The Soul Filled ELLA Henderson
Ella Henderson's always managed to prove people wrong. Even at the start of her career, at the age of 16, she transformed a sixth place finish on The X Factor in 2012 into a UK number one hit, Ghost, two years later. That worldwide smash – which sold over a million copies in America – was co-written with one of the biggest songwriters in the world in the shape of Ryan Tedder and taken from a debut album, Chapter One, that also peaked at the top spot and housed two further hits in the shape of Glow and Yours. For four years, however, there's been silence, at least in terms of new solo music, replaced instead with tabloid chatter about her parting ways with Syco and personal issues. Once again, it just became a hurdle to overcome via her music, marked this time with the release of the deeply personal, soul-filled Glorious EP, a four-track collection of self-penned cutting-edge pop and R&B that narrates Ella's journey these past few years and touches on everything from relationships (with herself and others) to mental health, from battles with false ideas of perfection to just enjoying living in the moment. It also marks her first body of work following a new record deal with Rudimental's Major Toms label (via Asylum/Atlantic), home to Anne-Marie. For Henderson, this marks a brand new start. “I want it to be fresh,” says the 23-year-old. “The industry's changed so drastically since I last released music over four years ago. I want to embrace that. I want to treat everything like it's a clean slate.”
To get to a place of peace you first have to acknowledge the past. And for Ella that past was a bit of a blur. A talented child, Ella started singing at the age of three, before teaching herself to play the piano two years later. She was a self-diagnosed show-off. “I was always the young child who'd make my family come into the living room and I'd put on a show for them,” she laughs. “I've always had that sense of showmanship.” That and the fact she had three older siblings also meant she felt older than her years, which in turn made it seem perfectly normal that she'd enter a show like The X Factor at just 16. Even then she stood out, auditioning with an original song she'd written herself rather than the usual cover version. It was that raw talent that lead to offers from various labels, with Ella signing with Syco.
“I knew who I didn't want to be and what I didn't want to do,” she says of those early label chats. “I think that's a key thing for any new artist. I just want my music to be classic and timeless, with big beautiful melodies. I wanted my music to be believable. That was always the key part for me.” Work started almost immediately on what would become Chapter One, with Ella hand-picking a string of top class producers and songwriters including the aforementioned Ryan Tedder (who approached the label about working with Ella after hearing a Drake cover she'd posted online), Salaam Remi (Amy Winehouse, Lauryn Hill), Steve Mac (Ed Sheeran) and the legendary Babyface (Whitney, Beyoncé).
While proud of the album, its success knocked her for six. “I never thought Ghost would do what it did,” she says. “That kind of catapulted my whole life for three and a half years. I didn't do what all my mates were doing. I was with adults all the time. Until you step out of it you don't even realize what it was that was happening.” But first came the tricky process of writing and recording a second album under the shadow of the first. Sessions were booked, songs were written (“I've written over 360 songs for this album,” she laughs), but things weren't the same. “I started writing the second record without the confidence I have now,” she explains. “That was probably my biggest downfall. I was worn out. I needed time to be with my mates. I needed to be a teenager for a bit.” The dreaded spectre of over-thinking was also rearing its head, too. “I think everything became a little over analysed, by myself and the people around me. We got to a point where we'd be sold on a song and then people would question it or I would be like 'am I mentally and physically ready to get back into it'. Something always got in the way.” Eventually, like a relationship coming to an end, Syco decided to part ways with Ella. “It was all totally amicable. It felt like it had ran its course. I signed there at 16, and the same people who had worked on my record before weren't there anymore. They changed and I changed. It didn't feel natural to be there anymore and six years ago it did. If you want change, make change.”
Once she got over the shock of essentially being unemployed for the first time in her life, she was able to look at what had happened in a positive light. “I'm grateful because I needed something to shit me up a bit,” she smiles. “For something to happen so well from such a young age, and to have everyone blowing smoke up your arse, to have a bit of a shock like that was almost a good thing.” Gradually she started to write songs again, back on the piano like she used to. “Musically, I've done such a huge cycle of coming back to when I was 12 and I used to sit at a piano and write songs,” she says. “I fell in love with music and storytelling again.” In the end she was only label-less for three months after a handful of serendipitous events lead her to signing with Rudimental's Major Toms/Asylum UK/Atlantic Records. “I wanted to sign for longevity,” she says of her new home. “I feel like I have a lot to give this time around and this label really understand me for my songwriting, not just Ella the popstar.”
The Glorious EP represents the perfect taster for what's to come. Built around a simple synth bass throb and a multi-tracked choir of Ellas, the sky-scraping, deeply soulful title track and first release represents a cleansing of sorts. “Before that session, a lot of the new songs were about feeling sorry for myself. Even writing about me coming into my own could sometimes feel a little bit like I was the victim. That was abolished with Glorious, which is about embracing everything.” It even touches on Ella's own body image issues following various run ins with paparazzi taking pictures of her unawares. “I could be kinder to myself,” she sings at one point, before her swollen voice asks a question that's becoming more and more pertinent by the minute: “ain't it a shame that we struggle to see that beautiful comes in a million ways?”
This sense of both self-analysis and offering up support to others continues on the more experimental, vocally-lead Young – created alongside producer Jordan Riley – which is influenced by everything from the plight of Gen Z, to self-medication, to the rights of women in a world where abortion bans still exist. It also touches on anxiety, an affliction Ella had read about but never really factored into her own life until she had a panic attack a year ago. “I didn't know what was happening, I thought I was dying,” she says. “I wanted to write about it so that my fans know that it can happen to anyone and everyone.”
Further offerings on the EP include the delicate piano ballad Hold on Me, which feels more like vintage Ella Henderson, showcasing once again her more personal, near fearless songwriting, touching on her own relationship, plus that of her parents. And the ludicrously catchy Friends, a horn-laced R&B throwback and ode to the people who stuck by her side through her various trials and tribulations.
That's the crux of Ella Henderson Mk II. She's always written from experience but now it's about laying everything on the table and transforming the dark times into something – pun absolutely intended – glorious. It's about taking what's happened and alchemising it into something that can help others, while also showcasing every aspect of her life as a 23-year-old woman. “I think my music stands for so much more than just releasing a pop record,” she says. “This means so much to me. I've got the hunger back for it. This craving to be onstage and hearing people sing a song back to you never goes away.”