Ella Eyre: ‘I have a posh accent, so people assume I come from a privileged background’

The ‘Waiting All Night’ singer talks to Alexandra Pollard about her life-changing trip to Jamaica, her time at a private boarding school and playing a comeback show the day after her father died

Saturday 18 January 2020 15:01
'You can get so caught up in this hurricane of work and this pressure that if you’re not working, it’s going to dry up'
'You can get so caught up in this hurricane of work and this pressure that if you’re not working, it’s going to dry up'

The day after Ella Eyre’s father died, she was supposed to play a comeback show in Camden. “I didn’t know what the f*** to do,” says the singer, fiddling with her rings. “I just didn’t tell anybody.”

The few people who knew urged her to cancel the gig. But she hadn’t played a show in a while – not since her 2015 debut album, Feline, which arrived a few years after she broke through with the drum’n’bass goliath “Waiting All Night”, her number one collaboration with Rudimental.

“A lot of people had been waiting for this show for a long time,” says the 25-year-old R&B singer, cross-legged on a sofa in her record label’s office, picking at a halloumi and mushroom breakfast. Besides, she couldn’t shake the feeling that her dad might be watching from somewhere. He’d never seen her perform while he was alive, “and if this was going to be the first time he saw a show, I wasn’t going to cancel it”. So she put on a faux-fur coat and a pair of blue sequinned trousers, and sang for her dad – and for her fans. “It was the best thing I could have done,” she says. “I got so much from that gig.”

A week later, she publicly announced her father’s death – but it would be a long time before she actually confronted her grief, and the guilt she felt over not having visited him more often. They’d always been close, but her dad wasn’t a regular fixture in her life – he lived in his home country of Jamaica, his health often not good enough to travel, and Eyre, who was born Ella McMahon, grew up in London with her mother.

After he died, she buried herself in work. She released the platinum-selling Sigala collaboration “Came Here For Love” a few months later. A handful of other singles followed – “Ego”, “Answerphone” and the payday anthem “Just Got Paid” – all of them tied together by their punchy hooks and a distinctive voice that is rich, raspy and pleasingly adenoidal. But she was running away from things.

“I didn’t really grieve, didn’t really give myself time to get over it or even think about it,” she says, “I just worked and worked and worked. I worked myself up into this really tight space where I was so anxious and stressed and also very clearly upset about what had happened, but hadn’t dealt with it. It caught up with me. I wasn’t able to write as well. I was just feeling frustrated.”

She decided she needed to face it. “I need to just rip the band-aid off and see what happens,” she told herself, and booked a trip to Jamaica, thinking it might be a disaster. It wasn’t. As soon as she landed, “and connected to that part of my bloodline again”, that creative force came rushing back. She set up camp in three studios – one a converted gym, one a converted bedroom, and one an actual studio – and got to work writing.

This time, it wasn’t an avoidance technique, but a creative wellspring. After months, if not years, of writer’s block – “I can be my own worst enemy and tend to sabotage sessions” – the songs flowed out of her. An as yet unreleased song called “Rain In Heaven”, set to feature on an album that’s in the works, was inspired by the monsoons that poured down on the idyllic surroundings. “New Me”, her excellent, Jamaican dancehall-inflected new single, which was released on Friday, is a defiant reflection on a toxic situation.

It was a relief to finally have things to write about again, her creativity unlocked by reconnecting with her roots. “You can get so caught up in this hurricane of work and this pressure that if you’re not working, it’s going to dry up,” she says. “But actually finding the strength to do things for myself benefited me creatively. My first album was my friends and my nights out and my life experiences I had growing up, and I’d lost that because I was fully in artist mode. I was on tour, I was doing interviews... I wasn’t actually living.”

It wasn’t just the songs that suffered from constant touring, it was her friendships. “I missed all of my friends’ 18th birthdays and 21st birthdays”, she says, “because I was, you know, living the dream”. She says those last three words with a sigh. She adored performing, but just as with real dreams, she can’t actually remember a lot of it. “It makes me sad when my band go, ‘Do you remember that show in Romania?’ and I have to really rack my brains,” she says. “Because so much of it is a conveyor belt.”

She struggled, too, with the attention. It wasn’t so much the sleazy tabloid headlines – “That’s the world we live in,” she shrugs – but the comments from normal people online. “Someone once mentioned how thick my thighs were,” she says. “If a newspaper outlet said that, I’d be like, ‘Pfft, whatever, they’re trying to sell newspapers, they’re trying to get reactions from people,’ but if somebody actually says that, and it’s, like, Debbie from Hull who’s got a cat, you’re like, ‘Daaamn Debbie, why did you do me like that?’ There’s something a lot more personal about it. They’ve said that comment and they never think about it again, but I might spend hours reeling over it.”

You wouldn’t know it to talk to her. In conversation, Eyre is both easy-going and extremely focused. She sometimes discusses her own career as if it’s a military operation – not for nothing did her manager once say she “runs her business like a CEO” – but she’s bubbly and informal, too, chatting away about her boyfriend’s mum’s cooking skills and the time she broke up with an ex under the advice of a tarot card reader.

Ella Eyre performing at the Roundhouse in 2018

She says she has a good relationship with her body now (“I love how thick my thighs are”), and everything else is slotting into place as well. She’s once again writing songs she’s proud of, and has grown close to her old friends again. She met most of them at Millfield, the private Somerset boarding school she attended from the age of 11. “I know a lot of people hated it,” she says. “But I genuinely feel like boarding school was the best five years of my life.”

Eyre has mixed feelings about having been privately educated. “I have quite a posh accent”, she says, “so people assume that I came from a privileged background, but my mum could not afford to send me to boarding school”. She got there by earning a “massive” swimming scholarship, and her mother remortgaged the house to pay for the rest of it. It was an eye-opening environment to be in. There were stables there. Squash courts, too.

“A lot of my friends were really wealthy,” she recalls. “And the houses I’d go to at the weekends were like nothing I’d ever known.” But she wasn’t daunted by it. “I loved it. I was actually inspired by it. I was like, ‘Wow, I want my kids to have this, and I want to live like this.’ Rather than being intimidated by it, I was like, ‘Nah, I’ve got big plans.’”

Still, she wasn’t particularly academic. In fact, “I was a little s***”, she says with a laugh. “But I was mischievous, I wasn’t malicious. I just liked to make people laugh. I liked working out ways to enjoy school more, which meant smoking and boys.”

Ella Eyre and MistaJam at the Mercury Awards in 2018

At 16, she won a place at the Brit School – a performing arts college that boasts Adele, Amy Winehouse and FKA twigs among its alumnae – and left Millfield. It was, she says, “a weird one for me”. She didn’t make the kinds of close friends she had at boarding school, and she regretted opting to study musical theatre.

“I love going to watch shows and stuff,” she says. “But I had a lot more to say than singing f***ing Wicked or whatever. Playing a character, singing someone else’s lyrics, didn’t serve me.” She was also pressured to conform to a style of singing that didn’t suit her. “It was only after a year”, she says, that one teacher finally said, “I don’t think we should be ironing out this husk.”

That teacher was right. They put up a video of her singing “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley, in which she was wearing a “horrendous one pound jumper I’d bought from a charity shop in Somerset”, she says with a shudder. The jumper didn’t put off the manager who saw the video and signed her, or the major label that did the same.

“Waiting All Night” blew up as much for that voice as for its earworm hook. But the song’s success threw a spanner in the works. Eyre had been working on her debut album, which she envisaged as a soul-pop record, but certain people became convinced they needed to change tack. “The album got massively delayed, because after ‘Waiting All Night’ it was like, ‘Ooh, we must do a drum’n’bass album,’” she says. “So my soul-pop record ended up being, like, a soul-pop, drum’n’bass record, and it felt a bit confused.”

She’s proud of that album, but this time around, “I want all the songs to be consistent with each other.” She’s not interested in anything less than perfect. “I want to be the best version of my artist self,” she says. “I would much rather be confident in the knowledge that I’ve put absolutely everything into this music, or I’m not interested. I’ll just go build houses instead.”

Ella Eyre’s new single, “New Me”, is out now

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