Ellie Goulding: ‘I was made to feel like a sexual object’
The singer is back after five years away with a bold new sound – and an urge to speak out
By the time of her second album, Ellie Goulding was a gossip magazine mainstay, exacerbated by Ed Sheeran painting her as promiscuous in his hit song Don’t. Photograph: Chris Jackson/Getty Images
Ellie Goulding has spent the coronavirus lockdown holed up in what is essentially the world’s nicest student house. Her art dealer husband Caspar Jopling is studying an MBA at Oxford University – he is on the boat race team, Clark Kentishly nerd-handsome and ripped – and she has been at his lovely old cottage in the surrounding countryside. You get the feeling the only noodles to have crossed the threshold are wholewheat udon rather than Super or Pot.
When I arrive, she ushers me back out, desperate for a constitutional. As we turn off the road on to a deserted footpath, she pulls her hood down perhaps unconsciously: the celebrity leaving incognito mode. We tramp up and down a lane of brambles and bushes, chatting about TikTok.
She needed the walk, she says, and now needs a glass of champagne – there’s some open in the fridge; no turbo shandies for Jopling, clearly – because she’s spent a long day doing interviews and streamed performances ahead of her new album, Brightest Blue, coming out next week. It is Goulding’s fourth, and her first in five years, a triumph of heart and ambition in symphonic electronic pop. With a mixed bag of singles with Gen Z stars such as Lauv and Blackbear separated off at the end, the main body of the work is her best yet. It is a reckoning with 33 years of love, strife, absence and womanhood, with a crystalline emotional clarity earned from hosing down a lot of bulls**t: a string of failed high-profile relationships, family troubles and toxic masculinity.
Being sexualised “was what one of my strengths had to be. I really was programmed into thinking that that was part of how to succeed”
After growing up in a council house in a Herefordshire village, Goulding initially wanted to act and studied drama, “but I was painfully shy”, so she became a huge pop star. She admits there is a paradox. “Singing seemed to be a way for me to have confidence while not being confident,” she says. “I don’t know if that ever really goes away. I have to sometimes pretend.” But “music chose me”, she says, and she started “playing guitar manically every night, writing manically”, going to open mic nights, putting her songs on MySpace and messaging producers to help bring them to fruition. She had a “brother and sister” connection with Starsmith, and the combination of his electronic production and her songs, sung with that uniquely sweet-yet-careworn voice, won her a major label deal. A Brit award and a number one debut album in 2010 quickly followed as the industry’s gears whirred excitedly into motion.
Meetings with other producers weren’t so charmed. She says she was foolish not to ally herself with the #MeToo movement earlier – “I was a bit too scared, I thought maybe I would be judged” – because she had those experiences, too. “The first producer I met wanted to sleep with me,” she says. “And I was like, why? I didn’t see myself as an object of desire.” He and others preyed upon her vulnerability as a 19-year-old keen to make it. “I wouldn’t be able to get home because I couldn’t afford it, and they would say: ‘You can stay.’ But there would always be the suggestion of something. I’d have to laugh it off – I constantly had to laugh things off. Other sessions would have alcohol and it would get to a point where the man would say something suggestive and I’d feel uncomfortable. My whole career started off with instantly being made to feel like a sexual object, and being made to feel vulnerable in those sessions. And there are so many female singers that will hear me saying that and say: ‘Yeah, I can relate.’”
This left her feeling that being sexualised “was what one of my strengths had to be. I really was programmed into thinking that that was part of how to succeed.” With an absent father after her parents divorced when she was five, and a rocky relationship with her mother and stepfather, she had no shield. “I think on top of not having a dad, I needed protection. And so that protection came in the form of men, of partners.” She chose people “that I felt could relate to the situation I was in” as a young and scrutinised star: music industry men such as One Direction’s Niall Horan, McFly’s Dougie Poynter, the Radio 1 DJ Greg James and the dance producer Skrillex.
By the time of her second album, she was a gossip magazine mainstay, exacerbated by Ed Sheeran painting her as promiscuous in his hit song Don’t. He never named her, but sprinkled obvious hints and later admitted “everyone fucking knows” who it’s about. Goulding says all the chatter “did get in the way. ‘Who’s Ellie Goulding dating now?’ would be more interesting to people than how many records I sold, or a song going to number one, or my tours. It was out of control; I didn’t feel I could just come out and say: ‘Well, you don’t take me seriously enough.’ It just spiralled.”
Alcohol started to become a fairly constant, if never dangerous, presence. “I don’t know many musicians who aren’t fuelled by something in the studio,” she says. “Maybe it’s an inhibition thing. It’s just impossible to write music if you’re critiquing what you’re doing as you’re writing. I’ve definitely written songs while I’ve been drunk that have resonated with people. My cover of Your Song I probably did [while drunk], and Anything Can Happen.”
It was a social crutch too – “a party, dinner or event, I don’t think I’ve ever been to any of those without having had a drink” – and her calendar was filling up. “Fly to Belgium where you’ll do this radio, then to France at 6am, and straight to Germany. They wouldn’t play your record if you didn’t go there. Then you do an acoustic session at 8am, your voice isn’t quite woken up – you do a terrible performance and then you hate yourself. Very quickly it starts to affect you. And the label were always like: how much more can we put in?”
“My anxiety was just crazy; I had impostor syndrome that just affected everything”
Talking about substance use and pressure on young artists makes me think of Juice WRLD, the US rapper who features on Goulding’s track Hate Me, and who died of an overdose aged 21 as his plane was being raided for drugs in December 2019. His label and management should have better protected such a young star. “They’re constantly trying to figure out how they can best manage an artist that needs certain things for their art, but also for their mental health,” Goulding says carefully – those “things” could obviously include drugs. “A navigation that is very sensitive and tricky and needs to be talked about more.”
She says the situation is improving. “They say to artists before they sign them: ‘We’d love to provide someone for you to talk to.’ They say to me: ‘Okay, she’s got a week off, let her have a holiday.’ I think they’re making changes.”
Her graft was at least making her bigger than ever, with the jubilantly sexual Love Me Like You Do becoming a worldwide hit in 2015. She decided to scale up further with her third album, Delirium, which featured some of pop’s biggest backroom names, such as Max Martin and Greg Kurstin. “The survivor part of me was like: ‘Okay, I need to do this, I need to commit to something. No one seems to know what I am. Maybe I don’t know who I am. Right: LA, big album.’”
Delirium is a strong, pounding record that sounds a little dated now that pop is more introverted; it rightly got good reviews, but Goulding was jaded by the time they were printed. “I wrote it off before I even went out on tour with it. I knew in my bones it wasn’t right. I remember playing it to my family and friends: ‘Skip it, hate this one.’ I look back at pictures of myself performing and I just know I’m not happy. It’s in my face, it’s in my smile.” She says she has no bitterness towards it now, though: “A damn good pop album – maybe not an Ellie Goulding record.”
The hard work, breakups, family strife and more built to a head. “My anxiety was just crazy; I had impostor syndrome that just affected everything, and I couldn’t write about impostor syndrome because, obviously, anything I was writing was not good enough. It was debilitating.”
Therapy helped, as did memoirs by female musicians such as Viv Albertine and Kim Gordon. “I needed to hear stories of other frontwomen, where I could justify everything that I was and everything that had got me here,” she says. “Viv had a tricky childhood, but she’s incredible: so smart, funny and cool. I found it so comforting – it made me feel not ashamed of my family situation and where I came from.”
“Men maybe thinking that there’s always something better coming along. I’m yet to discover exactly why that is – that’s kind of what keeps my songwriting career afloat.”
She took time out, renting a house in Richmond. “A rock star house: I thought I needed to indulge in some way. And I had this time of enjoying what I’d achieved, and this newfound independence – I could have people around, but not ever feel I needed some kind of conquest or some person on the agenda. I just found this new lease of life, to the point where I didn’t need anyone so much that I was like: am I just going to be a spinster?” Her beautiful waltz New Heights is about this moment. “Women think they have to change themselves for somebody else. I would do it. That’s why that is a crucial song for me because it was just euphoria: ‘Oh my God, it turns out that you don’t have to rely on someone else to be happy!’ This was a new thing for me. Then I moved out to New York, and I met Caspar.”
She speaks about him with the almost bored, matter-of-fact tone of true love, rather than giddy infatuation. “It wasn’t love at first sight. It was months of both of us being painfully shy and walking around a few galleries, not saying a single word to each other. There was no drama or arguments. There was no me trying to figure out if he liked me or not, and then writing about it and getting drunk about it. It didn’t require the initial dating thing that we all do where we’re waiting for them to call. He just called. It was the thing I’ve been waiting for, but it wasn’t like I was waiting for that scenario – I was waiting for Caspar. He just saw me. He sees me in a way that I’ve always wanted to be seen.”
She also became a climate activist, and is inspired by the newly intensified activism around the Black Lives Matter movement – indeed, the two strands are intertwined. “Systems built on racism have then contributed to climate change,” she says. “It was all very well to post the black square and to show that solidarity, but I knew that wasn’t enough. I wasn’t following a bunch of female black climate activists, who I’ve now got involved with; I’m speaking to people on the phone every day about it. Everything’s been amplified and illuminated – we have to carry that spirit on.”
Brightest Blue isn’t full of soppy love songs – most of it was written pre-Jopling, in fact – and there are some nice spiky moments such as How Deep Is Too Deep, about a commitment-phobic man. “I have some friends who are serial monogamists, in and out of relationships, and their most common thing has been commitment-phobes,” she says. “Men maybe thinking that there’s always something better coming along. I’m yet to discover exactly why that is – that’s kind of what keeps my songwriting career afloat.”
The album’s central thread, though, is how palpably comfortable she is in her skin, with reclaimed sexuality a part of that. For the video to Power she filmed herself in lingerie, “stuff I wouldn’t dream of ever wearing in bed, because that shit is uncomfortable! It was incredibly liberating. It wasn’t like I’d suddenly bloomed and become this sexual thing, I’d always been that. But there’s a difference between being it because you felt that you had to be, and then being it because you truly feel it and you can embrace it.” The moral of Goulding’s story is that to truly love someone, you have to love yourself first – a cliche, perhaps, but then pop is so good at those. – Guardian
Brightest Blue is released on Polydor on July 17th