Interview | Ella Frank [Sep 2015]

What do Ella Fitzgerald & Frank Sinatra have in common? Well, other than the obvious, they are the two main components that create Selma Basto’s musical moniker, Ella Frank. The soulful-jazz singer caught listener’s ears with her debut single, ‘Homie Lover Best Friend’ in 2014, but has since been focused on other aspects in her life. The hugely impressive response that her one and only single has received has raised questions as to why it has not yet been followed up, but rumour has it that Ella Frank is ready to start releasing music again.

Despite predominately being a singer/songwriter, Frank explains how being a vocalist was not a priority as a child, “I didn’t start singing first, I started playing instruments. I was in an orchestra for 5 or 6 years. I started playing the piano when I was 7, but a few years into it my Dad was like, ‘Why don’t you play the flute?’ ”. With a perplexed facial expression mirroring the one she remembers wearing at the time, Frank continues, “I said, ’The flute? That’s so lame!’ ”. Though after encouragement from her Dad, she succumbed, “Eventually I did [start playing the flute] once I got into secondary school and it became my main instrument. When I was in secondary school, my teacher was amazing. He suggested I join the Redbridge Music School and get into one of the Orchestras there. 7 years I was in that band [and] I got to play with The London Symphony Orchestra, which was pretty amazing”.

It was not until 6th form that Ella Frank considered singing as an alternative, and even then her arm was slightly twisted, “I did GCSE Music and I didn’t enjoy it, so I didn’t do it at A-Level, but they told me I could get an additional AS Level if I completed my grade 6 singing exam. I’d never sung in an exam, I’d never studied singing. To me, when I saw notes on a page I’d picture a piano or a flute and read it that way, but I needed to sing it, so that was a little bit difficult for me. I passed it and I got an AS Level, but in order to do that I had to join the school choir during my GCSEs”. Equipped with an embarrassed smile, she declares, “I hated the choir!” Frank’s former aversion to the art of singing is astonishing when you consider how she has developed as a vocalist, but it seems her voice was trapped in the shyness of childhood, “I went to a performing arts school and I did singing, acting, dancing – all this kind of stuff that I was afraid of doing. I was always afraid of being on stage, I didn’t like it”. Perhaps it was heightened expectations due to coming from a musical family that put Ella Frank on edge?

Ella Frank acknowledges that her family have had an impact on her musical tastes; her mother was in a band, her brother used to MC and her sister also sings, so it seems only natural that Frank would walk a similar path. “I have to give a lot of credit to my sister, to be honest, she introduced me to a lot of different music when I was growing up, especially Jazz. It made me realise Jazz is quite an inspirational genre, then it gets to the point where everyone goes their own way”. Her own way lead her to some of the most iconic vocalists in Soul and R&B, “I love Jill Scott, I love Erykah Badu – so they are inspirations. I’ve written some of my songs to Jill Scott and Erykah Badu instrumentals, ‘Homie Lover Best Friend’ was written to [Jill Scott’s] ‘Getting In The Way’ ”. These Soul/R&B influences are combined with Frank’s natural tendency toward Jazz, from which she draws further inspiration from artists other than the two that make up her alias, most notably, the late Amy Winehouse. “I loved Amy when she was in her Frank days, that album changed my life”.

Ella Frank – like many others of her generation – took to using YouTube as a platform to showcase her vocal talents, “I made my YouTube page and I tried to constantly make videos for a few months – and they were getting loads of views – but YouTube is one of those things that if you don’t stick at it, it goes dead”. Though her consistent output of YouTube covers had stopped, it was to be replaced by an output of her own material, “Even though I wasn’t performing in my last year at University, I tried to sit down, write, record – just make a massive portfolio of music so by the time I’d finished I could pick and choose and filter things out”. That was the plan, at least, but whatever thoughts Frank had in mind did not come to fruition. Her planning was not entirely in vein, as she did release ‘Homie Lover Best Friend’, to a fantastic reception, “Whenever I listen back to ‘Homie Lover Best Friend’, it does surprise me that people took to it so well because it’s so simple”.

The simplicity of the song was a blessing in comparison to the complexity of finding a producer to bring the single to life. “It took me two years to find a producer and record ‘Homie Lover Best Friend’. I wrote it in November 2012 and the first time I performed it was January 2013 at my first ever gig”. Listeners would have to wait until July 2014 to hear the studio version of ‘Homie Lover Best Friend’, following a challenging search for a compatible sound, “I went from producer to producer, trying to find someone that knew what I wanted and could work with the sound that I wanted”. The eventual producer of Frank’s popular single was Jay Prince, whose relationship with Ella started before collaborating musically, “Me and him became friends before anything else. He actually messaged me up one day and told me that he really liked my stuff and that it would be great to work together”.

Though that initial idea didn’t occur immediately, it was only matter of time before they did collaborate on something, “We kept talking and became close friends. One time we were chilling at his house and we had a big discussion about music – as you do – and he was like, ‘Let me produce ‘Homie Lover Best Friend?’ We made that song in eight hours. Recorded it, produced the beat, mix and mastered in eight hours. So from two years [of looking for a producer], it shows you what a connection can do and just finding the right people”. Frank is selective in her definition of what she is looking for in a working relationship, “It’s a connection thing. I work off a vibe. You can be really good at what you do, but if I feel no vibe from you, I would find it very difficult to work in that situation. That’s how I work and that’s why me and [Jay] Prince hit it off so well”. Unfortunately for Frank, since releasing ‘Homie Lover Best Friend’ finding other producers that she can work effectively with has been an arduous task, “I wouldn’t say [there has been] that many [producers that I’ve worked with since ‘Homie Lover Best Friend’], because now I’ve become a little picky. I know exactly what I want now, [so] I’m listening out for people that I think can deliver it for me”.

It is obvious that the lack of a connection with a producer that Frank sought after was a contributing factor to her recent musical absence, but it was not the only one, “I’d got to the point where I was in a bit of a funk with music. I’d got into a love/hate relationship with it”. Frank expands on her feelings, struggling not to recall the frustration that has plagued her in recent times, “I was just having a massive block and I couldn’t get out of it and I didn’t know how to. I didn’t know if I needed to be inspired by something new. I‘m writing [music], I’m just very much behind the scenes at the moment. I don’t want what happened with ‘Homie Lover Best Friend’ to happen with whatever else I release. I don’t want to release something and then disappear for another year. I want to make sure I’ve got everything ready”. Irrespective of her positive intentions, Frank confessed to having problems finding her creative space in the past, “I don’t know if it was because of how I felt with regards to music at the time, but it was very hard for me to get into a zone, I was longingly waiting for it to happen”. The deeper reasons for Ella Frank’s time away from music also stem from the current state of the music industry, and the fine line between the art being a creative outlet and just a career, “We all get into [music] first because we love what we do, [but] I see how much music stresses everybody out, at times, and not just me but the people around me”. Frank gives her point of view on a concern that many aspiring artists share, “When music becomes a chore or it becomes work, I tend to back off. Even if it became something that I was able to do all the time – yeah, it might become work in the performance aspect – but I’m always going to love writing and singing, I’m never going to sit on stage and hate the fact I’m on stage. The minute that music becomes a chore, that’s when I get thrown off”.

As she speaks on her time away from music, Frank’s eyes reveal sorrow and regret, especially when examining her current position, “I feel like I’m irrelevant now. I do feel like I’m at that point where if I don’t fix up quickly, I’ll get left behind”. Being left behind should not be a fear for such a talented individual, who could potentially be recognized as one of the UK’s most beautiful voices, should she rediscover what she has been missing. It is obvious that music is still an essential part of Ella Frank, “Music is an expression. It’s a way to show the world who you are in another way. What keeps me going is that even if they can’t see you, they can hear you. Even if you don’t reach thousands of people, there could be one person in the world that comes across your stuff and that could cause a little snowball affect”. With that being said, let’s hope that an avalanche of music is on the way.

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