Ella Mai Howell was one-third of a short-lived girl group called Arize that broke up shortly after being rejected in the initial auditions for the U.K.’s “The X Factor” in 2014. Simon Cowell & Co. may be kicking themselves now – the London-born singer ditched the group and the surname and, a year later, Ella Mai caught the eyes and ears of producer DJ Mustard with short Instagram clips of herself singing cover songs.
It wasn’t just Mustard who noticed the young singer. She posted a version of Fetty Wap’s “679” that earned a mention on @TheShadeRoom – a culture-obsessed Instagram empire with 14.7 million followers, or “Roommates,” who began asking for more.
Mustard, who has enjoyed his own share of success working with artists including Rihanna, Big Sean, 2 Chainz and others, invited Ella Mai to a session at his studio in London. Soon enough, he’d signed her to a three-EP deal with his 10 Summers label and she’d packed her bags for Los Angeles and a music career that “The X Factor” missed out on.
Since then, Ella Mai tracks have been streamed upwards of 1.7 billion times, according to BuzzAngle. Her breakout single, “Boo’d Up,” broke a record for most weeks atop Billboard’s Hip-Hop/R&B Airplay chart by a woman at 16 weeks and stands at No. 2 of all time behind Miguel’s “Adorn” at 23 weeks. Her next single, “Trip,” is currently at No. 1 on the same chart and hot on its trail with 13 weeks at the pinnacle. Another track, “Shot Clock,” is starting its own climb.
But when Ella Mai was just getting noticed by social media and Mustard, CAA’s Caroline Yim was listening, too. Ella Mai released those EPs on SoundCloud, and one track in particular stood out for her.
“I was immediately hooked on her first song, ‘She Don’t,’” Yim tells Pollstar. “Mustard and Ella had such a natural connection. His production, her tone. It was perfect. Once I met her, it was a wrap!”
Ella Mai’s unmistakable influences of R&B and soul – her mother named her for Ella Fitzgerald – are updated for a new generation of listeners who didn’t grow up on Motown or even Missy Elliott. Her sound is uniquely her own – nostalgic but not retro; current but not cloying. And when she met Yim, she was confident enough in her own artistic vision to win over the agent.
“She was reserved but knew exactly what she wanted,” Yim says. “Ella knew the artist she wanted to be and didn’t compromise is or conform to what was popular.
“Ella and Mustard both have an incredible knowledge of R&B,” Yim adds. “While Mustard may have created many big hits in the hip-hop world, he is really multi-dimensional and knows how to make songs feel nostalgic, yet fresh with his production.”
Ella went to work on her performance and prepared herself by playing “small, select shows such as small branded events or colleges,” Yim says. “She was really focusing on her voice and preparing for her ideal show. She wanted to make sure that she was ready to tour.”
In a matter of a few months, Ella Mai moved from opening for Kehlani to headlining her own tour of clubs and theatres across North America before ending 2017 with a hometown show at O2 Academy Islington in London.
In the meantime, “Boo’d Up” showed no signs of cooling down. Appearing on Ready, the third and final EP of the initial 10 Summers deal, the ubiquitous track boosted the visibility of the first two collections, Time and Change. It was time to start working on the debut full-length, and Interscope stepped in as distributor.
“Meko Yohannes (who works for 10 Summers Management) and Mustard let us know that they were planning for an October release of her self-titled debut album in the spring of 2018,” Yim says. “With the success of ‘Boo’d Up’ and fans being able to discover her previous three EPs, we decided to start with a small headline club run in August. She sold out every show within 24 hours.
“This gave us time to properly plan which rooms we wanted to target next for her tour in 2019. We put her tour up shortly after her album with bigger rooms and sold them out as well.”
Even before the Oct. 12 release of her eponymous debut, Ella Mai stepped into the center of her own maelstrom of appearances and accolades, being pressed into service to open for sold-out Bruno Mars shows Oct. 4-5 at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.
Ella Mai made her “Saturday Night Live” debut as a musical guest Nov. 17, performing “Boo’d Up” and “Trip.” Less than a week later, she appeared in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. And some two weeks after that, “Boo’d Up” received Grammy Award nominations for song and R&B song of the year.
“[SNL] was a special moment for Ella and her team,” Yim says. “Primetime audiences were finally able to see what we have all seen from day one. … SNL was on our bucket list and we were able to be a part of an iconic show.”
Ella Mai will headline Soulection at the 5,000-seat Shrine Expo Hall in Los Angeles one week before the Grammy Awards, and kicks off her next North American outing on Valentine’s Day at Showbox SoDo in Seattle (1,800 capacity). Her team is in the careful planning stages for Ella Mai the rest of the year. “We have select summer domestic and international festivals and another tour planned for her in the fall,” Yim says. “Ella is constantly working. I wouldn’t be surprised if she and Mustard are coming up with ideas for her next project.
“Ella did it how she wanted and she is finally here.”