From politics to poetry, singer Ellie Goulding is way more than your average saccharine sweet pop star. Stylist’s Lizzie Pook discovers a darker side as she steps inside the star’s contradictory life
Photography: Karina Twiss
Scattered around Ellie Goulding’s Marylebone flat are subtle gothic nods. Salutes to the mystic. A vast rose quartz crystal perches atop her coffee table. Elegant animal horns hang on the wall. A procession of candles shaped as eagles’ heads run along her kitchen table, next to a delicate taxidermy dove resting under a bell jar. “I like to think that people come here and see my taxidermy as a celebration of how majestic and beautiful the creatures of this world are,” she tells me, as I eyeball a large pair of cow horns. “I had a crow in my old house that was sort of suspended in mid-air with its wings open. I had to take it down because it freaked everyone out.”
It’s all very elegant, neat and ever-so-slightly dark; a stark juxtaposition to the woman herself, who fills huge arenas with her pop anthems and is an endless ball of energy on stage. But Goulding has many shades and layers – a Grammy-nominated, multi-platinum-selling artist (and friend of Taylor Swift) who chooses to live alone in a fairly modest town house in central London. “I love kooky houses,” she says, heading towards a quite ludicrously large sofa in the corner of the room. “I’ve never liked the idea of having a big, private estate.” She’s a global mega star who has absolutely no qualms opening up about any topic, from politics to mental health – a rare thing in showbiz.
Dressed today in black leggings, a vest and no make-up, there’s not a lot of flashiness about the 29-year-old (she also turned up on our shoot the previous day in tracksuit bottoms, a T-shirt and an oversized Kenzo cardie). Which is probably why she’s comfortable inviting me into her house for this interview. Born in Hereford to a father who came from a family of undertakers (he left when Goulding was five) and a mother who worked in the nearby supermarket, Goulding found fame after topping the annual BBC Sound Of poll in 2010. In the six years since, she’s performed at Kate and Wills’ wedding reception, collaborated with Calvin Harris and been nominated for no less than 66 industry awards. It’s all very impressive stuff.
Now, she’s returning to work after a month off (doctor’s orders having been diagnosed with exhaustion in July). She’s on the promo trail for Still Falling For You, the song she has written for the film Bridget Jones’s Baby, which debuted in cinemas last week. “I related to Bridget Jones, even when I was young,” she tells me. “I’ve sort of ended up embracing the health and fitness world, which is very anti-drinking and anti-partying. But with Bridget, I love being able to relate to the feeling of just needing a glass of wine at the end of the day. Or a vodka, even...”
As I take a seat on the monster sofa, which is unnervingly spongy,I become acutely aware of the large indentation I’m leaving on Ellie Goulding’s upholstery. But she doesn’t seem to care. “Oh, everyone does that,” she says with a wave of her hand. “Now, what did you want to ask me?”
Pop stars aren’t often considered particularly dark, but would you describe yourself that way?
I actually used to be a goth. I had my lip pierced, had very long hair that I dyed black every four weeks. I was a bit of a grunger – I listened to heavy metal like System Of A Down, Deftones, Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Then I started getting into folk music and I discovered female singers, and that changed it all for me.
Are you quite an emotional person, typically?
I’m definitely a crier. Especially when I drink champagne. The worst thing is when you’re trying to hold it together on stage and you’re suddenly aware that there are probably a million people taking pictures and filming you. I played Paris not long after the Bataclan terrorist attacks [in November 2015]. I could feel that there was a very different spirit in the audience that day. People were just grateful to hear some music and to be out having a good night with friends – which is exactly what people were doing at the Bataclan. There was a moment where everyone was screaming with joy and shouting my name – I really struggled to hold back the tears that day.
Do you think you’re quite emotionally intelligent?
Since I was young I remember being quite emotionally aware. I could tune in to how I was feeling and understand if I was being irrational, or understand if I was overthinking something. Overthinking can destroy you. I was diagnosed with exhaustion a couple of months back, but it’s only now that I realise how bad it really was. When I think back to my tiredness, my slump, not wanting to exercise and not being interested in anything... It wasn’t depression, it was just my body giving up.
Why do you think it got to that point?
When you release an album, it’s like pushing the first in a line of dominoes that never stops. You’re proud of your work, it’s a product of you, your writing and your imagination – you want to do everything you can to make it a success. To half-arse it just isn’t really an option for me.
You’ve spoken previously about your history with anxiety. What made you decide to open up about that?
Too many people are quiet about mental health. When you feel anxiety, it’s a very lonely feeling. It makes you think you’re the only person in the world feeling that way. I want people to know they’re not alone. I’m such a strong person in so many ways and that’s how I’ve ended up doing what I do because I’ve just been f***ing strong and not let anybody get me down. But in a way, all of us have a very young person inside of us who just wants to be looked after. I’m not immune from anxiety because I’ve got a good career or a nice house. That’s not how it works. You could be at any point in your life, any stage of your journey and get anxiety. It’s just part of being human.
When was your anxiety at its worst?
It was most severe at the start of my career because of the pressures and scrutiny that come with what I do. It was quite a weird existence to try and adjust to. I’d have panic attacks and to me, they felt like I was dying of a heart attack. It’s a very hot, burning feeling, like your heart is racing uncontrollably. Which is extra scary for me because I actually have a heart defect [Ellie revealed she had a heart condition in October last year]. But I get panicky because I think a lot. I believe people who think a lot and care a lot about things have an extra bit of weight to carry.
Bridget Jones’s Baby star Renée Zellweger has been quite vocal recently about the scrutiny women face about their appearance and their choice to have surgery. Are you as impassioned on the subject?
I think that women, and everyone, have the right to do whatever they want. If a woman wants to have surgery, if she wants to have a facelift or a boob job, I don’t see why she shouldn’t. But if I ever partook in anything like that, that’s what I’d become known for, and I think that’s a horrible thing. I’ve achieved so much in my career, I’m an intelligent person, I’ve sacrificed a lot for my job, but even now I see in papers that I’m referred to as so-and-so’s ex-girlfriend. It’s infuriating. I’m also fed up of this idea that if you have an opinion you have to voice it. It’s like, did you know you could have an opinion and not shout about it on the internet? It’s a terrible habit and people need to curb that. It really is a waste of time. I appreciate some people’s opinions of my music, my political views or even my vegetarianism – I like to have discussions about those things and that’s how I like to learn; it opens my mind. It’s doesn’t open my mind for someone to target me and say, “You look fat in that dress”.
What other issues are you passionate about?
Climate change, without a doubt. I do not believe that people are intrinsically selfish, but the world has changed so much while we’ve grown up. It has heated up dramatically. Our meat consumption is phenomenal, our need for cars and catching planes and burning fossil fuels has sent the planet into a crisis. But the reason people don’t talk about it is because it’s a scary thing. Like a meteor hurtling towards the earth.
The frustration for me is that it doesn’t take much for us to make a difference – like not eating meat for a few days a week. Leonardo DiCaprio has said very recently there needs to be some sort of restriction on the amount of beef we produce, and I agree. That said, I’m not an ‘activist’ or a Greenpeace warrior. I simply feel like for some reason, I’ve seen the danger early on. I wish every person was as concerned as I am. Because really, I’m just a girl who cares about the planet.
What’s your favourite animal?
That’s a great question. I like big cats – lions, tigers, jaguars. I’ve never been on safari, but I’ve been to Kenya where I ran with zebras in the Maasai Mara. That was cool. People know me as a vegetarian now, but back then I wasn’t. We ate all sorts of things on that trip, like crocodile and impala [antelope].
What scares you?
My friends know me as quite a tough bird, but I get terrified at the thought of someone breaking into my house. This is quite an open house and someone could easily walk up in the middle of the night and just knock on the window. I find that freaky. I even have my best friend sleep downstairs sometimes because I get super scared.
Do you believe in ghosts?
I think I’m too scientific. I wouldn’t dismiss it entirely – maybe at some point I’ll end up having some kind of weird ghost experience, but I haven’t had one so far. I remember when I was young, though, my friend had to have his bedroom exorcised. He’s a sensible dude, there’s nothing weird about him, but he said someone kept coming in and sitting on the end of his bed. How weird is that?
If you like to have someone stay in the house with you at night, does that also mean you’re a bad sleeper?
I have nightmares a lot – especially because I normally watch the news right before bed. I sleep pretty badly. But to be honest, I’m just grateful not to have to get up early in the morning. I’ve also got an amazing bed that I just sort of starfish in. That’s one of the awesome things about being single. I also put on Classic FM and listen to it all night. I use a Neom lavender spray on my pillow, and have a vaporiser. It helps.
What do you do when you need to let off steam?
I read a fair bit of poetry. I’ve just bought a book called Love Poems and I’m a huge fan of Carol Ann Duffy and Seamus Heaney. I’m constantly on a plane, screen-shotting pages from poetry books because I’ve come across something so beautiful. [Novelist] Sebastian Faulks is one of my favourite writers of all time. I’m a sucker for love, and a sucker for humans experiencing things like unrequited love because it’s such a powerful thing. It’s like Sebastian Faulks has said, feeling love is just another chemical reaction and yet we don’t make life-changing decisions on anger, or fear; we make life-changing decisions based on love. I find that really interesting. Love is the most powerful thing in the world.
Do you have a book you read over and over?
With fiction, once I’ve read it I’m done, but when was I was little my first book was Grimm’s Fairy Tales and I’d read it over and over – although I once lent it to someone and they never gave it back. They’re dark fairy tales, not sweet ones.
What about TV? What do you catch up on when you have some downtime?
I’ve got good taste in books, but my choice in TV is absolutely terrible. I get taken the piss out of all the time [by friends]. I like Geordie Shore and Ex On The Beach – I was actually watching Geordie Shore right before you turned up. I like period dramas and if there’s a good nature or space documentary on I’ll watch that. But mainly I like crap. I do love Narcos though. Pablo Escobar is weirdly hot. My friends are all like, ‘Errr, no!’ It’s got to be a power thing.
Speaking of power, what do you think about the UK’s current political situation? You were previously a vocal Labour supporter, does that still stand?
I’m afraid I’m still undecided about Corbyn. I thought he was a breath of fresh air – he genuinely cares and seems to be in touch with people, which is an insanely important thing. But I don’t know. I’m still figuring him out. I think it’s good he stayed strong and wasn’t bullied out. As for Theresa [May], I don’t know yet what her views are on the things that I’m passionate about. I know she’s put environmental issues on the back seat a little bit, which is a little bit frustrating.
How about American politics?
I’m a Hillary fan. I don’t know what’s going to happen [with the election in November], but I think that Donald Trump is a terrible man. I mean, the majority of people do, right? Every day something more offensive and stupid comes from his mouth. I think he’s a dangerous person to be in power. I think that he has nowhere near the right kind of intelligence to be president. Because it’s not just president of the United States – he’ll end up being the most powerful person in the whole world. I can’t even believe there’s the potential he could be president. It’s like we’re in a nightmare. I just want to wake up and for everything to be fine and Hillary’s president.
You turn 30 at the end of this year – what do you have left that you want to achieve?
I was actually just saying to my friends that if I have to be 30, they’d better put on a good party for me. At the moment, I’ve got so much to do with my music, that’s what I’m focusing on, really. I always think there’s another level to get to. I suppose at some point I should probably get a boyfriend... I’d definitely like to do more expeditions. It’s very well me talking about climate change, but I need to actually see it for myself. Really, I’d like to be more – and I hate this word – humanitarian. I’d like to spend more time learning about the world.
Ellie’s single Still Falling For You, from the official soundtrack for Bridget Jones’s Baby, is out now
Hair: Tyler Johnston at One Represents using Kiehl’s Since 1851
Make-up: Lucy Wearing using Bobbi Brown Cosmetics assisted by Jessie Hope Weston
Nails: OPI expert Sophie Harris Greenslade using OPI Nail Lacquer
Styling: Alexandra Fullerton
Fashion Assistant: Amy Hanson
Photography Assistants: Connor Macleod and Elliot Fatherly
Digital Technician: Tanya Houghton
Digital Artwork: Digital Light Ltd
With thanks to Rebel Rebel Flowers