Ellie Goulding is catching up with herself. No longer running to stand still (well, not all the time, anyway), she has arrived at a point in her career, in her life, where the songs she is writing bear witness to the place she is in now, after five tumultuous years of professional and personal transformation. Ellie’s bold and brilliant new album, Delirium, represents an almighty step change, shaping a new narrative for the next stage in this remarkable singer’s journey. As she sings on the new song Don’t Panic, “I’ve got big dreams, so don’t overcomplicate it.” Working with writers and producers such as Max Martin, Greg Kurstin, Ryan Tedder, Klas Ahlund and Disclosure’s Guy Lawrence, Ellie made, she says, “a conscious decision with this album: that I wanted to be on another level.”
Her stats to date give you some idea just how big those dreams must be: two no 1 albums, two Brit awards, 20m records sold, Vevo views exceeding 1bn, more than 900m streams, and a worldwide no 1 single this year with Love Me Like You Do. But Ellie clearly has no intention of stopping there. “If there was a slight fog surrounding the first two albums, I think it was me not being sure exactly what I wanted to be. With every pop artist that doesn’t see themselves as terribly cool, there’s always that slight element of insecurity: if they’re just very cool, then they want to be a huge star; and if they’re a huge artist, they want to be cool. I think I had a bit of that – of not really knowing how people perceived me, or feeling that they all perceived me as being lots of different things. But I’m sort of done with that now. This probably sounds mad but a part of me views this album as an experiment – to make a big pop record. But it also feels like the right time to me.”
Three years on from Halcyon, Delirium captures what Ellie calls “the lifting of that fog”. She made Halcyon during a particularly difficult period in her life, but it is only now, she says, that she understands quite how emotional that album was for her. “It was a dark time, but I didn’t realise how dark until I started writing and recording the new album, and felt so much happier doing it. On Halcyon, I was clearly trying to express that darkness, like a cry for help. When I sing the songs live now, I do find myself thinking: ‘Whoa, that was pretty deep, pretty dark.’ I mean, the album ends with a song called Dead In the Water. There’s not much ambiguity in that.” Making Delirium was, in contrast, a joyous experience. “There are so many moments in the new songs that my friends will react to by going, ‘That’s so Ellie’ – me being annoyingly honest. Like when I sing: ‘Everything you do I overanalyse.’ There are little bits like that that are so me. But then there are also lines such as ‘I need a love to celebrate.’ I think that’s a lovely thing to say. Rather than ‘I need a love that I can tear apart’, which is what I would probably have written in the old days!”
Ellie’s one remaining task is to settle on a track-listing, and she admits she’s been putting off the day of reckoning for as long as she can. “I can’t bring myself to cut the album,” she says. “It would be like chopping off a finger. I’ve got three albums’ worth of songs. And I’ve put everything into all of them. Part of me wants to run round going ‘I’m a creative genius.’ I’m at the stage of just being overwhelmed by the songs. And I need a much cooler head if I’m going to make those hard decisions.”
The confidence and humour contained in those remarks reflect another huge change in Ellie’s life, and her attitude to her career. “I do feel there’s this acceptance now that wasn’t there before. I think it’s a combination of things: the music industry has changed so much that it’s almost impossible to be a hyped artist now – you’ve either got a big radio song or you haven’t. It’s much more difficult to be an obscure, underground artist and be big, unless you have a celebrity profile. 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. Anyway, what have I got to apologise for?”
Written and recorded in London, Ellie’s home county of Herefordshire (where she was reunited with her Halcyon sparring partner, Jim Eliot), Sweden and Los Angeles, Delirium takes all the trademarks of Ellie’s talent – that extraordinary, soaring singing voice, the forensic candour and self-inquiry of her lyrics, the pulsing beats of the electronic music that first ensnared her as a teenager – and turns up the heat. She knew from very early on, she says, that making the album was going to be a blast, because the musicians she had chosen to work with were immediately on the same page. “I saw Max as this legend, but lots of people told me that his set-up was very cool, very chilled and friendly. I was still incredibly nervous, though – he doesn’t work with just anyone. When I did finally meet him, for Love Me Like You Do, he was even cooler than I’d heard – funny, warm, down-to-earth; he’s passionate about what he does, which is incredibly infectious. We were just going to do a couple of sessions, to try things out, but after the first one, he was like, ‘Why don’t we do another week?’ and then, ‘Come back whenever you want to.’ Nothing was ever planned. I wrote a song with one of his friends in Sweden and he heard it and was on the phone immediately, saying ‘That track is brilliant, we’ve got to do something with it.’ Things seem to just happen – it’s a sort of unplanned way of planning, if that makes sense. And he’s so humble, despite the fact that he’s made music that’s changed people’s lives. Not everyone is like that. You meet some people and they don’t seem grateful at all; they’re bloody talented but absolute arses. It was a real blessing for me to go into this environment that Max has created. They make this extraordinary music; none of it is throwaway.”
Greg Kurstin was another kindred spirit. “He’s just an adorable nerd,” Ellie says. “Plus he’s incredibly intuitive. He picks up on my mood very quickly, and that’s why we work so well together. We don’t really need to talk about things, he just gets it.”
You begin to understand Ellie’s reluctance to trim down the album as you immerse yourself in its songs. Tracks such as Devotion, On My Mind, Don’t Panic, Nobody But U and Codes are immense – the work of an artist who is seizing her moment, and has never sounded more assertive and in control. Army, meanwhile, looks set to become one of her defining songs. Written about her best friend Hannah, it sees the two inseparables facing into the storm, unbowed, unbreakable. It is also one of countless examples on Delirium of the vocal layering that has long made Ellie’s music so distinctive. “I know,” Ellie laughs. “The Abba harmonies. When we did them we were like, ‘Oh my God – that’s Abba!’ I mean, the most brilliant pop music in the world. To even give that a nod, well, how cool is that?” She’s determined to replicate that harmonic richness when she takes the new album on the road. “I’d love to get away from the usual backing vocalist thing and have a big choir – or maybe just loads of singers. Because there are so many weird vocal things going on in the new songs.”
Ellie has learnt to look after her voice, and is acutely conscious of the wear and tear that touring can result in. “I look after it, I drink a lot of tea, I steam my vocal chords. It’s such a precious thing. I don’t know where it came from or who gave it to me, but I know that I need to protect it. I wanted to have surgery on the inside of my nose because I’ve never been able to breathe through it properly. In my yoga classes, it’s always, ‘Everybody breathe through your nose’, and I’m there with my mouth open, puffing away. But I’m too worried about the effect that it might have on my voice.”
She is not, she admits, terribly good at switching off. “I had a couple of weeks off at Christmas, and the odd week here and there. But I’ve never had any properly big chunks of time off, ever, since this all began.” Even when she does, prying photo lenses seem to snap her every move. “I don’t get it as bad as some people, but it’s still a weird thing to have to deal with. I don’t want to be on the beach thinking about having to suck in my stomach, or worrying if I’m tanned enough. The danger is, you can look at photos like that and think, ‘I look gross.’ But the point is, I wasn’t planning on looking like a supermodel or a hyper-babe – I was just having fun on the beach with my friends.
“But I’m past being insecure about things like that,” she continues. “I know myself so well now. There’s a new level of acceptance, and that comes from confidence. That sort of thing just doesn’t bother me anymore. I used to be horribly shy, when I started out. You can tell if you look at photographs from then. The way I posed, the clothes I wore. I look at some of them and cringe. I was uncomfortable in my own skin in that period, and I think that was really obvious. To me, anyway.”
Part of that, Ellie feels, was because “mine isn’t a story of going to the BRITs school, or coming from a well-off background with supportive parents. I’ve come from a not particularly great place, and got myself to an amazing one. I used to be embarrassed about where I came from, but not anymore. I couldn’t be more open about it – it’s got me all this way. And I think that’s pretty cool. I want that to be inspirational.”
As she readies the release of Delirium, Ellie is psyching herself up for a new chapter in her career, and preparing for the demands that will make of her. She knows this is her moment. “The only thing I have that could stop me from really embracing it is this obsession I still have with being normal. I want to be around when it’s my sister’s baby’s christening, for occasions like that. Being on tour is such a commitment, and you miss family occasions, friends’ parties. When I’m away, I get really jealous when I hear that all my friends have been down the pub together. The job I do does mean you are forced to sacrifice some of that normality. So I just need to banish that way of thinking. Somehow.”
“I know I have to commit to what I do in a new way. But I want to go on being my usual clumsy self, walking around joking that I’m the worst pop star in the world. I have to hold on to that. But these songs really work. I’m not stupid – I listen to something and I’ll know if it’s working or not – and these songs just feel right. But a big pop album, with big radio songs, means a different level of commitment. You have to step up. I can’t turn up to a meet-and-greet looking like I do on a day off. That’s just disrespectful. So I sort of need to live it a bit. That’s not me not being me. Besides, I’ve had the luxury of lots of time to just walk around in my pyjamas, with no makeup on. That would be like saying: ‘Here’s the new record, hope it does well. Bye!’”
As for the album title, “There were loads of alternatives, but Delirium just clicked. It can be describing a really happy, crazy state, or it can be the complete opposite. I’m constantly in a state of delirium, but it kind of works for me. Usually, I would automatically go for a song title, but the minute the word came into my mind, I felt compelled to use it. There’s something about it that seems to sum up the last decade of my life.” And the next decade? “Oh, I expect so,” she laughs.
Ellie Goulding ist eine der erfolgreichsten und populärsten britischen Solo-Künstlerinnen. Ende 2018 meldete sie sich nach ihrer Pause mit der spektakulären Single “Close To Me” zurück, wofür sie den Über-Produzenten und DJ Diplo ins Studio eingeladen hat.