Ella Mai’s “Boo’d Up” was the ultimate status update in song form and led the London-born singer-songwriter to her first Grammy, for best R&B song in 2019. The Interscope artist, who was discovered by hit producer Mustard and signed to his 10 Summers Records imprint, toured extensively behind her 2018 self-titled debut album, and two years later, was finally able to take some personal time as COVID-19 hit and all concerts were cancelled. Today, she returns with a new single, “Not Another Love Song.” Variety caught up with Mai, who’s now based in Los Angeles, over the phone.
Mustard has believed in you from the jump; how has your relationship evolved?
Honestly, it’s really incredible. I’m very thankful for him because everybody doesn’t get an opportunity like that with their label. That’s really my big brother. I can go to him for anything even if it isn’t music related. It’s grown, because it wasn’t always like that. I know he’s not going to steer me wrong. I trust him a lot.
What does he bring to a song? What’s his magic sauce?
Well if I told you, it wouldn’t be magic anymore. [Laughs] You’d have to ask him, to be honest. I couldn’t say other than he knows exactly what he’s doing. He has a great ear.
What’s the process with Mustard?
It depends on the day. Sometimes we’ll go in and start something from scratch. Sometimes he’ll have made me a folder. He gives me a lot of creative control, but he’ll also tell me if he had an idea in mind so it’s very much a two-way street.
What can we expect from your new single “Not Another Love Song”?
You can expect Ella Mai. [It’s] definitely not too far off of what you’ve heard from me before, but it’s a more mature version of myself. I’ve gotten a lot stronger in the studio being that I toured for the whole of last year; that automatically makes you a stronger vocalist — just the growth.
The song is about falling in love but not wanting to admit it, so it’s quite vulnerable but still has an edge to it. Who or what inspired the record?
I always say I write from personal experience or stuff my friends experience. Being a young woman, I’m 25 about to be 26, and experiencing different scenarios and being able to articulate them differently. If you reference “Boo’d Up,” it’s quite an innocent love song. “Not Another Love Song” takes a bit more of a mature stance on love. I recorded “Boo’d Up” in 2017, when I was 22. I’ve changed a lot from then.
How have you adapted to life during COVID-19?
The same way as everyone has really, with lockdown being forced to sit down and sit still for a minute. I’m thankful I’ve been able to stay safe, health-wise. My family have, my friends, that’s a plus obviously. I’m a homebody anyway, so it didn’t change much for me other than the fact that I was trying to get back to work and we had to wait that out. When I did get back to work, it had to be as safe as possible.
Do you miss performing?
I definitely miss performing. With the new music I’ve been making, I’m even more excited now that I haven’t performed in a while to get back out and do the new stuff.
Have you been working on your choreography?
[Laughs] I have been working on my choreo. I still wouldn’t call myself a dancer, but I wanted to incorporate some movement and give a different take to me as an artist.
Having won a Grammy fo in 2019, do you have any projections for next year’s nominees?
You know, I haven’t even given that thought. The Grammys are so weird with their timing. I don’t even know what’s eligible. But I will say that R&B is in a good place. Whoever does get nominated this year, there will be some good selections.
How would you like to see the Grammys take place this year?
The MTV Awards did very well with the virtual performances and having people accept their awards with masks on — so people see you have to be safe. Any way that’s safe enough for them to do it, but still showcase this year’s talent, will be a good way.
Who are your favorite artists currently?
Koffee’s one of my favorite artists, I really love her. Like her, I’m Jamaican, so I feel like I have a connection to her automatically. Snoh Aalegra’s one of my favorite artists, she’s extremely fire. And Rosalia.
How are you feeling about this upcoming election?
It was always weird for me because I’m not American. I live here but can’t vote unfortunately. As everyone else feels — or should feel — everybody needs to get out and vote. Do the right thing really because this year has really been a testament to the fact that everybody needs to vote and have their opinions heard.