Ella Henderson: "I did all these insane things but that’s not relatable, that’s not what I wanted the album to be"
Jade Poulters | 11/04/2022
Ella Henderson is a woman who knows how to turn a situation around. At just 16 years old she turned a sixth-place finish on the ninth series of The X Factor into the global hit “Ghost” which sold over 3 million copies worldwide, and a debut album Chapter One which was certified platinum. In late 2019 she turned a five-year hiatus into a profoundly intimate EP of cutting-edge songs that detail her battles with relationships, mental health, and the pressures of perfection in pop. This month she sets out to do it all again, turning the ever-difficult sophomore album into a blazing come back into the charts she was once set to dominate.
Many will remember Ella as the incredibly ballsy 16-year-old who walked into her X Factor audition, sang an original song, and blew the judges, and the country, away with her incredible vocal talent. While she bowed out of the competition early in one of the most shocking eliminations in the show’s 17 years on our screens, she made fans of Lily Allen, Cher, and Adele, and was immediately signed by Syco Records.
“I was fearless at that age,” says Henderson as we look back on her explosion into the music industry. “I don’t know what was in me or what was in the water I was drinking, but if you said to me now at 26 ‘Do you want to go on a TV show, and every Saturday and Sunday night be judged for what you love doing?’ I’d be terrified. When I was younger, I was more likely to just walk into things head-on, I guess that is probably a blessing in hindsight, but I didn’t realise how much pressure I put on myself back then until recently.
I was so young, I was 16. It’s only now 10 years on when I look back and reflect, I can see how young that really is. I have a nephew who is 15 right now and I can’t believe that in a year he will be the same age I was when I was on The X Factor. It’s mental.”
Following two years of writing and producing with some of the biggest names in pop music, Henderson’s debut single opened at the top of the UK charts and remained in the top 100 for 50 weeks. Debut album Chapter One found similar success, also opening at number one in the UK charts as well as reaching the top 20 in the US, Australia,
New Zealand, Ireland, Denmark, Norway, and Austria. Henderson was tipped to be the next big female pop star to achieve international success, but while she lent her voice to collaborations with Sigma and Kygo in 2015, afterwards she seemingly fell off the map.
“Yeah, It’s been a long time,” Henderson laughs hesitantly as she tells me this new album has been 7 whole years in the making, “It did take me a little while to get this one together. Ultimately, I signed my deal when I was 16 and released my album when I was 18, and for my single and album to both do so well was great, but my life also dramatically changed very quickly. I was suddenly here, there, and everywhere promoting this record. I went to countries that I never would have imagined I’d ever get the chance to visit in my lifetime, let alone it’d be because of something that I’ve done and that I love. But when I finally came back and went to start on album two, I sat down and thought, I have nothing to write about.
I did all these insane things but that’s not relatable, that’s not what I wanted the album to be. What I hadn’t done was live, I didn’t know where my home was, I didn’t have a sofa in my flat. While my work life was amazing my personal life was just not together at all. So, I decided to spend a lot of time with my family and friends, figuring out where I wanted to live and who I really was.”
As it goes in the industry when an artist takes some time away from releasing music, fans get antsy, and rumours start to circulate. But Henderson ensures us no sordid secrets or vicious fallouts surround her hiatus, just a desire to protect her mental wellbeing.
“I didn’t want to put a timeframe on this record and limit what it could be. I thought that I’d know when it was ready, but it wasn’t just about the music being ready, it was actually about what was going on inside with my mental health. I needed to take that time off and use it to understand what happened over those years because it never really sunk in. When you have that much success at that young of an age it is important to take it all in and let yourself take a step back. Thank God I have such an amazing, supportive, grounded family, and an incredible team behind me who really supported me in that decision because it was one of the best decisions I ever made. Because when I think about it now, I don’t think I’m one of those people who could have grown up in the limelight, I would have had too many wobbles on display.”
Surrounding herself with a tight support system has been a mission of Henderson’s over that time, making sure those in her closest circle only had her best interests at heart. “I am very selective of who I now let into my life. I used to wear my heart on my sleeve a bit too much and allow friends to come and go, but now I’ve realised the importance of only keeping those I trust around me. The people that are in my life now have mostly been the people who have been there since day one and will be there for the rest of my life. I give those people 110% of my time because that’s the energy they give back. That’s something huge I realised about energy and the energy of people you surround yourself with, is making sure they aren’t draining your energy and sucking the life out of you”
While she walks away from her time out of the spotlight stronger and wiser, the journey wasn’t easy. For someone who literally gained overnight fame taking a step back also brought up difficult emotions around the notion of success and feeling it slip away.
“After three or four years, I sat down with my Mum, and I remember telling her ‘I’m such a failure’ because I wasn’t doing anything music at that moment. She said, ‘You’ve done so much more than somebody may ever achieve in their lifetime, more than somebody could dream of doing, you’ve already achieved it.’
But success means something much different to her now she tells me. “When I was younger, like really younger, one of my biggest dreams was to sign a record deal, release songs and have a number one. I ticked them off so quickly, that when I got to 20, I didn’t know what success was anymore. It used to mean where my chart position sat because my only experience of it was shooting straight to number one. So, for a while, my expectations were so high for myself that if a song didn’t hit number one, I’d really take it out on myself.
Now it’s so different, I know I’ve given everything I can to this album, sweat blood and tears quite literally, and I know I couldn’t have given any more. I’ve enjoyed the process of making it, all the highs and all the lows and I’m happy with it and I’m proud of it. That’s success to me now, so whatever happens to it it’s in the universe’s control, not mine.”
This newfound enlightenment in her life has come from Henderson’s adoption of ther-apy to tackle her anxiety. “Oh, therapy has been a huge part of understanding that I need to take care of myself, put myself at the top and let everything else fall under-neath. Because if I’m not the best version of myself I can’t do what I need to do for work, I can’t give the love and energy I need to give to my friends and family, and I can’t give the time I need to give to my relationship. For so long I would just say ‘yes, yes, yes’ to everything and do a lot for other people and wasn’t there for myself.
I never really thought about it before, but this is probably the first time in my life where I’ve looked forward and thought ‘Oh my god when I’m in my mid-30’s where do I want to be?’ My life is just so different, it’s changed so much from where I was three, four years ago. If we’d spoken then I would have been a complete mess, but now I feel re-ally good. It’s like when the pieces of the puzzle start to make sense and you under-stand why maybe that horrible thing that you felt at the time was just so horrendous, why you’ve had to go through it because it brings you to where you are now.
I’ve also always described music as a form of therapy. When I go to write that’s almost like me being sat down with my therapist, because I open all that raw emotion that’s withheld within, everything I write about is a personal experience so, everything on this new album is from either a cr*ppy, sh*tty situation with a relationship or a great one from meeting somebody new.
That’s I think what is different between my old album and this one, you’ll hear a lot of songs where I’m just speaking about myself and realising things about myself for the first time and evolving and growing into a young woman. This album pretty much has documented all of that, you get a taster of the last seven years of what I’ve been doing and what’s been going on in my personal life. I feel ready to share that with the fans, I feel like I’m ready to talk about it, ready to sing about it.
Fans have already had a sneak-peek into Henderson’s new work through her EP Glo-rious released in late 2019. The four-track collection is a deeply personal, empowering and stirring record about accepting, embracing, and celebrating our flaws. It tells the story of a girl who has grown up and into her own, through bad boyfriends and good friends, and learnt to love and cherish herself for who she is. It’s a story that continues on upcoming Everything I Didn’t Say out March 11th, a completely unfiltered look back on the last 8 years of personal and artistic growth. As we spoke about the record one song, in particular, stood out to us both.
“The song “Ugly” is one of my favourite tracks on the whole album. It’s a reflection on the idea that not every day, do we feel the best versions of ourselves, of course, we can strive for that. I’m constantly on a self-worth and self-growth journey but I can have more of those days than not, but you know, we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t. I love “Ugly” because it kind of outlines all of that subject, but in a really empowering, hopeful and fun way.
I can have more of those days than not, but you know, we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t. I love “Ugly” because it kind of outlines all of that subject, but in a really empow-ering, hopeful and fun way.
You know, as a young woman in this industry, I am and we are looked at differently as women and it is really, really annoying. I’m definitely not your perfect pocket dolly look-ing Popstar, but I’m writing songs, doing my thing and I love doing it and there’s no reason why someone else that maybe looks up to me or another artist can’t do the same. I think a lot of us have had enough of the whole filter life and the rose-tinted glasses of social media. We see so much bullshit online that I think it’s kind of like eve-ryone’s ready to shake the stigma up a bit and just be a bit more real.
One of my favourite lyrics in that song is “it’s time to have the time of our lives” which sums up how I feel coming back into everything in my new campaign and what my shows are going to be like. I just want to kind of let my hair down and have a bit of fun with it. I just love music so much and I want my fans to have fun. Music is such a uni-versal thing that brings people together, it doesn’t matter what you look like, where you come from, your background or your upbringing.”
The new album also features the top 5 hit “Let’s Go Home Together” with former HATC cover star Tom Grennan. We spoke briefly about how that song came to be.
“I loved bringing him in on that, he is such a good friend. Originally, I wrote that song with James Arthur and when he wasn’t able to release it together due to scheduling conflicts it was a case of ‘okay well who can we bring on board?’ It needed to be somebody British because the banter within the song is just so British, and I felt it needed to be someone a bit Jack-the-lad, someone you’d meet down the pub and he’s the only person I could think of that would have worked. I sent it to him, and he loved it and just got into the studio and made it his own.
We’re so close now, literally just 10 minutes ago we were texting, he has just become such a close friend. We are like chalk and cheese you know, I’m a northerner he’s a southerner” she laughs “but we both had very similar upbringings that are grounded within our families and our morals align. It can be hard to come across that in this game, it’s hard to come across just genuine people that you get along with, and we get along like a house on fire. So, making that record with him was just so much fun.”
Before we said goodbye, we looked forward to 2022, with Henderson going on tour in May, as an opener for The Script, and in October on her own headline tour, she ap-peared incredibly optimistic for the year ahead.
“I have got my fingers crossed for this year; I feel like it’s going to be good at least for live music. I know it started to come back last year a bit, but I feel like everyone is just ready for it now.
Live music is just such a huge part of bringing people together and has such amazing healing powers. I can’t wait to perform, and I can’t wait to go and watch other people, that’s a big part of how I learn and grow and evolve as an artist, going to see other art-ists and getting ideas of what I like and what I don’t. If you ask any performer right now, they’ll all say they are excited to get back on the road. I can’t wait to see the fans; it feels like forever since I’ve seen them face to face. I’ll probably get really emotional, I used to get really nervous, but I don’t know whether it’s because it’s been so bloody long now that I’m ready for it.”
And in terms of who she’s hoping to go and see as the world starts to open up again? “Oh, so many people, I really want to see Katy Perry in Las Vegas, but am also hoping she does a World Tour soon. I want to see Kacey Musgraves, Tom Misch and London Grammar. COVID just made me feel like I NEED to go and see all these people that have been on my playlists for ages that I haven’t had the chance to yet.”
Ella Henderson’s new album Everything I Didn’t Say is available to buy and stream from 11th March and tickets to see her live at the following dates are on sale now.
Everything I Didn’t Say 2022 Tour
15.10 – University, Newcastle
17.10 – SWG3, Glasgow
18.10 – O2 Ritz, Manchester
19.10 – Beckett Students’ Union, Leeds
20.10 – O2 Institute, Birmingham
22.10 – O2 Academy, Oxford
23.10 – Tramshed, Cardiff
25.10 – O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London
Words: Jade Poulters
Photography: Matt Pearson