The first UK artist to reach the top of the US R&B chart in 26 years.
This is the accolade that dominated the UK coverage of 23-year-old Ella Mai’s breakout single ‘Boo’d Up’, the sultry jam that conquered US radio stations this summer.
“I re-read that headline so many times,” the British artist tells NME a few weeks later at her label offices in central London. “I remember reading it and I didn’t take it in properly, then my manager said to me, ‘You were born in 1994, so that’s the first person ever in your lifetime!'”
While her music dominates in the US, it’s not had the same commercial reception in the UK. Why does Mai think her music particularly resonates with the US audience?
“I think R&B is just different in the states,” she says. “In the UK it’s a hard genre to break because a lot of our mainstream stuff is poppy and dance-y.” In the future, she hopes this translates into the UK scene. “I know there’s a lot of people in the UK doing it just not on a mainstream level. Hopefully ‘Boo’d Up’ can be the turning point for the industry to realise we have something here and there’s loads of room for it.”
On the surface it could look like Mai has become the latest young popstar to accrue overnight success; in reality it’s been the product of years of hard work.
“I’d perform in all my school plays and always had to be the centre of attention” she says, of a youth spent in South London. She grew up surrounded by music: her grandma is a minister, so some of her earliest memories are of gospel music. Her mum is such a huge jazz fan that Mai is named after Ella Fitzgerald. “We had jazz on in the house or she [Mai’s mother] used to always play Lauryn Hill, so there was a lot of R&B and hip-hop influencing me,” Mai explains. “But there was also the jazz and my grandparents are Jamaican so there was a lot of Reggae and Gospel so it was a bit of everything fused into one.”
“You dream about this stuff since you’re little so to have it come true it sometimes doesn’t feel like reality'”
It was Lauryn Hill’s music that led Mai to realise the power that R&B held over her. “My mum used to play ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’ religiously. Although I loved it, I couldn’t understand what she was talking about because I was so young and the content is so mature and aware.” As Mai grew older, she discovered a whole new appreciation for the music, “I started to really understand what she [Lauryn Hill] was talking about and loved it even more, but it still gave me that same feeling of when I was younger even though I didn’t know what she was talking about which made me realise what R&B is.”
Music took a bit of a backseat when Mai moved to New York aged 12, once her mum got a teaching job out there. “When I lived in America during my high school years, I didn’t really do music. I played football and was super concentrated on that.”
Mai graduated from school and moved back to the UK at 17 and started to consider what she wanted to do next. Sitting down with her mum, she realised there was nothing else she really wanted to pursue other than music, so she went for it. “I went to university for music and I worked in retail and that was it. I didn’t have any management or anything and I was just trying to figure it out myself.”
Whilst studying at London’s BIMM music college there was a stint on The X Factor in a girl group. “We did the live TV audition and got four yes-es and we were really excited. Then we got to Wembley and got four no-s, the tables completely turned”. But it was producer DJ Mustard [who’s worked with Rihanna, Travis Scott, Post Malone and more] sliding into Mai’s Instagram DMs that ended up being her golden ticket.
“I was putting 15 second covers on Instagram about three years ago now and he [Mustard] stumbled across one of my covers and DM’d me saying ‘what’s your situation?’” Mai says. “In that conversation he said he wanted to work with me, but I didn’t know it would be that he wanted to sign me or anything I thought he just liked my sound and wants to explore working on music.”
When Mai was in New York a few months later, Mustard was a few hours away in Philadelphia for Made in America Festival, and suggested a studio session, “I showed up and took my friends with me because I didn’t have management and I didn’t want to go by myself.”
Despite the nerves, the session went swimmingly. “I was apprehensive and didn’t know what to expect but he was super chilled and didn’t make me feel pressured. He just gave me a folder of beats and told me to pick what I wanted and do what I wanted with them. I think he just wanted to watch my process.” In fact, the session went so well that there were follow up meetings in Los Angeles, and then six months later Mai signed to his label, 10 Summers Records. It was a fruitful pairing, with the duo releasing three acclaimed EPs filled with slinky R&B jams (the latest, ‘Ready’, contained the chart dominating ‘Boo’d Up’).
After almost two years of working together, it was in May this year that ‘Boo’d Up’ absolute took off. “That song came out a year and a half ago and then this year it took on this life of its own,” says Mai. “It’s so old to us but I’m glad it got that rebirth and that it’s able to get to it’s full potential.” The track then received constant radio rotation, “We’ll be going somewhere in the car and it will just come on, at this point it’s just a bit like ‘OK it’s on again’ but at first it was so weird.”
But despite getting used to hearing herself on the radio, the feeling never gets old, and she’s not taking it for granted. “You dream about this stuff since you’re little so to have it come true it sometimes doesn’t feel like reality.”
After ‘Boo’d Up’ blew up, it added pressure to further releases; the sort of pressure that could have seen other young stars crumble. Obviously, Mai wasn’t phased one bit. “I think I was more excited than nervous,” she says. “I’d been working really hard on music for three years that I already had a fan base. But to be reaching the masses and getting my voice out there to more people than I had before I knew I had to kill this.”
Her next single, ‘Trip’, followed in the footsteps of ‘Boo’d Up’, another slick slice of dreamy R&B, that soared to the top of the Billboard US R&B chart. Last week, Mai released her debut album, one that showcased a noticeable maturation in her sound. Whilst boasting some stellar, future radio hits; the album also included a handful of A list collaborations with John Legend, H.E.R., and one of Mai’s musical heroes, Chris Brown.
“If you had told me at, like, 15 that I’d be working with him, I probably would have cried. He was amazing to work with he was telling me how much of a fan he is of me when it didn’t make sense. I was like “I’m supposed to be telling you how much of a fan I am of you.”
With these high profile team-ups already under her belt, who in the future would Mai like to work with? “J Cole, he’s my favourite rapper. I actually met him this summer and he said I was dope and I was like ‘how is this happening?!”
Yet with all these team-ups with US artists, and her tunes dominating the American airwaves, Mai is still proud to be British. “I think when I sing you can’t hear that I’m British so people didn’t put two and two together, but I’m so happy the UK is so proud of me for flying the flag.”
If you needed proof of how proud the British fans are become, look no further than her performance at the O2 Arena as part of the BBC’s 1Xtra live show just days after we chat. Playing on a bill that also included US rap royalty Pusha T and Chance the Rapper, as well as rising British artists like Jorja Smith and Stefflon Don, Mai looked completely at home playing to tens of thousands of screaming fans, who sang the lyrics of ‘Boo’d Up’ back to her. It’s a long way from the Hoxton Square Bar and Kitchen where Mai did her first show as a soloist in 2016. Now, she’s currently supporting Bruno Mars on his US tour (“He’s a genius, to be able to share the stage with him so early in my career I feel like is a huge opportunity.“)
So now she’s topped the charts and worked with her heroes, what’s the ultimate career milestone for Mai now? “A Grammy of course, for most of us artists it’s that. As much as it isn’t about those awards, the recognition is good.”
A trophy for the mantelpiece is nice, but really, Mai just wants to keep bettering herself: “In general [I want to become] the best artist and person I can be and being able to reach people and change lives.” A noble cause, but looking at what the singer’s already achieved before the age of 24, she ought to start clearing some space.