year-old singer-songwriter Ella Mai speaks about love, both in her music and today in Lower Manhattan’s retro Barcade on a winter Friday, will undoubtedly leave the love-strung mesmerized. “When you’re in love,” she says with a smile, “your heart and your mind are in sync and everything just feels right. It’s a special feeling.”
Ella Mai’s perception of the powerful emotion is kindred to R&B heartthrobs of the ‘90s, who flooded the radio airwaves with soulful ballads, baby-making tunes, and heart-wrenching break-up anthems. It’s hard for the ordinary to mimic or even follow up the vocals of Lauryn Hill, Destiny’s Child, Brandy or Mariah Carey, but for Ella Mai, it’s natural, seeing as how all of these women were her influences growing up. Even so, Ella Mai isn’t a carbon copy.
The songstress hails from South London – which instantly becomes evident when she flutters her lips in a booth onlooking the New York City street – but she suggests her first CD, Mariah Carey’s The Emancipation of Mimi, and the rich music culture the U.S. had to offer was the source of inspiration for her own musical voyage. “‘Shake It Off’ was out already, and I loved that song. I was like, I have to get that album,” she recalls of her introduction to American tunes. “I still have all the actual physical copy CDs. I’ve never thrown them away. It’s in really bad condition, but I still have it.”
The singer is a purest in the fact that she still cherishes original copies of her favorite albums. It’s refreshing, yet ironic since she was initially discovered by DJ Mustard on Instagram in 2015. “People make careers off of Instagram. So in that sense, it’s really good and you can put yourself out there and be open. Somebody who would’ve never seen your work 20 years ago because there was no social media, can see it [now].” She has undoubtedly benefited from social media’s super powers to create overnight sensations (Chris Brown gave her a shoutout after having found her on Instagram), but its downside is not lost on her either. “Everyone thinks they’re in your life. Everyone can comment on your life,” she admits. “When I was little, to see a famous person was like whoa! You only get what you see in a magazine or on TV… I love social media, but I pick and choose what I want to put on my [accounts].”
Much like her Instagram account, which displays a careful arrangement of makeup-free selfies, behind-the-scenes videos, and covers celebrating her musical heroes (Chris Brown and Aaliyah), Ella Mai practices cautiousness with her creative process. “It’s pretty rigid. I’m someone who likes routine,” she admits, as her mane of loose curls uniformly sways back and forth. Her routine ultimately boils down to three steps: listen to the beat and allow her emotions to guide her to a focus; lay down the melodies and outline the chorus and verses; write the lyrics.
“I love each process,” she swoons. “Each part is so fun in a different way because you can be happy today, but the beat can make you feel sad, and it takes you to a place you’ve experienced before. You can see the whole song comes together from walking into the studio [with] nothing to walking out and having a full song.”
She may have a firm grasp on her process, but her penmanship is more organic. While love and relationships are the common denominators, the narratives draw from both personal experiences and those of her close friends. “I always say that when you have friends that are girls, you tell each other everything,” she says. “I had this friend who was in a toxic relationship and it literally felt like I was in the relationship because she tells me everything.” The woes of her friend’s failed romance served as the backbone of her first 2016 EP, Time. The 6-track project birthed the punchy single, “She Don’t,” featuring Ty Dolla $ign (the lyrical representation of “reclaiming my time”) and established a trend for her follow-up EPs, Change and Ready. Each project was a whimsical polaroid of the stages of a relationship – the exhilarating highs, the dismal lows, and the grey areas in between.
“Even if I haven’t experienced it, there’s someone around me that has. I’m a 23-year-old girl. Most of our friends have been through something,” she says. Her ability to take a snapshot of common experiences relates to more than just 20-somethings. During her recently completed headline tour, the singer got that reality check when a new divorcee approached her. “I had one lady tell me she was getting a divorce and my music helped her,” she recalls. She admits that she doesn’t always have the words to express her gratitude, but it’s still an incredible feeling. “It’s pretty cool to have that interaction. I’m doing something right.”
Ella Mai isn’t solely continuing the lineage of R&B crooners into the late-2000s; she’s bringing confidence back to the genre. With her, pain and trauma don’t have to be necessary parts of the equation. “I think it’s somewhat conscious because that’s the person that I am,” she says. “I don’t think I could be in a toxic relationship and stay. I’m quite confident [and] independent. I have this theory of if I’m going to be sad, I can be sad by myself. I don’t need you to make me sad.” She attributes her sound sense of self to her single mother who instilled confidence in her from infancy. “Stuff happens that you don’t necessarily wish for, but it’s about how you step away from the situation, how you pick yourself back up, and how you learn from it.”
Self-love is a message she wants to pass on to millennial women. It can come in the form of self-care (Ella’s guilty pleasure would be facial masks) or affirmations. Her newest single, “Naked,” is a soothing reminder that self-assurance fits better than any garment or accessory. “That’s super important, especially like what we were saying with Instagram and social media – girls feel pressured to have a certain image and look,” she says, referring back to her earlier thoughts. “A lot of women that are coming up grew up on the 90s R&B, but we’ve had our own experiences and we do realize that there’s no point in being heartbroken. It’s important that in the music we teach them a different message.” While she does take ownership of this resurgence, she also gives credit to SZA and Kehlani, whom she opened for on the SweetSexySavage Tour in 2017.
That train of thought will roll over into her debut album, which is currently in development. While the album will stick to the theme and follow her “rigid” creative process, she says it will illustrate a new maturity. “It’s a grown version of myself,” she says. “I’ve been in the industry now for a solid year, and I’ve experienced different things and met different people. I’ve grown a lot as a person. So, I’m going to take it up a notch.”
As for right now, her debut project is untitled. “It’s the same thing I did with the EP. I waited until they were finished to put a name on it because I feel like it summarizes everything. We’re in a good space, but I still think we have work to do,” she admits. But just like her sentiments on love, “when it comes, I’ll know exactly what it is.”