Walking into Ella Mai’s Santa Monica hotel room to interview her, I couldn’t help but mentally note each thing in her temporary abode. I find there is often more truth in what surrounds a person—be it material things, people, or (if you’ll indulge me) an aura—than anything a person could offer as far as self explanation. Also, if her past couple of years are at all indicative of what’s to come, this is the kind of experience I will want to remember for sheer bragging rights. She is the first woman to top three R&B/Hip-Hop radio charts since Beyoncé did in 2012. The significance of this isn’t lost on me whatsoever, and I couldn’t seem to shake the comparison as I stepped into the cramped suite.
Her manager and hair and make-up team sat in the bedroom, preparing for a photo-shoot that same afternoon. Mai, however, sat curled on the sofa beside a blanket and pillows. The coffee table, and most of the other surfaces in the room, was covered in snacks, candy, teas and soft drinks. The vibe was more sleepover than after party, more self-care than show off.
We quickly got to talking about double standards. When I asked her what that meant to her, she responded simply, “the role that men and women play in the industry.” The industry is, of course, music—specifically R&B and hip-hop, where she has quickly skyrocketed to notoriety and is well on the way to global fame. As a woman, she feels that she is judged more harshly and pressured to be a role model, not only as a successful artist, but also as a person. There are things to say, ways to look, and omnipresent but nebulous pressures to be a ”Lady.” In contemporary culture, this feels like an especially off-base and antiquated expectation.
And yet, the general public still expects this from woman musicians, and women in the public eye as a whole. Mai not only rejects this double standard, but shatters it, reconstructing the pieces into her own voice, to the benefit of herself and her fans.
Not too long ago (Mai is only 23), she was determined to be a professional soccer player. The wage gap between male and female soccer players is astounding, and worth a quick Google. She is quick to note this double standard as well. I was surprised at her love for soccer, but the more I talked to her, the more it made sense. She is, in her own words, “not girly, a bit of a tomboy.” She’s a “passionate, competitive person,” and she confesses that she has “always wanted to be on the winning team.” Mai, signed to DJ Mustard’s 10 Summers and Interscope Records, has found herself on such a team.
She is a new kind of role model, fit for an age when feminism and accountability is the standard, in Hollywood and beyond. This is the kind of role model that young people, young women, and all of us need: a person steadfast in their convictions, passionate, and grounded amongst a sea of unsolicited commentary. Mai’s responsibility, as she sees it, is not to be a Lady (whatever that means or has ever meant), but to remain true to herself, despite her place in an industry with numerous channels pushing her in different directions. Her message isn’t one of blind rebellion, but instead an easy comfort in your own skin. She is at ease with herself as she is, which comes across in her effortless stage presence and smooth melodic voice, and is easily noticed simply sitting across from her. It is this confidence she wants to model, and one thing she attributes to her success thus far.
She recalls the starting point of her musical career—recorded videos of her singing covers on Instagram. She wouldn’t get dolled up for the recordings, and this is what allowed the music to truly shine. It’s all about the music for Ella, and has been from the very start.
Her parents, both jazz fans, named her after Ella Fitzgerald. But growing up in London, she listened to her mother’s favorite R&B and Hip-Hop artists, Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliot. The two remain some of Ella’s strongest influences. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is her all-time favorite album. She performed at Essence Festival, along with Missy Elliot, earlier this summer.
Her songs are undoubtedly catchy, and although they don’t feel made for radio, they are quintessential earworms. The songs, however, aren’t about parties, amazing summers, or flaunting the best fashion. They are songs of the heart, about falling in love, staying in love, and losing love. Her songwriting process happens the way matters of the heart do—rather naturally. She doesn’t plan concepts for songs ahead of time, instead preferring to listen to beats, and going not with her favorite, or the best, but whatever makes her feel. The beat alone, she says, brings out a feeling in her, and from there an Ella Mai song is born.
She described to me the process of writing her first EP, Time. The tracks on Time are some of my personal favorites, and are worth revisiting as newer tracks such as “Trip,” “Naked,” and the chart-topping “Boo’d Up” have stepped into the spotlight. The EP was an exercise in empathy. The songs, unlike most of Mai’s music, were not written from her own personal experience, but instead written for a good friend who had gone through her own heartbreak. This project exemplifies Ella’s greatest ambition in making music, and perhaps the reason any of us create anything at all—“I want people to feel the way I feel when I make it.”
I had the pleasure of catching the Los Angeles leg of her sold out “Boo’d Up” tour at LA’s The Roxy. Live, it was easy to see how successful Ella is at emotionally connecting to her audience. More than any show I had been to in recent memory, people were listening. Not just to the music, but listening the way you listen to a good friend when they’re talking about something important to them. Over the course of her trilogy of EPs and two recent singles, Mai has built an unmistakable momentum. Her debut single, “Boo’d Up,” held number one on YouTube’s U.S. Top Song and Music Video charts, with over 200 million views and counting, earning her the title of Artist on the Rise. It claimed the number one spot on three of Billboard’s R&B charts, and reached number five on the Hot 100. It went Double-Platinum. There’s a blockbuster tour on the calendar—Mai will join Bruno Mars for seven October dates of his 24K Magic World Tour, including Los Angeles, October 26, at Staples Center.
It has been a rapid ascent, thrilling of course, though perhaps a bit disorienting for the average person, someone without Mai’s self-possession. But Mai is no average person, and she’s managing these changes with the ease and grace that she exudes in all her doings. She has learned to carve out time for herself. Beyond her generous demeanor is a true introvert, “down-to-earth and chill.” The past few years have been a whirlwind of writing, recording, releasing, promoting, and touring, but at the center of it all Mai knows to make time for herself. “When I’m not doing anything music related, I like to just have me time. Put a facemask on. Put the TV on. Eat some ice cream.” Her debut album is coming later this year. I’m eagerly awaiting it, and will be passing time in much the same way.
Written by Adrienne Sacks