Ellie Goulding Spills Secrets Behind Her New Album, Motherhood, and Her Best Unreleased Songs
Ellie Goulding doesn’t mind not knowing exactly who she is yet. She’s still learning, and she’s okay with that. “I think I will never know, and I think that’s just how I am,” she says with a shrug, sipping on champagne in front of a crowd of fans at a Grammy Museum event held in Los Angeles.
It’s been over a decade since Goulding became a household name in the U.S. with her massive single “Lights.” In the years since, the British songwriter has released four albums and been streamed billions of times, thanks to hits like “Love Me Like You Do.” Now, she’s about to drop her fifth album Higher Than Heaven on April 7.
At 36, she’s lived a million lives and has sung about them. She’s proud of the work that she’s done and isn’t afraid to look back at her lengthy career’s highs, like playing right before LCD Soundsystem at Coachella in 2016, and the lows (she remembers feeling like she was going into “survival mode” when she’d visit male-dominated studios as a young artist.) But with her new album, Goulding decided to skip the introspection and instead make music that made her want to dance. After months in the studio, she made her freest album yet.
“In the best possible way, this album wasn’t taken from personal experiences. And it was such a relief to not sit in the studio going through all the things that happened to me and affected me. Because I feel things very deeply,” she says. “I got to just explore other things about myself… Right now, I just want to dance. I just want to sing, I just want to smile.”
That energy is palpable through songs like “Cure for Love,” which is about dancing away heartbreak away, and on some of the LP’s sexiest songs like “Waiting For It,” “Tastes Like You,” and “By the End of the Night.” Each track builds up into an album that caught Goulding just after she became a mom and brought her to a place of curiosity and exploration.
In a career-spanning interview, which I was asked to moderate, Goulding opened up about her lengthy career, her never-released songs with Father John Misty and Calvin Harris, and why she’s happy that she’s still finding herself almost 20 years into music.
We are weeks away from the new album. What’s that feeling like?
It feels amazing. The last album I released was during the lockdown, and it feels like those few years were so bizarre and sad and strange for a lot of us, and to release music as someone that’s used to breathing life into my music as a live performer, it was a strange thing. I did a two-week tour of that album, and I had my son. And two weeks later, I was back in the studio, finishing the album.
In retrospect, that was not the best idea because I think I just went into crazy work mode. I was like, ‘Mission accomplished: I’ve had my child time, given birth time to get to work.’ But then five months later, I had to take a few months off to just be with him and get used to the crazy new world of being a parent.
What’s it like balancing music now that you’ve had your baby for two years?
I haven’t yet got to a space where I am desperate to write an album about motherhood. But it is wild. You really just pick it up as you go along. That’s how I found it to be. With music, I haven’t really got to that place yet where I really want to explore it. I know lots of changes are happening. When I had Arthur, it was like a river that got filled up. Now I’m kind of feeling like myself again.
I thought the most joy that I could ever feel was being on stage. Anxiety-free. Just doing what I’ve always wanted to do. But nothing comes close to just the joy that I feel when I’m with him. He’s just my little friend and he dances to my songs. And he kind of looks at me quite shyly and just kind of sways to the music. The new one with Calvin he’s really obsessed with.
It’s a new kind of joy. It was a surprise, having a kid. I wasn’t planning on it, but now that he’s here, my God, what was I doing without him?
This album process was a lot different from the last one. You mentioned before that you still didn’t know who you were with Brightest Blue. Have you finally found who Ellie Goulding truly is?
No, and I think I will never know, and I think that’s just how I am. We’re always striving to figure out who we are and figure things out through writing and through music… So no, I don’t think I do. But I’m happy in that place. I’m happy being in a place of curiosity and exploration.
I’m always searching for that. I definitely know myself a lot better now than the person I was when I was 20 years old signing a record deal and a publishing deal, suddenly thrust onto television in the UK, normalizing it. I’m meant to be doing this. But actually, my brain saying, “No you’re not. This is just mental. You can’t just go from university to suddenly just being on television, walking out my house being photographed. That’s not normal.” I didn’t ever really have a chance to process that. So the lead-up to Brightest Blue, I wandered around New York by myself for hours just thinking about everything that happened to me.
At least in that way, I feel like I’ve gotten to know myself a bit better. Maybe at some point I’ll know, but right now I don’t know what’s going on and I’m happy with that.
Finding yourself is a lifelong process. This new album just shows a very joyous and fun you though, which is very exciting.
There’s certainly something about becoming a mom that does make you explore yourself as a woman, even sexuality and all those things. I do feel like before I had Arthur — this sounds really strange, but I didn’t feel necessarily womanly. I just felt like a human that was going on stage and performing and I didn’t necessarily feel feminine or masculine. And then when you have a kid, there was something that just gets injected into you that suddenly you’re just this kind of power.
You just take this to another level of being a woman, realizing that you’ve just done this insane thing and then given birth to another human. That’s wild. Before that, I didn’t necessarily feel that kind of pull. And then on this album, I feel like there was a new kind of confidence there, in being a woman and sensuality.
Sabrina Carpenter sings, “Tell me who I am because I don’t have a choice,” referring to the tabloid headlines about her own life. I feel like that’s something that you’ve had to deal with too. Looking back at that now, how do you think you were able to grapple with that and find yourself after that?
“Tell me who I am because I don’t have a choice.” Yeah. British press likes a story. They sort of delve into your personal life. It’s like a fascination. You can sell millions of records, which I have, and they still focus on the other things that aren’t necessarily that relevant. But you know what, they have been sort of kind to me, so I can’t really complain too much. But you get really tempted to be influenced by other people’s sort of interpretation of who you are, what their perception of you is, their opinion on what you look like.
I think that the most shocking thing for me at the beginning was how much people cared about your physical appearance: your weight, your hair, your clothes, and also your opinion on things.
It was kind of a case of, “We don’t need your opinion, stick to what you’re good at kind of thing.” And at the same time, “Why haven’t you spoken up about this?” It was just like, I can’t win. I was not prepared to be scrutinized in that way. And I think the thing that has always kept me going is that I never got lost in that. I continued to, from the very beginning, play live shows, and play festivals, the things that kept me grounded. I could just escape that stuff.
Let’s talk about the songwriting process for this new album. Who were some of those main collaborators on this new album and why did you choose them for this record?
It was kind of by default. From these sessions, we’ve built a really amazing bond by accident. The first time I worked with Anthony Rossomando and Andrew Wells, the producer, I just remember being like, “This is not working.” It was very rare for me to go into the studio and feel a weird vibe, but there was something not right and I couldn’t figure it out. But something told me to go back the next day. And then the day after, that’s when Tom Mann came in. We made “Cure for Love” and “Like a Saviour.” So many other songs were written in those sessions and it was just that one person was missing. Sometimes it takes three or four people to create this amazing dynamic to write a song. That was it. They made me feel so comfortable.
The biggest thing for me is having fun, which sounds really simple, but the more fun I have and the more I laugh and feel comfortable, the better the songs are.
I remember writing with Father John Misty a few years ago and I was such a fan. Oh my god. Such a fan, but really had to play it cool. And he made it really uncomfortable because, to me, he’s just a star. He just is. And those stars just have something around them. It’s just like an aura, and he has that. We ended up recording this song — it hasn’t ever been released, but maybe it will one day, but it is probably one of the best vocals I’ve ever done in my life… I don’t know if anyone will ever hear it, but I did it for me, I guess.
You mentioned that the last album was all personal. Are these songs inspired by personal experiences? What was that process like?
In the best possible way, this album wasn’t taken from personal experiences, and it was such a relief and really refreshing to not be sitting in the studio going through all the things that happened to me and affected me. Because I feel things very deeply. I always have.
It’s the least personal album, but I think it’s the best album because I got to just explore other things about myself. I just really, really enjoy writing, really enjoy being a singer.
Let’s talk about your new song with Calvin Harris, “Miracle.” How was reconnecting with him?When you have that connection with someone, you miss it. It’s hard to just put that aside. And so we knew from the first song that we made together that we had something and then that was “I Need Your Love,” and “Outside” a couple years later.
We actually did another song, which I loved, but he was like, “Ehh, I’m not really that into it,” in his Scottish accent. He says that my bit on it was fine but he wasn’t keen on the other person’s bit, which I thought was genius. I thought it was genius. I obviously can’t say who of course, but a legend. Like a legend.
He’s very picky. He’s kind of in that Max Martin-mind where he’ll ask your opinion out of just politeness. They know what they’re doing. I think Calvin is a genius. When he sent “Miracle,” I just got a text out of the blue from him and I was trying to play it cool, so I didn’t reply for a bit because I couldn’t really believe it. I thought after that song never came out, we were finished.
But it was a no-brainer. He brings that confidence in me that I think I need for tracks like that. And I went back to my high-health “Lights” days of being able to sing high notes.
I do want to ask what your favorite song on this new album is and why.
I do love “Like A Saviour.” I like the vibe of that song. And then there’s a song on the deluxe version called “Better Man,” which just feels really empowering to sing because it’s me saying I’m the better man. And I don’t really know who I’m talking to other than when I wrote it, there was a lot of the #MeToo stuff was happening. It was a real personal moment in the music industry and in Hollywood, and it was really turning around. I don’t want to get too deep, but I might as well just say it: Right when I first started out, it was quite vulnerable because there was no kind of support for young female artists going into the studio with predominantly male artists and producers.
When the #MeToo movement happened, it was so overdue and so needed, necessary for all industries, really. I think I remember writing that song with that in the background. Did anyone ever see that Cher interview in the early Nineties where she’s like, “I’m really sweet and really nice, but if you fuck with me I’ll mop the floor with you?” I’ve just never forgotten that interview.
I think when I wrote that song, I just needed to reclaim a power that maybe I’d lost at the beginning where I’d go into studios and it just didn’t feel safe. You go into sort of survival mode. That’s probably the deepest one on the album. Everything else is an escape and it’s designed to dance and to feel free and to feel like anything is possible.
You mention being in survival mode early in your career. What would you say to that young Ellie who was just starting off in really trying to make it?
I’d say everything’s going to be fine. I was a worrier. I always have been. It’s where my anxiety comes from. I wish I had maybe someone around me that was just there to make me feel protected. But at the same time, I wrote some of the best songs of my career in those days. And I remember my first album with my friend Finn, who called himself Starsmith back then, we wrote it in his bedroom and it was just so carefree.
There was no agenda, there was no trying to please a record label, trying to make a song that fits into a certain genre. We were just so free. And I’d be playing guitar, we’d be recording all these harmonies. I slightly miss those days. But I’d like to re-find that kind of innocence now where I don’t feel like I’m trying to please anyone or trying to fit into a box. I’ve heard in the studio a few times recently, “Oh, that would be a TikTok trend.” And I’m like, “Okay.” But that stuff should just happen. You shouldn’t think about that, I don’t think, personally.
What’s it like to back to that old music today? Does its place in your life change? How do you view your discography today?
It’s an interesting question. I wrote “Lights” in Brighton with Biff Stannard, who wrote all the Spice Girls songs. And I remember thinking, “This is quite a good song, but I don’t think it’ll go anywhere.” And that happens all the time. You write some music, it’s part of the process. You don’t have to go in the studio and write a big song every day. You just go and write music. Because that’s what you do. Maybe I didn’t have much love for it at the time. And then when it’s started blowing up here, then I thought, “Well, maybe it is quite good.”
What song defines you as Ellie Goulding?
“Anything Could Happen.” It’s just the feeling I get every time I perform it. Should I sing it? I wrote that song in a studio about five miles from where I grew up, with a guy called Jim Elliot. I had just actually broken up with this producer, who lives here, and it was really about that. It was about this wild time that I’d suddenly had out of nowhere where I’d been living here and experiencing a completely new life, and it just was in the moment.
And when I listen back to it, I don’t know how I did that song. I couldn’t tell you what I was feeling, what I was going through. And so there are some songs in retrospect that I listen to now that I sort of admire the person that I was when I wrote it because no, I think I can never write a song like that again. And I think it defines me the best. I don’t know why. It just does.
When can we next see you perform? Are you going on tour? Coachella?
Maybe. [Winks.] I am trying to make my tour carbon-neutral and you know how hard that is? It’s pretty hard. And really, it’s encouraging venues to make that possible for us because they can’t always equip us with that. The last tour I did was literally a quick two-week tour of the UK and we did manage to achieve it and it was plastic-free, and powered by renewables. And if I could get to a place where I don’t have to fly… I detest flying.
I would love to get to a place where I can just be as friendly to the planet as possible. I work with the UN on the environment. It means a huge amount to me. I know that I lose followers talking about climate change. I don’t care. There are some things you can’t unlearn and certain things you can’t unsee. It’ll have to be a part of my career and touring life no matter what.
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