RuPaul has a new Christmas album – his first since 1997’s Ho Ho Ho. Besides reminding us that few people can camp up Christmas in quite the same fashion way as the Drag Race legend, the album (Slay Belles) also showcases the magic of one Ellis Miah; the studio whizz kid who co-wrote and produced eight of the eleven songs on the album.
This in-demand DJ, producer, songwriter and label owner has been increasingly asked to stamp his sound upon projects since he relocated from the east to west coast seven years ago; 2015 was his busiest year yet.
Miah’s actually been beavering away in the music industry for the past two decades. Then again, he started young: being snapped up for a development deal at the tender age of 12.
‘I was born and raised in NYC’s Lower East Side and Staten island. I knew from a young age what I wanted to do and started singing and writing music when I was 12. However, I was dragged kicking and screaming to Miami when my family moved there.
‘After NYC, in terms of breaking into the music business, Miami seemed like a death sentence.’
The one silver lining was that one of his new classmates had a sister who was signed to Atlantic Records.
‘I decided I would make friends with him in the hopes that if I might meet her, impress her, and she would help me,’ he says reflecting on his single-minded ambition.
‘To cut a long story short, she did and it changed the course of my life. She took me to meet her producers who signed me to a development deal. Between the ages of 12-17 I was in the studio every week, recording and absorbing everything I could.’
If the big time – frustratingly – didn’t come knocking in his teen years, Miah instead went on to spend his 20s honing his skills as a producer, remixer, DJ and songwriter. He remixed and produced tracks for Annie Lennox, Big Freedia, Backstreet Boys, Todrick Hall, Christina Aguilera and Jennifer Lopez, among others.
After writing a track for Loleatta Holloway (‘Share My Joy’), in the mid-00s, he was invited to the west coast to work with producers in Los Angeles, and had a meeting with one of his heroes, Rick Nowels (Belinda Carlisle, Lana del Ray). He advised Miah that LA was the best place to be if he wanted to secure access to more artists and potential collaborators.
He now lives there, and is usually to be found rooted to his studio. In the last few months it has played host to a rotating line-up of talent, including the likes of Siedah Garret, Shanice Wilson, Daniel Franzese, and Michelle Visage.
Miah works in pretty much every sort of genre (‘apart from dub step – not because I don’t like it but only because I’m not very good at it!’), but the bulk of his work is pop or dancefloor-oriented, and you’ll often find him keeping a check on what gets people moving with a residency at Akbar. He’s also recently DJ’ed event for BAFTA, BedRock LA and the Ace hotel.
In 2015, he launched record label, DWUD Trax (‘It stands for Do What U Do’). Its next release is a future house reworking of the 702 90s record ‘Where My Girls At.’ with De’nae (who also appears as a backing vocalist on Slay Belles). Another passion of his is 19-year-old, singer-songwriter blues soul artist, Zarina Nares.
‘She’s a complete departure from the pop music I tend to be involved with but she’s got a unique voice.’
When it comes to working with others, Miah says the best collaborators are, ‘givers and takers. They know when to listen and when to share. Bad working relationships happen when people are rigid and not willing to try new things or are uncertain and second guess their gut.’
RuPaul falls firmly into the ‘best collaborators’ category.
Miah described the experience of working with him as, ‘surreal, exciting, rewarding and humbling.
‘Ru is all those things and he brings those qualities out in others as well. He gets the nature of collaboration; he has very specific ideas about songs and production but also welcomes your ideas or your take on something.
A photo posted by RuPaul Charles (@rupaulofficial) on
‘We first worked together in a last minute writing session in 2008 for a soundtrack of a film he was doing. We reconnected in 2014 when he asked me to remix that very song and work on new music for his album, Realness.
‘I actually pitched him the idea in 2014 about doing a Christmas album, but his production schedule was so booked their was no time then. So I literally made a note in my calendar to bring it up to him the following spring.
‘I really wanted it to happen, so I started writing songs anyway. I sent him the demo for the track ‘Merry Christmas, Mary’ and he was so moved that he said he had to do it this year.’
‘The records we’ve made together really feel like two friends making a cook book together, each adding ingredients to recipes, taking a pause, listening to the song and then saying, “Yeah, you were right, needs more of this or less of that”.’
After his early years of trying to make it as a solo artist, Miah seems to have found his niche in helping others to realize their musical ambitions.
‘I like to think of myself as a collaborator first and foremost.’
Another artist he’s proud to have recently worked with is A. B. Soto, another out and proud artist who’s ‘Cha Cha Bitch’ track has had over half a million views on YouTube.
Having worked with several openly gay artists, has Miah come across much homophobia in the music industry?
‘The industry is like the rest of the world; it exists. Sometimes you experience it in subtle ways and sometimes it’s more obvious. For most of my career I witnessed it rather than experienced it because I was professionally closeted or went to lengths to avoid the subject. I allowed the fear of what it might do to my career to rule me.
‘In fact, when I first worked with Ru in 2008, I had so many walls up; Things I was trying to project about myself or not project about myself. RuPaul was definitely one of the people who inspired me to be myself and be unfiltered.
‘Working with him really reaffirmed the idea that you must believe in your talent and ability; and that belief must override any fear of prejudice from others!’
If 2016 continues in the same way as 2015, Miah’s talent can only be recognized be a far wider number of believers.