Ellie Goulding: Girl on Fire


By Paul Flynn

Ellie Goulding can do heartache like the best of them, but her musical range— from anthems like 'Burn' to her U.S. breakout, 'Lights'—owes itself to her idol and guide, Björk.

Photography by Perry Ogden

At 1 p.m. on a bright, wintry Friday, I find myself at the end of Edgware Road, the busy thoroughfare dividing Central and West London, ringing the apartment intercom of Ellie Goulding. “Can you come back in two minutes?” she asks, sounding slightly panicky. I offer her 10. “No, seriously, I only need two. I am literally naked.” The last thing one might expect of an interview with a nice girl like Goulding, a new quintessence of pop neighborliness, is to begin with nudity and climax with lesbianism. But so it goes.

Soon afterward I am perched on a generous leather armchair an inch too wide for her small sitting room. Her home decor is upscale undergraduate. The singer is fully clothed in casual black sweats and sits cross-legged on a sofa under a customized neon sign that reads bass over her right shoulder and a framed portrait of Debut-era Björk over her left. Her tangled blond hair is having a post–awards ceremony nervous breakdown from the previous evening, she explains.

Over the course of two big pop records, Goulding has proven herself one of a select band of hit-making British exports. Domestically, the prevailing pop trends of her five year shelf life have so far been defined at one end by the folksy earnestness of Mumford & Sons and the carousing, precision-tooled, air-horn rave of David Guetta at the other. Goulding’s music finds a commercial middle ground between the two, a happy, uncontrived accident that has ushered her to a key date playing Madison Square Garden later this year.

She looks surprised when I mention how saleable her voice is. “Is it commercial, though?” she asks, initially cautious. “I couldn’t sing a lot of pop records. Sometimes my voice can be exceptionally strong and sometimes it can be a bit hit-and-miss, only because I never know what’s going to come out of my mouth. Sometimes it can be a note that I’m expecting, and sometimes it can be something completely different.” Her most recent radio hits, one a pumping, euphoric anthem (“Burn”), the other gentle, acoustic whimsy (“How Long Will I Love You?”), are useful bookends to her palette. She is an untrained vocalist. She learned to sing along to mixtapes of vintage house music made by her mother and uncle, both first-generation acid house ravers, and spent her early teens as a “clarinet-playing nerd in an orchestra,” which perhaps explains her emotional closeness to both the upbeat and melancholic.

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She has a vast, inquisitive knowledge of dance subgenres. On this subject she noticeably thaws, cataloguing some of her favorite producers, including Bassnectar and Citizen. She commissions each mix of her songs personally and says she has yet to know of any underground act being put off by the establishment credentials she carries. Her first global flashlight moment was singing at the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, at the couple’s request.

Was that a her thing, or a him thing?

“It was a both thing. They loved my first record, a lot.” She didn’t hesitate upon receiving the invitation. “I think it is badass,” she says. “I fucking love the royal family. You know that thing about being around good people? They’re part of that. I don’t believe that anyone would’ve turned that experience down. It was the most talked-about thing in the world at the time, and right up until I sang I thought I was a decoy for someone much bigger.” She missed out on another invitation to serenade a high-profile nuptial last summer, when a request from Breaking Bad star Aaron Paul clashed with prior bookings. “Some of my friends would say that one’s better than the royal wedding, actually,” she says.