Sunday 18 August 2019

Getting stronger: What's on Ellie Goulding's mind

The pop star grew up on council estate in Herefordshire. She talks about her difficult childhood and how she's learning to celebrate her success

Mellow: Ellie Goulding still likes to keep in touch with her friends back on the council estate where she grew up.
Mellow: Ellie Goulding still likes to keep in touch with her friends back on the council estate where she grew up.
Ellie Goulding and Dougie Poynter

Julia Molony

Just when it seems like the contemporary pop-landscape had become one giant twerk-off, along, against all expectations, comes someone as out-of-the-blue wholesome as Ellie Goulding.

As pop stars go, she's as respectable as they come. She was asked by Wills and Kate to play at the Royal Wedding in 2012. She's been invited to perform at the White House for the Obamas. In 2010, she sang vocals on an advert for John Lewis - the ultimate middle-class hearth-and-home brand. She's even a vegan. It doesn't get much more squeaky-clean than that.

Where Miley and RiRi and the rest of the gang make their names by stoking controversy, Goulding's USP is her sincerity. It's plain as day in interviews, and it positively seeps out of her songs, which set themes of her own quarter-life emotional confusion to giddy electro-beats.

Curled up on a couch in a hotel in London, there's little about her except the towering stack-heels that suggest multi-platinum pop-star. She seems more of a toast-and-tea girl than the champagne-and-diamonds type and is the first to protest her "normality" - insisting that there's nothing she prefers to being back in the small town in Herefordshire, on the Welsh borders, where she grew up, with all her old mates. "They're so great. They don't care about what I do," she says. "They're just happy to see me and happy to talk about old times. I'm so addicted to nostalgia. . . I love being back in Kington, where I grew up. I love the gossip. . . I'm actually going to have a party for my birthday this year and invite all my old friends and reminisce, drunkenly probably," she adds, perhaps wishing to prove that she's not quite as clean-living as the world has her pegged.

And yet, a peek at the headlines she generates reveals a social life that clearly bridges two very different worlds. Her boyfriend, Dougie Poynter is also a pop-star (he's the bassist and singer from the band Mcfly) making her one half of a music-industry power-couple, and she enjoys the company of a choice selection of famous mates. She's often photographed hanging out with Cara Delevingne, and she is included in the extremely select group of young female celebrities that make up the tight-knit clique that Taylor Swift calls her "girl squad."

Goulding is unusually open for someone of her level of celebrity. Which has a lot, she says, to do with the fact that her career has been built on a heart-on-sleeve approach to her music, which reflects the issues and dilemmas of her real life. "What I kind of built my entire career on - my song-writing - is being honest about my own vulnerability," she says. "And my own lack of understanding of people and humans and the world."

For Goulding, fame came at a relatively young age. At 28, she's launching her third album, Delirium. She's now an established act rather than an ingénue, and she's come a long way in a relatively short time - from a council estate in a small English town to the White House and beyond. In the notes which accompany the new album, she explains, "I came into music at a time where I could just about get away with being able to establish myself. I still don't class myself as a huge artist. I don't put myself on a pedestal, but nor do I think I've achieved nothing. I think of myself as hovering somewhere in between. What's changed in me is that, before, when someone suggested I perform at a big awards thing, or on a big TV show, I'd be really nervous, like, 'I'm not sure about that.' Well, not anymore. I'm ready now. And I owe it to myself to be like this. It's time to stop apologising."

She grew up the second of four children, in a family with barely two pennies to rub together. Her father, Arthur Goulding, left the family when she was five-years-old and she's had no contact with him since. He didn't even get in touch after she wrote a hit song about their estrangement. Entitled I Know You Care, she admitted around the time of its release that it was a piece of musical wishful thinking.

"My childhood was quite interesting, not having my Dad around and stuff," she says. "And just the situation I grew up in with my family, I've had family issues. I used to feel quite like I couldn't tell anyone that, because a lot of the families around me - both their parents were around and seemed to be situations that didn't have anything wrong with them. I now know in retrospect that every family has their issues."

Some pop stars are plucked from the nowhere to undergo a Cinderella-style transformation, but Goulding has dragged herself to where she is today by sheer force of will. Her memories, she says, of the early days "when I couldn't afford to get on a bus to go to a bloody studio, at the time I was just so embarrassed about myself, and so like, 'how did I let myself get like this?'" stop her from getting complacent or two comfortable, now that she's found success. Despite the fact that she claims to have been shy and insecure when she was young, she's always been driven. It's surprising, given her nice-girl image that she describes herself as a hustler. "Hustle hustle hustle," she says. "I always took a chance. I always took a risk. I maxed out my bloody credit card and took risks. I think I bought a little cheap guitar with it," she says. It's paid off in more ways than one. Earlier this year, she was listed on Heat Magazine's under 30's Rich List with an estimated net worth of £13 million, putting her in the same earning bracket as Jessie J and Leona Lewis. When she released Love Me Like You Do in Feburary, a song she recorded for the soundtrack of 50 Shades of Grey, it became the fastest selling single of the year.

Certainly, she's got moxie. Back when she was in Kington and about to finish school, she thought she might fancy going to University to study drama, but wasn't able to afford the bus far for the interview, So she wrote the tutors on the drama course a pleading letter begging them to let her in. Amazingly, it worked. She studied at the University of Kent for two years before leaving prematurely to pursue her pop dreams.

The relentless drive to get ahead comes, she says from growing up with the knowledge no one else was going to wave a wand and make it happen for her. "I knew from a young age that nothing was going to be put in my lap," she explains, "and I was never going to be given any inheritance or money, and that if I had to get somewhere in life, it would have to be work, work, work, and it would have to be by some miracle. . . I had a job at 12. I was sweeping hair up in a hairdresser, a few quid an hour. And I cleaned toilets and worked in a pub, worked in another pub, worked in a theatre."

When she came to write the material for Delirium, she says there were certainly a few things she "had to get off my chest." Her ideas for songs are born out of her own intense self-interrogation as she passes through her twenties, and the typical experiences that involves; love going right and going wrong, the intensity of female friendships. She's even got a song on there about having a one night stand, in which she talks about how, "I've had this one-night stand, or slept with this guy or spent the night with a guy - I mean, you don't have to sleep with a guy to spend a night with them," she adds, carefully. "But I loved this idea that you can have an experience and not have to go away thinking it's the be all and end all. . . In the past I've been very - the idea of a one-night stand, was like, what the hell? That makes no sense to me. You're so intimate with someone that you're never going to see again. But the empowerment that I wanted on the song was to allow girls to feel that they are allowed to have an experience like that, like a guy does."

One night stands, however are presumably not much on her agenda at the moment. She's been with Poynter since 2013 and the two seem totally loved up - perhaps even ready to settle down. Both of them have, on separate occasions, hinted at the possibility of marriage. And today, she's obviously got babies on her mind. "Maybe after this album I can maybe think about family and stuff like that," she says before going on to say "I'm hoping that if I ever get pregnant - if I ever get pregnant, . . . then I'll just sit there just writing and reflecting."

Perhaps it's on her mind especially now, because she became an auntie for the first time earlier this year, when her older sister had a baby girl in April. "She's adorable. She's just the best thing . . . It's the first time I've been an auntie and had a baby in my life . . . she's just so cute, and she looks just like my sister."

She is, by nature, something of a sharer. She's spoken in the past about suffering panic attacks when she was younger, prompting her to seek therapy. It was successful - she isn't bothered by them now. She spent a long time battling various insecurities about her self-image, the way she looks, and her place in the pop industry.

Right now, she considers herself to be in a pretty good place, but there's an introverted, perhaps even melancholy singer-songwriter streak in her that's never far from the surface. "I've always been quite solitary," she says. "I often say that I'm quite a lonely person. Just in the sense that I do spend a lot of time in my own mind. There's definitely an element of loneliness in there. And it doesn't matter if you've got a boyfriend, a husband, a wife, a girlfriend, there is definitely a kind of oneness with yourself that can't be touched by anyone else. And I think the reason why I've written so explicitly and boldly and honestly in the past is because of that. No one can really touch on that. I'll write a song, like a really deep song, and my boyfriend will go, "Oh that's a good song," but in my head I'm thinking no one will every really be able to understand why I wrote this song. I know that people can relate to it, but I mean, where it came from in me, in that moment."

For someone solitary, a life in the public eye has its costs too. She gets her fair share of grief on social media, and has learned, over time, to live with constant low-level criticisms levied via Twitter and Instagram. 'You're too fat to wear that," she says, by way of an example. "It's quite a tricky one. It's something that people on social media who are in the public eye have to accept as part of the job, which I think is crazy." She singles out particularly, "People who discuss my relationship ... saying things like, she's too good for him, or he's too good for her. Just because your relationship is in the public eye and you are photographed occasionally, does not mean that your relationship is any less real. I could never comment on someone else's relationship, it's never my place. So why is it that my relationship is any less real than yours?"

Does she find it upsetting? "I used to find it upsetting. I used to take it very personally. But when I first started out as an artist it was a very new thing. Twitter was new. I was one of the first people to tweet. The Instagram culture can be pretty awful. That hasn't helped the image conscious thing, at all. I'm level-headed and I think I have a sensible outlook on things. Very occasionally something bothers me, but more because it seems unfair, and I want people to understand that what they've just said and what they've just done is wrong. I genuinely want them to be better. I genuinely want to say, "do you understand that you'd have much more peace in life if you didn't think like that.' But I think that's the biggest challenge. I put myself here. And I'm available for people to say things to and I go on television. When I go on television, if I go on big TV shows and stuff, afterwards I just won't go on Twitter, because it's just damaging. If I ever want my ego completely flattened, I go on Twitter."

What she seems to have learned, above all on this insane ride she's been on the last few years, is perspective.

"I'm stronger and stronger," she says. "I know in myself that I've got a beautiful group of friends, a beautiful network of people around me. It takes a lot more than someone slagging me off on Twitter to ruin my day. I don't let it affect me that much."

'Delirium' is out now

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