It has been four, long years since South London-born Ella Mai released her platinum-selling, self-titled debut album. Boosted by her breakout single, “Boo’d Up”, UK R&B suddenly had this new, global superstar it could call its own, which had been a long time coming. 

After releasing only one other solo single (“Not Another Love Song”) and featuring on songs with artists such as Ed Sheeran and Mahalia since 2018, fans have been chomping at the bit for new music from the 10 Summers signee. Much to the joy of said fans, Ella made her return at the top of this year with “DMFU”—a song about a heartbreak she had recently experienced, and one that inspired her upcoming album. “‘DFMU’ was one of the first songs we recorded during the creation of my new album, Heart On My Sleeve,” she explains over Zoom, from her LA home. “So, to me, it’s already two years old. I started recording the album in 2020, just before the pandemic. It’s so R&B, and the nostalgic feeling is straight from the ‘90s R&B that I grew up on. The message of ‘DMFU’ is very, very strong; I just wanted to come back to the industry with something solid.”

Heart On My Sleeve is a fitting title for Ella’s sophomore album, as it’s one that speaks to themes of vulnerability, growing as a woman, and finding true love. Now aged 27, she has done a lot of growing up since her debut LP, and although she finds it “scary”, she’s ready to share her heart and soul with the world. “This era is a mature version of myself,” she says. “I’m still the same me, but it’s just more of an elevated version. People seem to forget I was 23/24 when I released Ella Mai. I’m 27 now and I’ve changed so much as a person—I’m a woman now! I experienced a lot that my younger self couldn’t relate to.” 

In what is her most in-depth interview since her return, we spoke with the Grammy-winning artist about her upcoming sophomore album, the current state of British R&B, and what she misses most about her hometown of South London. 

“People get it confused, like a strong woman can’t be vulnerable. That narrative doesn’t correlate at all for me.”

COMPLEX: How would you describe this new era of Ella Mai?
Ella Mai:
This era is a mature version of myself. I’m still the same me, but it’s just more of an elevated version. People seem to forget I was 23/24 when I released my debut album, Ella Mai. I’m 27 now and I’ve changed so much as a person—I’m a woman now! I experienced a lot that my younger self couldn’t relate to. Career-wise, I’ve been able to tour and I became more sure of myself as an artist, knowing what I want to say and how to say it, so I try and incorporate that in my new music.

What are you able to say at this stage of your career that you maybe couldn’t, or didn’t want to, before?
Erm… It’s still about love and relationships, as they’re my favourite things to sing about. Obviously, as young women, everyone’s stories are different, but we can all relate to them. There are similarities when I speak to my friends about their relationships and things that I’ve been through personally. I’m still a strong woman; people get it confused, like a strong woman can’t be vulnerable. That narrative doesn’t correlate at all for me.

Before you released “DMFU”, you said that you’d never been heartbroken before. Now that you’ve had your first heartbreak, as expressed on that song, how did it make you feel? What was it like writing about that emotion?
During the album process, it was me going through it in real time and, of course, putting out music is different because you don’t release once you’ve made it straightaway. It was a rollercoaster process for me—a lot of ups and downs. The entire process wasn’t heartbreak, but it happened during the end of the process. It was weird because, in my debut album, there were a lot of times I would be at the studio and I wouldn’t be sure of myself as a writer, so the writers would take the lead. Sometimes it would be my experience, but other times it would be storytelling.

What made you release “DMFU” as your first single from the new album, Heart On My Sleeve?
“DFMU” was one of the first songs we recorded during the creation of my album. So, to me, it’s already two years old. I’ve been recording the album since 2020, just before the pandemic. It’s so R&B, and the nostalgic feeling is straight from the ‘90s R&B that I grew up on. The message of the track is very, very strong; I just wanted to come back to the industry with something solid.

During your hiatus, what were you getting up to?
I would be getting people messaging, like, “Are you still doing music?” and I’m like: “Hmmm… Yeah!” I feel like in this social media era, it’s very fast-paced and people tend to lose attention quite quickly. We listen to one thing, then we’re ready for the next straightaway. It’s not like rap where you can drop an album then next year drop another project. R&B doesn’t fit that realm. You have to take your time and do it properly, so we were still creating music and that’s how “DMFU” came about. 

“I’m not saying you can’t be a successful artist in the UK, but there are a lot of doors that need to be broken for that.”