Chartbreaker is Billboard's monthly series spotlighting an artist making their introduction to the charts.
It’s been a little over a month since London-born R&B artist Ella Mai moved into a new home within Los Angeles, where she has lived since Aug 2016. She shares her space with a puppy now, only 11 weeks old. But these are small changes, considering how much her daily life has transformed in the few months since her breakthrough love ode “Boo’d Up” started going viral. “I just took my puppy to the vet, and the nurse was like, ‘I just wanted to say, I love you,’” Mai, 23, says. “I can feel the difference.”
Getting recognized — inside Starbucks, on the street, at the vet — is becoming the new normal for Mai (pronounced like the month). After starting to upload song covers on Instagram in 2015, Mai was discovered by DJ Mustard (he now goes by just Mustard), who signed her to his label 10 Summers the year after. Three EPs warm, full-hearted R&B — Time, Change and Ready — followed, the last containing “Boo’d Up,” the syrupy-sweet, heart-on-your-sleeve bop that peaked at No. 6 on the Hot 100 for the week June 16. She’s now part a new class female R&B artists pushing the genre to the forefront, joining Jorja Smith, Kelala, Kali Uchis and others. But as Mai explains, there’s a lot that story skips over.
Named after jazz great Ella Fitzgerald by her Jamaican mother and Irish father, Mai grew up in London idolizing Lauryn Hill, Mary J. Blige and Alicia Keys: “I learned to braid my hair and play] piano because Keys].” She joined her local church choir and auditioned for school musicals, describing herself as an outgoing kid. In person now, she is friendly and gracious with a strikingly wide smile; it goes without saying that she’s a hugger. But when she moved to Queens, New York with her family at age 12 so that her mother could take a teaching job, Mai shied away from the attention that came with being the “new kid” at school, where she was the only student with an English accent. “I didn’t want people to always ask me to sing, the way they would always ask me to talk,” she explains. “I was trying to fit in, so I left it alone. But I knew in the back my head that singing] was what I wanted to do.”
Mai turned her attention to soccer until, at her high school graduation, she volunteered to sing the National Anthem on a whim. “I was like, why not?” Her performance shocked everyone — “they were like, you can sing?” — and she decided, once and for all, to give music a real shot. The next fall, she returned to London to study creative musicianship at the prestigious BIMM Institute (British and Irish Modern Music).
It was around the same time that Mai remembers writing her first songs, which were “mostly about love.” “I write in a diary every night to collect my thoughts,” she says. “It's very therapeutic to songwrite, because it's the same thing.” While in school, she briefly appeared on season 11 The X Factor U.K. as part girl group Arize, but admits she “wouldn't do it again.” Brainstorming other ways to get noticed, an “epiphany” led her to start posting her song covers on Instagram, starting with Fetty Wap’s “679;” soon after, Mustard slid into her direct messages — literally — and fered to fly her out to L.A. “I went on his page to make sure it was really him,” Mai says. “I never would have imagined it would land me where I am today.”
In L.A., they worked through three EPs, each representing a different phase Mai’s personal life and career: Time, for when she got over an ex and introduced herself as an artist; Change, for when she moved to L.A. and found new love; Ready, for when she started her tour with Kehlani last summer and experienced an “emotional rollercoaster” in her new relationship. Throughout, Mai established a conversational lyrical style and honeyed sound that leans on ‘90s R&B, lending it a nostalgic warmth. And while songs like “Boo’d Up” position Mai as the cushy embodiment the heart-eyed Emoji, there’s a fire in her, too: “Boy, watch me leave,” she threatens on the Ty Dolla $ign-assisted cheating ex takedown “She Don’t.”
Neither Mai nor Mustard, though, expected “Boo’d Up” to be the song that would break her into the mainstream when they released it back in Feb. 2017. In fact, Mai was busy promoting a different track — the acoustic, soulful “Naked” — earlier this year when “Boo’d Up” suddenly started seeing gains.
“I was] like, ‘what about 'Naked?' I felt like we were neglecting the single that we just put up,” Mai says. “Then when we debuted at No. 78 on the Hot 100 in April], I was like, ‘okay, this is something.’ Then we cracked Top 40, Top 20, Top 10…I try to put it into words, but I have no words.”
Looking back, Mai imagines “Boo’d Up” caught on because its clean, starry-eyed innocence: “At the end the day, the song is] like spreading love.” The nostalgic music video (61.7 million views and counting), which follows a first date at a carnival and features cameos from Khalid and Kamaiyah, elicits a similar vibe. Stans ten tag her in memes praising the song’s instant feel-good effect; one even sent a video “Boo’d Up” playing at a wedding. And as the track continues to climb, vying for song the summer, Mai is working with Mustard on her debut album out this fall, many songs which are about the same “boo.” In August, she’ll embark on a just-announced U.S. tour.
She says her new material comes with greater depth, getting at the “thin line” between loving someone and “absolutely hating them.” The album’s title will follow the same one-word, double-meaning theme her previous EPs, she just hasn’t decided on the right one yet.
“When I was making the EPs, I was 20, and now I’m almost 24. I’ve learned a lot, I’ve seen a lot, I’ve grown a lot,” she says. “I'm super proud what we've been making. Even I'm like, ‘Wow, I didn't know I could write like this.’”
A version this article originally appeared in the June 15 issue Billboard.