Sunday, July 10, 2011

Ellie Goulding: the wedding singer

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It's 1am and Ellie Goulding, her band and I are sitting in the reception of her Dublin hotel, drinking vodka smuggled out of her backstage dressing room. It has been a long night, beginning with the second of two sell-out gigs at the nearby Olympia Theatre, during which an audience of 2,000 - mostly girls aged 14 to 25, several sporting their idol's asymmetrical blonde hairstyle - screamed themselves silly while Ellie belted out her repertoire. Afterwards, Ellie gets merrily, back- slappingly drunk, frequently breaking into impromptu karaoke with her two backing singers, snippets of Tina Turner, Michael Jackson and De'Lacy's 'Hideaway'. 'I do spend a lot of time being rock'n'roll, if that's what you want to call it,' she grins. 'But it's more in moderation now. I've had my real rock'n'roll phase and I don't want to go back to it because I wasn't in a good place then. I didn't realise where I was heading. And I didn't realise I'd end up here.'
In little more than 18 months, 24-year-old Ellie Goulding has gone from nought to double-platinum-album-selling pop star, fêted for her feathery folk-pop with its electro stylings and lyrics full of romance and ruin. And since April she has become even more famous as the girl who sang at the royal wedding.
She had met Prince William only once, the previous May at Radio 1's Big Weekend in Bangor. Unbeknown to Ellie, the Prince and Kate Middleton - 'Catherine,' Ellie corrects me - were backstage watching her set. Afterwards, Ellie was accosted by the rapper Tinie Tempah, with whom she had collaborated on the single 'Wonderman', and who introduced her to the Prince. 'Prince William was just really gushing, and, like, "I really enjoyed the show." He is so nice, just genuinely the nicest human being.'
Did you discuss music? 'No, it was just a few brief words after the gig, that was all.' So the telephone call from Buckingham Palace in February was quite a shock. Soon after, a representative from the Palace came to watch Ellie and her band rehearse for their first American tour. 'I kept it a secret - I just told them to be on their best behaviour.' The performance sealed the deal, and Ellie finally told her band a couple of days later. 'And then we all just forgot about it because we had to focus 100 per cent on the task in hand, which was America. But when we got back, even though we'd just toured, we rehearsed for another week just for the wedding.'
News of Ellie's involvement only broke a day before the event, on 28 April. It must have been hard keeping something like that secret. Did she tell anyone else? Her family? 'Not a soul,' she insists.
Ellie didn't attend the ceremony. She was home alone in West London - her boyfriend, the Radio 1 DJ Greg James, was broadcasting at the time. 'But I was really happy to be watching it on television. It was lovely. I almost cried. People might think, "Oh, what a wimp," but it was just such a beautiful thing.'
The wedding dinner began shortly after 8pm in the Palace ballroom. Around 300 guests - a mix of Royals, family and friends - dined on a crayfish, crab and salmon starter, a main of Sandringham lamb with vegetables from the estate and a mix of small desserts, and listened to the speeches during which Prince William revealed that his bride made him 'whole', while Prince Harry, the best man, expressed condolences to Kate for marrying a 'balding baron' who nevertheless looked 'great in a thong'.
Ellie and her band then took to the stage to play the first dance, her cover of Elton John's 'Your Song', which she had recorded as the soundtrack to the John Lewis TV adverts last Christmas and which reached number two in the charts. As the guests hit the Jägerbombs - shots of spirits mixed with Red Bull - and then the dancefloor, Goulding and her band performed a mix of her own hits, such as 'Starry-Eyed' and 'The Writer', and cover versions including Stevie Wonder's 'Superstition' and The Killers' 'Mr Brightside'. 'Everything went amazingly. It was a very special thing to be a part of,' she says.
Her assured performance at such a high-profile event shows just how far she has come since last January, when, with just one single, 'Under the Sheets', to her name, she scooped the BBC Sound of 2010 award and, soon after, the Critics' Choice Brit Award (previously won by Adele and Florence + the Machine). But instead of enjoying her success, Ellie found that the awards triggered a series of terrifying panic attacks.
'She's a naturally shy girl with an extraordinary public confidence, if that makes any sense,' says Ferdy Unger-Hamilton, head of Polydor Records UK, who signed Ellie in September 2009. 'The awards were 90 per cent a good thing, but then you're in the position of everyone saying you're brilliant before people have actually heard you. In those circumstances it's easy for your halo to slip and become a noose.'
Ellie may write her own songs and choose which producers to work with (she found some of them on MySpace), she may be driven, articulate and well read, but her life has been far from gilded. It was the gulf between her hard-knock council-estate childhood and her sudden, shiny new pop persona - and the expectations that came with it - that was the cause of her meltdown.
Elena Jane Goulding was born in December 1986 and grew up with her mother, brother and two sisters in the village of Lyonshall, near Hereford, on the border of England and Wales - 'literally the middle of nowhere'. Her father, a punk musician who played in a number of bands, none successful, left when Ellie was five; she hasn't seen him for years. 'I wonder what he's like, what sort of person he is now; I don't really know.' The family were poor: 'Growing up it was about survival; about whether there was enough money to put in the electricity meter or pay the rent.' She shared a bedroom with her sisters, one older, one younger, to whom she was not close growing up, but missed when she left home for university. 'I had my own room and I didn't like it because I didn't have anyone around me.' Her mother, a super-market worker (now a pharmacist, Ellie tells me proudly, 'a really cool job'), was an art-school dropout who passed on a love of music, from indie- rock to house; but Ellie detested her mum's new partner, a lorry driver.
Ellie was an oddball, a black sheep, a neurotic kid with an overactive imagination. 'I would read about meteorites and then spend weeks worrying that one would hit the Earth.' She was talented, too, and showed sufficient promise on the clarinet at the age of nine that her school helped her family to pay for one; she progressed to the guitar at 15. As a child she also began affecting the rounded vowels and crossed 't's of received pronunciation, in contrast to her siblings' broad Herefordshire accents. 'I watched a lot of films and television and I realised there was this whole other accent, like the one news presenters have, so I copied that. That's why it appears I speak quite well, but I'm not meant to.'
Years later, Ellie would relive this personal transformation with the therapist she saw in the wake of her panic attacks. She had the classic symptoms: chest pains and tingling in her left arm; 'I thought I was having a heart attack.' She was also unable to keep food down, had a rapid heartbeat and increasingly morbid thoughts. It lasted, on and off, for six days and she became convinced she would die. An ex-boyfriend took her to hospital, where she found herself breathing into a paper bag to try to regulate her breath and regain control. Soon after, she went into therapy.
'People instantly dismiss therapy as something for mental people - ha-ha, that's a [Ricky] Gervaisism, isn't it? "That's mental!" - but I truly believe in it, I believe in untangling things. My therapist explained that when I started teaching myself to speak differently, I was giving myself the pressure of being this other person and succeeding. But there's another girl who was meant to go down the bad route - dead-end jobs, taking drugs, being gobby, not giving a f***. And that's my dark side, I suppose, and I have to accept it will never fully leave me.'
It was her close friend (who she doesn't want to name) who ultimately prevented Ellie from going down the bad route. Or, rather, it was what happened to him. They had been 'thick as thieves' at school. Like Ellie, he was a bright kid from a struggling family, but somewhere between education and adulthood, he got caught up in the rave scene and started taking a lot of acid. 'For people growing up in the countryside with not much to do, it's so easy to fall into the trap of taking drugs and going to raves. You feel as if you've nothing to lose - but you have. The acid changed his brain; it was like he couldn't take the weight of the world. He just started spiralling, overthinking everything.' He ended up in an institution. 'I think he's still there now. I hope he's OK, I haven't spoken to him in a while…'
Ellie briefly flirted with the rave scene, too. Her experiences inform the lyrics of her hit 'Starry-Eyed' - 'So we burst into colours, colours and carousels/Fall head first like paper planes in a playground game.' But what happened to her friend was a wake-up call; she went to study drama at the University of Kent, where she performed at student gigs, then moved to London to pursue a record deal. She never looked back.
She seems over her troubles now, though she still has a thin skin. 'I take criticism so seriously, to the point that I end up agreeing with them. I think it was Graham Norton who questioned on live TV whether I was the right choice to do the royal wedding - and I sort of believed him.' Did that affect your per-formance? 'Oh no, I'm very different on stage. I think confidence comes from having done it quite a lot and knowing what to expect. And there's another attitude that takes over and I think, "F*** it, I deserve to do well." '
On the morning of her second Dublin show, I meet Ellie at 10am at her hotel's gym. Schedule permitting, she trains for two hours every day. Her blonde hair is scraped back in a ponytail and she wears shorts, vest, trainers and no make-up. What follows is a punishing session that begins on the running machine, progresses to endless stomach crunches, medicine-ball lifts, squats, lunges, dumbbell curls, spinning capoeira kicks, the full splits and ends, surreally, with me wicketkeeping while Ellie does a headstand.
'I feel awful if I don't train,' she says. 'Just really depressed. I guess there's something behind it psychologically that I don't fully understand. I have to exercise as much as I can.' Later, over a chicken salad and mineral water, we return to the theme of running, her favourite discipline. Ellie loves it so much she even meets fans for 5km runs. She feels less 'embarrassed' when there is something to focus on. 'People say I'm a geek, that it's not very rock'n'roll,' she says. 'But they don't get it. To me, running is about survival. Literally wanting to survive. So much can go wrong in life. I could lose everything, but I'd still have my strength. And it's a lot of strength. I pride myself on that.'

Not that running always elevates her mood. 'It can make my darkness worse. The clearer my head is, the more I can see how f***ed up things are: messed-up relationships, things in my past, my broken family…'
Ellie doesn't remain in the doldrums for long, though - life right now is too sweet. Besides, her manager, Jamie Lillywhite, keeps her on the right track: 'Whenever I'm being negative, he picks me straight back up and makes me realise that things aren't bad at all.' Another knock-on effect of her performance at the royal wedding is her increased profile in the States. 'They were fascinated by the wedding,' she says.
So she is off to America again soon. Then, after a royally deserved rest, she will begin work on the notoriously tricky second album. 'I've a feeling it will be less electronic and it is going to be darker,' she grins. 'A lot darker.' ES


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