Ella Mai Just Wants to Have Fun

Surrendering to love, legacy, and embarrassing yearbook quotes with the ever-discreet R&B star.

Photo: Nayquan Shuler for Vulture
Photo: Nayquan Shuler for Vulture

Ella Mai is flipping through the pages of her yearbook, starting to remember the girl she was a decade ago. “Here I am!” she announces in her British accent to a small room behind the auditorium of her old high school in Queens, which is packed with her managers, publicist, and glam squad. She points a manicured fingernail to her senior portrait, where a teenage girl named Ella Howell sits with a golden smile. Underneath the picture, written in cursive font, is a self-description: “Everything and a bag of chips,” punctuated with a curly heart. The now 27-year-old R&B star, who has become one of the most beloved singer-songwriters in the genre, praised by Stevie Wonder, Mary J. Blige, and Alicia Keys for her refreshing take on ’90s R&B, contemplates her past self’s confidence. She shakes her head. “Terrible.”

For the first time in years, Ella has returned to Queens High School of Teaching, where lines of pink magnolia trees are in full bloom and the sound of shrieking children at recess can be heard from the elementary school next door. Just stepping on campus brings back a flood of memories for the South London–born artist, who spent the formative ages of 12 to 17 living in the nearby neighborhoods of Jamaica and Kew Gardens. A week before she releases her first album in four years, Heart on My Sleeve, she’s doing a shoot that involves reconnecting with some of her former teachers. “Ella was a presence,” Mr. Shayback, her adviser, tells me. “She was one of the kids who I always thought, How am I going to teach her? She already seems to get all this.”

“I thought I knew it all back then,” Ella laughs, unpacking the visit the following day in a Manhattan office building. When she lived in the States, she hid her passion for singing — “It’s really unlike me to dim my light,” she says, explaining that she didn’t want to bring more attention to herself since she already stood out for her British accent — and only decided to pursue it after moving back to London at age 17. Fame came quickly thereafter: Mustard discovered her covers on Instagram and signed her in 2015. Three years later, Ella broke out with the sunny earworm “Boo’d Up.” Its success made her the first British singer to top the American R&B songs chart. “I know my journey inspires a lot of people because I started on social media just from singing covers in my bedroom,” Ella says. “No mic, no management, no label, nothing.”

Her star-studded rise has included collaborating with Usher, touring with Bruno Mars, and joining writing sessions with J. Cole and Pharrell. “I feel like I’m doing something right,” Ella says. Threads of her mentors turned peers’ influence can be heard on the soul-bearing Heart on My Sleeve, which Ella wrote with live instrumentation in mind as opposed to top-lining pre-produced beats. Her effortless hooks dance and flow over swirling string arrangements, laid-back acoustic guitar, psychedelic funk breakdowns complete with talk box, and gospel-choir arrangements from Kirk Franklin, who also preaches on the record.

The project acts as a conversation between generations with Mary J. Blige appearing on the breakup-lamenting “Sink or Swim” to offer a spoken-word passage of encouragement. The sprawling production made Ella want to challenge herself vocally, so she studied the music of Destiny’s Child and Brandy, masters of harmonies, on the way to the studio. You can hear Ella’s attention to detail when she lays a tinge of vibrato or lingers on certain syllables, while her own background vocals flesh out the rest of the emotional landscape, making a simple phrase like “It’s all in the things I didn’t say” layered with sorrow. There’s an intentionality in the performance that harkens back to the legends who laid the foundation for the music she grew up on, which doesn’t always show up in today’s anthems built to go viral in the club or online. “I just wanted to step up,” Ella says. “I think we’re in such a trap-R&B era at the moment, and I just don’t want to be that.”

Photo: Nayquan Shuler for Vulture

Maybe she was destined for this life when she was named after Ella Fitzgerald by her mother. Ella grew up singing in a South London church where her Jamaican grandmother was a minister. When her mom, who endowed Ella with a taste for Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliott (Ella would discover JoJo, B2K, Natasha Bedingfield, and Paramore as a teen), got a teaching job in New York, the family picked up and flew across the Atlantic. She joined a generation of teens who grew up on BET’s 106 & Park and MTV’s Making the Band. “I was really a Y2K child with my House of Deréon jeans,” she says. “I just grasped from everyone that was around me.”

Yet the first time her classmates saw her love for performing came at the end of senior year, when she did a class presentation about her musical-theater internship at Queens Theatre in Flushing Meadows Park. They were shocked. “Everyone was like, ‘Okay, who is this? We don’t know her. We haven’t known her the past four years,’” Ella recalls. She sang the national anthem at graduation, and a month later, her mother moved the family back to London. “It was like giving them another piece of me, but then I just disappeared.” Ella ended up at the British and Irish Modern Music Institute, where she learned about the industry and how to sing different genres. But she couldn’t get motivated about her assignments. “I was like, I just want to go in my room, shut my door, and sing.” So she did just that in the summer of 2015 and started to upload 15-second clips to Instagram. She covered songs by everyone from Rihanna to Fetty Wap and gathered attention for her warm performances, belting and commanding as if she were onstage.

It was a clip of Ella singing the Five Stairsteps sample from Tupac’s “Keep Ya Head Up” that caught Mustard’s attention. She left school to sign to his 10 Summers imprint and move to Los Angeles, which she now calls her third home. Throughout the course of 2016 and 2017, she released her first three EPs — Time, Change, and Ready — the last of which brought “Boo’d Up” to the world. When the sleeper hit blew up the next year, Ella made headlines for being an unlikely British R&B sensation. She’s perfectly happy with the title, though it ignores the legacy of other R&B pioneers from the U.K. There’s Estelle, who made a crossover hit with 2008’s “American Boy,” as well as Sade and Craig David, who Ella believes “was a little bit before his time. I feel like if he came out later, people would’ve understood it way better.”

Despite her visibility now, Ella has kept her personal life under wraps, maintaining a level of privacy that’s rare for a young artist in the streaming age. “I wouldn’t even say I’m a secretive person, but social media is just a dangerous place,” she says. “If you use it correctly, it’s a powerful tool. But at the same time, the internet is the Wild, Wild West. You’re never going to win on the internet.”

Ella is the opposite of cagey, answering questions in long paragraphs. But I spot hints of her need to maintain composure (which she attributes to being both a Scorpio sun and moon), like when, during an album-listening dinner, she quietly assessed the facial expressions around her — it was the first time she saw people outside her team reacting to Heart on My Sleeve. “I was being very vigilant,” she says. “If there was anything that somebody didn’t like, it was a comfortable enough space that I feel like I would’ve been able to notice and pick up on body language.”

Photo: Nayquan Shuler for Vulture

Order feels good to a girl who took three buses to get to high school every day and helped teachers grade papers on top of doing cheerleading and soccer. (She also, for the record, earned the superlatives “most outgoing” and “best hair” her senior year.) “For a lot of my life, my perspective on myself was like, I’m so well put together,” Ella reflects. “Even in my relationships, I’ll try to think logically as opposed to emotionally, and I think it blocked off a lot of things for me. Whereas the situation I was in when I was recording this album, all of that went out the window. But I think that’s just what love is. Sometimes it doesn’t make any sense, and I was just willing to put myself out there.”

On Heart on My Sleeve, she describes surrendering to love’s messiness by using cinematic metaphors of drowning, getting pulled into the tide, and being swept up into a tornado. There is a newfound maturity in how she directly addresses a partner, unafraid to convey bitterness, desire, regret, and temptation. “Did I call at a bad time? / I can tell in your tone, you’re ashamed / Telling more lies,” she interrogates on “Sink or Swim,” conveying her full desperation and pain in the chorus, where she sings over a melodic beat, “You be the reason why I never give my trust / … / Tell me how to stand whеn the tide comes in.” Then there’s the delicate piano ballad “Hide,” in which she sings about how a lover has gotten her to truly open up. “Remember I was lost in the wind / I was hurt, I was locked in a dark hole / … / Till your eyes shined a light on my scarred soul,” she croons, haunted by her past.

The album-making process was like therapy. On previous projects, she recorded spoken-word outros as ways to address and explain herself, as on her self-titled debut when she uses her name as an acrostic to convey the main themes of the project (E for emotion, L for love, and so on). Now she lets her sung words deliver the narrative.

Ella says her only objective now is to keep writing the songs she wants to hear. “Everyone I look up to still makes music to this day. They’re still relevant,” she says. “And longevity is not something — especially in this streaming age — that is easy to do, but I definitely want that for myself. There’s no specific [goal] like, I want to have kids, I want to get married, because I don’t. I just want to make music.” Eventually, she hopes to pass the wisdom of her idols forward by inspiring “others the way I’ve been inspired.”

A Drake lyric comes to mind: “The moment I stop having fun with it, I’ll be done with it,” she quotes from his 2013 song “Too Much,” flashing another million-dollar smile. “And I just hope that I never ever get to that point.”

Ella Mai Just Wants to Have Fun