Three years ago that stripped down version of Elton’s Your Song put Ellie Goulding on the map. But fame takes a while to navigate. Has she finally found her way?
Photography: Matthew Shave, Ellie Goulding Instagram, Rex. Words: Anita Bhagwandas
It’s almost midday when I arrive at Ellie Goulding’s Marylebone flat, yet when she answers the door above an old London pub she’s still in her red tartan pyjama bottoms and white T-shirt. She’s been doing phone interviews all morning, she explains, welcoming me in warmly. “Germans with no banter, no laughs,” she smiles indiscreetly. Immediately I like her.
Blonde hair tied up in a messy bun and no make-up (great skin) she leads me through the hallway, past a messy rail of clothes and into a clean, tidy, open-plan kitchen. She brews a tea – we both choose peppermint – and I look around: off-white cabinets; fridge packed with fruit and vegetables (she’s a veggie); shelf bursting with cookery books. For a girl who’s sold over four million records worldwide, it’s surprisingly un-rock’n’roll. But then, having recorded a Children In Need song and performed at 2011’s Royal wedding, Goulding, 26, isn’t famous for her hedonism.
Within minutes, we’re in the lounge – me on a low brown squishy sofa, her opposite in a Sixties-inspired chair. There are quirky artefacts everywhere: a taxidermy crow and hare, model skulls, huge ornate mirrors and a raft of pictures that she tells me she’s going to change for black and white tour photos. She’s also planning LOTS of candles – “some really big fat ones” – but there’s a definite masculine edge here too. She has, she reveals, never been a girlie girl; growing up with images of Pearl Jam and Manchester United blu-tacked to her bedroom walls back in Lyonshall, Herefordshire, burning CD compilations of everyone from The Prodigy to the Pretenders to Seal.
Goulding is a true musician. Her current sound is ethereal dance; electro with a folksy edge; her vocals sometimes haunting but always distinctive. But then pop stars rarely get away with just being musicians and I’ll be the first to admit that up until now she’s not been top of the list of, ‘look at me celebs’. And after an hour in her company, I learn that’s because she really doesn’t need to be.
You’ve had an amazing year. Are you currently in a good place?
I’m genuinely peaceful and positive. I feel more grounded and connected with everything – friends, family. I think I wasn’t hugely close to my family but my sister’s wedding [in October], brought everyone back together. And I think I’ve changed the way I deal with stuff recently; I’m trying to think of everything in a more positive way [because] if something gets me down, it’ll really gets me down [she recently revealed she’s taken Diazepam]. The thing I wish I could do more of is train. It’s the one thing I do that doesn’t require any emotion.
Have you always been into fitness?
Not really. I was quite an out-of-shape teenager. I wasn’t brought up eating salads or anything healthy. It was cheap food, like fish fingers, chips, beans.
I started meeting people in my late teens that made me think, ‘f***, I really need to be healthier and look after myself’. And then I started running and it’s taken six years to build up my fitness from nothing.
Has that been impacted by spending a lot of time in America? [her second album Halcyon made the top 10 of the Billboard 200 and she's been sampled by Drake]
America’s a lot more healthconscious but it’s something I’ve discovered for myself. I’m not perfect. I’ll still eat baked beans and Oreos, but I’m on that path to not needing any of that s***. I feel like I look healthier; my skin’s better. I think you are what you eat, and I never would have said that before. I couldn’t justify it because I ate so much bad food!
Your critics say you’re still trying to find your sound. Are you?
I remember a review in The Guardian. Alexis Petridis said it’s the kind of music that people from my home town would like. [So] I feel like your back story is taken into account here, whereas in America it’s just like, “Great music, good vibes.” I get so much enjoyment out of what I do, whether it’s being remixed or doing a cover with a hip-hop producer, or a ballad or a big pop song. I can have that freedom; it’s in my power. My voice is the string that ties it all together. In the beginning I was really preoccupied with being scrutinised and my music being picked apart. But I’m at peace with it now... [The door bell rings]. One moment, I just need to get this.
[In the brief time it takes to answer the door – to her next interviewer – I become mesmerised by the array of stuffed animals on the walls.] What’s with all the taxidermy?
It just reminds me of when I was young; I used to wash up for these farmers for a bit of cash and they were hunters, and there were animals strewn everywhere. I don’t eat animals, but it’s weirdly comforting. And all my taxidermy stuff is ethical.
Popjustice called you “the least controversial pop star ever.” How did that make you feel?
That was a while ago and I don’t think people would say that now. It’s funny because I know that I’m not, and I don’t necessarily want people to know about my private life, so I don’t really want to give away who I am.
Your X Factor performance and outfit got a lot of commentary however. Were you surprised?
People think if you’re too skinny, you’re anorexic. If you’re overweight, you’re fat and you’re criticised for not eating well or whatever. And then if you’re f***ing athletic, you get criticised too! One Yahoo.com article made me f***ing angry. They said, “She’s too athletic to wear that”. I was like, “f*** you!” Oh, Sorry what? Do I have to be a supermodel? OK cool, let’s all grow really tall and have perfect bodies. F*** you for writing that. I’m a good role model. I’m not going to lie – I smoke and drink occasionally, as people do, but I also take care of myself a lot. I’m not a straight-edge vegetarian who does a work-out every day, you know, I still drink and I still get drunk. But I feel like I’m well-rounded and sensible in that respect. I’m not an angry person; I’m a very peaceful person. But that was the one thing where I wrote and said, “Don’t say that.”
Miley Cyrus and the direction of pop music is a big topic at the moment…
I like Lorde and she’s not dressed scantily or controversial. She’s just a great singer and writes great songs. [Pop]’s not heading in any direction. Miley is a great pop artist, I’m 100% a fan. She sings well, she performs well, she writes well.
I was at the VMAs and it wasn’t anything that people made it out to be. I was looking around and people were like this [dances, clicks fingers], they were really digging it. There were no people going [gasps in mock horror], you know? The people sat next to me – Will Smith’s family – they were just having a great time.
Can you twerk?
Everyone’s tried it! What’s the difference between that and some of Gaga’s performances? What is art? Who’s the judge? People could say that what I do isn’t art. I’ll have one tweet saying, “You’re incredible, I’ve never listened to an album like yours or a voice like yours, you’re ethereal.” Then I’ll get another tweet saying, “You’re shit, who the f*** do you think you are?”
You’re very active on Instagram, too. I noticed you were at the Q Awards the other night...
I won an award for once, which is pretty cool. It’s a different crowd for me. I was on a table with Ronnie Wood. He was really cute; he knocked something over and did a little cheeky giggle. I met Chrissie Hynde [there too] and I was proper jealous because she used to be in the Pretenders. I want to meet Björk – I want to pick her brains.
Ellie with Bruno Mars, above
That would be a good collaboration if you could make it happen.
God, I’d love it so much. I just got sampled by Drake recently on his album. [Sighs] I love his album. I mean, Jay-Z rapping over my little voice insane, that’s insane. I’ve met some cool people. I met Gaga back in the day. Obviously, Katy [Perry] I know. Miley, I’ve hung out with. Rita and Jessie J. There’s no rivalry.
You were out with Katy Perry the night before the Stylist shoot right?
That shoot was stressful, man. I spent like an hour having a shower afterwards, getting the make-up off. Katy Perry’s after-party [at the iTunes Festival] was in a speakeasythemed bar. In the last few months I’ve been out more than I’ve ever been out. I think it’s also just wanting to reattach myself to London again; going to museums and walking along Embankment. I love my London and don’t get to be here very often.
Does fame make it hard to date?
No, because I could be seeing someone now and no-one would know. But if you [go out with] someone who’s in the public eye you’re asking for trouble. It’s double intensity, double scrutiny. Even if I just went on one date with a normal guy, word gets around and that freaks me out. I don’t like all that gossipy stuff. Like the rumours you were seeing Niall from One Direction? I’d see people I hadn’t seen in ages and they’d be like, “I read about you and Niall”. And I’d be like, [sighs]. I definitely got some One Directioners’ attention, but I actually had people being quite nice and friendly.
I’ve read interviews where you’ve spoken about the relationship with your father [her parents divorced when she was five and her dad has been absent ever since]; does it play on your mind a lot?
When you reach a point of no return with someone and you feel there’s going to be no reconciliation, you have to disconnect. I can’t allow myself to be emotionally connected with people like that again, it’s too damaging. It’s just a giant question mark why he’s not around. It baffles me; I have no idea what happened. But, it’s not for me to investigate. I’ve taken every positive I can from it. If I ever have kids I will never let their dad not be in their life. My mum has been amazing. For her to bring the three of us up, that’s pretty badass. But I’m not bitter. You don’t miss what you don’t have.
If he came back, would you be welcoming?
I’d listen to what he had to say. But like I said, there’s a disconnect there; there’s something that can’t be reversed.
Are you good at dealing with emotional things? We’ve got quite deep today…
It’s good to talk sometimes. Sometimes interviews are really good for you… You end up evaluating yourself more and talk about stuff that an ordinary person wouldn’t necessarily keep revisiting. I used to close myself off and want to be alone, but now I’ll call a friend. When you’re in a relationship, they’re that person. It was really tough when I broke up with Jeremy [Irvine]. But I’m finding I’m there for myself, I can get myself through things a lot more. I’ve come out of it pretty good.
Do you have a plan going forward?
I don’t so much have a plan; I have a full schedule! My [personal] goals are to be fitter, stronger. And I want a house in the country. It sounds so idealistic and picturesque. I want a dog and a cat. I like cats too much not to have one. And [I want] to live a reasonably normal life.