Biography: Ella Mai is on the verge… Hot on the heels of her critically acclaimed extended player, Time, which boasts the breakout single and video, “She Don’t” featuring South Central LA rap don, Ty Dolla Sign, the 21-year-old UK songstress jumps right back into the fray with Change, a stellar, new, five-song EP, produced exclusively by DJ Mustard for his 10 Summers label.
Change is something the half-Jamaican, half-Irish singer knows a thing or two about. Raised in South West London by her Jamaican mom, Ella Mai attended The Colour House Theatre School, where she pursued musical theater and performed in such multilayered productions as West Side Story. But when she was 12, her mother abruptly moved the budding young talent, and her older brother, across the pond to Queens, New York, for a teaching job. “I was completely taken out of my comfort zone,” she remembers, “just plunked on the other side of the ocean.”
That first year in the Empire State was tough, but by the second year, Ella Mai got her groove back. She moved up a grade and went to high school, where she unwittingly became a soccer star, playing for both the school team and an outside club. “At that point it was all about football for me,” she says. “I was just trying to fit in so I never used to tell people that I could sing. Not until my last two years of high school did people even know that about me.”
After graduating with honors from the Queens High School of Teaching, Ella Mai returned home to London and promptly enrolled in music courses at a local college. The focus was “live set up, live performance, and some theory.” She also joined a girl group, Arize, but that was short-lived. “Three girls,” Ella Mai laughs, “And you know how girls are. It was difficult. I wouldn’t do it again, but it 100% taught me so much about myself.”
Fortunately, the blossoming artist had already transferred to a music university to pursue her calling at a higher level. She clearly had skills, but the Creative Musicianship major at British & Irish Modern Music Institute (BIMM) gave Ella Mai chops, ultimately pushing her to further develop her artistry and craft her own songs. The B.A. program also gave her the confidence to start sharing her gift with the world.
“One day I had an epiphany,” she explains. “I was in the shower and Fetty Wap’s ‘679’ came on and I just started singing along and came up with my own version.” Ella Mai decided to record and post her interpretation of the hip-hop hit on Instagram for her then 500 followers. Little did she know the clip would go viral with the help of her friends — and an unexpected repost by The Shade Room — bringing hundreds of thousands of admirers from all over the world to her virtual yard.
Motivated by the overwhelmingly positive response, Ella Mai seized the opportunity, posting more clips of her doing cover songs by Tory Lanez, Khelani and even Michael Jackson. That’s when West Coast hip-hop producer, DJ Mustard (YG, Ty Dolla Sign, 2 Chainz, Tyga) hollered, in June of 2015. “He just randomly DMed me and asked me what my situation was,” Ella Mai recalls.
Two more months passed before they would actually link. Ella Mai was in New York for an extended stay and Mustard was in Philadelphia for a scheduled performance at the Made In America festival. When the producer realized Ella Mai was nearby, he swiftly booked studio time in Manhattan and drove all the way from Philly to meet up and lay down some tracks. That night they made three songs, and at the end of the session, Mustard invited her to LA to do more work and meet the 10 Summers family.
The songs recorded during those first trips to Los Angeles, culminated in the Time EP, a musical thesis on how to navigate a good relationship gone bad that dropped in February 2016. “It shares what I learned from my friends’ affairs, what to put up with and what not to put up with,” Ella Mai says. The contemporary R&B project also gave Mustard a chance to expand his sound beyond the sometimes-constricting boundaries of rap production.
Recently transplanted to LA full-time and officially signed to 10 Summers Records, Ella Mai has put the finishing touches on Change, which she describes as a continuum of her previous offering. “It’s about finding someone new and knowing how to appreciate what he’s giving you in comparison to what you were dealing with. All five songs on there are about newfound love, new emotions and new experiences.”
The EP kicks off with “Down,” where Ella Mai elegantly flips the script on the 1994 Brandy classic. “I’m a huge ‘90s R&B fan,” she reveals. The song “Who Knew” has her pondering “’how did we fall so deep so fast.” The lead single “10,000 Hours” is simply about mastering love.
“You know how people say you need to do something for 10,000 hours in order to have it down pat?” Ella Mai asks. “That’s what ’10,000 Hours’ is about: putting time into something that you know is going to be worth it.” The song is also featured on DJ Mustard’s newly released album, Cold Summer, and generating a healthy buzz.
Ella Mai is hopeful that listeners will walk away with the same thing she walked away with when she made Change. “I just want people to love themselves,” she opines, “but also learn to love other people and accept them for who they are.”
The self-styled role model wants young girls, especially, to feel empowered by her music. “Even if you’re in the process of finding yourself, it’s important to know what you stand for,” declares Ella Mai. “My message is one that can touch a lot of people.”
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