“One day I legit had an epiphany,” says 21-year-old South West Londoner Ella Mai, from her L.A. home. “I was in school for music. My friends knew I could sing. My family knew I could sing. But I was sitting there thinking about how I could get the world to know I could sing.” Scrolling through her Instagram feed she’d discover the addition of video to the platform, and decided to shoot a fifteen second cover of Fetty Wap’s ‘679’. “I'm very big on originality, so I made sure I switched it up and made it my own. I just sat there in my room and I recorded it.”
The clip would go viral after being picked up by Instagram-based gossip blog The Shade Room and broadcast to its 7 million followers. After continuing the momentum with weekly uploads her 500 followers rocketed up to 200,000 and when her cover of 2Pac’s ‘Keep Ya Head Up’ started to take off on the West Coast, it caught the attention of DJ Mustard – the producer who’s crafted hits for everyone from YG to Rihanna.
They’d eventually meet for a studio session while Ella was in New York and Mustard was playing Made In America festival in Philadelphia. “I felt like I wasn’t on earth,” she recalls of the realisation that the West Coast super-producer was making the two hour drive to see her. “I was trying to keep it as secretive as possible because I didn’t know what would happen. I honestly didn’t know how to feel.” They hit it off and Ella became the first signee of his 10 Summers imprint. “He didn't have to do that,” she says. “But clearly he saw something in me.”
Together the pair have tapped into their shared love of 90’s R&B, with Ella applying her versatile vocals to uncharacteristically down-tempo bass-heavy productions from Mustard across a pair of EPs, ‘Time’ and ‘Change’. “From the production to the vocals, ‘Time’, was bouncy and a bit more experimental,” she says of the EP, released in February complete with a feature from Ty Dolla $ign. “Whereas ‘Change’ is very smooth and laid back. I think that’s what takes it back to the 90’s, that was less experimental but hits a bit harder emotionally.” The latter, released in November, centres around her latest single ’10,000’, which is a favourite of Mustard’s and also appeared on his latest album ‘Cold Summer’.
The track was inspired by Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Outliers’, which describes a theory in which it takes 10,000 hours practice to become an expert. “I thought it would be dope the apply that to love, because that takes practice too,” she explains. “You go through trials, ups and downs – I don’t know if anyone ever really does 10,000 hours practice in love, but if you’re not trying then you’ll never [achieve it].” Having pursued football from the age of 12, there came a point in her late teens when Ella found herself faced with the decision of what to devote her own practice hours to. “My mum named me after Ella Fitzgerald,” she says. “Music has been the only thing since I was young that's [been a constant], and it's something that I can't deny.” She made the decision to focus on her burgeoning singing career, and never looked back.
Right now she’s counting down to her return to London over Christmas. After five months living in Los Angeles she’ll return to see family and play a sold out debut headline show. “I'm not excited for the weather, because I've been spoiled. I can't lie, I've been spoiled with the sun in LA. So I'm not prepared for that, but I'm extremely excited to not only for the holidays but to play my first ever headline show,” she enthuses. “It's the start of something new for me, and to do it at home is just that much more special.”
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Words: Grant Brydon
Photo Credit: Christopher Parsons
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