Photo credit: Adrienne Raquel
Ella Mai, the self-proclaimed “girl in love” creates R&B that mirrors her headspace as she falls in love and falls in love. She takes us behind the scenes of her new album Have the heart on the hand.
Ella May arrives at her album listening party at Sei Less (a new Asian fusion restaurant in Manhattan) cheerful and in good spirits. As she enters the private room filled with about 15 people – including writers, music editors and her entourage – she warmly welcomes the guests.
Arriving in a tangerine two-piece suit and her signature blowout, Ella takes her seat at the head of a table reserved for her and her close friends. The invitation-only release event is something of a finish line for the Jamaican-Irish-born singer. Before Erin Patterson – Ella’s publicist – started performing Have the heart on the hand (out today) in its entirety, the artist recounts how it’s been a while since she’s released an album. She also says she was hesitant to share a feature film as some artists feared a “cursed” second release after the success of their debut album. Ella’s self-titled debut catapulted her into the mainstream R&B market in 2018. Seemingly, overnight, her fanbase exploded; “Boo’d Up”, produced by Mustard, became one of his most recognizable singles, reaching No. 1 on the Billboard Hot R&B charts after its release. The collaborations of John Legend, Chris Brown and HER were also important parts of its well-received debut.
The proof is always in the music, and once her publicity hits play on the first track, it becomes immediately clear that Ella Mai has evolved as a singer and songwriter. Each track blends seamlessly with the next, with the entire album (executive produced by Mustard) featuring a reset for the singer. “I think, vocally for me, my first album — if we’re comparing — was pretty safe,” she said on a call the morning after her listening event. “I wasn’t as confident as I am now. I think for the last four years I’ve worked very, very hard to try to be a better singer and artist.
Artist and songwriter Varren Wade played a vital role in helping him with the debut for the album. Working together on vocal production, Ella and Wade’s sessions allowed the artist to creatively express themselves through melodic harmonies and honest songwriting that disclosed his thoughts on heartbreak, love and partnerships. fleeting. The culmination of their partnership led to six tracks that ended up on the final album.
She started recording Have the heart on the hand in Los Angeles in February 2020. Along with Wade, Ella has also worked with a host of collaborators, including producer D’Mile, gospel legend Kirk Franklin, singer Lucky Daye, and rappers Latto and Roddy Ricch. The album was completed last October.
On Have the heart on the hand, love songs make up a large part of the album. “I’m a lover,” Ella said, before sharing how she thinks the current generation is obsessed with toxicity. But even as that mindset grows in the R&B market, she hopes to continue creating music that speaks to those who love being in love. “I feel like people think it’s cool to be toxic and hurt people – I’m the complete opposite of that. I like, I like,” she said. “I think that’s what I really tried to do on this album too. My favorite thing is to make a song of love.
“Break My Heart” is proof of that. During her listening party, Ella shared that the D’Mile-produced song was one of her favorites. Reunited in Los Angeles with Prince Charles — a singer-songwriter who has worked with Beyonce and Rihanna – she remembered D’Mile playing upbeat loops. Rather than dwelling on happiness, she decided to turn the emotion expressed in the track into melancholy.
“I remember having a conversation, I was like, ‘Is it crazy to be so in love with someone and to trust someone so much that if you had to choose someone? one in the world to break your heart, would you choose that person?’ ” she says. Ella clarified that although the track sounds pained, she thinks it expresses how invested and in love with someone she is. “I think it’s very direct,” she said. “I felt really, really good after doing that song.”
Another standout is “Fallen Angel”, one of the final tracks recorded for the album. Produced by P2J — who created hits like Wizkid and by Beyoncé ‘Brown Skin Girl’ – ‘Fallen Angel’ was one of the last tracks recorded for the album. The song originated from Ella and collaborators jvck james and Ari PenSmith talk about a situation that is too good to be true. She also felt a gospel influence in the chords that P2J had created, which led her to talk to Mustard about getting a choir and Kirk Franklin. Fortunately, Mustard agreed, and once the song was finished, Ella flew to Dallas for less than a day to finish “Fallen Angel” with Franklin and his choir. For Ella, the core of this track explores the feeling that you have limited time with a significant other that you have a strong connection to, so you have to do whatever it takes to make things work.
Before our conversation ends, I ask Ella Mai what it’s like to wear your heart on your sleeve.
“I have a tough exterior but I’m definitely very sensitive and really passionate on the inside,” she replied. “People crave to be a strong woman, so you can’t be an emotional woman or you can’t have weak moments.”
Wanting to dig a little deeper, I then ask her to live with a tough exterior as a woman of color in a world that is already tough for us.
“You’re supposed to be this strong woman all the time. I think that’s unfair – therein lies the misconception,” she replied. “If you’re strong, you just can’t have cracks. I think throughout this album process and just being on a little emotional roller coaster, I was able to appreciate the times when I wasn’t strong.