Ellie Goulding is on my computer screen in her pyjamas. Weirdly, though, a home-based Zoom interview is a step down in intimacy from clicking play on the video for her latest single, Power, in which the star rolls around on her bed in an open white shirt, black bra and stockings. She filmed it herself, alone, with the director Imogen Snell on the phone in the background – a genuine lockdown creation.
“It was bloody stressful, but amazing fun at the same time because I got to be completely free,” she tells me. “Usually there would probably be an all-male crew around me. Before, I was never allowed to show my sexuality because it was going too far away from the ‘girl next door’ thing. I think this video is the first time I’ve really been able to explore that.”
As the 33-year-old looks forward to releasing her fourth album, Brightest Blue, next week, she’s also in reflective mode. It’s 10 years since her debut, Lights, hit number one in the UK and made her one of the biggest artists of the past decade. The song of the same name went on to go five-times platinum in the US, making her an equally huge deal over there. There were arena tours, a string of celebrity boyfriends, a John Lewis Christmas ad and an invitation to sing at Prince William and Kate’s wedding reception. Looking back now, she’s come to realise that imposter syndrome took the shine off a lot of it.
“I was never the pretty girl at school. I had long dyed black hair and didn’t have a particularly good figure,” she says of her teenage years at a comprehensive in Hereford. “But then I started to think that I had to be pretty, and that causes all kinds of problems.”
Her musical heroes were Björk, Imogen Heap, Joni Mitchell, but the songs she was making planted her firmly in the mainstream – highly catchy electronic pop delivered in her sweet, breathy voice. Success came quickly, with the Brits Critics’ Choice Award following her debut single, and her second single, Starry Eyed, spending five weeks in the UK top 10. From then on there were standards to uphold.
“Maybe I was a bit naïve and perhaps that was taken advantage of,” she says. “I was being steered in a direction where I had to wear make-up. I was told what to wear. At one point I wanted to dye my hair back to my natural colour but I was required to stay blonde. I was so clueless about what it entailed to be signed to a big record label, and I went with it instead of following my instincts about what I was. This is why I think there’s always been this question mark about me. I kind of did the cowardly thing because I thought it was what I needed to do to survive.”
In case this makes it sound like she’s making her return to music with face tattoos and a new industrial techno direction, rest assured that Brightest Blue still ticks plenty of boxes that will satisfy long-term fans. As the streaming era allows for the possibility of messing around with the album format and putting out more songs at once, she’s having her cake and eating it. Thirteen songs predominantly self-penned and mature-sounding, including the gospel-style title track and the beautiful piano ballad Flux, are followed by a smaller collection of glossy collaborations with high profile Americans including Diplo, Lauv and the late rapper Juice WRLD.
“I owed it to myself to show people both sides of me. I feel like I’ve never been able to explore who I am as a songwriter and as a pop artist, so that’s what the album is. Side B is me basically getting away with being on these big American records.”
That choice of phrase, “getting away with”, is an indication that she still doesn’t feel like she quite belongs in these lofty surroundings. In her personal life, at least, she has good reason to feel more secure. She married art dealer Caspar Jopling in a York Minster ceremony last August, in a Chloé dress, with Katy Perry, Orlando Bloom, James Blunt and Princess Eugenie in attendance. The reception was at Castle Howard, most familiar as “Brideshead” in screen versions of Evelyn Waugh’s novel.
One new song, Love I’m Given, is about her changed outlook on romance. “It’s kind of about karma,” she explains. “I feel like I wasn’t giving out the right kind of love to people. My reactions were all wrong to things. When I had a few years to really think about that and get to know myself and love myself, it meant that everybody and everything around me changed, and that’s when I met my husband.”
The couple have spent most of lockdown in a cottage in an Oxfordshire village, having been based there while Jopling studies for an MBA at the Saïd Business School. He was also training as a member of Oxford’s crew in the cancelled Boat Race. When we speak, Goulding is back in her west London home on promotional duties. I observe that the celebrity life must be pretty locked down at the best of times, with strictly regimented public outings, and it sounds like she’s been perfectly happy with her situation.
“I suppose I’m not out and about as much as maybe the average person. I was always fairly solitary,” she says. “It has been really great to reconnect with nature. I found myself completely alone in some places and it was really profound. I also feel more connected with people than ever, even though we’ve sort of had to be actively disconnected.”
Professionally, though the album is here, she’s still only edging back to the expected routines. A UK tour will consist of just six shows and doesn’t begin until late April. “I’ve had to downscale the tour massively, which is just so bizarre, but there’ll be a good intimacy there.” It should please the organisations with which she works as a UN Environment Global Goodwill Ambassador, but is less good for her profile.
The game has changed for everybody, of course. Even before all this, it was becoming harder to get a hit. Her third UK number one single, a cover of Joni Mitchell’s The River which reached the top spot in December, got there by a surprising new strategy: people were playing it “passively” when they asked Amazon’s Alexa speakers to play Christmas songs, rather than necessarily seeking it out.
“People’s attention spans seem to be a lot shorter now, so you have to adapt,” she says. “There are so many more layers to releasing music. But this album is just an album. Despite not being able to do live shows, not being able to dress up and present myself as – inverted commas – ‘a pop star’, I’ve still got my music. At the moment that’s all I can give.”
Brightest Blue is released on July 17 on Polydor. May 6, Eventim Apollo, W6. eventimapollo.com