Ego Ella May has always worked on instinct.
Live, there's an improvisational approach to her vocals, a dizzying, free-flying journey that skirts around an aural vortex marked by neo-soul, vintage jazz, and left-field hip-hop.
For a while now, her work has been sought after, a vibrant fusion-based sound that speaks eloquently about love, loss, self-worth, and so much more.
Debut album 'Honey For Wounds' was released just a few days ago, and it's a glorious listen; there's a performance feel on many of the songs, with the fluid sessions featuring guest spots from the likes of Oscar Jerome, Wu-Lu, and Joe Armon Jones.
At the centre, though, is Ego Ella May's stunning voice, and her wonderful songwriting skills. Responding to the world around and within her, 'Honey For Wounds' is a testament to her spirit, and music's role during the self-healing process.
Clash spoke to the songwriter about the making of the album, her lockdown experiences, and where she'll go next.
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Do you still feel the album is a suitable vessel for your creativity?
100%. It’s a collection of songs, isn’t it? One that focusses on how you’re feeling a certain period of time. I think albums are super-important, still… although I guess that could be argued, given how many people opt for singles! But I do think having an album as that body of work and collection of songs is still super-important, and it can convey who you are… as one thing. This one project can be like: this is me, here you go… please listen to it!
The album itself feels very defined. You used the phrase ‘music to heal to’, in fact.
I think particularly on this project I really had to focus on it. But then again, I’ve found music really healing for me. I’ve always been a fan of music, just an active listener from when I was super-young. I’ve just always known the power that music has – to heal you, to inform you, to make you cry, to make you happy. So many different emotions that music can spark. For my album, I really think it definitely changed me as a person. It definitely contributed to my healing journey, and it’s important for me to say that because – and especially now – a lot of people are looking for an escape or a way of healing, and I think the album may help with that. I’m happy it came out in this time. People have found it calming, and that’s the effect I want.
There’s a number of guests on here – how to do you choose who to bring in?
Well, luckily everyone that helped me with this album are just friends of mine. It’s been an interesting process because some of the songs are actually years old… and it was formed with me going to the studio with one of the producers, and we’d sit there and be like: OK, what do we want to talk about today? It was a really organic process.
Some of the times where I’m starting out on a guitar, they’ll step in and help me to develop it. Sometimes we’re literally jamming… like, there’s a whole band in the room and we’re singing what we can come up with, and we’re topping up the best bits and working with that. Other times, it’s like an actual beat that I’m working with… so I have to stick to the beat! But it just varies.
One of the things I love about this album is that they’re no set way of doing something. Each song has a different story, and a different way of being made… and that was important, as well, it was nice to do things in a different way each time.
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Is the process really about being truthful to the song, then?
Oh completely. It’s nice to not exactly have a set way of doing things, it’s more about being true to it. Let’s just make this song happen in the way that it’s supposed to, but we’re not going to force it in any way. It was very free.
Wu-Lu is down here – he’s such an inventive figure…
He’s just very free! I first started working with him in 2014, he was playing bass in my live shows. And then we started making music together in 2015 and he’s just so infectious. He’ll put things in, take things out… he just wants to try! He’ll add in some crazy guitar solo, just because he wants to.
We just experiment so much, and I would say he’s probably the person I go to the most when I want to make something super-random, and see what happens. He’s not scared of fucking up! He’s not afraid of it. It’s like: let’s jam, see what happens! He’s a rocker by nature, though, so he’s just naturally into that stuff.
There’s a huge jazz influence on the record – Oscar Jerome, Joe Armon-Jones – and that clearly forms a big part of your imagination.
It does, yeah. It’s nice working with this new South London jazz scene… it’s really funny, because we’ve all come up together. I guess I don’t see it as some ‘scene’, it’s just us… all playing together
. I don’t really think about genres that much. It’s nice having this jazz-influenced team around me, to then create… new jazz, in a way.
Does that aid the freeing aspect in the studio?
Definitely. I’d say especially on ‘Table For One’ when the band are literally just jamming… it’s just so beautiful. It wasn’t rehearsed at all, it was just a jam.
It’s the same thing as old jazz music, it’s rarely rehearsed… it’s just about being free. And then it’s recorded and it’s absolute gold, but you’d never knew that it’s just people being free with their instruments.
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‘Give A Little’ is a real highlight – how did that one come about?
It was the last song that I wrote for the album, so it’s special for me. But I worked with a producer called Ian and a guitarist called Mellow Z on that one, and it’s like my ‘woe is me’ song… because at that point in my life I was very confused, and I just felt like something had just got to give. I kept making mistakes, I kept fucking up… something had to give!
So I wrote it, basically as a way of saying: there are beautiful days ahead, something’s gonna change here, and I’m going to be more settled in life and have more clarity in life. It’s a rant, in a way, but it’s also really beautiful.
It’s being released at an interesting time – it was just after George Floyd’s death… so it came about at an interesting time, with a lot of people questioning our society. It ended up being quite an important song.
Do you think as a creator you’re always tapping into some form of psychic energy?
I do think of it as psychic energy, yes. To be fair, I’m very tapped into what’s going on in the world. Well, sometimes… and sometimes I have to take myself away from it because I do find it overwhelming. I’m an over-thinker, so I tend to think about the state of the world, and also self-care.
All these things that pop up into my mind that then turn into songs… I find that when I release then it really holds weight with a lot of listeners because it’s so honest, and it’s my truth… which isn’t far off from the collective truth, I suppose. It’s always a topic of discussion.
It was the same sort of thing when I wrote ‘Girls Don’t Always Sing About Boys’ or ‘How Long Til My Home’. All of my singles have come at the perfect time! It’s been very strange, but it’s also made me engage in the conversations we’re having right now.
‘Table For One’ feels a little more personal…
It’s the one that’s always going to be closest to my heart… just because of how it came about. And it was just all of us getting into the studio – me, Joe, Oscar, Eddie, and Wu-Lu – and we were just jamming. We just said: let’s go studio, jam, and see what happens. And then afterwards me and Miles chopped up the best bits of the jam, and ‘Table For One’ was this beautiful instrumental right in the middle of the jam, and I wrote around it.
That’s how it came about – it was about trying to find your independence after being forced out of a relationship. Trying to find a way to do all the things that you usually do as a duo, but then doing it by yourself. It’s such a different self. Even ordering for yourself as a restaurant – it’s so daunting, but also a really independent thing to do. It’s about navigating the steps that come after being in a relationship. It’s about being by yourself and being OK with that.
Who have you been listening to through lockdown?
Definitely Cleo Sol’s new album, ‘A Rose In The Dark’. I’m obsessed with that album. It’s amazing. And then most recently I’ve been in love with Lianne La Havas’ new album. Also, Moses Sumney released a really amazing album a few months ago. Nick Hakim I really love. Denai Moore released an album a few weeks ago, so I’ve been rinsing that.
And then old jazz! Jazz standards I always listen to because it really calms me down.
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The way you use your voice is very distinctive – do you take inspiration from instrumentalists?
Yeah, I do. I listen to a lot of jazz solos.
A friend of mine – Andrew Ashong – was talking about a song called ‘Song For Bobby’ on my album, and he was basically saying that my verses are like trumpet solos… and I found that so interesting because when I do listen to that song now I really hear what he’s saying. I listen to a lot of jazz solos, and I feel like I tend to go back on some lines, pick out what’s interesting… and I sometimes find myself copying those solo lines.
And then when I’m finding my own melodies, I understand why sometimes it could possibly sound like a trumpet or a guitar line. It’s about me listening to instruments as well as singers, and how they make their instruments shine. Perhaps I take more influence that I realise, sometimes!
To wrap things up, where do you go from here?
I feel like I can definitely wrap up this chapter in my life. I’ve always wanted to make an album, release it on vinyl… and I’ve accomplished all that. It’s been ticked off my bucket list now!
So now I’m embracing a lot of the feedback and continuing on with more songs, and making a plan down the line once I have more finished songs. I have quite a few that are in demo stage, so it’s hard to say what I’m going to do with them. I’m just taking my time, enjoying make music, and letting people enjoy the album!
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'Honey For Wounds' is out now.
Words: Robin Murray
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