“I always wanted to be a dancer, to be honest,” Ella McMurray admits early into our conversation. It’s the first in a string of humble revelations made by the 25-year-old musician as we sit in her local East London park discussing her past, present and future. With years of training in the performing arts, she explains, she grew up with contemporary dance as her forté, but eventually had second thoughts about pursuing it as a career. Her vocal abilities, surprisingly, are something she’s been modest about ever since her childhood Stagecoach days: “Singing wasn’t my strong point there. I didn’t think I was that good, to be honest, and I don’t think I’m the best singer now. It was something I enjoyed, but definitely not something that I thought I’d take any further.” But she’s since defied her own expectations, blossoming into a versatile singer-songwriter, record producer and multi-instrumentalist with several million streams on her catalogue and co-signs from household names like Bastille and Big Zuu. Linking up on the advent of her new single “OK”, we get the lowdown on how she’s become one of the UK’s most exciting rising stars.
Feeding off a soup of diverse genres and styles, Ella’s discography offers a telling insight into the multitude of influences that have soundtracked her life, with R&B and pop recurring as two main ingredients. “I think the first album I bought was Diary of Alicia Keys,” she recalls. “I literally know every word.” Also in the mix at one point were indie rock – Ella fondly remembers attending concerts from the likes of the Arctic Monkeys and Bombay Bicycle Club growing up – and grime, as her brother got her hooked on the sounds of Roll Deep’s pioneering In at the Deep End from an early age. Running parallel to these discoveries was an academic grounding in jazz and classical music via piano and ballet lessons, which have unexpectedly had a lasting impact: “Whenever I’m creating chords, I always gravitate towards something that sounds jazzier,” Ella laughs. “I have to actually stop myself sometimes, like ‘you’re not a jazz musician, relax!’”. Today, she’s got artists like Dijon, Steve Lacy and SZA in heavy rotation, and has been marvelling at their genre-bending songwriting and vocal acrobatics. It’s clear to see why her own music is so hard to pin down to a single descriptor.
Growing up in the Hampshire town of Basingstoke, which isn’t especially renowned for its cultural output, Ella relied on a combination of good tutors and a penchant for crate-digging online to whet her appetite musically and ignite a spark for songwriting. “I was listening to a lot of the stuff that my friends weren’t listening to – they were more into general pop – and playing piano helped me a lot,” she explains. “I had a lot of cover books. I didn’t like following jazz or classical books, I just liked covers and started writing from there, really.” She soon found herself filming home-recorded covers and originals and sharing them via social media. The algorithm worked its magic, and one of her songs was noticed by Adam “New Machine” Jordan – the musical polymath known for his work with the likes of Plan B and Maverick Sabre – who offered to produce it professionally for her. The two connected, and as Ella’s repertoire grew and she picked up production techniques for herself, Jordan’s role evolved primarily into that of a mentor and manager; one who continues to have a hand in the creative process.
After lending her uncredited vocals to Dorchester rapper Isaiah Dreads’ 2019 hit “Clouds”, released via the prestigious Payday Records, Ella burst onto the scene proper in 2021 with a pair of singles that made clear her intention to leave a lasting impact: a feature on the lo-fi bop “Simple Life” by burgeoning producer and instrumentalist edbl, and a rousing, stripped-back piano number titled “Take It Slow”, which served as her debut single. In the year that followed, she unveiled three more, each shining more light on her versatile artistry. With her next moves carefully pre-planned and years’ worth of demos under her belt, she decided to tease sped-up clips of her ensuing releases in the outro of each single; an inventive move which kept listeners hooked in a perpetual state of anticipation (“Sixth Sense”, released earlier this year, served as the final link in this chain).
Every one of Ella’s solo records to date has been self-produced, a decision which has felt natural to her. “I don’t have the trust in me to go to the studio with an idea and trust that someone will mind-read and know exactly what I wanna hear,” she explains. “That’s why I went and started producing for myself; I was fully in control of making what was in my head. I’m very impatient with myself; I have to try and get ideas out [in the moment]. If I get it out later, it won’t make sense.” She’s also found that her experience in dance – which remains an important part of her identity – has bled into her music in this respect: “My outlook on rhythm definitely came from contemporary dance,” she reflects. “I think a lot of my melodic ideas come from my influence of classical music in ballet, but rhythmically, what always influenced my choreography and dance was the beat, so I kind of create music as if I’m dancing to it. The beats I would wanna hear as a dancer, I then put into the song, because my body felt it before my brain did, I guess.”
On her new single “OK”, Ella addresses the listener directly, validating our feelings and encouraging us to open up about our emotions. “If you’re angry, if you’re sad, if you wanna cry from being super happy,” she explains, “it’s OK to feel whatever you’re feeling.” Inspired by her own experiences with online counselling during lockdown, she set out to write “something really concise” to spread this message, and set about learning a few chords on a newly purchased ukulele. “I think the fact that I couldn’t play ukulele very well forced me to make a really simple song,” she laughs. “The production was super simple again. I actually produced the beat with other percussion sounds and then Adam revamped it.” Subtly sophisticated, it builds to a powerful crescendo driven by synthetic strings. “When he first did that, I was like ‘wow, I didn’t know the song could go in that way,’” Ella shares. “But this was exactly the lift-off that it needed at the end.”
Ella McMurray’s new single “OK” is out now. Watch the music video below, and find Ella on Instagram to stay in the loop with new music.
Photos provided courtesy of the artist