It’s Christmas, a time for giving, and if you’re a musician, that means a charity concert. Liam Gallagher performed for Shelter at the Union Chapel last night.George Ezra will be in the same venue for Mind on Tuesday, and Laura Marling will be singing for CALM at Omeara this weekend. But the biggest by far is Ellie Goulding’s annual show for Streets of London, now in its fifth year andmaking a big leap from the Albert Hall to Wembley Arena on Thursday.
“This one is huge! We thought, ‘Let’s just do it and see what happens,’” the singertells me. Her star-studded phone book has enabled a line-up that would appeal even if it wasn’t for a good cause. It works as an excellent round-up of theyear in British pop: Dua Lipa, Bastille, Years & Years, Clean Bandit, Mabel,Not3s, herself and a fair few more.
Streets of London is an umbrella organisation that funds 12 different initiatives to combat homelessness in the city, including the Marylebone Project, which has 112 beds for homeless women and for whom Goulding serves as a patron. She helps them in person around Christmas time, making tea and playing board games. Ticket sales for this show will go a significant way towards keeping them going longer term.
“The money goes to places that simply aren’t given enough government funding,” says the 31-year-old, explaining why homelessness has become her favoured cause alongside environmental issues. Last year she was appointed a UN Environment Global Goodwill Ambassador, and just after we meet she’s off to Vanity Fair’s Climate Change Gala dinner at Bloomberg London. “I’ve been aware of homeless people since I was very young, at home in Hereford and then at university in Canterbury. It was always something that bothered me. I remember thinking to myself that if I can ever do something, then I will.”
She may sound posh, having worked to ditch her Hereford accent in her teens, and and have royal connections – she attended Princess Eugenie’s wedding to Jack Brooksbank in October and sang Your Song for Will and Kate’s first dance in 2011 – but her early life was no garden party. Her father abandoned her mother and three siblings when she was five, and she has said the family was “super poor”.
“My life has turned out good and I feel exceptionally lucky for that. There were circumstances in my childhood that could have taken me in a very different direction – the same with some of my friends and their families,” she says. “I think being in that position of vulnerability has given me a lifelong empathy and urge to want to help other people.”
We meet in her west London home, which seems small for someone who has achieved three platinum-selling albums in the US, plus six platinum discs for her albums and seven for her singles over here. Then she explains that she’s holing up there while the bigger house next door, which she also owns, is being renovated. I’m expecting an army of managers, publicists and stylists to cramp the conversation but she’s alone aside from her driver, who’s waiting outside to take her Christmas shopping, her cat, Wallace, and a fragrant candle the size of an oil drum.
In August she announced her engagement to Caspar Jopling, an art dealer at Sotheby’s in New York. He’s still based in the US, but she says he’ll switch to doing his job in London once they’re married. “It’s too hard, him living there and me living here – too many flights. But for the first time the long-distance thing feels more okay because we know that we’re gonna be together when we’re married. As much as I love New York, I find it too much of a sensory overload for a Hereford girl. I can’t seem to slot into that way of life.”
Wedding planning is “going well”, she tells me, though “Nothing too serious has been chosen or discussed. My partner’s very involved and incredibly organised, way more logistical than me, so we make a good pair.”
Now that she’s with someone who isn’t famous, in contrast to past links with celebs including McFly’s Dougie Poynter, Radio 1’s Greg James, One Direction’s Niall Horan, the producer Skrillex and Ed Sheeran, she should be of diminished interest to the gossip pages. “I think people can sense that I’m an interesting person because of the way my life has gone and where I’ve come from. I think finally people are realising that they don’t need to talk about my relationships to justify writing about me,” she says.
In any case, next year her fourth album will arrive before any wedding bells ring. A new song, the mid-paced, naggingly catchy Close to Me, came out in late October and currently sits at number 21. It’s a bit of a false start rather than the comeback proper, however, billed as “Ellie Goulding x Diplo featuring Swae Lee”, which takes the pressure off a little. “This song, as much as I love it, is not really a representation of what’s gonna happen on the album,” she says. “I was listening to my new tracks the other night and realising that these aren’t just songs that were written in the moment a year ago. They’re songs that are meant to stick around. I’m feeling very positive about them and eager to get them out there.”
She decides during our conversation that she may well perform her real new single at the Streets of London gig. “You know what, just to show how special that evening is, I might play the new song. Maybe I will – why the hell not?” It should be released at the start of 2019 and might surprise a few people. “It’s ironic – it’s the happiest time of my life and it’s probably the saddest song I’ve ever written!”
She talks down her last album, 2015’s Delirium, a little, even though it was written with several of the world’s top songwriters including Max Martin, Greg Kurstin and Ryan Tedder, and contained her biggest hit to date, Love Me Like You Do. “I think that when I released Delirium, for some reason or other my heart wasn’t quite in it, and I think people sensed that,” she says. This time she began writing the songs on her own. She admits that her radar for knowing what will be a hit isn’t too strong – “If you weren’t here I’d be listening to Classic FM.” – but she knows when she really cares about a composition.
“Everything in a song has to connect – the vocal has to have the right conviction, the sounds have to be harmonious, then obviously if you’re thinking in a pop way, the lyrics can’t be too vague or poetic. I think I’ve kept my own stamp on what I do because of my voice, which is quite unique, and I think my lyric writing is unique too,” she says. “I believe that there is some kind of frequency, when you release something that has truly connected in you, that will make people in turn connect with that connection. Music is such an incredible thing.”
So the show next week will be a fun opportunity to celebrate her past hits with her musical buddies, do some good and maybe throw in a Christmas song too. Then the serious stuff really begins: a fourth album that should cement her status as one of our biggest pop exports, and a wedding too. She says she couldn’t give me a solid timeline for 2019 even if she wanted to. “My career has always been really unpredictable in the best possible way. I never know what’s around the corner, and I like it like that.”
Ellie Goulding in Aid of Streets of London is on Dec 20 at SSE Arena, Wembley, HA9. ssearena.co.uk