How Ella Eyre fought her way out of the pop wilderness
If you've ever dragged yourself into work with a cold and acted like it's the greatest sacrifice since Bruce Willis stayed behind to blow up that asteroid, consider this: Ella Eyre shot one of her latest videos with an agonising kidney infection.
The 25-year-old woke up one day last September with a pain so bad that she thought her appendix had burst.
"I was like, 'Am I in labour? Is there something I don't know?'" she recalls.
But instead of crawling under the duvet and bursting into tears, she stumbled into her nearest A&E, got some pain medication and boarded a flight to Ukraine.
"I'd have been in more pain at home doing nothing than being in Kiev shooting the video," she argues.
While her actions aren't medically advisable, they help explain why Ella Eyre is still making music after what can generously be described as a "choppy period" in her career.
It's been five years since her debut album, Feline, went Top 10. A follow-up was due in 2017, but never materialised.
Upheaval at her record label, Virgin EMI, meant the people who'd signed Ella as a teenager had left. Their replacements weren't sure what to do with her, a symptom of the UK music industry's mystifying inability to understand or sustain the careers of female artists beyond an initial flush of fame.
Essentially, Ella says, she'd ceased to be anyone's "passion project" and her music kept slipping off the release schedule.
"I've had that so much in my career, where I've written great songs and they want to save them, but we've never got to the point we were saving them for.
"It was just frustrating because the delay sets doubt in your mind. I think if you don't have any doubts about the music, you should release it straight away.
"Don't sit on it because then someone will turn around and say, 'Oh, that would have been good a year ago, but not so much now.'"
Ella eventually parted ways with Virgin but she "made sure the ball kept rolling", appearing on Celebrity Bake Off (her pineapple meringue tower was a sight to behold) and, more importantly, lending her gravelly vocals to top 10 hits like Sigala's Just Got Paid, and Banx & Ranx's Answerphone.
When the latter became a radio smash, there was suddenly "no shortage of people that wanted to be her record label," Ella's manager told Music Week last year.
They eventually signed to Island Records which, through its work with Ariana Grande, Robyn and Sigrid, has a history of championing female pop artists with a distinct point of view.
Fittingly, Ella is rebooting her career with a song - New Me - that sees her shrugging off the past and striking out on her own.
"Ella ain't here, it's a new me," declares the singer over an infectious, dancehall-inspired beat. And while the lyrics are ostensibly about a toxic relationship, they could easily refer to her professional rejuvenation.
"It's a metaphor in so many ways," she agrees. "I feel like a new artist because I'm coming at it from a very different understanding of the industry."
"When I first started, I was 16 and I was so doe-eyed. When one of the record labels says to you, 'We don't just sign everything and see what works,' you're like, 'Wow, I believe you.'
"This time round, I was like, 'Rubbish! Lies!' I just have a much better understanding of the way I want to manage my campaigns and how I want [my] music to be received and delivered.
"I feel like a boss. A boss woman."
Ella's independent streak was fostered by her mother, who raised her in Hanwell, a small town in west London that, due to its proximity to Ealing Studios, is frequently used as a location for films like Bridget Jones's Diary and Billy Elliot.
"From a young age, I was pretty used to being left to do what I wanted to do," recalls the singer. "I was getting the bus by myself when I was eight. I don't know if I'd let my kids do that now."
Aged 11, Ella was sent to a private boarding school, Millfield, in Somerset, on a swimming scholarship (although her mum had to remortgage the house to pay the remaining fees).
"It was wild. I loved it," she says. "Because I'm an independent person, I'm able to thrive in that environment."
Her training regime was gruelling, with four hours in the pool every day and competitions every weekend. But after two years, she developed a series of ear infections that ended her chances of a professional career.
"My times were getting slower because I wasn't swimming as often and eventually I just lost the love for it," she recalls.
No longer able to compete, she lost her bursary - but a teacher helped her switch to a drama scholarship and, after playing Tallulah in a school production of Bugsy Malone ("a sassy man-hunter, what a role!") she left to study musical theatre at the Brit School.
"I learned a lot about discipline, teamwork and vocal techniques but it was all very musical theatre," she says, making the obligatory jazz hands gesture.
She was also pressured into singing a certain way to meet the needs of West End casting agents.
"A lot of my singing teachers were trying to iron the husk out. They saw it as a defect," she says. "And actually, when I got into the studio and started writing, I realised I had my own way of singing, and I could be as emotive and as emotional as possible."
The first people to tease a "perfect" vocal out of the singer were Rudimental, who enlisted her for their hit single Waiting All Night before she'd even released any music of her own.
"I was still working out how I wanted to sing but they had a really clear idea about what they wanted to achieve with that record," she laughs. "They're technical Nazis!"
Waiting All Night launched Ella's career, going to number one and winning a Brit Award for best single - but it also triggered unwanted interference from her record label.
They began to insist she should incorporate Rudimental's skittish drum & bass rhythms into her debut album, at the expense of the bluesy, soulful sound she'd been working on.
As a result, the record was both delayed and "a bit confused", the singer admits.
This time around, she's taking no such chances. New Me, written and recorded in a four-hour burst of creativity (the finished version carries her original demo vocal), is the first in a cache of singles she's been stockpiling in her pop armoury.
"I know what the second single is, I know what the third single is, I know what the fourth single is. And we also know what could come after that," she says matter-of-factly.
Several of these future smashes were written on retreat in Jamaica last year. Ella chose the location to honour her father, a chef, who died in 2017 and had lived on the island "pretty much his whole life".
"I didn't know what kind of emotions or how I'd be feeling when I landed," she confessed in an Instagram post, but the trip reconnected her to her roots. Songs and lyrics poured out of her, including an unreleased ballad, Rain In Heaven, that she's particularly proud of.
"Jamaica is beautiful and idyllic, but one day it was pissing it down with rain, and I was like, 'Ah, it still rains in heaven,'" she explains. "It became a metaphor for a relationship that's breaking down. You thought it was all beautiful and harmonious, then the storm comes and it's absolutely chucking it down.
"It feels like the song my dad let me write," she adds. "I listen to it and I just love it so much. So we're saving that one."
Ultimately, the singer feels like she's been given a fresh start.
"Everybody has their up and down moments but I've realised that nobody wins a game on their first move," she says.
"I remember somebody putting it to me like this: 'As much as you want to release music, you have to have ammo'. And I feel so prepared for battle."
Pop competitors beware... She'll turn up for the fight even if her kidneys burst.