Ella Eyre is doing her pop career backwards. Having toured the world, with one BRIT Award and another nomination to her name, only now is the Ealing soul singer releasing her first proper single. Except it won’t be downhill from here. “It’s been mindblowing. I couldn’t ask for it to be going any better, really,” she says.
Like her friends Sam Smith and Foxes, and her former boyfriend, John Newman, Eyre is launching her solo career at a point when you probably already know her from her guest spots. She sang on Hackney dance band Rudimental’s number one single Waiting All Night, which won Single of the Year at this year’s BRITs, and you can also hear her powerhouse tones on tracks by Naughty Boy, Tinie Tempah and Bastille. Essentially, if you want someone to breathe fire all over your song, she’s your girl.
Except now all the “featuring” credits are on the back burner and she’s finally on her own. When we meet at Shoreditch House, where the number of drinks she has lined up — a soy latte, a carrot and beetroot juice and a water — seem as excessive as her husky voice and her fierce leonine look, she’s just back from Glastonbury. She seems slightly put out that she wasn’t asked to sing with Rudimental on the festival’s main stage, but her rammed solo spot in the dance tent more than made up for it. “It was the first festival I ever went to, in 2010,” she tells me. “When I think back to what I was like then, I’d barely sung at that point. I hardly knew I had a voice. So to go back and play this packed-out stage was phenomenal.”
The 20-year-old’s rise has been rapid. As recently as 2011 she was at the BRITs again but this time in the audience as a musical theatre student at Croydon’s BRIT School. There she saw Adele — one of the Croydon performing arts college’s famous alumni alongside Amy Winehouse, Jessie J and Leona Lewis — singing her showstopping solo rendition of Someone Like You.
“It was stunning. I was up in the gods in a rubbish seat. I filmed the screen and when you watch it again you can hear me crying. That was one of those moments when I thought, I’d love to do that. I’d love to touch people like that.”
Eyre tends to steal the show in a different way. Her concerts are high-kicking, tirelessly energetic dance-pop extravaganzas. When I first met her as an unknown with Rudimental 18 months ago, it was obvious she was no mere backing singer. Part Jamaican, part-Maltese, all London, her vast hair, which can take up to three hours to attain enough volume to have its own gravitational pull, has the makings of iconic status already. Not for nothing is her logo a drawing of a lion wearing a crown. When we meet I find her running around our photographer in circles in the middle of the street, as he attempts to capture some of that fizzing lifeforce in a still image.
“I learned a lot from Rudimental’s live set. It’s all about good feelings, good vibes and a good time and that’s what I want from my shows. I like big, bolshy performances, like Beyoncé. I can’t dance like her, though.”
Her imminent solo single, If I Go, is an attempt to bridge the gap between the electronic drum ’n’ bass sounds of Rudimental and the more organic soul of her first album, just finished this week and due for release in October. It has racing dance beats but also the strings and piano of a Northern Soul classic. There was a debut EP, Deeper, at the end of last year when she was featuring near the top of all the tips lists for 2014 but she feels that this song is the one that really sets out her stall. “My background was always more soulful pop. I was named after Ella Fitzgerald, and when I was a kid I was listening to Lauryn Hill, Etta James, Joss Stone,” she says. “For me, it was always about the voice.”
She says the album shows her getting older, with some of the songs written when she was 16. “When people listen to it I hope they’re hearing me grow up. The way I deal with a break-up now is very different from how I dealt with one three years ago.” Since splitting with John Newman, who also flew the Rudimental nest to become a modern soul star, she’s been single, which is fine by her when she’s this hectic. “There’s a lot less time in the day when you’re in a relationship. If I said I was busy now that would be an understatement. It’s just. Been. Mental. Nothing can prepare you.
“I was talking to my mum earlier and I realised I can’t remember the last time I saw her.”
Her mum, a cake designer, now looks after her cats, Instagram stars Ed and Frank, because she’s never home. She recently moved to her own place in Tufnell Park, and says she feels like a north London girl at heart although her childhood home is in Ealing. “I’ve told my mum, ‘You’d better keep your house in Ealing because when Crossrail comes, I’m having it’.”
An only child, her parents split when she was very young after her dad struggled to adjust to life away from Jamaica. He’s now a chef back there, and although she hadn’t seen him for 12 years until two years ago, they always spoke every few months. “We have a really lovely relationship now. It’s amazing how similar we are even though I don’t see him much. My mum’s a bouncy, energetic, driven, crazy woman and my dad’s very relaxed, doesn’t say much. I have the best of both worlds in my personality.”
Always competitive, before singing there was swimming. She won a scholarship to board at sporty Millfield School in Somerset. Olympic gold medallist Duncan Goodhew went there, as did numerous other Olympians. Her mum used to call her “Muscles” McMahon, her real surname. But medical issues with her ears put paid to those dreams and she threw herself into musical theatre, starring as Tallulah in the school production of Bugsy Malone and moving on to the BRIT School.
“I didn’t go there to be a star. I went there because I loved being on the stage,” she says. But a star she is, from her massive mane to her bright, claw-like fingernails. Today she’ll be in the thick of the world’s biggest pop, hip hop and R&B acts, appearing next to Kanye West, Pharrell, Tinie Tempah and her musical idols Basement Jaxx at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park. It’s where she belongs — this former special guest is well on the way to being a household name.