Ella Henderson: Scots, Squats and Sofas

Here’s some unpublished excerpts from my phone interview with Ella Henderson, a true X Factor survivor. People say the whole 'one to watch' thing with reckless abandon, but Ella will be denting the charts for years to come, as herself or as a songwriter. And we share a surname! Which is always a good opener. Well, it’s the only time I’ve opened with it, but still.

Hello! I was thinking, I don’t get to interview many Hendersons.

Maybe somehow we’re related!

I’ve already been joking that you’re my sister. I was only going to ask you one Henderson related question, and I think you’re too young for it, but when I was growing up people used to call me Bigfoot.

Really? Ah yeah, cos of the film…  

Guessing it was before your time, so you didn’t have to suffer that indignity.

No, not too much. I just get called Hendo.

My dad always gets called that by his workmates, it makes you sound really old.

Ha! You must have - do you have Scottish relatives?

Way back, yeah. I don’t have anything obviously Scottish about me, although it is a really Scottish name isn’t it?

Yeah, like half my family are Scottish.

It’s a bit of stretch, but does that Scottish-ness manifest itself in anyway in your music?

Erm, I wouldn’t say there were any bagpipes kicking around anywhere… No, but I think quite a lot of my musicality comes from the Scottish side of my family. My Grandad was from Scotland and he was very musical and bought me up on music, a lot of it comes from there.

Do you find that Scots want to ‘claim’ you? [she laughs] It’s quite a fierce national identity.

No, not that I know of. I haven’t been to Scotland in forever though, I’ve yet to go on my radio tour, so I’ll get to meet my family and everyone up there. My family’s all scattered around so there’s a lot of towns where there are big Ella supporters, so I’ll have to visit them all at some point.

That wasn’t going to be my starting question, but I’m glad we got that out of the way. Obviously I’m going to ask about X Factor, but it’s more just so I can get it out of the way as I’m sure you’re sick of talking about it. The thing that strikes me is that it feels soooo long ago. And it’s a good move to wait to distance yourself from it, but what’s been going on in all that time since the show?

Basically I came away from the show and had no idea what was going to happen, and literally the next day I had a phone call from Sony and had the opportunity to play for them and get pitch for four different record labels.


Yeah it is amazing, I always imagined being 21 or something living in a squat with a mate in London trying to gig around and then eventually be singing my songs the the record label or begging for a deal or to write for people. So to have it the otherway around is just overwhelming.

Sorry, did you just say you lived in a squat?

No no no no! [laughs] like I was just saying, I thought that coming from college, ‘cos I was coming from up north, ‘how will I ever live in London?’, I’d have to live in a small flat with a mate and get a 9 to 5 just to help me. This fast track route has happened and it’s been incredible. I  signed with Syco. I was deciding what record label to go with over christmas time after coming off the show, which is difficult at the age of sixteen. The way I describe it is, there’s four different four star hotels, and they’ve all got the same things to offer, but they just do it in different ways. But no, I went with my gut instinct and the people who I felt just really understood me and my character, knew the person and not just what I wanted to do musically. They’re so amazing with me wanting to get involved creatively with everything and they’ve kind of taken a back seat and let me really lead my own campaign, which is amazing, I never thought would happen in the music industry.

It’s one of the things that marked you out right from the start, is that you write your own stuff.

Yeah. I think there was me and Las under Syco, I know that he writes and produces everything, so knowing that they do have that side to them, under that label. The first time I think I realised was when I sat down with Simon Cowell for the first time in his office and he sat down and said to me “I just want you to enjoy this because so many young people come to the industry and they don’t, they forget to enjoy it.” and he said “most of all I just want you to take your time, and when you’re ready, just let us know and anything you need.” It it was kinda just like that. I headed off to the studios in March in London and it kicked off there and that’s where it all began. I didn’t have any time pressure, there wasn’t a set date where everything had to be ready, it was just when it was ready it was ready. In the summer I had the opportunity to go and work with some incredible songwriters in LA, I got to write with Salaam Remi who’s done the Back To Black album, Al Shucks who did Empire State of Mind, Babyface who’s done pretty much everything from Mariah to Whitney, TLC, it was just mindblowing being out there and mixing with these people. I was used to playing piano and seeing there name written under music, and then actually writing music with them is another thing.

It must be very different writing WITH someone as well.

Yeah it is, because my writing is so personal and I’ve been very open and honest with this album. To go in with a producer who is not just unknown but all of my icons, to go and sit in a room with them you feel like you have to prove yourself in a way. But once you are in the studio, I got the the point where I realised in that environment you all become the same level, you’re all there for the same reasons which is to try and write a hit. I’ve realised that writing was always my hobby, but it’s something that not many people understand or do get and to be able to be mixing with people who completely understand what I’ve been doing from a young… I don’t know how to put it. I guess back at school I was the one writing and on the piano, where as people want to go out and in my spare time, that’s what I was dedicated to. And to meet people now who did the same thing when they was my age and they’re telling me their stories, it’s nice to hear that and relate to it I guess.

I totally get that, it’s almost an instinctive thing. For me, I started writing a fanzine, interviewed local bands and photocopied it myself, and now I’m on the phone to you writing for a national magazine properly. It’s not that I set out to do it, I just did it, I got a break and now do it on a bigger scale.

Yeah totally, that’s exactly how it is.  

One of the things I was thinking about you writing in LA was - did the sunniness and that massive Californian pop heritage influence you work or is this still very much a ‘British’ album?

I think the main thing for me is I wanted to figure out who I am and what I am as an artist and what my sound is. So I was very open to new ideas, because this is the time to experiment with things is how I saw it, try different things, productions. I was very set in my ways with how I wanted this album to sound, so there’s nothing that’s too…  infact you know what it’s strange, the songs that I’ve written in the UK sound like they would’ve been written in America and vice versa. I think it’s because when you’re in the UK and you’re sat in the rain you write a happy song and you wish you were in the sun. I was so positive when I was out in America, I had all my team around me and I was able to really focus on myself for a whole month. Going hiking, being able to go to the gym, go swimming everyday and then just go in the studio for nine hours straight and throw myself into it and be sat at a piano. To have that, it was almost a sanctuary for me.

You were trying to discover your sound, did you ever record something and then go ‘oh my god no!’ and then bin it?

Definitely, all along the way you do hit and misses. Loads of stuff, we must’ve written atleast 100 songs that we wrote on this process, some of them you start, some of them you finish, you’re writing all the time and it comes to a point where you know what you’re favourites are and you put them all together. There were some days where we’d write for fun and for other things and for other people and not write for yourself all the time. So you’re not putting pressure on yourself to write songs for your album.

There must be 80 songs going begging then, would you give them to other people?

Yeah well I’m going to do that at the moment with my publishing deal. That’s another thing I can’t wait to do, to write for other people, to co-write with other artists, I’d love to write for movies as well. Who knows? I could be work that goes towards my second album maybe in the future. I’m not too sure yet.

From the few songs that I’ve heard from your new album, there does seem to be a heartbreak theme to it, is that something that you’re always drawn to?

Not really, no. I literally write about what’s going on in my life, I go into detail but I don’t give it all away and literally wear my heart on my sleeve, there’s only so much that you want to tell the world and I think that’s what I had to find the balance of in the past year. It’s strange because if I’d of signed my record deal today and had to write my album this year it would probably sound so different to how things were the top of last year because my life is so different. In many different ways. I draw off different emotions, even if I’m having a bad day, just because I’m having a hormonal day. That can lead to a song sounding like it’s a break up song, but it’s not. I draw off emotions and how I feel that day. I think writing is, it’s strange because there’s no formula to it at all. People ask what comes first, do you write the melody first, do you write the lyrics firs and everytime for me it’s different. Sometimes it’s to a track, sometimes it’s to a keyboard or a piano, sometimes we’ve got a guitar strumming away. For me I see it as me writing in my diary, but it’s not just me and my diary any more, it’s me and the studio and I’ll jot it down in musical form.

When you say your life has changed a lot in the last year, what’s the biggest difference in your life from now to that time?

The positivity thats around me. This time last year I was absolutely terrified in not knowing what was going to happen, I’d no idea before I knew that the labels were going to pitch for me. It’s a scary time because you don’t know whether this is the end of the road, you have that X Factor bubble around you and then it pops and everything disappears. I think of this year and my album’s finished and I’m ready to go… I feel a lot more confident as a person, I just feel ready for it. The main things obviously to make sure that my music was right, that was the number one thing but actually growing as a person, to a woman from a young girl, has probably been the biggest change. Things like moving to London, things that have made me so happy.

Like you say, it’s such a fast track

It’s even things like being able to buy your own sofa, it sounds silly but at the age of 18, I never thought I would be where I am now.

I’m 31 and I’ve never bought a sofa.

Well there you go, that’s what I mean! It’s things I never thought I’d care about until I was married and had kids. It is strange but I love it, I love where my life is heading right now and sometimes you have to pinch yourself every now and then. I always have those days where I’m stood in my flat, my place in London and I think ‘I can’t believe I’m here’.


And then we go on to talk about her work with Ryan Tedder and the True Blood inspired video for Ghosts - but you know all about that because it went to number one and is everywhere. My Zumba teacher uses it for our warm down. And of course there was some chat about the gays, as this first appeared in the July issue of Gay Times.