Ella Mai, the self-professed “lover girl” is creating R&B that is reflective of her headspace when she falls in and out of love. She walks us through the makings of her new album Heart On My Sleeve.
Ella Mai arrives at her album listening party at Sei Less (a new Asian fusion restaurant in Manhattan) joyful and in good spirits. As she enters the private room filled with roughly 15 people — including writers, music editors, and her entourage — she greets the guests warmly.
Arriving in a tangerine two-piece suit and her signature blowout, Ella takes a seat at the head of one table set aside for her and her close friends. The invite-only release event is somewhat of a finish line for the singer who is of Jamaican and Irish descent. Before Erin Patterson — Ella’s publicist — begins playing Heart On My Sleeve (out today) in full, the artist shares how it had been a while since she released an album. She also says that she felt hesitant to share a full-length due to some artists being fearful of a “cursed” sophomore release after the success of their first album. Ella’s self-titled debut catapulted her into the mainstream R&B market in 2018. Seemingly overnight her fanbase exploded; the Mustard-produced “Boo’d Up” became one of her most recognizable singles as it shot up to the top spot of the Billboard Hot R&B chart after its release. Collaborations from John Legend, Chris Brown, and H.E.R. were significant components of her well-received debut, too.
The proof is always in the music, and once her publicist hits play on the first track, it becomes immediately clear Ella Mai has evolved as a singer and songwriter. Each track blends seamlessly with the next, with the entirety of the album (executive produced by Mustard) presenting a reset for the singer. “I think, vocally for me, my debut album — if we’re comparing — was quite safe,” she said over a call the morning after her listening event. “I wasn’t as confident as I am now. I think these past four years I worked really, really hard on trying to be a better vocalist and artist.”
Artist and songwriter Varren Wade played an integral role in helping her with the former for the album. Working together on vocal production, Ella and Wade’s sessions allowed the artist to express herself creatively through melodic harmonies and honest songwriting that divulged her thoughts on heartbreak, love, and fleeting partnerships. The culmination of their partnership led to six tracks which ended up on the final album.
Ella began recording Heart On My Sleeve in Los Angeles in February 2020. Along with Wade, Ella also worked with a bevy of collaborators including producer D’Mile, gospel legend Kirk Franklin, singer Lucky Daye, and rappers Latto and Roddy Ricch. The album was completed by last October.
On Heart On My Sleeve, love songs make up much of the album. “I’m a lover girl,” Ella said, before going on to share how she feels the current generation is obsessed with toxicity. But even as this mindset thrives within the R&B market, she hopes to keep creating music that speaks to those who enjoy being in love. “I feel like people think it’s cool to be toxic and do people wrong – I’m the complete other side of that. I love, love,” she said. “I think that’s what I really tried to do on this album, too. My favorite thing to do is make a love song.”
“Break My Heart” is a testament to that. During her listening party, Ella shared that the D’Mile-produced song is one of her favorites. Pieced together in Los Angeles with Prince Charlez — a singer-songwriter who has worked with Beyoncé and Rihanna — she recalled D’Mile playing loops that felt upbeat. Rather than dwell on happiness, she decided to flip the emotion expressed in the track to melancholy.
“I remember having a conversation, I’m like, ‘Is it crazy to be so in love with someone and give someone so much trust that if you had to choose anyone in the world to break your heart you would choose this person?’” she said. Ella clarified that though the track sounds pained, she feels it expresses how invested and in love she is with someone. “I think it’s very direct,” she said. “I felt really, really good after making this song.”
Another standout is “Fallen Angel,” one of the last tracks recorded for the album. Produced by P2J — who has created hits like Wizkid and Beyoncé’s “Brown Skin Girl” — “Fallen Angel” was one of the last tracks recorded for the album. The song was born out of Ella and collaborators Jvck James and Ari PenSmith talking about a situation feeling too good to be true. She also felt a gospel influence in the chords P2J had created, which led her to speak to Mustard about getting a choir and Kirk Franklin. Fortunately, Mustard obliged, and after the song was complete Ella flew to Dallas for less than a day to complete “Fallen Angel” with Franklin and his choir. To Ella, the core of this track explores feeling you have limited time with a significant other you have a strong connection with, so you should do whatever it takes to make things work.
Before our conversation came to an end, I ask Ella Mai what it’s like to wear her heart on her sleeve.
“I have a hard exterior but I’m definitely really sensitive and really passionate on the inside,” she responded. “People feel like being a strong woman, you then can’t be an emotional woman or you can’t have weak moments.”
Wanting to delve a bit deeper, I then ask her about living with a tough exterior as a woman of color in a world that is already hard on us.
“You’re supposed to be this strong woman all of the time. I think it’s unfair — that’s where the misconception is,” she replied. “If you’re strong, you just can’t have any cracks. I think throughout this album process and just being on a little emotional rollercoaster, I was able to appreciate the moments that weren’t me being strong.”