Ellie Goulding - After The Gould Rush

Ellie Goulding talks the BRITs, bad dreams and facing a backlash

Ellie Goulding recently decamped to Ireland for a short break. After what sounds like an arduous, though scenic, journey (London to Cardiff, via her hometown of Hereford for a couple of days, a train to Fishguard, ferry to Rosslare and then a five-hour drive to Dingle on the west coast), the 25-year-old pop sensation spent two weeks holed up on her own in a hotel. Her mission? To find out who she was again.

“I know that sounds far-fetched and cheesy,” she laughs while fiddling with her cup of Earl Grey in a North London photography studio, “but I had genuinely forgotten what I was really like.”

To most of us such an admission would sound both improbable and rather fanciful, but given Goulding’s rollercoaster previous 12 months, in which she went from being a complete unknown to one of the brightest stars in its galaxy, it’s hard to doubt her sincerity.

In Dingle she spent her days reading (Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids – “amazing” and poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy’s Rapture – “She’s a bit like me in that she can be a quite morbid and talk about dead bodies”), walking on the beach and running. She went to see a couple of Irish folk bands, but generally she kept herself to herself.

“I felt like I needed to be alive again,” she says with disarming candour. “London had deadened me a bit. I grew up in the middle of nowhere, so to be in Dingle was just heaven. I got things done. I recorded things. I played my guitar more than I have done in ages.”

The gloriously enigmatic Goulding would appear to be unlike other pop stars then. She devours the novels of acclaimed Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, ardently discusses poetry and covers songs by alt.indie avatars Midlake and Bon Iver. So far, so unlike, say Cheryl Cole.

Yet Goulding resides firmly in the musical mainstream. Her debut album, Lights, all light and fluffy electronic pop, as exemplified by the soar away success of the single Starry Eyed, was the best selling debut album of 2010, having sold over half-a-million copies to date. Moreover, her tender reworking of Elton John’s signature hit, Your Song, peaked at number two on the singles chart just before Christmas, aided, no doubt, by its inclusion on an advertising campaign for a leading retailer. And in March she’s off to America to do it all over again. Having only played New York and Los Angeles before, she says she finds the thought of playing a proper US tour both exhilarating and scary.

Little wonder the amiable Goulding suggests she needs time to recharge her batteries and rediscover her true self. Unfortunately the timing of our chat doesn’t help this state of confusion. Two nights ago, Goulding had been up for a pair of awards at the BRITs, Best British Female and Best British Breakthrough. She walked away empty handed, and although she’s sanguine about missing out, it’s clear she doesn’t know how disappointed she’s meant to be.

“I was nervous, there’s no point in lying and saying I was fine,” she admits. “So many people had said to me, ‘You’re going to win, you’re going to win’, and that kind of expectation makes you think maybe you will win. I thought Tinie (Tempah) deserved his award (Best Breakthrough). Best Female, I wondered what would happen with that, because I’d had such a good year. I think the fact that Laura (Marling) won is good because I’m such a big fan. Obviously I’m gutted, but the more I think about it the more I think it’s a good thing.”

Although she might not want to countenance additional reasons to be grateful for not winning, there is last year’s cautionary tale to take into consideration. Twelve months ago, Goulding had been catapulted into instant stardom before she had even released her debut album. Having topped the BBC’s controversial Sound of 2010 poll, she then won the Critics Choice award at the BRITs. Overnight she went from being blogged about as one-to-watch to fending off a fusillade of criticism that suggested her ascent to the top had been all-too-easy.

“I felt I’d somehow insulted each and every critic who wrote bad things about me,” she laments. “I didn’t understand it. I feel I’m a good person. Every day I do something that makes me think I’m a good person and I do it consciously for karma because I want to be a good person.”

Looking back, she realises that Lights wasn’t written with mammoth mainstream success in mind. Not that she hasn’t cherished most of what has come her way, but today she is far removed from the innocent singer-songwriter who penned much of her debut album.

“I feel like I’ve grown up a whole lot over the last year,” she explains. “In so many ways. I’ve read more books. I’ve read more poetry. I’ve played more guitar. My voice is stronger.”

How this will manifest itself in her second album she isn’t quite sure. She wants to experiment a bit more: allow the songs to breathe. To this end her current fascination with the piano could prove telling. She’s determined to have lessons. She’s also unsure whether she’ll work with electro producer Starsmith on her next album. Maybe her current infatuation with Arcade Fire and The National will signal her future direction. For now though, she’s in no rush.

“I’m definitely going to think long and hard about it,” she offers. “It’s gonna have to come naturally. If my album ends up being dubstep or just folk then so be it. I have to be honest.”

In which case if her recent dreams are any indication expect it to be a collection of murder ballads. A self-confessed fatalist, Goulding is obsessed with death. Recently she endured two weeks of dreaming about being shot every night. Her graphic retelling of these dreams would be quite macabre if it wasn’t for her smiley, effervescent nature.

“I’m curious to know what it’s like to be in excruciating pain,” she says, by way of explanation. “I think it’s partly because I’ve been injured.”

She does, however, have intimate knowledge of quite gruesome panic attacks. She had a series of them towards the end of 2009 and the start of 2010, just when everything was starting out for her. Her brain, she says, was overloaded with information and it just couldn’t keep up. When she first had them she thought she was having a heart attack. Thankfully, therapy helped and she hasn’t had one in a while, which has meant she can get back to one of her other loves, running.

“I don’t know if it clears my head,” she explains, “all I know is I enjoy my body moving. It certainly doesn’t make me more sensible.”

In the past she’s tried to temper talk of her obsession with running because some journalists have accused her of being boring. Not today though.

“F**k them,” she says, clearly irate. “That really pisses me off. I’ve had my phase of drinking too much, of not eating enough, of drugs and now I just want to run. I’d like to see them go for a 20-mile run, they’re all too lazy.” So cruel, lazy (both figuratively and literally) and misinformed journalists aside, has she managed to find herself? Is she happy?

“Yes. I think so. Am I happy? I think I am.”

What about if it all explodes in America and there’s another cycle of hype? Rolling Stone named her as one of their five artists to look out for this year.

“Yay! I know. But they’re nicer over there. Fact. But I am happy. Do I seem happy?” She might not know who she is yet, but Ellie Goulding, a curiously modern type of pop star, seems happy.

The Big Issue no 1133
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