Ellie Goulding is an unlikely pop star.
Her public image is subdued, even self-effacing; her voice is a gorgeous, fragile wisp that would sound more at home at a coffee shop than layered over a bouncing synth track; her lyrics are imbued with an aching vulnerability that most singer-songwriters would kill for. But like some other sonic greats who have paired distinctive vocals with dance beats — like Björk or Siobhan Donaghy — Ellie’s music derives much of its power from its pop sound. Likable, accessible, and danceable, her work with producers like Starsmith, Biff Stannard, and Frankmusik makes her poetry radio-friendly.
Since bursting onto the scene with her debut single, “Under the Sheets” — released via uber-hip singles label Neon Gold — Ellie was the top breakthrough act in the BBC’s Sound of 2010 poll and won the Critics’ Choice Award at the BRITs, a feat previously managed only by Adele. Her debut album, Lights, was released to commercial and critical acclaim, cementing Ellie’s position in the English cultural consciousness. But the re-release, Bright Lights, was even better, containing her sharpest work to date — collaborations with Fred Falke and Ben Lovett of Mumford & Sons took her glistening folk-dance to dramatic extremes.
Ellie has toured in the U.S. more than most English artists — we don’t usually get so lucky here in the States — and she’s just kicked off her latest stateside tour. Her evolution as a live artist has been an exhilarating thing to watch, as she’s become the kind of pop performer who genuinely lights up the stage with a rare ferocity. If she’s coming to your town, don’t miss her.
This has been an incredible few years for you. What’s the journey been like?
Um, I get asked this question a lot. I always end up answering it in a different way because I don’t know if there’s any way I could describe it. It’s been exactly how it looks, really. It’s been literally like a roller coaster. I know it’s a cliche, but… At the time, I was just taking it as it all happens. I guess when that the record came out, I wanted to see what would happen. As it turns out, it would have taken a lot longer to do what we were trying to do which is basically kind of like let the world know about me and stuff. We’re traveling everywhere, working really hard, doing shows and it’s given people enough awareness of me, I think, to keep going. That’s the important thing. I’m glad I’m at the position where I’ve worked hard enough now to be an artist of some sort of longevity, I think. So obviously that involves a lot of traveling. It involves a lot of shows, being at festivals. It’s kind of crazy. Even though it’s still busy now, I’m appreciating that it’s not as busy as it was.
This sense isn’t as strong in the States, but I can gather from the English press, it seems like you’ve gone from being an artist to being a celebrity. Has that been super invasive, or have you figured out ways to embrace it?
Definitely. I’ve figured out ways to embrace it. I learned early on that because I was a young girl making music in the spotlight, I’ve become — I guess that people try to turn you into a celebrity whether you want to or not. So I read funny things about me and I wonder how it ever got to this point, but I think that there’s this real celebrity world…even I am interested in what celebrities are doing and whatnot. People just learn about you as a person and know what kind of person you are. I think that with all the press and paparazzi, I guess people are getting a sense of what kind of person I am. I think that really helps. I think that sometimes people might, without even realizing it, encourage paparazzi and press to be even more interested. I’m at a good point where — there was quite intense paparazzi when I was in Miami recently — but I think that I really don’t have it as bad as a lot of other people. I definitely went from being one thing to another quite quickly.
After the re-release of your debut, Bright Lights, you’re now recording your second studio album. What can we expect to hear from that?
I have no idea. I know it’s going to sound different. It’s just kind of a matter of really spending a lot of time. I write things here and there, I’ve recorded things here and there, but it’s always a matter of experimentation. I’m just kind of crossing things off basically and seeing what connects. I never wanted to just say, “Well, okay, I want to make this kind of record. This is how it’s going to turn out.” I really believe in things happening and not over-thinking too much, so I’m waiting to hear the song that makes everything click together for the second record.
For your first album, you worked extensively with Starsmith, and then for the re-release you worked with a couple other people: Ben Lovett of Mumford & Sons, Fred Falke. Are you primarily going to be collaborating with Starsmith? Or with other people, do you know?
No, I think because I simply because I can, I’m going to reach out further. It might not be with someone well known, but certainly someone I believe in. Somebody new and up-and-coming. I want to find someone that I want to have a connection with. At the time, both myself and Starsmith had a very strong connection, and so we kind of just went for it, but it might not be the same case for the next record, so I’m just going to wait and see what happens, and see who I meet in the next few months.
Is there anything you’re listening to right now that’s been really influential for you?
Bands like Arcade Fire and Antony and the Johnsons, I’ve been listening to a lot lately. And then, like dance–I’m really into dance stuff and dubstep stuff. Then there’s a lot of stuff like Warpaint and Beach House. I love them. They’re very cool. I love how grungy Warpaint is — kind of reminds me of when I was young, listening to Pearl Jam and stuff like that. I really love what Warpaint do. And similarly, Beach House just has a sound that I really for some reason connect with.
On the first record, you interwove folk with dance really beautiful. On the re-release, it seemed like the contrast was sharper: The dance songs were dancier; “Your Song” felt more folk. Is that part of your process — to take more extreme sonic positions?
I think my vision just gets clearer for what I want, what I see, what best describes me. I think I wanted to do something hard like “Animal.” “Animal” is one of my favorite songs I made. I wanted to make something big. The thing is — there aren’t really any rules. I don’t think that I allow myself to be repressed by rules. If I want to make a dance song, then I will, which I did — I really wanted to make a really dance song with people being obsessed with each other — that kind of mood, it’s really quite fatal — but then something like “Your Song,” it’s just my voice and nothing else. I think on the next album, I want to be a bit more careful that my voice is the feature of the album and not necessarily anything else. I think that’s my main focus for the next album: My voice.
You’ve written about the concept of home on your record — most notably on “Home,” which might be my favorite song on the record, but also in “Wish I Stayed.” How has that impacted you to be spending so much time on the road?
I guess it makes me write about it more because I miss it so much. I wish that I could spend more time there. The more I’m away, the more I find myself thinking about it. It kind of gets worse.
But you’re making great music, so that’s a victory right?
Well, I–I hope so. I hope so. I just hope it’s not self-indulgent rants, you know?
No, I don’t think so. That’s not my take on it anyway.
The last time I saw you perform, your presence was much more pronounced — what have you learned about performing live?
Yeah, I think my confidence has improved. Also, it’s being able to have the attitude of gratitude, but also being carefree, you know. Not arrogance, but having enough grace and enough confidence to give the audience something really special, but at the same time, not taking it to the level of arrogance as in “I’m better than you.” I’ve always been very careful not to be that because that’s not who I am. I’m never one to put myself on a pedestal. I think that’s the important thing. I always chat with the audience, and I want them to see that I’m a very normal girl. [laughs] At the same time, I want to do something special, you know? I give it a bit more energy now.
Ellie is currently touring North America. Lights was released in the US on March 8. (iTunes)