This summer, Ella Mai answered the phone and heard one of her heroes: Stevie Wonder was calling to tell her how much he loves “Boo’d Up,” the R&B sleeper hit that has made her a star this year. He even sang a bit of its suave, catchy hook back to her. “It was insane,” says Mai.
It wasn’t the first surreal twist in her career. Mai, who grew up in London, was raised on Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliott, two artists her mom played “religiously” around the house. As a teen, she went to performing arts school in New York where she focused on musical theater. Having sung since she was a kid — mostly in church with her grandma — she soon realized that she was most passionate about her voice.
Ella Mai came back to London in her late teens to study music, which is how she began writing songs for the first time. It was there that she formed Arize, a girl group with some of her peers. Arize made a brief appearance in 2014 on the British edition of The X-Factor, the same reality show that introduced the world to One Direction and Leona Lewis. When that didn’t pan out, she went solo and began posting 15-second covers of pop songs on Instagram. Her version of Fetty Wap’s “679” was good enough to get picked up by the popular gossip account @TheShadeRoom. “When they reposted it, I had people coming to my page saying, ‘Can you sing this, can you sing that?'” she recalls. “I thought, ‘I don’t know how far this will take me, or if it will even take me anywhere, but I should keep doing it.'”
Among her new fans on Instagram was producer DJ Mustard, known for the string of R&B and hip-hop hits he helped make between 2014 and 2016 with YG, 2 Chainz, Big Sean, Rihanna and others. In the fall of 2015, Mustard invited Mai to a studio session to see what she could do. “He messaged me, like, ‘Are you free?’ So I was like, ‘Of course I’m free!'” she says. “I didn’t have any material out — he was going based off my Instagram covers. It’s one thing to sing covers on social media, and a different thing to make your own music.”
The sessions went well enough that Mai moved to L.A. and signed with Mustard’s label for a trio of EPs called Time, Change and Ready. “We wanted to introduce people to the sound that we created first and give them time to take it in,” she says. “[Mustard] gives me a lot of creative freedom to pick the final track list, titles and stuff like that. As much as it’s me and Mustard, he lets it be my EP.”
“Boo’d Up” was featured on the last of those EPs, in February 2017, but it made virtually no noise until it began getting organic spins in Bay Area clubs and radio playlists months later. At the same time, Mai was building her profile by touring, including a slot opening for Kehlani. It’s since skyrocketed up to Number Five on Billboard‘s Hot 100, in part because it fills an underserved need for unabashedly soulful vocals in pop. “I think sometimes that happens with R&B music,” Mai says. “It has to get digested properly. Even now, it’s surprising for a new artist with a purely R&B song that has no huge feature.”
The slow-burn success of “Boo’d Up” nabbed Mai a prime spot opening for Bruno Mars at stadiums across America this month (filling in for new mom Cardi B), and she’s been hard at work on her full-length debut, due out this fall — and she’s sticking with the same retro-classic Nineties soul influences that made “Boo’d Up” stand out this summer. “R&B is not dead,” she says. “We can make it mainstream again. Clearly, people love it.”