Along with SZA and H.E.R., London-born Ella Mai has brought old-school soul singing back to mainstream R&B after a long hiatus. Her talent already has earned her a best R&B song Grammy for her 2018 hit “Boo’d Up,” and this year, her self-titled debut is in the running for best R&B album. While she’s on the cusp of a possible second Grammy win on Jan. 26, Mai talks rising stardom with Variety.
Your album is the most successful of the Grammy nominees for best R&B album. Do you think you’ll win?
To have a Grammy-nominated debut album is incredible, and I’m excited because I’m the only female in the category. The men are doing incredible things, and I’m actually a fan of all the other albums in the category, so it’s definitely a tough competition. If I was to win, I feel like it would be recognition for all of us as female R&B artists.
You’ve won a Grammy, three Billboard Music Awards and two Soul Train Music Awards, among many other accolades. Which honor has meant the most to you?
All of them. Last year, I got so many nominations that I wasn’t expecting, so to be able to get the nominations and then win so many was incredible. The BET viewer’s choice award that I won in the summer meant a lot to me because it’s fan voted, and I was up against a lot of really big mainstream artists [including Cardi B, Childish Gambino, J. Cole, Drake and Travis Scott]. I was the underdog, so I was really excited to win that. But it’s weird because I’ve only been able to accept two [awards] onstage because the R&B categories are not always the televised awards.
What do you think about R&B often being treated as second-class music?
It’s been like that for a while because everyone had this notion that R&B was dead and R&B wasn’t really mainstream. Hopefully, that’s about to change. That’s something all of us would love to see. In the last two or three years, a lot of us have proven that it can be still mainstream and that there’s a huge market for R&B. We’ll continue to fight and work hard to make sure people see it as just as big as hip-hop.
What is the biggest change that success has brought to your everyday life?
Before I started music, I was in school and still lived with my mom. I live in L.A. now. I can provide for my family. I can wake up and say what I want to do for the day. I still have to work, but it’s a different type of working. It doesn’t feel like work.
You were named after Ella Fitzgerald. Are you a fan?
I love her. My mom used to play her all the time when I was growing up. My mom’s a huge jazz fan. My brother is named after Miles Davis, so you can tell how much of a jazz fan she is.
Did being the namesake of a jazz icon give you a lot to live up to?
Funny story. My mom named me after her because that was her favorite musician, but when I was born, she told my grandma that she hoped I could sing. And that’s why she called me Ella. But she never pressured me — or I never felt pressured to try and live up to the name. It’s great knowing that I was named after a singer, and sometimes I do wonder if that’s really the reason I can sing. My mom did a good job there.
Why do you think “Boo’d Up” caught on the way it did?
It didn’t really sound like anything else that was on the radio at the time. Music is all about how a song or a lyric makes somebody feel, and I think “Boo’d Up” really hit the nail on the head. It really was a feelgood song, and it was what radio was missing. There hasn’t been such an organic, playful love song. There’s no cursing in it. It’s really innocent. It’s something everyone has felt before, no matter what age they are, from old to young, which is why I think people loved it so much. Even when you play it now, it really gives you that same feeling of when you first heard it.
What was it like playing “Saturday Night Live” in 2018?
“SNL” was super-fun. I spent some years in New York, so I knew of it then, but in England, I always heard of it. I never really knew much about it until I moved to New York, so to be able to do SNL … I feel like it was quite early in my career. I was honored. The staff was really nice and friendly, and we were able to go in and really do what we wanted. I had a great time as well because Steve Carell was hosting the week I did it, and I’m a big fan of his.
You have such an American sound. Were you also influenced by British R&B?
I think British R&B, especially when I was growing up, was in a great space as well. As I got older, I’d listen to a bit more American R&B, which shaped my sound – also the fact that I worked with an American producer, DJ Mustard, and kind of found that pocket. But yeah, I grew up listening to R&B from both the US and the UK, and the not just R&B. I listen to all types of music genres.
Who is your favorite British performer?
Sade. I know she’s Nigerian, technically, but you can call her British, too.