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Ellie Goulding, Uncovered: "I Have to Be Fearless!"

Over a billion plays later Ellie is still Ellie, and this is her most intimate interview yet. The 28-year-old discusses the dark times and moving into the light.

by Kathy Iandoli
10 November 2015, 2:14pm

Walking up to Ellie Goulding’s hotel room—located on a top floor of Manhattan’s glittering Waldorf-Astoria Hotel—it’s clear a lot has changed. Five years prior we met in a similar part of town, at her record label HQ , to discuss her debut album Lights, where she viewed the fabled skyline, noting, “This city’s quite big, innit?” Worldwide fame has a way of seasoning you. Back then she was an ethereal pop neophyte raised in Herefordshire, a leafy county bordering Wales. Barely 24 and recently plucked from the café circuit and shunted straight to center stage, she was wide-eyed and taking it all in. Goulding’s first NYC show took place at the tiny Hiro Ballroom where it was just her pounding away with a guitar, somehow managing to translate songs then classified as folktronica to acoustic compositions—still resonant despite their newly stripped setting.

Ellie Goulding is not your typical UK crossover artist. She didn’t have the training of BRIT school acts like Adele or Jessie J, or even Amy Winehouse, nor the cushion of a trust fund to support an endless period of artistic exploration (*cough* Mumford & Sons *cough*). Instead Goulding grew up in a council estate (a.k.a. the UK’s equivalent of the projects), tempering ambition with frequent reality checks, a subconscious diminishing of her goals as if she could never fathom them happening. They did, and for a good long while the singer remained in disbelief at what she could accomplish. These days she’s more confident, more aware of her own capabilities, but she’s still humble and sweet, with a contagious laugh and an awesomely snarky sense of humor. She opens her hotel room door in a black one-shoulder dress. “Come right in,” she says in her fairy-dusted tones and an accompanying smirk. “I got dressed up for you. Actually I couldn’t find my other clothes.”

It took Goulding just half a decade to ascend to Pop Royalty—and that’s not some lazy reference to her performing at the royal wedding as Will and Kate’s favorite singer. It’s a title she deserves, especially with the release of her third album, Delirium. This project marks a turning point for Goulding, who spent so much of the past half decade checking for that invisible ceiling.

To date she’s sold 27 million singles, with video and song streams clocking over a billion plays. Released earlier this year, “Love Me Like You Do” hit number one in 70 countries and broke the record for the most streamed song in a single week. The ante’s been upped and accordingly, on Delirium, the 28-year-old’s worked with bigger producers and songwriters including Max Martin (Britney, Taylor Swift), Greg Kurstin (Adele, Sia), Klas Frans Åhlund (Robyn, Katy Perry), and Ryan Tedder (One Republic frontman, songwriter for hire working with everyone from Beyoncé to Ariana to U2). Yet their collaborations are just that—collaborations—and they still sound quintessentially her; Ellie amplified. Her signature style has always been tremendous sounding songs with heartfelt lyrics, making them pliable for club-play or crying in your room-play. So much of her songwriting before this moment focused on those darkest hours where dealing with an absent father and a frequently broken heart kept an influx of electronic tearjerkers flooding the airwaves. And yeah, there’s still a degree of that happening here (“I can get back to that dark place like THAT!” she once told me with a finger snap), but Goulding is pretty happy these days and her music reflects this positivity.

Switching gears can be scary, especially to fans who so often like to keep their favorite artists tucked in a tiny, limiting box. Nevertheless, this game thrives on upward mobility and Goulding is here for it. Like most famous folk, bullshit follows her, but now she’s well equipped to handle it. In catching up with Noisey, she talks about finally embracing fame and finding love. Oh, and she smashes a few rumors—from the target of “On My Mind” to chipping away at the ego of a certain Mr. Gallagher.

Noisey: In April of 2013, you tweet, “Delirium.” Two and a half years later, we're getting the album.
Ellie Goulding:
Did I really? That is fucking nuts! What date did I tweet that?

April 19, 2013.
What was I doing that day? That's so crazy. That to me is just like a sign. That's just madness. I just need to figure out what I was doing on that day. [Checks iCal.] I had a day off in Warsaw on the European tour. Interesting.

Delirium is definitely a new kind of Ellie, but you still have this knack for creating big songs with these lyrics that hit you.
I always want to keep the essence of what I do, which is that I like to captivate feelings that we all have—this human condition and these feelings that we have—but I want to put it in a context that's uplifting. And I think that's what I've done on this latest album. It's definitely a world away from Halcyon. When I discovered the light at the end of Halcyon Days, when “Burn” came along, I think that's when the shift in my mood and my happiness happened. That's totally reflected on this album. A few people described Halcyon as a bit of a cry for help in some way, because yeah, I was going through a weird time. The only way that I felt like I could communicate that darkness was through darkness, but I didn't realize that I could use it in such a bright way. So this is what Delirium is about. It's really good fun, and when I listen to the songs, I'm like, “These are just gonna keep me uplifted for when I start touring them!”

To be honest, it’s a bummer performing depressing songs on tour. Every day you're just singing about sad things. I'm trying to be more of a positive person. I think all of us are always trying to be all positive. And yeah, this album is a venture for me. It's like I've explored being happier and explored making bigger songs and explored writing with bigger writers. It's the next level. It was kind of like a go hard or go home kind of thing for me.

I think after “Love Me Like You Do,” the stakes were totally raised because that song was a giant.
Yeah! And you know, that song proved to me that I could do it. The fact that my voice is still my voice, it is what it is. To put that together in a different context of what you might maybe describe as “big pop,” sonically it can be risky. It might not work, but all I know is I love the new music. It's one of those things where you just do it. Everything's a risk. Everything's got an element of fearfulness to it for me. And I have to be fearless! I was never going to make an album that was apologetic, because I feel like I'm at the point now where I deserve to do something big.

For a bit though, it felt like you were uncomfortable with that fame. It was like it happened quickly and hit hard, and all of a sudden everyone's looking at you, everyone's talking about you. You've alluded to not being able to handle that really well.
You're right. That's another thing: I've got to a point where it's manageable. The way that I see my challenges in being a musician, a female musician, is the same way as I see everything—you're never going to please everyone, you're never going to change the world with just you. It's like, I get frustrated by a lot of things, but I've realized there's some things you just have to turn a blind eye to in order to move forward. You kind of have to cover up to uncover. It's like when I see articles talking about how someone's been homophobic or someone's been racist, then you see the comments and then you see the real world. And the person writing the article has done an incredible job and said, “This kind of homophobia is unacceptable,” and then you see the comments and they're so unbearable to read the ignorance! It's just something like if I allowed that to make me sad, I would just never move forward, ever. So my idea is I want to change things. These last couple of years, I've been doing things that are closer to my heart, and it's the same with music. I'm just trying to go in more of a positive direction. I'm trying to make a change for myself and for anything else I can do, and I feel like there's some things that you just can't let stand in your way. So that's what I've done! And it's helped, and I've got good people around me like I always have done. I try not to let things annoy me anymore.

And you're with someone who seems to be incredibly positive. [She’s been dating bassist Dougie Poynter from English band Mcfly/McBusted for nearly two years.]
Yeah! I think with him and I, we allow things to be catastrophic. He'll be worried about something, but it's more short term. Like he'll say something that's worrying him and we'll talk about it. I'll say something that's worrying me, we'll talk about it. And I think because we're quite similar and we used to be quite kind of, thinking the worst. So I think we've helped each other have a kind of dealing mechanism, and that's definitely helped.

Does continuing to open up to the world with your music scare you at all? I mean, Halcyon was incredibly open, especially “Explosions,” the song about your dad and how he’s no longer in your life.
Funny enough, I had another song about my dad that I wrote. And then I was just like, “You know what? I just don't want to be bummed out by this anymore.” Writing a song for me is more than just writing it. I then have to perform it. I owe it to my fans to perform this song and I decided I don't want to do that.

That's a lot of heavy lifting to perform that shit.
It is! It is. Every night, it gets too much. It also depends what state you're in. Like, I was on tour last year and I was performing that song and I was a mess because I was having a personal thing and it completely changed that song for like a week when I was performing it. It just changed it into the most heartbreaking, terrifying thing that I could possibly perform. But I think opening myself up doesn't really scare me because songwriting has always given me something that just talking can't do. You know, I can talk for fucking days. I love talking, but there's something about songwriting that allows me to have that power. I could sing about anything I wanted. I could sing about relationships, I could sing about my family, I could sing about my friend's one night stand. I could do what I want, and that is what you can do if you're an artist. So in that sense, rather than vulnerability, it now kind of gives me a new kind of sense of power. As you know, I've always liked the idea of being able to help people, and being able to write songs that genuinely make women feel better about themselves and feel better about that weird situation they might have with a guy, or with their family, which I've been in plenty of times. I stand for women always. I respect musicians like Bjork, Kate Bush, even Taylor Swift, who write about situations that do happen. That is reality! That is what happens in real life, it's not black and white ever.

So with the first single, “On My Mind,” are we talking about who everyone thinks we're talking about?
No!

The rumors were that first Ed Sheeran wrote about a hotel room [in “Don’t”] and now Ellie is talking about a hotel room.
How funny! We're the only two asses in the world who use hotels. No, it's not. It's just something that happened. But also, it's a combination of something that happened to me, and something that happened to the person who I wrote it with. To me, that was the most tongue-in-cheek song that I've ever done. It was nice to get one of those songs out there, where people know they can't mess with me. Basically, I've never really written a song where people think, “Whoa, she can be quite scary!” or that kind of thing. So, I like the idea of that, but at the same time, I just think it's a good song. I love performing it. I just take on this alter-ego when I perform it, because I'm not really like that. I'm really nice and sweet as you know. So yeah, there you go.

You put up on Instagram that you’re really proud of this album. What are you most proud of?
I think just that I feel like I've really grown and I've really figured out what pop music is. And it doesn't matter what people say about this album—to me, this is something that's clever because I've really thought about it. And I know people sometimes tend to associate pop music with being easy and simple and not hard to make, but pop songs are hard to make! To me, it's a really beautiful art and a really beautiful type of music, and music that really gets to people and really stays with people. Even music that uplifts people and makes people stay positive, that to me is pop music. So that's why I feel proud of it, because it's something that I've really taken a lot of time over and a lot of energy. It seems like people say, “Oh, it's clean songs. It's polished,” and it's like yeah, that's a skill in itself to have a song like that! Max and his team worked really hard and they're so passionate about music. And so is Greg Kurstin, he's like a wizard. I love him so much. That's my prize, that I got to work with those people and I got to create this amazing piece of work.

Is it a double-edged sword though, because you've collected these fans that have been from the electronic days and even the folk days through this whole process, and I'm looking at some of the comments and it's like, “I love the album, but I miss Lights Ellie!” And it's like Lights Ellie was like five years ago! Where's the evolution?
She's dead! [Laughs.] No, that's never gonna die. That's always the spirit, but I'm not the kind of person that's a musician or an artist that will stay the same. I'm always doing something new, and it's sweet that they want the old Ellie back, but it's still there. It's still my voice, it's still my stories, it's still my life. That's never gonna change.

To your point, the thing about this album is you're working with production titans and yeah they're polishing, but they're polishing something you've already built.
Right, yeah! I think that it's always gonna be me. I think that most of my fans understand that. There's always that soul of me and I'll always work with different people. I work with the same people, but the sound will always be a little bit pushed. I push pop music and I think that's what I've done. And even if people say it's “just a pop record,” it's not just a pop record! I feel like I'm pushing it, and I feel like that should be an admirable thing, not something to be frowned upon.

When you locked yourself in Max Martin's compound, I read that you walked out and The Weeknd was there. What did you do?
I avoided him because I was too nervous. I'm pretty socially awkward sometimes, and he's pretty cool and I'm not cool. I didn't want the clash of that to happen. But he's complimented me before on my music and vice versa. It's one of those things like when you're working in the compound, it can be quite awks. Like you're in your own little world, writing heartfelt songs and then you bump into another artist and you're like, shit.

Why are some people afraid to love pop? I just read the whole thing with Noel Gallagher talking shit about you and other pop musicians, and then I read he was telling you not to tell anyone he's a fan. What's the fear in enjoying good music?
He's a funny one, that man. I bloody love Noel, and it's a shame he's so stuck on that. I watch him and he's hilarious. I watch his interviews all the time; I think he's great. But he did say he was a fan not long ago. To me. To my face. And then it's like, “Fucking Ellie Goulding, what's she got to say for herself?” and it's just like mate, come on! Don't be a twat! And he lumps me with a bunch of other people, and we're all very different artists—Adele and I are very different artists; I'm obviously a very different artist from One Direction, who are a boy group. I just thought that was really weird, but then again, I think some people don't even know who he is. It's not like I was bad-mouthed by the President or the Queen or someone.

It’s been five years since your first album. In that timeframe, what do you feel has been the biggest change? The biggest thing that you look back and you're like, “I would never be that again.”
I think apologetic. I always felt I wasn't meant to be there, and it really reflected in what I wore, it really reflected in my personality, my shyness. You've got to believe that you deserve to be where you are. You got to. There's no other way around it. Yes, I'll always have insecurities, yes I'll always have things I get down about, but that is OK. Once you accept that and move on from it, it's alright. If you're constantly like, “I'm insecure and I can't be because I'm a pop star,” that's not the way to do it. I think more like having acceptance of it and just like, thinking about it for a second and moving on. So that's where I've changed the most. It's just a change in the way you deal with things. It's like your reaction to things. In most of your makeup, your personality, who you are as a person, is your reaction to things. So you can react to something badly, or you can react to something positively. That's kind of how I've changed.

So now that the album is out, what’s your mindset? Because you refer to this as a new era for you, so what's the next step?
I don't know what kind of journey this album's gonna take me on. I have no idea! When Halcyon came out, there was a bit of buzz around it, and then it went away and then it came back and blew me up in the face! I was like, “Oh my God!” It was a real sort of like, Halcyon teased them for like a year and I was performing songs from it for like a year, and then all of sudden it just blew up. So I don't know, maybe it's gonna be the opposite with this one, maybe it's gonna be the same. All I know is there's been so much buzz about it and my manager is like, “It's just crazy the amount of interest in different things,” and I think what's so exciting is the opportunities for me to do things have not changed. Festivals still want to book me, and TV [shows] and other things I really respect still do too, and it just shows me that nothing's really changed, but then again, kind of everything has. So it's like the most confusing thing ever, but I do know that I think it's going to keep me in a really good place, this album.

Delirium is out now via Cherrytree / Interscope Records.

Kathy Iandoli isn’t afraid to admit that her interviews with Ellie Goulding are way better than yours. Follow her on Twitter.

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