Pulling back the curtain and giving listeners a peek into the depths of her soul, on her second album Ella Mai is turning inward. The appropriately named ‘Heart On My Sleeve’ (out May 6) sees the London-born R&B artist embark on a personal journey, granting us more unfiltered access to her inner musings than on previous releases.
It’s the follow-up to Mai’s stellar, self-titled debut, released in 2018. Going double platinum in the US, the record was a smash – it’s success spearheaded by the chart-dominating, Grammy-award winning lead-single ‘Boo’d Up’.
Now, though, Mai is embarking on her next musical chapter. This new era carries with it a new sense of wisdom and transparency; a viewpoint only reached by coming into her womanhood and embracing all of loves challenges with open arms.
Ahead of the release of ‘Heart On My Sleeve’, Ella Mai joined us for the latest edition of NME’s In Conversation series, discussing the creation process for her new record, collaborating with J. Cole, the UK R&B scene, and her excitement to return to the stage. Here’s what we learned.
New album ‘Heart On My Sleeve’ took two years to create
Having accumulated almost six billion streams on her debut album, the singer entered into the next phase of her career aware that the world sat in joyous anticipation of her next release. Fortunate enough to be granted the time and space to work at her own pace by her label, and wielding a considerable amount of creative control, Ella Mai took the time to pause and figure out exactly what it was she wanted to say.
“Everything you could think of was going through my mind,” she says of the process. “I hadn’t been in the studio for a while because I had toured all of 2019. So, in 2020 when I first started the album I had to connect again to the studio.”
Admitting that finding her rhythm was a lot harder the second time around, the Mai’s feelings oscillated between excitement and confusion throughout the creation process.
“There were days when it just wasn’t working. With art when you get too in your head…and start overthinking anything you can’t actually create to your full potential. So, I really had to hone it in really be like: ‘calm down, relax and stop putting pressure on yourself’.”
Nothing beats performing live
Later this month Mai will perform live for the first time in three years, at Mary J. Blige’s inaugural Strength of a Woman Festival – an event curated for women, by women. “It’s perfect timing and I was honoured that Mary wanted me to be a part of it,” says Mai.
“With the pandemic and not being able to [perform]…it’s not until something gets taken away from you that realise the value. I’ve always loved performing but it actually not even being an option really showed me how much I love it.”
She’s excited for the direction UK R&B is heading in
Last year the BRIT awards were criticised for not including any R&B artists in their new Best Pop/R&B Act category, with artists like Mahalia and Sinéad Harnett speaking out. When asked about the situation today, Mai says: “I was really confused at first, I was like: ‘how does this make any sense’?”
Considered fondly by many as one of the Brits at the epicentre of a tidal shift within R&B music, Ella Mai has undoubtedly left her imprint on the genre – racking up billions of streams and winning a mantelpiece full of awards along the way. Keen to share her love for fellow UK R&B artists, Mai enthuses about working with JVCK James on tour, also citing the likes of Bellah, Sinéad Harnett and Tiana Major9 as some of the exciting talents on her radar. While acknowledging that there’s still work to be done when it comes to the genre permeating the mainstream, the Mai remains positive about its continued growth and development.
“In England we’re definitely behind, but I do think we’re making progress. I think there are enough amazing artists [in the R&B genre] and everyone is starting to realise that. That makes me excited because I think that’s what everyone’s wanted for a long time, but I don’t think anyone knew how to navigate that situation.”
She sees a collaboration with J. Cole in her future
It’s no secret that Ella Mai considers J. Cole to be one of the elites when it comes to rap, previously being very vocal about the connection she had to his music growing up. So it came as no surprise when Mai shared a picture of the duo in the studio together it sent her fans into a frenzy.
While the music they worked on won’t feature on the artist’s upcoming album, she does see a collaboration happening between them in the near future.
“I’ve manifested this since I was about 15,” Mai reveals. “Cole’s been my favourite rapper for a long time. I’d met him before and spoken to him a couple of times on social media but had never been able to get in the studio and sit down with him.
“It was super cool,” she says of the experience, but adds: “We did make music and I love it [but] it’s not on my album.” That’s not to say we won’t hear a collaboration from the two artists though, with Mai saying: “I am pretty sure Cole and I will get back in the studio one day”
Her mission now is to inspire others the way she’s been inspired
When NME last spoke to Ella Mai in 2018, when asked what her ultimate career milestone was she told us: “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.”
This accolade was ticked off her bucket list in 2019, when she picked up the trophy for Best R&B Song for her smash hit ‘Boo’d Up’. Several years on, Mai’s views of what success looks like have evolved.
“Don’t get me wrong, my Grammy is still one of the things I am most proud of,” she explains, but adds: “But I don’t think there’s anything [better] than being able to go have conversations with people where they’ll tell me I’ve changed their life or that a song has really helped them through something. I really just want to inspire people the way that I have been inspired. That’s what success means to me.”
‘Heart On My Sleeve’ is out May 6 via Interscope/10 Summers