Week seven of 2012’s X Factor. With her powerful voice, original songwriting and gifted piano skills, 16-year-old Ella Henderson possessed all the genuine talent required for a real career in music.
Yet, Simon Cowell – like a forlorn Oppenheimer – looked on despairingly as his nuclear mushroom cloud grew stratospheric and his viewers, hypnotised by years of gimmick peddling, voted the only contestant who could stay in pitch into elimination. Ella was out, and the machine was empirically broken.
Unlike most talent show rejects, Ella turned her curse into a blessing. Now 18, her symbolically named debut album ‘Chapter One’ is coming this autumn.
“The first time people have ever seen me open up before was when I sang my own original song at my X Factor audition,” she says. “That was me being myself, and singing something that came naturally to me at a piano. Now, I’m a completely different person. Not just from all the studio work and writing, but me, myself; I’m a young woman now.”
“The root of everything for me is soulful, raw and real,” she explains, and soon she’s visibly effervescent with cultured references, fondly recalling the soundtrack of her not so distant childhood.
“With my mum, we would listen to Motown, Marvin Gaye, The Shirelles, The Crystals. My brother loved reggae: Bob Marley, Musical Youth, Desmond Dekker. And the first song I ever heard as a kid was my granddad on the old record player with ‘God Bless The Child’ by Billie Holiday.”
All this flourishes in Ella’s lead single ‘Ghost’, which opens like a deep ballad before dropping into a nasty modern dose of funk and soul enchantment.
The fire of excitement surrounding her debut is fanned by the list of collaborators involved, including the new jack swing pioneer Babyface, ‘Empire State Of Mind’ producer Al Shux, Salaam Remi (Amy Winehouse, Nas) and many more.
“I can’t describe the nerves I get,” starts Ella. “Meeting them for the first time, and then doing something so personal almost immediately was very strange. But then I hit a point halfway through my writing last year, when I realised everybody is just the same. You all have that creative thing in common. You are equal to one another. You all just want to write music.”
- - -
- - -
WHAT: A modernised take on funk and soul
GET 3 SONGS: ‘Ghost’ (video above), ‘Five Tattoos’, ‘Waiting’
FACT: ‘Five Tattoos’ only made it on to Ella’s debut album because her team overheard her playing it on the piano and demanded its inclusion.
- - -
Words: Joe Zadeh
Photo: Trinity Ellis
Fashion: Lola Chatterton