R&B not dead

Ella Mai de­fends the genre that made her fa­mous and fu­els her soul

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - BOOKS -

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 Sun­day, Mai spoke about ris­ing star­dom.

Q: Your al­bum is the most suc­cess­ful of the Grammy nom­i­nees for best R&B al­bum. Do you think you’ll win?

A: To have a Gram­mynom­i­nated 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.

Q: 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?

A: 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.

Q: What do you think about R&B of­ten be­ing treated as sec­ond-class mu­sic?

A: 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.

Q: What is the big­gest change that suc­cess has brought to your ev­ery­day life?

A: Be­fore I started mu­sic, I was in school and still lived with my mom. I live in LA 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.

Q: You were named after Ella Fitzger­ald. Are you a fan?

A: 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.

Q: Did be­ing the name­sake of a jazz icon give you a lot to live up to?

A: 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.

Q: Why do you think “Boo’d Up” caught on the way it did?

A: 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 feel-good 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.

Q: What was it like play­ing “Satur­day Night Live” in 2018?

A: “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.

Q: You have such an Amer­i­can sound. Were

you also in­flu­enced by Bri­tish R&B?

A: 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 U.S. and the U.K., and the not just R&B. I lis­ten to all types of mu­sic gen­res.

Q: Who is your fa­vorite Bri­tish per­former?

A: Sade. I know she’s Nige­rian, tech­ni­cally, but you can call her Bri­tish too.

EMMA MCIN­TYRE/GETTY

Ella Mai at­tended the Amer­i­can Mu­sic Awards in Novem­ber and is now up for best R&B al­bum for her self-ti­tled de­but.

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