Soho Rising: Ego Ella May
As part of our Soho Rising series, Soho House Head of Music, Dom Chung, spotlights members making waves in the music industry. Here, singer Ego Ella May discusses tackling ‘dark’ topics such as loss and loneliness through the lens of assured soul R&B
By Louis Wise
In June this year, Ego Ella May released her latest album, Honey For Wounds. The title and timing could not have been more apt. As the world became ever more fraught, a global pandemic compounded by a renewed debate on racism, the south Londoner’s LP was able to reflect these concerns, but also offer some balm. If it’s not quite how the 28-year-old singer-songwriter planned it, she’s happy if her music can help.
‘Honey is such a sweet, soothing thing, and it also has medicinal properties,’ she says. ‘So I want my music to be that soothing factor after you’ve had a really long day, or you’re just lost in life. I want you to forget about stuff for 40 minutes and just breathe, you know?’
May is saying all this from her bedroom in south London via Zoom, happily chatting away wrapped in a cosy cream jumper. If the air of calmness seems at one with her music, this is arguably just a surface thing. If Honey For Wounds is a beautiful listen, an assured mix of jazz, soul and R&B, it also dwells on some ‘very dark’ topics, such as sadness, loss and loneliness; this isn’t souped-up wellness muzak. Her influences include Stevie Wonder, Amy Winehouse and her namesake Ella Fitzgerald, and it’s that level of class throughout. Her stage name, by the way, is just her given names all lined up: Ego is a name from her parents’ Nigerian culture, meaning ‘my love is greater than money’, used more at home, while Ella May is the more British one used by friends. ‘But I’ll answer to both,’ she shrugs. ‘It’s not like you’re calling me Stacey or whatever.’
Honey For Wounds is a ‘diary’, which contemplates everything from tackling single life again (‘Table For One’), to what women are forever expected to think about (‘Girls Don’t Always Sing About Boys’). Written from an intimate place, the songs have ended up being alarmingly far-reaching; take the single ‘Give A Little’, which was released in the wake of the death of George Floyd. May recites a key line: ‘“Do I have to die for some peace, or a little bit of extra empathy?” That was just so weird, and so relatable to people.’ She obviously welcomes the huge surge of interest in #BlackLivesMatter, but it didn’t teach her anything she didn’t already know; if anything, May found the profusion of images and information online overwhelming. ‘If it’s informative for others, great, but for me it’s just triggering to see all that trauma online.’ Still, if the music contributes to the discussion somehow, it’s all good. ‘One of my favourite artists is Nina Simone, and she said, “An artist’s duty is to reflect the times”, and that rings in my head all the time.’
May is, by her own admission, a complete bedroom singer. ‘I was way too shy to sing in public. I still am, a little bit, but after a glass of wine I’m fine.’ The daughter of Nigerian immigrant parents, she was expected to study for a more stable, conventional career. But her academic failures encouraged her to tell them she wanted to go to music college instead of doing A-levels. Her accountant father was mortified, but she won him over. ‘I was like, “Well, I’m trying at A-levels and it’s not working, so would you rather I flunked, or would you rather I pursue music where I know that naturally I can just… wing it?”’ She bursts out laughing, because she is (mostly) joking – it’s this leap that actually made her take music more seriously, releasing her first EP in 2013. Now her father is very proud, and always tells his friends that his daughter’s a singer, although that is still her nightmare. ‘If a friend introduces me and says, “Oh, she’s a singer”, the first thing people say is, “Oh, can you sing for me now?” And it’s like, “No. It’s weird!”’
It’s arguable, though, that her dad set her on this path from the beginning. He’s the one who named her after Ella Fitzgerald, after all. She was always into jazz, even as a 12-year-old, she chuckles. ‘That’s how I knew there was something about music, because all my friends were into pop, like S Club 7 and Destiny’s Child – and I mean I love Destiny’s Child – but I also had this deep, dark secret where I was like, I also love music from the 1930s.’ She aims to combine all this in her own music. ‘I’m very influenced by jazz, and Stevie Wonder. But then also really interesting and fresh production. You know, beats – people like Flying Lotus and Thundercat. I love them.’
Lockdown wasn’t too awful for May, who is a bit of a stay-at-home introvert anyway. She’s had lots of lovely messages since she released her album, but the obvious thing is that she’s been unable to perform it live, much to her frustration. ‘It’s just bugging me a little bit, but what can we do?’ As it happens, she’s been doing something: the singer has continued her studies to become a counsellor, which she started before the pandemic.
‘I think I just naturally want to be in a healing profession, be it music, teaching or counselling,’ she says. Honey For Wounds has already amply done its job on that score. ‘What’s nice is, looking back on it now, I don’t feel as lost as I did when I was writing some of those songs,’ she smiles. ‘I don’t feel that deep sense of longing that I did before; I don’t feel as heartbroken. I feel strong now – older, wiser. I feel good.’