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Ella Mai Wears Her Heart On Her Sleeve: Every Song Felt "Like A Therapy Session"
Ella Mai

Photo: Adrienne Raquel

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Ella Mai Wears Her Heart On Her Sleeve: Every Song Felt "Like A Therapy Session"

On her sophomore release, 'Heart On My Sleeve,' R&B singer Ella Mai is truly stepping into her own. Four years after winning a GRAMMY, Mai is wearing confidence well.

GRAMMYs/Jun 3, 2022 - 06:08 pm

"Being in the studio…[feels] like my second home," R&B artist Ella Mai says over Zoom from her sun-drenched Los Angeles abode. The singer's eyes brighten as she recounts her stream of consciousness creative process, where she transforms the disorienting unfamiliar into art. "I made almost 80 songs during this process," she confesses, chuckling. "Narrowing them down to 15 was very hard."

Those tracks now comprise Ella Mai's long-awaited sophomore album, Heart On My Sleeve. Out in May through Interscope Records, the album is an introspective compilation of poetry outlining the healing that produces emotional growth. At the soul of Mai's sophomore record are lyrics orienting honesty, womanhood and emotional prowess gained from years of turbulence; her heartstrings are utterly exposed from the album's opening track.

Yet that growth, and commitment to self-work, has long been present in Mai, a UK-born singer who moved to New York at age 12. The past four years have been big for Mai, whose debut single, "Boo’d Up," won the GRAMMY Award for Best R&B Song in 2019. At the 62nd GRAMMY Awards, her eponymous debut album was nominated for Best R&B Album. Now 27, Mai is more surefooted about herself and what her music stands for. 

But her ascent hasn't been without tribulation. "I have always thought I had it together but sometimes, you will make the wrong decision," Mai says, reflecting on the emotional hurdles she faced in 2020, as well as mistakes made throughout her early career. "The important part really is how you pick yourself up, and that is [what] I learned making this album that made me think: I am really proud of myself.

"Heart On My Sleeve is about the chaos and the peace put together," Mai continues, adding that "it was difficult at times to find that balance."

The album's varied styles and sonics reflect that balance. The first single closes with a trailing violin, leading into the lustful composition of "Not Another Love Song." The turbulent song features a recorded memo from Mary J. Blige, who  praises Mai for being open and advises her to love with faith despite the existence of pain. On "Fallen Angel," Mai testifies to a potentially deceitful lover buoyed by a suspenseful chorus that ushers into a gospel sermon featuring choirmaster Kirk Franklin. Other collaborators include L.A. rapper, Roddy Ricch, as well as Latto and Lucky Daye.

Heart On My Sleeve is an R&B symphony of sentiments that shows the capriciousness of human nature. Prevailing through the protection of her own heart and learning from emotional turbulence, Ella Mai is emphatically going to do as her album suggests and wear her heart out in the open. Ella Mai spoke with GRAMMY.com about the multi-year journey that it took to be here. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What have you learned about yourself in the past four years since you exploded in the R&B scene?

When I was recording my debut album, I was 21, 22 and thought I knew everything. The last four years I realized I know absolutely nothing. It's funny because albums are great ways to look back on areas of your life because they are eras. 

In terms of being an artist, in 2018 when everything blew up for me and "Boo’d Up" went crazy and then "Trip." I didn't really have time to even realize what was going on. I was checking off so many things on my bucket list…but the world was moving so quickly that I didn't even realize the impact of it all. When I went on tour, I was able to tour the whole world and really experience that with my fans.

Where do you see Heart On My Sleeve landing in terms of your development as an artist?

There was a lot of pressure coming off of my debut album and I tried my best to not get caught up in that cycle. With "Boo’d Up" and "Trip" being so big, that was what a lot of people knew me for and still know me for. 

With this album, specifically, I was so heavily invested and involved with the entire process. I knew what I wanted to say and what I wanted to sound like. I've always been a confident person, I think that helped me out a lot. Touring was a big part of my confidence, it helped me believe in myself even more as an artist. Especially, for somebody who really loves R&B music and really loves to make music.

Why were some of the songs healing for you to create in the studio? 

I was so inspired and so excited to be back in the studio in 2020 because it had been a while and I took some time off for a whole year. Every song, every session, it did kind of feel like a therapy session for me. 

I was wearing my heart on my sleeve in the studio, and just really explaining how I was feeling at the time. One thing I didn't even realize is that with the album out, it's almost like reliving those moments. I'm so excited to tour it because I feel like it would just mean that much more when you're super, super connected to the music.

Were there any songs that were extremely hard for you to apply your pen to? If so, why?

"Fallen Angel" was actually one of my most favorite sessions. It definitely has a gospel feel, which is why I wanted to put Kirk Franklin at the end of it. I grew up in church, my grandma was a minister, and everyone in the session comes from that type of background. 

"Pieces" was a difficult song to write. I think the production moves more, the second verse changes from the first verse sonically, which I've never done before. At the same time, it was exactly what I was feeling. So I think the difficulty comes from wondering, is this too vulnerable? But actually, it was everything that was on my heart. 

Did you receive any revelatory musical guidance that pushed you closer to completing this record?

I've always been confident and I've always known how strong I am as a person. But I think through creating this album, I realized how resilient I am, even if I'm in a situation that I haven't really experienced before. 

Even though I'm vulnerable, I'm not ever a doormat. I am always conscious of who I am in my own life. I know a lot of my fans are my age, and they're probably going through similar things with me because we kind of have grown up together. So I always want to make sure I'm a role model, I guess.

Why do sports have deep symbolism in your songs?

I played football for nine years and I've always been an athlete and it's really the influence I received from my brother. I have an older brother…that's my only sibling. When I was younger, I just wanted to do everything that he did. So I started playing soccer because he played soccer.

When we moved to New York, he got into basketball. So I got into basketball. I play tennis now and I think being active is always something that I've always found really fun. When I got to a stage in my life where I wanted to decide what I wanted to do, in my head it was music or soccer. So [sports have] always been a very, very prominent part of my life. 

Most of the songs on your past album had spoken poetry at the end. Was that an artistic element you wanted to option out on Heart On My Sleeve?

I love to storytell, but I do understand sometimes that it doesn't always need to be there. I was aware of that and I love it, which is why I had Mary J. Blige and Kirk Franklin on this album. I still didn't want to take that element out of it completely. Even the start of my song with Lucky Daye, that audio [was] obviously from our session. 

Are there any female R&B artists you really would love to collaborate with in the future?

There's a lot of different types of R&B artists, especially women. I personally would love to collaborate with them all, but who comes to mind right now is Snoh Aalegra.

What is the key message you want your fans to resonate with when listening to Heart On My Sleeve?

Honesty. That's what I've been saying really throughout Heart On My Sleeve. I'm…definitely an honest person. I will say that I also am aware of how scary that feeling is, but I've been trying to embrace it. 

And… Wear your heart on your sleeve. There is a certain…feeling of freedom if you're honest with yourself and, not even just to everyone else, but being honest with yourself. An honest way of living is as cliche as it sounds, but I think it's incredibly freeing.

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Behind The Scenes: On Set With Rising R&B Star Ella Mai

Ella Mai

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Behind The Scenes: On Set With Rising R&B Star Ella Mai

Mai's hit single "Boo'd Up" is getting a GRAMMY music video makeover just in time for the 61st GRAMMY Awards on Feb. 10

GRAMMYs/Feb 8, 2019 - 02:01 am

The 61st GRAMMY Awards on Feb. 10 is just days away, and to get fans even more excited, the Recording Academy is taking them behind the scenes with first-time GRAMMY nominee Ella Mai for a music video collaboration featuring her hit single "Boo'd Up."

The song is getting a music video makeover, but it won't be your typical set of visuals. This will be an experience you'll have to engage with to see more of. Consisting of four parts, the video will ask viewers to interact with it by in order to unlock the next segment. As it goes on, each video segment progresses into a more elaborate scene filled with guests and surprises.

"Ultimately, what you see when we launch will be completely different from the video that you see when we conclude," Recording Academy Chief Marketing Officer Evan Greene said in the Behind The Scenes video. 

Video director James Frost said the idea is to take you on a visual journey:

"One [video setup] we start at the beginning, which is a really stripped-down version of the video. Gradually, in each additional setup we build the video up even more, so the idea of being when people click at certain points the video will evolve and become bigger."

"Each year on the GRAMMYs, we try to do something with an artist that's very relevant to that year and so we're always looking for someone that's topical to kind of star in our promotions for that year's theme," Creative Director Jason Karley said on why they worked with Mai. 

Greene adds: "Ella Mai's 'Boo'd Up' is a song that's permeated culture and so everybody knows this song, but now we want to give people a little bit of a different way to experience it, unlike anything they've ever seen before."

Watch how the Recording Academy and Ella Mai put together this elaborate project in the above video, and tune into the 61st GRAMMY Awards to see Ella Mai and more of your favorite artists. 

To watch Mai's video, go to grammysevolving.com.

BET Experience 2018 Lineup: LL Cool J, Ne-Yo, Rae Sremmurd, SZA, More

SZA

Photo: Dan MacMedan/WireImage

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BET Experience 2018 Lineup: LL Cool J, Ne-Yo, Rae Sremmurd, SZA, More

The BETX roster for June 21–23 also includes Chris Brown, DJ Z-Trip, Ferg, Nipsey Hussle, Kamaiyah, Ludacris, Ella Mai, Playboi Carti, and Wondagurl

GRAMMYs/Apr 12, 2018 - 01:09 am

The lineup announced so far for the three days of BET Experience 2018, leading up to the 2018 BET Awards on June 24, really does speak for itself. The first day, June 21, headlines LL Cool J featuring DJ Z-Trip, Ludacris and Ne-Yo. June 22 has SZA as well as Chris Brown and Ella Mai. Then a burst of emerging talent on June 23 lines up Ferg, Nipsey Hussle, Kamaiyah, Playboi Carti, Rae Sremmurd, and Wondagurl, some of today's most promising hitmakers.

SZA earned her first nominations as an artist at the 60th GRAMMY Awards earlier this year, going in with five including Best New Artist and Best R&B Song. A few days later on Feb. 6, Kendrick Lamar and SZA released "All The Stars" to YouTube, with now more than 97 million views. It peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart dated March 3, her highest charting hit so far.

This musically captivating list already raises a thirst to be there, and more details on BETX are yet to be released, including additional performers. The four days also include BET Fan Fest at L.A. Convention Center on June 22–23. BET Networks and AEG are the hosts and BET Experience is presented by Coca-Cola.

Tickets go on sale on April 18 and there are VIP packages available.

Catching Up On Music News Powered By The Recording Academy Just Got Easier. Have A Google Home Device? "Talk To GRAMMYs"

Essence Fest: 7 Female R&B Acts You Need To Know

Ella Mai

Photo: Peter Forest/Getty Images

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Essence Fest: 7 Female R&B Acts You Need To Know

The annual music event introduces a slew of rising R&B stars

GRAMMYs/Jul 8, 2018 - 10:27 pm

Essence Fest is the ultimate celebration of Black women and music. And while it manifests that mission through dynamic headline shows featuring some of music’s biggest acts (Janet Jackson, Mary J. Blige, Jill Scott and Erykah Badu), it also serves as a major introduction for a slew of up and coming artists. And this year was certainly nothing different. Over the course of the three day event, we have spotted seven rising female acts whose music you need to explore right now.

Ella Mai
The summer (and in part Essence Fest) belongs to Ella Mai. Her chart-topping breakout single “Boo’d Up” has induced instant sing-a-longs all week, and the recent release of a remix featuring Nicki Minaj and Quavo of The Migos, shows that the British R&B singer is not slowing down. 

Denisia
If you’re a New Orleans native, Denisia is certainly not a new artist. She first garnered mainstream attention back in 2015 when she was featured on YaBoyBigChoo’s cover of Adele’s hit “Hello”, remixed in the locally popular bounce music style.

H.E.R.
The mysterious R&B singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist whose identity at one point didn’t go beyond a shadow and silhouette, is fully stepping into the spotlight---albeit with her face still slightly concealed by oversized sunglasses. After her soul-stirring performance at the 2018 BET Awards went viral, H.E.R. (an acronym for "Having Everything Revealed") hit the Essence Fest Superlounge to a massive crowd.



Yanina
A student at the esteemed Berklee College of Music in Boston, rising songstress Yanina made her Essence Fest debut this year. Currently working on a yet-to-be-titled EP, she is making her mark thanks to her powerhouse voice, dancing ability and a striking stage presence.

June’s Diary
Groups formed via reality shows typically have a shelf-life that expires at the end of a TV season. But every so often there are exceptions. Enter June’s Diary. Formed on the Kelly Rowland-executive produced BET show Chasing Destiny, this talented line-up of singers have the harmonies, moves, and style that puts them on par with the great girl groups of the past.

Mykia Jovan
Mykia Jovan is proving to be a name bubbling in the progressive soul music scene. The New Orleans native’s unique vocal quality has been compared to the likes of Erykah Badu and the late great Billie Holiday. Her debut album Elliyahu is currently available at mykiajovan.com.

Victory Boyd
After one hears Victory Boyd’s voice, it becomes clear why Jay-Z signed the New Jersey-native to his Roc Nation music label after hearing her perform just two songs. Many have placed her vocally in the lane of Tracy Chapman, Roberta Flack, and Nina Simone. However, her approach to soul and folk music is so fresh and youthful, that she is in a lane of her own.

Catching Up On Music News Powered By The Recording Academy Just Got Easier. Have A Google Home Device? "Talk To GRAMMYs"
 

Camila Cabello, Ariana Grande Top Song Of The Summer Predictions

Camila Cabello

Photo: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images

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Camila Cabello, Ariana Grande Top Song Of The Summer Predictions

Apple Music has weighed in on their predictions for the 2018 song of the summer

GRAMMYs/Jun 13, 2018 - 02:33 am

As we quickly close in on the official start of summer, major streaming services are starting to weigh in on which songs might earn the coveted song of the summer title.

From Apple Music's perspective, Pharrell Williams and Camila Cabello are the top pick with "Sangria Wine." The saucy, bilingual title certainly evokes a chill summer backyard barbeque, complete with cooling drink in hand.

Number two on the list is Ariana Grande's lead single from her upcoming album Sweetener, "No Tears Left To Cry." The ethereal vocals take this song to the next level, and lifted it up to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. This is followed by Clean Bandit's "Solo" featuring Demi Lovato in the third position. A clean EDM track that centers around Lovato's vocals, it sets the perfect backdrop for a summer fling gone wrong.

Apple Music's fourth prediction belongs to Calvin Harris' "One Kiss" with Dua Lipa, another EDM entry that, according to Forbes, "plays like an homage to '90s house music." Rounding out the Top 5 is Post Malone's latest single, "Better Now."

Other artists Apple Music has their sights on this summer include Jennifer Lopez with Cardi B and DJ Khaled ("Dinero"), J. Cole ("KOD"), Childish Gambino ("This Is America"), BTS ("Fake Love"), Cardi B, Bad Bunny and J Balvin ("I Like It"), and Ella Mai ("Boo'd Up"), among others.

So what do you think? Are any of these tracks already bumping on your summer road trip playlist?

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