Ellie Goulding: 'I'd just become a robot'
Ellie Goulding's new album opens with the sound of a crowd going wild, recorded at a festival date on the star's 2016/17 Delirium tour.
It might have been Glastonbury, it might have been Rock In Rio, but the location isn't important.
Wherever she was, Goulding was drained and tired and unhappy.
"I'd just become a robot that was able to walk on stage and perform energetically and wildly," she says.
"But actually I was just exhausted, and I don't remember any of it. I wasn't really able to enjoy anything properly."
Her memories are so blurred that she recently wrote to her tour manager to see if he'd kept copies of her schedule, "so I can at least have a trigger to remember all the places I've been to".
"There was a real temporary-ness to my life," she says. "It was all about survival. I didn't really get to understand who I was at the time."
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By some measures, Goulding should have been on top of the world. After topping the BBC's Sound of... list in 2010, her career had gone stratospheric. Her debut album Lights hit number one in the UK and the title track went five-times platinum in the US, launching her career over there.
She played at the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge's wedding reception, topped festival bills, scored a Grammy nomination for Love Me Like You Do and soundtracked the John Lewis Christmas advert.
But when it came to record her third album, Delirium, she felt she was being pushed in the wrong direction by her management.
She was bundled into writing sessions with A-list writers like Greg Kurstin (Adele, Paul McCartney), Ryan Tedder (Lady Gaga, Beyonce) and Max Martin (every other significant pop artist of the last 30 years).
At the time, she said she viewed the album "as an experiment" in making a "big pop album", telling the NME: "I made a conscious decision that I wanted it to be on another level".
But deep down, she was still the same bedroom musician who'd accidentally kick-started a career by making friends with dance producers on MySpace. The glossy pop sound and figure-hugging costumes never felt entirely comfortable.
"It was like, 'Okay, so maybe I'm meant to suddenly become this ginormous pop star that has dancers and glitter and God knows what else on tour,' and I really enjoyed playing that role for a bit, but I didn't like wearing those outfits every night and I knew, deep down, it wasn't me."
'I had to get away'
Suffering a form of impostor syndrome, Goulding grew dismissive of Delirium, even as it went platinum in the UK.
"I think it made other people write off the album, too" she says. "But looking back, it actually is a really brilliant pop record. I just think it perhaps wasn't an Ellie Goulding record."
As a two-year-long tour dragged on, the singer became more and more disillusioned. She even considered quitting music altogether.
"It got to a point where I really had to go away from it all," she told ITV's This Morning last year. "I thought for a second, 'Maybe I can just quietly go away.'"
She took two years out of the spotlight, throwing herself into campaigns for homelessness and climate change while she put music on the back burner.
Along the way she also fell in love with art dealer Caspar Jopling, who she married at York Minster Cathedral last year.
In contrast to her previous high-profile relationships with Niall Horan and Ed Sheeran, the couple are unbothered by the tabloids, living in the "sickeningly beautiful countryside" of Oxfordshire while Jopling, who's also an international rower, studies for an MBA at Oxford University.
During the lockdown, Goulding has even been baking cakes for charity. She gives us a guided Zoom tour of her kitchen, where every work surface is covered in baking trays and cooling racks, laden with brownies and flapjacks and muffins.
"These peanut butter cookies are just staring at me," she laughs. "They're piercing into my soul."
Time away from music meant Goulding "really had a chance to just be and live". She began to feel more settled about herself and her music; and arranged what she jokingly refers to as "an amicable uncoupling" with her old managers.
Then, towards the end of 2018, she started working on what would become her fourth album, Brightest Blue.
Deeper and more emotional than anything she's recorded before, it excavates the ruins of the last five years - all the vulnerabilities and insecurities, the sadness and the drinking and the falling in love, that it took to get to a place of renewal.
It opens, because it has to, with those sampled crowd noises and an explanation of Goulding's extended musical absence.
"Feel like I've been barely living," she sings on Start. "I'm thinking about a new beginning / It's never too late to start again."
'I mistreated people'
The theme of renewal continues throughout the album - most notably on the stirring Love I'm Given, where Goulding begs forgiveness for "the things I've done" and "the ones I've hurt".
The lyrics came to her out of nowhere, and she didn't really appreciate what she was singing about until the song was finished.
"I listened back to it I was like, 'Sorry, what did I do again? What did I do wrong?'
"But I think I'm referring to how I've maybe not behaved in a way that I'm proud of, or mistreated people," says the singer.
The singer, who's had therapy to deal with anger issues, says those bad attitudes stemmed from her own feelings of inadequacy and stress.
"I think it was the person I tried to create in order to cope with what I was doing - which was, you know, trying to be a million things at once and trying to cope with the job, and then the parallel of celebrity running alongside it.
"And now that I've managed to unravel those things and almost, like, chip them off, I can finally give the right kind of love.
"And so the song's about the idea that you get the love that you give out."
Goulding's new-found confidence can be heard in the experimental arrangements of songs like Wine Drunk and Bleach, and the intricately-layered vocals and transcendental strings of the title track, Brightest Blue.
The song's optimistic lyrics were inspired by a trip to a New York gallery last year, where Goulding found herself in a room bathed in soothing, blue light.
"I walked into this light show and it completely took over. You can feel this warmth in it, it's really strange," she says.
"The next day I went to the studio with my engineer and I said, 'Okay I really want to write about this brightest blue that I had,' and the song just kind of came out.
"And the first time I heard it [finished] with the strings and everything, I just I literally cried and I don't do that. I don't get emotional at my own music like that - but that song just feels like a new beginning."
Goulding is so confident in the new music that she's split the album into two "sides" - the first 13 tracks are the intimate, largely self-written songs that lay her fragility bare.
The flip side, dubbed "Eg.0" showcases a more confident and rebellious alter-ego, featuring a raft of chart-bothering collaborations with with Lauv, Swae Lee and the late Juice WRLD.
But she insists the latter songs - all previously-released - haven't just been tacked on to boost sales.
"I can't then just disown them, and pretend they didn't exist," she says, "and it's important to me to show my craft as a pop writer.
"You know, I can write big bloody pop songs and sing them quite well, as well."
"That's not necessarily who I am as an artist, so I'd say Brightest Blue is much more of a reflection of my indulgences with classical music and layering boatloads of vocals on top of each other."
Early reviews suggest the album will re-establish Goulding as one of Britain's top pop stars. The independent called it "a career-best" while The Line Of Best Fit said the early songs, in particular, showcase the 33-year-old "at her most honest, and her most heartfelt".
"I'm glad that I'm being acknowledged as a musician, and as a songwriter because that's what I've always been," says the singer.
"So it's really nice at this point to feel like I've come out of what was a really chaotic [period] of being known as a celebrity to now, just being known as a musician.
"It just feels different. It feels like there isn't an obsession over... over the things that don't really matter any more."
Brightest Blue is out now on Polydor.