Ella Henderson on Everything I Didn’t Say: "I'm not the perfect popstar. I never signed up to be"

Ella Henderson hasn’t released an album in eight years, and she’s nervous. Her long-awaited second record, Everything I Didn’t Say is out soon, and she has a good reason for the gap in between studio albums: she’s relatable, and her life over the last 10 years has been anything but.

“Everything happened so young,” she says, cutting straight to it from her home in London. “I was 16 when I was on The X Factor and when I signed my first record deal, 18 when I released Ghost and my first album, and that catapulted and took me all over the globe. It was an incredible ride and experience, but after those four years I came back. I'd hit my early 20s and I felt like I had nothing to write about. 

"I was like, ‘If I write about what I've done in the last three or four years, it's the most unrelatable album ever’. So I needed to live life and figure out where I was gonna live. I didn't know where home was anymore because I'm a northern lass living in London, and it was such a huge culture shock for me: buying my first sofa, my TV, learning how a mortgage works, and even learning how rent works at the start. It was like I'd done this amazing part of my life, but I hadn't had the groundwork.”

Now aged 26, Henderson says she has accumulated just the right amount of heartbreak, self reflection and personal stories to put into an album. Talking a mile a minute, – “James Arthur says I'm loud and gobby” – one of the most endearing things about her is that she has no filter. She also swears like a trooper.

“There's definitely no filter and no bullshit,” she laughs, nodding. “The album is me over the last seven years, so it's pretty much word vomit. Just naturally, the way I write is very open, and that's because writing is my therapy. 

"Whenever I go to write a song or sit at the piano, it's always from a strong emotion I'm feeling. So everything is very transparent.”

Everyone is like: Where have you been? You've been hiding in a hole. But I have been creating.

Speaking of being a straight-talker, she admits that she’s never been interested in a constructed celebrity image and is just like the rest of us, even when it comes down to her lockdown Zoom attire.

“Literally, it was all top half work, bottom half was literally…sometimes I did things in my underwear and slippers. It just got to the point where it was like, ‘There's no point; no one ever sees that bottom half! I think people don't want to see filtered things as much now anyway; we don't want to see loads of contoured makeup. 

"Everyone wants to see the real thing now. For me, I think that's more beautiful than anything. That should be the new norm, because if you don't learn how to love yourself, then nobody else can love you,” she says, paraphrasing one of her TV favourites, RuPaul.

“It's something that I really struggle with,” she admits. “I don't wake up and look in the mirror and go, ‘Oh my God, such a bad bitch’. I look in the mirror some days and I'm like, ‘Fuck this!” or, ‘What are you doing?’ – and it is hard. Everybody can relate to that.”

At the time of interview she’s just started to do in-person interviews again, which after lockdown and then the Christmas break, has been a bit of a shock to the system.

“Absolutely, I was chowing down on the pigs in blankets just like everyone else so I feel like coming straight back in in the new year is amazing for some reasons, but not great for the styling fittings, but it's all good,” she adds, as she is anything but ungrateful for the life she leads. “I like to keep busy, and I like to be doing different things every day. That's what I've missed, and being around people.”

You can’t blame her for wanting to take some time to regroup. Entering The X Factor in 2012 aged 16 with an original audition song, Henderson came sixth place in the competition and released the UK number one hit, Ghost (co-written with Ryan Tedder) two years later, followed by her debut album. 

Simon Cowell quickly signed her to Syco, which she amicably parted ways with five years later, and (save a cruel tabloid story or two), since then she mostly kept to herself as she struggled to come to terms with the pressures of fame, all the while living a very different life to that of her closest friends.

“I can count my best friends on one hand,” she says. “With the majority of people in my life, my circles never change. They're the same people that I grew up with and that knew me from before any of this. They know the real me and I know my core values and what my morals are. That's really important because otherwise you can end up getting caught up in everything and in the craziness of it all, chasing the wrong things.

I'm the youngest of four in my family too, so I always grew up around craziness,” she says of her upbringing in Lincolnshire. 

“I have two big, boisterous brothers and my sister is 10 years older than me, and there's just no way that my feet would ever be able to come off the ground with them in my life,” she laughs at the thought of it. “If it did for five seconds, they'd rein me right in and just slap a wet fish across my face and be like, ‘Come back to come back to Earth’.”

I've nearly quit music. I've had some really dark times.

Everything I Didn’t Say will include Henderson’s duet with Tom Grennan, Let’s Go Home Together, and vulnerable new single Brave, which is about shaking the stigma of needing help – the latter which was written a few years ago.

“I've never really resonated with the lyrics as much as I do now,” she shares. “I just felt like I wanted to come back into it. I knew I was releasing in January as well, which is a funny time of year. I feel like if you come into the new year too happy, everyone's like, ‘Oh fuck off!’ Nobody feels like that in January. It's new year's resolutions, Blue Monday, waiting for the next paycheck, trying to get back on a diet, or everybody wants to try and get a new job. 

"It's a very strange time of year. I was speaking to a few friends who were making huge decisions before the end of last year to leave certain jobs or careers and go into something new. I thought that that is the bravest decision that you're ever gonna make in your life, because you're about to change the whole route of your life. 

"Sometimes we just put too much pressure on ourselves. I think it's important to surrender to the fact that it's okay to not be okay; we're not these gladiators or these warriors walking through life. Sometimes we do need a helping hand. I love that it wraps up the whole album; it’s quite anthemic-sounding and it's very wholesome. It's quite soulful, but it also has this element of there being light at the end of the tunnel, so it's quite hopeful.”

On her forthcoming album’s title, Everything I Didn’t Say, Henderson points out that this doesn’t mean she was holding back in her past work, or that she has any scandalous secrets she’s planning to unveil, but rather that she is embracing a newly found sense of self acceptance.

“When I was younger I didn't have as much self confidence or self belief to open up and own it and just be like, ‘I'm not the perfect dolly pocket popstar’ – and I never signed up to be. My dream was always to be a songwriter. Right now I'd say for the first time in my life ever, I'm in a healthy relationship, my friends have got my back and I've got theirs, my family and I are super close, and I've figured out my home situation. 

"I feel more settled in my life and I've gained a lot more control over the last four or five years. God, I've made mistakes along the way and I'm bound to make more,” she stresses, holding up her hands. “It took a while to get here and I’ve dated a lot of knob heads along the way that literally destroyed me for a while. I thought I didn't want to do music anymore or maybe this isn't for me – I've nearly quit. 

"I've had some really dark times, so I don't want people to now be like, ‘Oh she's got all her shit together,’ because I really didn't, and I still really haven't! I want my fans to feel like they're my mates and I want them to relate to the lyrics and the songs. I've been super conversational in this album, and more so than my first one. Everything is very upfront and very matter of fact. Like I said before, there’s no filter,” she shrugs.

The album is me over the last seven years, so it's pretty much word vomit...

She can’t reveal too much about Everything I Didn’t Say just yet, but shares that it’s a diaristic, 16-track record that was whittled down from over 400 songs that she’s written over the last seven years – the ones that made the cut are the ones that resonate with her today.

“I wanted to tell the story of everything over the seven years, but in quite a chronicle order,” she discloses. “And I want the fans to make sense of my journey, so you see where I start off, and then you see where I end up.

“I guess it’s the transition of me from going from being a young teenager in all of this to becoming a young woman, which is terrifying – without the hormones. This album is like me with all the hormones! God bless everybody that I wrote this album with and that I was in the studio with because they have been like my therapists over the last six years. I've bared all and have walked into the studio with super highs, super lows, and they've listened to everything and helped me to get it out and put it into song form.”

One of the biggest differences fans can expect to hear when comparing with 2014’s Chapter One is the theme of self growth, rather than more of a reliance on observing situations that involved her or her friends at the time. Everything I Didn’t Say represents where Henderson is at today, and she’s ready to share the good, the bad and the ugly.

“There's quite a lot of self growth songs in there and songs that are about me and my mistakes, and it's not about anyone else. It's just about owning up to the fact that I don't get it right all the time.”

A track called Ugly sees her trying to take the pressure of herself by celebrating her flaws, calling out the unattainable image of beauty anyone wielding a smartphone is brainwashed to now believing is normal.

“Some of the lyrics are ‘Too thin, too smart, Monday, I don’t fit in my jeans, stretch marks,’ and the whole thing is me saying how I feel from Monday to Sunday and how every day is different – and maybe that's okay, maybe that is normal. That's probably the biggest difference between album one and album two. There's more self love and healthy conversations that probably back then were a bit more taboo.”

I'm not the perfect popstar and I never signed up to be. My dream was always to be a songwriter.

One of the songs she’s keen for fans to hear is Thank You For The Hell, which takes aim at an ex boyfriend.

“It's almost like a middle finger up to my ex, but I've done it in a really respectful way,” she assures Headliner

“It's about when you go through a breakup or somebody has fucked you over. You go through the hurt, the pain, then you go through this huge part of anger, and then you eventually get to this place where you've reached the tip of a mountain and the sun rises up and you feel a weight lifted off your shoulders. You reflect back on it like, ‘God, I was trudging all the way through the mud, and now it feels like this, so actually, thank you for that’.”

Henderson will be performing as the special guest on The Script’s UK Greatest Hits Tour through May and June 2022, and she can’t wait to share her new material.

“There's probably going to be some laughing, some vulnerable moments and crying. I want to get right on the edge of the stage, sit and dangle my legs off and talk to my fans and explain to them where the songs came from. 

"My fans have been so bloody patient with me. I think everyone is like, ‘What's the story then? Why did you take your time? Where have you been? You've been hiding in a hole’. But I have been creating.”

Everything I Didn’t Say is released on March 11, and Henderson doesn’t mince her words about how she’s feeling:

“I'm excited. I'm nervous. I'm probably going to poo myself the night before. I feel a mixture of everything! But I think I think that's good because it's been such a long time coming, I'm bound to feel that way. Ultimately, I can't wait to share it with everyone.”

Main image: Polly-Hanrahan

Second image: Matt Pearson (Firmative)