Raw Like Sushi
Ella Eyre is everything you expect her to be. That’s not to say meeting the 21-year old West London-born writer and performer is a let down. Reassuringly the protagonist we’ve come to know from her music, she’s resilient, profoundly honest and charmingly effusive. Not so much an exaggeration as a perfect truth wrapped in energy and the odd curse word, Eyre’s at the vanguard of a new age of pop music - where personal narrative goes hand in hand with song-craft and big choruses.
I meet Eyre in a somewhat disarming scenario: a decommissioned 1967 Victoria Line tube carriage, nestled among double decker buses and steam-rollers in the gated yard of Walthamstow Pumphouse Transport Museum. If it were three miles west of here we'd be in hipster heaven but against the backdrop of Walthamstow Village, it's beautifully twee and somewhat parochial. In a deliberate attempt to break away from the by-rote interview cycle, I've managed to grab Eyre for dinner. Mindful of the need for a comfort zone, I've decided to appeal to Eyre's love of food and the light-but-hearty seafood-dominated menu has been designed for her tastes by The Underground Supper Club's Alex Cooper.
"I had a fairly routine life growing up," Eyre tells me as we tuck into our starter. "At five or six I'd get up and go for a swimming session for an hour and half before school. On Thursdays my mum would let me have a McDonald's breakfast, which I loved. After school I would get myself to dance class which was a ten minute bus ride. Sometimes I'd travel with mates then my mum would come and pick me up from dance class and I'd go swimming again afterwards."
"I was swimming at least four or five times a week and dancing at least four or five times a week - and at weekends I was competing, either doing a swimming competition or a dancing competition. I just had a lot of energy as a kid."
What do you remember about food growing up?
"I've always had a big appetite because mum fed me lots. Her surname is Norris and as a kid she got the nickname 'Nosher Norris'. I remember it being a constant problem that she'd give me adult portions when I was a child and make me eat it...huge portions of stuff like pasta. She was an amazing cook but I wouldn't say I was particularly restricted as a kid in terms of carbs - but I did so much sports I could handle it...when I stopped and was still eating that way, I saw the repercussions!"
What was your favourite food during that time?
"Probably pasta. I eat it so rarely now because I'm scared at how much I used to eat. I've eaten enough pasta to last me a lifetime. Probably pasta or belly pork. I don't eat either of those things now."
I read that your father's a chef?
"I don't know if he still does it. He was always one of those organic people, picking fruit from the forest, drinking water from the springs. He's got a thing about being pure. I didn't grow up around that so I'm not particularly pure. If anything I'd say I was the complete opposite. It's quite refreshing to have someone that's so worried about the environment but not forcing it on me. That's just how it is."
Eyre was born and raised in Ealing, West London and educated locally. Winning a swimming scholarship to Millfield School in Somerset, Eyre eventually switched to drama then applied to the BRIT School, to study musical theatre after losing her scholarship. "I loved boarding school," she gushes, "I know so many people say it was terrible for them and I can see why and maybe if you'd asked me when I was there I might have said I hated it [but] I absolutely loved it."
She describes academia as "not really my calling" and recalls getting into trouble not "because I was malicious but because I didn't abide by any rules I didn't agree with."
"I learned over the five years there that if you're naughty but respect the teachers then they kind of like you for it." She does admit, "my mum was slightly disappointed in terms of my academic achievements."
What was the food like at Millfield?
"The choice was huge. It wasn't your average school dinners. The school I went to before that I would have a packed lunch anyway; mum would make me sandwiches, a little bag of fruit...but at boarding school there was always a pasta bar, a salad bar, at least three or four meat and veg options for main course. At least two deserts. Breakfast, there was always a cereal bar, a hot course, there was porridge."
Losing her scholarship meant some hard choices and the 16-year old Ella found herself back in London. "It was either the state school up from my house or the BRITs," she tells me. "I didn't want anything else enough to apply for it. It was a very different climate to living away from home and with my friends, having rules, going to bed at a certain time and being told when to do homework. I was back living with my mum which was a struggle for me because I'm quite independent and thrive on being on my own."
Eyre's mother - now a cake designer - worked in fashion during Eyre's early childhood and remains a strong presence throughout our conversation. Eyre speaks of her with deference and respect, attributing some of the drive, work ethic and independence that she now defines herself by to her mother's influence.
"I like to think I'm strong-willed," she asserts, "[and] I can imagine to some people that might come across as arrogance but that's just the way I've grown up. I've just never allowed anything to make me weak and to some people that's over-confidence and arrogance."
"I think my mum installed that in me as a kid... I remember writing a birthday card and asking my mum 'How do I spell presents?' and she would say 'how do you think you spell it?'.
"I've always grown up with tough love and I give love tough back so people think I'm a dick. It's quite a hard shell to maintain all the time and sometimes the cracks show. I think in my music I let that show too. People might think I'm a tough cookie and hard to read and all that shit but I'd say 'listen to my album - I think you'll disagree'."
Eyre had a daily 90-minute commute to the BRIT School in South London and it was during these journeys that she would shape thoughts into stories, scribbling words in a notebook that would eventually form the basis of many of her lyrics: "If anything was bothering me, I'd write something down about it. I was really into writing, I loved English and my teachers thought I was good at writing stories but it took a while to work out what to do with it."
She describes her time at the BRIT Schools as a "massive wake-up call". Finding her feet after a year there, she soon realised that musical theatre wasn't for her: "In the last year they sit you down in a big group, play you a bunch of videos and invite ex-students to talk to you about the reality of musical theatre - which is about 1 in a 100 make it. As much as I thought I could probably do it if I put the time and effort in, I didn't love it enough to want to do that."
"I had an urge to write and share stuff but I didn't quite know why. I don't think I was ever under the impression that I'd be an artist but I was curious. I've always just gone with the flow and let things happen. I've never had a back up option."
What was the food like at the BRIT School?
"I never ate it. Mainly because at that point I got really into cooking my own meals and preparing them for the week ahead. I was on a health kick too. I usually just ended up buying my food on the way to school, buying a massive can of soup and surviving on that for the day. Food has always been a massive part of my life but it wasn't at that time 'cos I just had a million and one things to do."
During her second year at the BRIT School, Eyre got signed and balanced her time between study, the studio and a waitressing job in Chiswick. "My social life was minimal," she says, with no shred of regret. "I think it's always been minimal because I've always been doing so much - but I never had a plan B".
Did you get taken out for dinner when you got signed? I know a lot of artists do and say that meal is usually the most memorable one they've ever had.
"Yes, I said I liked Asian food and they booked a table at a Japanese place - E&O in Notting Hill. I was a meat eater and I hated fish at the time but I was taught to eat what you're given. I sat there terrified, dreading it. I hated tuna, I fucking hated raw fish. In my head I kept telling myself 'Just try it, just try it, just try it' and I remember instantly loving it, it was amazing."
So much about food is about context though, isn't it?
"Absolutely. And because of that night and that introduction to a food I didn't like, E&O is now my absolute favourite restaurant. That was a memorable moment. It taught me to love my favourite food: Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese. I love the spices, it's all so delicate, so intricate."
What's the most extravagant meal you've ever had?
"Probably at Nobu in Malibu on the beach. It was so surreal. I probably had black cod, the jalapeño yellow tail, crispy squid, all sorts. They have such amazing dishes, I always go for the specials."
Feline, released this month, distills everything a British pop record released in 2015 should be. It's a personal statement that succinctly captures the talent and range of Eyre. As the first chapter in her story it's also remarkably poised and cohesive despite its difficult journey. "It was meant to come out in January last year," Eyre explains. "Then it was moved back to March. Then to October. Then to February. I lost count after that."
Shifting release dates are nothing new in music, with both Charli XCX and Kwabs succumbing this year alone. Business logic means labels are looking harder and harder for the optimum point to drop anchor. It's a combination of seasonal factors and weighing up the profile at a given time. Rita Ora's appearance on Charli XCX's "Doing It" - which dropped around the same time as Ora's debut on The Voice - saw Sucker pushed to a mid-February release earlier this year. The US had already heard the album two months earlier.
"I think in this climate albums don't really sell. To get them to sell even a margin of what they used to, you have to be in the best starting position. It used to be that people cared and liked you and they bought your record. Now there are so many platforms, it's exhausting. It's all very well to say that the label are greedy but of course they want to make money. They're not trying to fuck up. I have a good relationship with my label. I'm totally inexperienced in terms of releasing an album. They've released hundreds. I like to think they know what they're doing. "
You must have been frustrated though?
"I was more upset about my friends and family and having to explain about the delays to them. After a while, I just got over it. Looking back, there was a reason I agreed to it and it was the right thing to do. Releasing it when we initially decided to...I had no profile, nobody gave a shit. It would have been a waste of an album and we'd have moved onto album two with no profile and the second album is definitely harder. Now more people care and it's a much better album than it was before."
Eyre admits that the 18-month delay was pivotal to both the final album's state as well as her own sense of self. "I think I grew up very fast during time time. I look back at interviews I used to do and I'm always very critical of myself but my confidence in my mind and body has trebled."
"I think all girls are naturally very insecure about their body shape and what people think of them. I look back at the person 18 months ago who cared a lot more about that stuff than I care now. If I'd have gone straight into the industry with that frame of mind, I wouldn't have lasted that long. I'm not saying I know everything now - I have a long way to go - but it's refreshing to look back and see how much has changed - and be excited about what will change 18 months from now."
How different is the record we're hearing now?
"I think it's quite telling that there are 18 songs on there [in the deluxe version]. I couldn't decide which ones to get rid of but in the process we cut about ten."
"One thing that's never changed was the name. I remember when John [Newman] was choosing a name for his album - once he got it, it never changed. I remember thinking 'What if I don't get that?' Then one day I was wearing a T-shirt that said 'Feline' and that was it [clicks fingers]. The label though it was great. I came to them with my logo too. They fixed that up. I drew it with my mum and they made it look nice."
We turn to the album next and Eyre talks me through the songs that make up Feline, even entertaining my burning desire to know: if this song was a food, what food would it be?
"I wrote 'Together' at the end of last year. I'd really upset a friend - destroyed them actually. I was in Sweden and writing for two days and I was so confused and stuck as to how I was going to make the situation better. I decided to try and channel that into my writing.
"I thought it would come out and be quite negative but it turned out as 'I know things go wrong but we have to stick together, because we're better off together than alone'. It was so rough when I wrote it but I remember sending it to them and them not replying for ages - then later on they told me they loved it. I felt when I'd written it I was going to win and get her back."
"If 'Together' was a food it would be a roast dinner - because it brings family together."
If I Go
"It was one of the last tracks to go on my initial album. I wrote that about a relationship I was in two years ago. It was just one of those scenarios - as stuck as we were, as glued together as we were, it was totally the wrong time. It was going so wrong in so many ways. Our situations were changing and our lives were changing and so essentially 'If I go / Will you love me when I come back'".
"It's the art of saying 'it's not working now, I don't wanna walk away but if I do, will you be there.'"
"If it was a food it would be duck pancakes because if I leave duck pancakes alone in my house they'll be gone."
"'Always' was about the same scenario. There are so many songs about this scenario on the album. It's about going back to this person for a long time because you haven't found anything better and then they continue to treat you like shit and you realise you're better than that and you're not going to do it anymore."
"I would say if this song is a food then it's donuts because I do not need any more fucking donuts."
"I wrote it this year and it's about me and my best friend Chlöe (Howl). We both got fucked over at the same time. It's so odd with me and her - things always go right and wrong at the same time. We'd both had this situation that had gone to shit and we had each other through that. I took relief in comfort that I didn't have to go through it on my own: 'Fuck it, if we've got this, we're friends, we have the sickest nights out, we're the best of friends. There are so many better things to come than this little shit hole we're in now. Fuck it.'"
"If 'Good Times' was a food it would be sushi."
"This is an odd one because it never happened to me. I've never been cheated on but a lot of my friends were and I wrote it as an anthem to help people get over that scenario. As 'encouraging enlightenment' for people and for myself."
"But it can apply to many situations. There are so many motherfuckers in the world and not enough people let go early enough. I was so angry, mainly at the people who were mistreating my friends but also at my friends for making it happen and not having the strength to let go... but every person does it."
"I just think it's super empowering. When I doubt things I listen to it and I'm like [claps hands] back in the game, ready to go!"
"If it was a food? Jelly."
Did it change from when you first wrote it? It's lyrically very smart and developed.
"Not really. There was one lyric in the chorus: 'You'll end up in ditch / Like a bitch' but I changed that."
You mentioned to me when we talked once before about the allure of pop music and of the relatable in pop lyrics. Pop is often maligned for being formulaic but there's such a skill to working within that formula - yet it's also the most risky in terms of making your mark as a 'proper' artist.
"I feel like as an artist I don't obsess over these methods. Because it comes from a place deep down...it just comes out that way. Some people may agree it's formulaic and has a shelf life but for me it's as much about the song as it is about the artist. More often than not, songs are carried by the person singing them especially if they've written them and that comes from a real experience."
"It's one of the only songs I don't really relate to a situation. I think I've just felt many a time that sort of closeness with somebody when nothing is gonna stop you from feeling that way. That invincible moment."
"I definitely didn't feel that way about anyone when I wrote it. If it was a food it would be eggs. I love eggs. Eggs are something I can eat endless amounts of and not feel guilty."
"It was an amusing one. It was about somebody saying 'I love you' [but] you're like...'hmmm...cool'. It wasn't about me not feeling that way but how I needed to get there without being forced to."
"I wrote that when I was quite young and I wish it happened to me more now. It's slightly empowering when someone feels like that about you and you're like 'not yet mate'."
"If it was a food, it would be bacon. Bacon intrudes your nostrils. And you might not want bacon but then you smell it and you really do."
"Shock: it's about another breakup. My first childhood sweetheart. I was probably about fifteen, sixteen and I wrote it a couple of years after that. It's weird to me because he's now like my best friend. I went from boarding school to the BRITs and realised things don't always go to plan and we were never meant to make it."
"If it was a food, I'd say...another egg. But an egg with a double yolk. Everyone wants a double yolk but you don't always get one."
When you started singing about things from your life for the first time, was it uncomfortable?
"I think it was more comforting, presenting to the audience something I knew about. I wasn't standing there saying I'd been in love when I hadn't, you know? I'm talking to an audience and telling them about something I've experienced firsthand. I think that's partly why some artists that don't write their own music, you can tell because it's not something they know about."
"It's a bit like me getting up in a science lecture and trying to pretend I understand the human body. I mean I've got a rough idea and I can make up the rest."
"I'm naturally drawn to artists that have that incentive to be involved in the writing process, I always say 'if it comes from the heart, it goes to the heart'."
Are you taken back to the memories around the songs when you perform them?
"Sometimes when that song's related to things that happened a long time ago then I start to relate it to new experiences. That's the beauty of it. For me, that tells me it is relatable and people do say they're affected by some of the songs I've written and the lyrics I've presented. Sometimes it's emotional when I'm singing and it hits the spot and it's hard."
There's a therapy in it too, I would imagine?
"A little bit, yes. Especially if it's a positive song and you've brought somebody out of a negative. Even if it's temporary."
"'Even If' is a ballad I wrote in January - when I had a few weeks free after the album got pushed back - about a scenario that happened two years ago. It's about appreciating something that didn't work out the way I wanted it to but being glad that it happened in the first place. I've written a million and one songs about that same scenario and none of them worked because I never quite understood the situation and I was never satisfied enough with how things were left to write about it. Writing it was like therapy."
"I went to LA to work with Greg Wells and he told me this story about how he'd already seen me on the street four times in one day before we even met. We got on like a house on fire. He played four chords and I sang the whole song in one go. We finished it in an hour and that's the quickest I've ever written in my life. When I think back to the scenario around the song and how accurate it is now in comparison to all the other songs I wrote trying to search for this answer that I just couldn't find for two years...and this came in an hour."
"For me, it's the perfect way of showing that situations take a long time to get over and people are unique in their own scenarios. I like the lyric in the pre-chorus: 'It's funny how the bigger deal is nothing how, nothing how it was back then...' 'cos it's so true. At the time it's such a big part of your life. That very small piece of information that you can't seem to forget. You look back and think 'are you fucking serious? You couldn't get over that?'"
"Even now I feel like can't perform it without crying. On the Olly Murs tour it was quite hard to get an audience to listen to a support act. After you've got people dancing for a bit they maybe then start mumbling about getting drinks but by the end of the song the room was in utter silence."
"I think it shows off my vocal versatility too - I'm not just the drum and bass girl who sings the same lines over and over again. I like to think it's a different side to me that a lot of people wouldn't know about."
"If "Even If" was a food it would be cake. Every time I eat cake, I love it, I'm so glad it happened. But it's not meant to be forever."
What's your favourite cake?
"My mum's carrot cake is spectacular. Of course, she's a cake designer so her carrot cake is something else. Or lemon drizzle. When I'm ill my favourite thing is for mum to make Victoria sponge cupcakes and cut them in half and put jam between them. Like mini-Victoria sponges."
All About You
"I don't think I can say what this is about - it's another scenario I was in. It's a relatable song because a lot of people would think they know what it's about but they really have no fucking idea. They might be able to guess but I don't think they would."
"It's about selfish people that only calculate the results for themselves and aren't interested in the effort and support you have given them throughout the years."
"If it was a food, I'd say a lemon: Bitter. "
"It stems back from when I was at boarding school, then on tour, and now I live on my own...to admit that sometimes I need other people and need my mum and to go home to Hanwell and have pasta. It's about appreciating everyone has those limits."
"It's another song I've always loved but wasn't quite right when I first wrote it - I'd written the chorus with somebody else but I couldn't get the verses right [until] I went to a producer I trust my life with when it comes to lyrics. Him and his wife are like my industry mum and dad and he knows my family and my life. He was the right person to go to, to help me make the most of it and do it justice."
"If "Home" was a food? Pasta."
"I wrote it about myself but I wrote it as though I was writing about a friend. I wasn't ready to admit I was in a hole, in that dark space so I wrote it as a reassuring letter to myself that I'm not the only one that feels this low, I'm not the only one that is experiencing what I'm going through."
"Now I know I can talk to people and they do understand and I look back and realise I was like a friend to myself, in a lonely and sad way. In not admitting to myself I was that low, I found a way of ironing it out."
"If it was a food, it would be....olives. Because I spent my whole life telling my mum how much I hated olives and would never ever eat then and now I love them and I'm too proud to tell her."
Worry About Me
"Well this is about a topic with that person that's appeared a few times in this record so far. When that person was quite oddly insecure...especially when I felt like I couldn't have been any more clearer about how I felt about them. I felt like I needed to rectify that by writing them a song."
"If it was a food, I'd say it was... celery. Because you don't have to worry about eating celery. You lose calories eating celery."
You've talked a lot about how autobiographical your songs are and there aren't really that many artists in pop music writing in such a personal way.
"I think I've always just grown up believing that's how people write music. I found out the hard way that it's not: three percent of the music industry actually do their own work. They're just good at conning people. I'm not that good a con artist fortunately."
"In a similar in a sense to "Always" but in a more light-hearted way. Where 'Always' is very much 'I'm not doing this again', 'Typical Me' is 'I have my tendencies, I make my mistakes, just let me.'"
"I have a really special relationship with tequila," Eyre tells me as we reach our potent, alcohol-charged final course. "It's tasty but reminds me of being sixteen again."
What food has really blown your mind in the places since you became "Ella Eyre", the popstar?
"Sushi. It's always surprising how it can be done so well outside Japan too - I've had Polish sushi that was amazing. Poland's incredible. They're so generous there with food when I go and play gigs. They once brought out a massive wooden block for me filled with sushi. It was gift-wrapped and needed two people to carry it."
Do you think you've become more sophisticated as an eater? I know just living in London and working in music changes what people eat quite radically.
"I'm definitely more sophisticated when I go home. My mum will ask if I want pasta and I say 'no, we'll grill something'. She's quite shocked at how my eating habits have changed. I've been set in my ways for so long and even when I left home I still ate the same."
"When I moved in with my ex-boyfriend, we ate like animals and then when I was living on my own I realised I had to look after myself and couldn't eat shit all the time and order takeaways. I love cooking now, I love finding new recipes, getting spices from my cupboards. I love collecting herbal teas."
What's your favourite thing to cook?
"I'm quite good at coconut and lime green curry, with prawns or chicken. I used to cook it with brown rice but I have it with greens now. I'm really into courgettes at the moment. I love salmon. I eat salmon at least once a day. I've had it twice so far today. I love to marinade salmon overnight. I've got tray-loads of it, I just pop it in the oven, have an egg on top if it's breakfast, some quinoa if it's lunch."
Eyre's in a strong position right now: this summer she was picked to record a version of "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" as the official England Rubgy anthem and she appeared at the BBC's Ibiza Proms. She's also the face of the latest fragrance from the Emporio Armani Diamonds range, following in the footsteps of Beyoncé. "It's incredibly flattering and the biggest compliment I've ever had," she says. "Seeing myself fucking everywhere is really odd though.
What pisses you off the most about your job?
"Two things that are contradictions: impatience in other people and myself, and the slowness. I get so annoyed when things don't happen immediately or as fast as I want them to... but there will be moments when I'm equally as difficult or on the ball.
"I hate how quickly people are unforgiving and ready to judge people too. I've done it in the past. It's not really my place to care or have an opinion and I don't know enough about the scenario. I'd like to think people are that forgiving with me."
Have you had any moments of absolute self-disgust since you signed?
"I've lost it with my managers when there's stuff coming from all angles. I'm quite a proud person and it takes a lot for me to apologise and admit that kind of thing [but] I never want the pressures of this industry to be an excuse for me treating people like that. I never want somebody pressurising me into making decisions or feeling a certain way so that I treat someone differently. I believe in respect but everyone has their moments."
"You know when taxi drivers say 'Yeh I met this artist and she was a cunt'...I tend to agree then I sit back and think 'well she probably just had a bad day.'"
"You're scrutinised 24/7 in this industry, every single second of the day. It's really hard to be that person they want you to be all the time. I want to be that person but everyone has their breaking point. I rarely take a holiday 'cos I get restless and that's why I crack."
Do you have a sense of how the world sees you and the kind of person they think you are?
"What I find quite interesting about my character is people are drawn to how feisty I am then but they break that down, make me vulnerable and use it against me...then years later realise how fucking awesome I am [laughs]! Not in an arrogant way but I've always given 110 percent or more to people who I care about and then they let me down."
Travelling, she maintains, is still the best thing about being a popstar: "I'd never have gone to Poland otherwise. I went there four times last year. It's amazing, such a lovely, warm environment. Finland too. I went to Iceland when there was light 24 hours a day to do a gig at one in the morning."
"Selling records just opens more doors and offers more ways to experience the world," she says. "I've been to Australia but I'd love to do Australia. My days on the Olly Murs tour generally consisted of getting up at two, going to the gym, doing sound check and doing the show: but on my own tour I'm round an educated group of lads who are oddly cultural and actually want to do things."
"We were in Dublin and we ended up going to Howth, which is a small fishing village half an hour from the city. It's great I've got people around me who don't really care about fucking cars and taking drugs and going to strip clubs."
"I've got this dream, I want to go horse riding, but everyone conveniently is busy that day. I love it. Being thrown off is one of my favourite things. That harsh, tough love. Just get back on. If you walk away from a horse after being thrown off, it just shows them that they've won. Same as anything in life."