"There is no bigger high for me, personally, than hearing a song you’ve written being sung back to you..." - hmv.com talks to Ella Henderson
When Ella Henderson was first catapulted to fame as a teenage contest on long-running talent show The X Factor, the singer earned plenty of fans from her stellar perfromances (host Demot O'Leary once described her as "the most talented performer" he'd ever seen on the show) and although it was James Arthur who eventually went on to win that year, Henderson was quickly snapped up by Simon Cowell's label Syco and released her debut album Chapter One in 2014.
Then, just as talk was beginning to circulate about a follow-up, Henderson and Syco parted ways, and for a while it may have looked to casual observers that Henderson's stor
Instead, however, Henderson took a step back from the limelight and continued to develop her songwriting skills, both for her own material and for other artists, while steadily building a catalogue of collaborations and featured appearances with a string of dance acts like Sigala and Kygo.
Eventually a chance meeting with Rudimental saw her strike up a creative relationship with them and eventually sign to their Major Toms imprint.
Now, eight years on from her debut, Henderson returns with her long-awaited sophomore LP Everything I Didn't Say, which arrives in stores this Friday (March 11).
Ahead of its release we spoke to Ella about the long journey to its release, and why she feels that taking her time has been one of her best decisions...
So your new album is finally here this Friday – it’s been quite a long time between your debut album and this second one, how are you feeling now that it’s almost here?
“I feel very nervous, very excited though. All these songs are like my little babies but I’ve had them ready for so long that I’m just ready to share them with the world and with the fans now. It does feel really surreal though.”
Have you had the album ready for a while at this point?
“Yeah. Well, I thought I had it ready, and then obviously the lockdown happened and I ended up writing a lot of songs in that period as well. I set up my little home recording studio, in my bedroom in my parents’ house where I grew up, and you can hear it, I think. There’s also a kind of acoustic side to this album and a lot of those songs were written during the lockdown, which I think is really cool as well because this album really spans from eight years ago until now.
“So there’s a mixture of everything on there, topically I bring everyone up to speed with what’s been gong on in my life and I feel like it’s the first time I’m ready and willing to open up about certain subjects and topics, whether it’s about myself, or making mistakes and fucking up a little bit. It’s all in there, the good, the bad and the ugly. I think my first album was very honest for a 16-year old, but now sitting here as a 26-year old and going into it again I just feel really proud of the songs, they’re very real to me and they’re all about situations that happened in my life.”
It seems like for a lot of artists who came up through the X Factor thing, the path out the back of that to a career isn’t always an easy one to navigate – what have been the positives and negatives of that experience, for you?
“I think I was quite lucky because I was only 16 when I did the X Factor show, and also the year I did it is, I feel, like the last year when we had a really special group of people. James Arthur did it the year I was on and even Rylan, who I know has nothing to do with music now, but he’s gone on to have a really great career. So it did feel like a really special year, and as much as I do think people associate the show with artists who have no longevity or are not even real artists, but if you look at people like James and I we’ve always just had dreams of being songwriters.
"Also I think coming off the way I did at the time, there was no pressure, there was no timeframe of when I had to release an album, I was 16 when I signed that record deal and it took about two and a half years to get it all together, ‘Ghost’ was written right at the end of that period, and then I was ready to go. I was excited for it all but I never really expected that level of success. It was an amazing time for me, and a whirlwind at that.”
It’s a lot for such a young person to get their head around…
“Yeah, I think what I’ve realised as well is that everything happened to me so young that when I came back from two years of touring I was 21 and going into writing for my second album, but I’d got absolutely nothing to write about. It would have been the most unrelatable album, because this isn’t normal, nobody goes and does all things that I’d just gone and done. So I made a conscious decision to step back – and I didn’t mean for it to be this long – but I wanted to live a bit outside of music and grow up.
“All my mates where at Uni and I didn’t know where they were, I didn’t have a sofa in my flat, and I’m from Lincolnshire so London never really felt like home to me. I need to figure out where I wanted to live and so many other things that behind the scenes didn’t feel right. Even though I had this amazing career going off, in the background I personally knew that I wasn’t as happy as I could have been. So I wanted to work on all of those things, my family have been by me, my friends are the friends I’ve had since day one and they’re still with me in my life now, and I think that was really important. I wouldn’t be sat here with the album that I have now so I’m glad that I made that decision.”
I understand that you had recorded a lot of material for what would have been your second album – when did you make the decision to essentially discard most of that? Was it something that was tied up with your old record label?
“No, my exit with Syco was a very mutual decision, I’d had a lot of success with them over six or seven years, that’s a long time to be in a relationship with anyone in life so I just felt it was the right time. I wanted to move on and do different things in my career and we just wanted to part ways. Everything was handled great, the only thing I wanted to walk away with was my music and that’s what I had in my hands.”
“So there are some of those songs on the album, like ‘Ugly’, that was a song I’d written at that time. There are certain songs that have lived through and in a way that’s the cool thing about this album, it literally is the last eight years of what’s happened to me. The transition between record labels, taking a step back and asking what kind of artist I want to be, or if I even want to be an artist any more, or just a songwriter. All of these things went though my mind, but I think what drove me back into it and putting time and energy into my own project was that there is no bigger high for me, personally, than hearing a song you’ve written being sung back to you. No chocolate bar, no glass of wine, no sex, nothing beats that feeling.”
Has it been a long journey to get to where you now with your music?
"It did take me a while to navigate where I wanted to go with it, and things happened in my personal life that I think held me back from fully letting go into the writing process, whether that was being in toxic relationships or just not feeling the best in myself, I’ve struggled a lot with anxiety and with own mental health at times. All of that needed to be addressed and I doing it away from everything, out of the limelight, I think was probably the best thing I ever did.
"Even though I say that, I carried on doing things, collaborations. I made a lot of dance records with some amazing close friends of mine in this industry, that was a lot of fun, but I think I was tip-toeing around what I’m doing now.”
At what point did Rudimental and Major Toms enter the picture?
“So I was writing and recording in Church Studios and they were there the same day, I think I ended up meeting them in a hallway or something, and that was the first time I’d ever met them. We just really got on, then eventually I ended up having a drink with them in their studio and they asked to hear some of my stuff. It was really interesting, because those boys only knew me from ‘Ghost’, basically, they had no idea that I did X Factor. And I found that refreshing, because there were these creatives looking at me in a way that probably a lot of people hadn’t.
“Obviously I knew about Anne-Marie, she had signed with Major Toms and she was taking off at the time. It happened quite naturally and organically, but there were discussions about me going with Asylum Records or with Atlantic and it just so happened that Major Toms fell under that same roof, so it was just a really organic collaboration. They wanted t sign me and for me to become a part of their family, and it was great because it wasn’t just me and my manager any more, I had a group of creatives that were going to have my back every step of the way.”
What have they been able to help with in terms of crafting the new record?
“I think where they’ve really helped me actually with is my showmanship and my craft of performing again, because I hadn’t got up onto a stage and performed for about three or four years. So they invited me on their UK and Europe tour, and at the beginning I was so nervous. I remember coming out and could see people going ‘Is that Ella Henderson??’ From the start to where I left it was such a different vibe, I was no longer standing behind the mic stand, I was running around the stage in trainers, throwing my hair, sliding on my knees. It was so liberating and I realised I can completely do what I want to do, nobody’s going to stop me. That was just really refreshing.”
Were there any particular reference musical reference points for what you wanted to do, or that have ended up having an influence on the album?
“I think you can probably tell that I’ve listened to a lot of Fleetwood Mac, the Rumours album. There’s definitely a sort of Stevie Nicks element to it, in some of the acoustic guitars and in the vocals. And Amy Winehouse, for her lyrics and her storytelling. I just found her so captivating, even on the first album Frank, and Back to Black is obviously just a phenomenal record. I think for me, telling a story through your music is not really something I set out to do, it’s just how I write. It’s like an open diary, it’s my form of therapy and I just wanted to share that.
“So artists like Stevie, Amy, Alicia Keys’ Songs in A Minor, I’m obsessed with that album, and Kate Bush as well. People that set out to do their own thing, in their own lane, and just fucking nailed it. That’s the kind of place my inspiration fell from, although I wouldn’t say I’ve ever been inspired by just one particular artist, I’ve always taken inspiration from many different genres and artists, but especially people who have a grit about them, something that’s real and that you believe from the get-go.”
Have you been able to play much of this new stuff live yet?
“No! I haven’t been able to play any of it and I’m just so excited, obviously this year I’m touring and I’ve got my hmv signings too. It’s so exciting because it’s the first time I’ll be able to actually get in front of my fans, whoever these people are that keep me going and buy my records, to actually get to see them and thank them for it is just going to be so cool.”
Where is the tour going to be taking you?
“I’m going on tour with The Script first from May, so we’re doing the UK and Europe, that’s going to take about two months and will be a lot of fun, then I’ve got my own tour later in the year, which is just the UK currently. But I’m just excite d to get back on the roads. Also just a punter, being able to go and see shows again, I’ve missed it so much."
Any gigs you’re really looking forward to? Either yours or other people’s…
“I really want to go and see Dua Lipa’s show on the Future Nostalgia tour. I’m also a really big fan of Tom Misch, I love him so much, he’s one of mine and my fella’s favourite artists. Some of his band have played with me as well so we have a few mutual friends, so I’ll probably go down to one of his gigs in the summer. Also I really love Lola Young, she’s an up-and-coming singer, and I love Griff as well, I want to go and see her do her tour, I reckon she’ll be great live.”
Are you already thinking about your next album or is too soon for that yet?
“No, absolutely, I never stop writing so I’m getting songs in the bank for whatever they might be, also I’m doing some writing for some really exciting projects outside of my own album, so there’s gonna be a lit of music from me this year. I love creating and I love collaborating, we’ll see how this year goes, but as long as I can keep doing what I’m doing now I’ll be a very happy lady.”
Everything I Didn't Say is available in hmv stores now - you can also find it here in our online store.