Before headlining the weekend's AFRAM festival in Baltimore, R&B singer/songwriter Ella Mai discusses the mainstream success of "Boo'd Up," the follow-up single "Trip" and more.
The year’s song of the summer took time to thaw.
Performed by Los Angeles-via-London R&B singer/songwriter Ella Mai, “Boo’d Up” was released in February 2017 — a frigid backdrop for such a delightfully breezy song about unrequited love. In the 18 months since, it has become Mai’s breakthrough hit, a ubiquitous presence on radio and the reason the rising 23-year-old will headline the AFRAM festival — Baltimore’s annual celebration of black life, music and culture — Saturday night at Druid Hill Park.
During a tour rehearsal break in Los Angeles last week, Mai said that while it took three EPs since 2016 to find her star-making turn, she remained patient.
“It was never a thing where I would sit there and be upset that ‘Boo’d Up’ or any of my songs hadn’t taken off the way ‘Boo’d Up’ now has,” Mai said during a phone interview. “I knew it would come. It was just a matter of when.”
There is little doubt Mai’s time to capitalize is now, and she feels the pressure that comes with a brighter spotlight.
She’s been preparing for this moment for years. After growing up in South London and then completing her high school years in Queens, N.Y., Mai returned to England to study at the British and Irish Modern Music Institute.
After a failed stint as a member of a trio on the reality competition show “The X Factor” in 2014, Mai pursued a solo career. She found an audience on social media by posting soulful reinterpretations of current rap songs to Instagram, where producer Dijon McFarlane, better known as the hitmaker DJ Mustard, reached out in support.
The two soon clicked in the studio, leading McFarlane to sign Mai to his 10 Summers record label. Mai said American labels know how to market R&B singers better than the “very pop-based” U.K., she said.
“I always said when I was younger … if I was going to sign, I would sign in America, not in England,” Mai said. “I feel like every R&B artist that [England] gets, they’ll take them and try to turn them into a pop artist.”
Uninterested in compromising her love of R&B, Mai quickly got to work with McFarlane, releasing her debut EP, “Time,” in February 2016, and a follow-up, “Change,” months later. With the release of “Ready,” another EP in 2017, Mai’s name became more familiar in plugged-in circles — R&B star Kehlani took her on tour around this time — but her entry into the mainstream was still elusive.
“When it’s supposed to happen, it will happen,” she said of her unwavering outlook.
It arrived in “Boo’d Up,” a track originally written by songwriter Joelle James, who eventually brought it to Mai during a writing session. Since then, its growth has felt organic and exponential, thanks to near-universal acclaim and high-profile remixes from artists such as Fetty Wap, Fabolous and T-Pain.
An official remix came last month with verses by two of rap’s biggest names — Nicki Minaj and Quavo of Migos — but none of the versions could overshadow Mai’s original, an irresistible dose of ’90s R&B that blends a carefree melody and sparkling synthesizers with Mai’s epic earworm of a hook, “Listen to my heart go ba-dum, boo’d up / Biddy-da-dum, boo’d up.”
She’s surprised the song is still finding new fans, but not by the fact “Boo’d Up” has resonated with audiences from all over. (Last month, it reached No. 5 on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart.) It taps into emotions (“How many ways can I say that I need you, baby?”) shared by nearly everyone at some point, she said.
“The feeling and the intensity and the passion behind writing the song is what really makes it for me,” Mai said. “I’m very big on feeling.”
Talya Johnson, music director at Baltimore radio station 92Q, said “Boo’d Up” feels like a song “that’s going to be around for a long time.”
“It reminds you of the ’90s when R&B was songs you could actually sing along to, every word, out loud, in your car, in your office, in your room. It has that vibe to it, and I think that’s missed by a lot of people, especially women,” Johnson said. “Given that now a lot of music sounds the same, it’s just refreshing.”
The hard part — following such a massive hit — began last week. “Trip,” Mai’s first new song since “Boo’d Up,” was released online and to radio, and the singer can’t wait to show she has more to offer than a nostalgia trip. The new single maintains the longing of “Boo’d Up,” but it’s more subtle and reflective — a tale of misinterpreting the signs we wish to see in love and lust.
Dish Baltimore Newsletter
Get the scoop on that new restaurant, learn about chef changes and discover your favorite new recipe. All your Baltimore food news is here.
“There’s loads of eyes and expectations,” Mai said. “People are almost waiting for you to make a mistake so they can say, ‘Oh, she’s a one-hit wonder!’”
Yet with “Trip,” she’s trusting her instincts just as she did with “Boo’d Up.” At the heart of both songs is a palpable intensity, Mai said, and she’s confident listeners will appreciate her willingness to keep audiences guessing.
“I didn’t want to put out anything that was lovey-dovey again,” she said. “I wanted to show people that I don’t just make love songs that are about purely being in love.”
“Boo’d Up” and “Trip” are clear indications of her debut full-length’s general direction, Mai said. The album “is definitely coming this year,” she said, and it will be in a similar vein of her previous EPs — but “more mature.” In the meantime, Mai has a largely sold-out U.S. tour with her band, including Saturday at AFRAM. Most in attendance will be seeing Mai for the first time, and she said she’s ready to win them over in person, just as she has through the airwaves.
“As much as a lot of my music is very R&B, there’s a bounce to it that obviously makes it easier to perform live. It’s upbeat and uptempo,” she said. “Just come and know you’re going to have a good time, and ready to sing your hearts out.”