Ella Mai Talks 'Ready', DJ Mustard, And Politics in 2017
R&B Brit Ella Mai knows a thing or two about sliding into DMs; in fact, that’s precisely how she got her start. After posting cover vids on Instagram (which at the time, maxed out at a mere 15 seconds), her music got picked up by none other than DJ Mustard, and one message in her inbox subsequently led to not one, but three songs recorded on her next trip across the pond to NYC.
Since then, the British R&B darling has signed to Mustard’s 10 Summer Records label, shot to the top of his priority list (understandably so) and released her third EP, Ready, on February 22. We caught up with Mai just before her tour with Kehlani starts (her first!) and sat down to chat—about Ready, putting down new roots in L.A., and the political chaos currently consuming both her British home turf and her adopted American one. Peep the full interview below, and stay tuned for a curated Friday playlist, coming early next month.
First off—congratulations on your debut EP! Can you talk about how it all came together?
Yeah! So the new EP is called Ready—I didn’t record it with a concept in mind, it kind of just came together, just like my other two EPs. The name Ready kind of has two meanings—the thing I like to stick with is one word titles because I feel like they can be interpreted however the listener wants to interpret it. Ready kind of means ready as in “ready, set, go,” but the EP is also about every different emotion that you feel in the stages of life with someone or in a relationship. So in the same way Time, my first EP, was about going through a really bad relationship and breaking up and getting over it and picking yourself up, and then Change is about finding someone new and just appreciating that because you didn’t have it before, and Ready can kind of fit wherever you want it to within the three.
It’s just about all different things, but in the end it all sums up to being ready to own and take control of whatever it is that you want regardless of the other person in your life. So whether that is positive or whether that is negative, what you want is the main thing.
Are you writing with a certain person in mind or is it just how you feel about that subject?
You know what, it’s literally however the production makes me feel. I really don’t ever go into a session thinking, “Okay I want to write about this or this.” I mean, everything is from experience of course but however that particular beat makes me feel at that moment, that’s what I’ll run with.
Dope. So I know that DJ Mustard discovered you on Instagram—I would love to talk about that moment and what that relationship meant for your music.
Yeah, so last summer I started doing Instagram covers and I just figured if I could use social media for its advantages then it could work so I just started uploading. At the time it was just the people I knew, and I didn’t have a lot of followers, and the first video I posted was “679” by Fetty Wap because it was like all over the radio at the time so I was like, “Let me see what I can do with this.” I made it my own a little bit and uploaded it and somehow it got to the Fade Room and they have millions of followers. So they reposted it, and then from there, people were coming onto my page and liking the video and commenting, so I just kept uploading videos of popular songs at the time. I uploaded a “Keep Your Head Up” cover by Tupac and that’s the one DJ Mustard must have seen, because he DM’d me—this was probably like 2015—and was like, “What’s your situation, do you have a manager?” and he didn’t even know I was from London because he didn’t hear my accent. At the time I had no situation, I didn’t have management, I didn’t have anything, I was just literally singing on Instagram. It just so happened that I was flying out to New York that September and he was going to be in Philadelphia, so one day we did a session, just three songs, and it just kind of made so much sense musically and from there he just was like, “I want to get you out to LA, I want you to meet my people and see what else you can do,” and now I’m here! So really it all started just on Instagram.
It’s insane that social media didn’t even exist just a few years prior to that.
So I know that you said a lot of the music comes to you in the moment, but do you have any bigger picture ideas that you’re trying to convey with your music, or goals of how you want to connect with the people listening?
Yeah, I mean I think my music is for the most part, basically everything is about love. But it’s not about, “Oh, I’m so heartbroken” or feeling sorry for myself. I think a lot of the message that comes across in my music is that regardless of the situation, it all starts with you and just kind of being able to pick yourself up and knowing what you have to offer rather then blaming yourself for things that go wrong. And then also just being able to appreciate what somebody else gives you and maybe that can help you grow. But I think the bigger picture of it—not something that I command but something that just happens in music—it’s I think what all girls, all young girls especially and a lot of artists are doing nowadays: it’s learning self love and learning what you’re worth and learning how to say “no” to situations and also how to accept situations.
What is it like being not from the US and living in LA in our current political climate? Do you feel connected to the politics or disconnected?
Funny enough, everybody I meet asks me this question. They’re like, “Oh, how do you feel living here now that Donald Trump is the president?” And to be honest it’s ridiculous I think—it’s just crazy, it’s quite crazy especially to live here in this time and see how the atmosphere changed, especially on Inauguration Day. I remember before the presidential election everyone was kind of like, “Oh, that’s never going to happen,” and everyone still had that hope, but I just remember on that day, I was in the studio and I couldn’t even work because I was just so captured by what happened—it just felt gloomy and I’m not even from here but I just felt it. At home we are going through something quite similar—it’s not exactly the same but the whole Brexit thing—and they were saying the same things of, “Oh, it’s never going to happen,” and then on the day it was just gloomy as well. It’s something that, you know, you can’t really ignore.
Do you think that artists like yourself play a role in the national political conversation?
One hundred percent. But anybody that has a platform and can use it to their advantage—not just artists—should. I feel like any type of celebrity or whoever you are—if you have a platform, and you’re using it, you’re doing something right I think.
Absolutely. I would also love to hear about your upcoming tour.
Yeah, I’m super excited—I’m going on tour with Kehlani, and I’m a super fan girl of Kehlani—I remember when I used to listen to her music only, probably like two years ago now, and that’s all I would listen to. So when she asked me—she actually asked me personally to come on tour with her—I had to play it cool obviously but in my head I was like, “Wow, this is amazing.” It’s my first tour and she is going to so many different places so being able to just do what you love and be around good people and get to explore around—I’m super excited to see all the different bands and the different places and you know eat different foods and just experience different energies.
Yeah, I feel like the connections you make with people when you’re preforming live is just a totally different experience from the studio.
Yeah, it’s kind of hard to explain in words—you just know it when it happens and you just have to take it in that moment. Especially in different places because the energy is different everywhere. It just makes you feel like all the work that you’re doing in the studio is paying off when you see people singing your lyrics and stuff like that. I had a show at home in December, my first show ever and—especially just being at home, it was a bit more special—to have everyone singing the words, and it sold out in like three days, it was an amazing feeling and definitely something I won’t forget, ever.
Dope. So besides the tour, what else do you have planned for 2017? Anything in the pipeline you can share?
Well the tour is until June so that is taking over the first half of my year, but I know when I come back there is definitely going be album, so I’ll have to start working on that. But that’s not something I want to rush, so I’m kind of just seeing where the wind takes it.
Featured image courtesy of Ella Mai
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