Photo: Recording Academy
Ellie Goulding Talks Songwriting, Loving Skrillex & Björk & Growing Up On Electronic Music
Looking back at the music that British pop singer/songwriter Ellie Goulding has put out over the last decade, it's clear that her powerful voice works well on all types of tracks. The GRAMMY nominee is the perfect vocalist for EDM bangers like "I Need Your Love," from Calvin Harris' 2012 GRAMMY-nominated heater 18 Months, and Skrillex's "Summit," from his 2011 GRAMMY-winning rave album, Bangarang, as well as for more laid-back, piano-backed love songs like "Flux" and "How Long Will I Love You."
Her latest single, "Hate Me," released June 26, showcases her prowess as a collaborator with rappers. On the new track, the songstress links up with rising rap star Juice WRLD, as the pair stands up to unappreciative lovers.
Goulding recently stopped by the Recording Academy headquarters for an in-depth conversation in our latest episode of Up Close & Personal, which you can watch above and check out on our YouTube page for a longer version of the video, as well as the other recent episodes. Read on to learn how she feels when she looks back on the songs she's written over the last decade, what it was like to work with Diplo and Skrillex and how she's always loved electronic music. She also explains her reaction to hearing GRAMMY nominee Björk for the first time, why environmental activism is so important to her and more.
Your most recent music video, for "Sixteen," is really sweet. Can you talk about the story and message behind it?
Well, I wrote "Sixteen" a few years ago and really it was about the idea that you develop yourself around that age. Well, for me anyway, it was really the age that I was discovering everything about myself and becoming who I am in a way. It was a pivotal time where I was figuring out music I really loved and friends and suddenly falling madly, deeply, uncontrollably in love with people. That song really was intended to be a nostalgic celebration and the video is about two friends who have this very close relationship.
I think now, it's so much more, not acceptable, but you can be so much more open with your friendships and it's okay to have a really close friendship with someone of the same sex or with anyone and there's no black and white anymore, which is great. I had those really close friendships with my girlfriends at that age and then some of my girlfriends are still with the person that they fell in love with at that age and they're now in their 30s and have kids with this person that they met at that age.
You've put out a lot of huge tracks over the past nine years, all the way back to "Starry Eyed" in 2010. What are a few of your personal favorites? Has your relationship with your earlier tracks changed over the years?
Oh my gosh. My relationship with all of my early songs has changed. I only get them out on very special occasions. When I listen back to the songs and the lyrics, I do feel a bit silly at some of the lyrics. I feel like they're kind of immature and they're a real marker of that time, where I feel like I didn't know anything about anything and I would write a very naïve perspective of what I thought love was. When I think back to those situations, I think that actually was me a lot of the time in the raw or me doing something stupid. In the song, I maybe portray it as differently or the other person's fault. I do think about my old songs a lot in that way, but I don't regret writing them. Once time has passed, I keep having to move on with songs. They're real markers in the book that I keep writing. It's very hard for me to go back in time with them, but "Anything Could Happen" is a big favorite because I just remember being in such a happy place when I wrote it.
It was melancholy because I had just broken up with somebody, which as we all know is for some reason the most painful thing in the world, but at the same time I was back in my hometown writing with somebody that also lives in my hometown and we just came up with this song, and whenever I play it live it just has this euphoria and brings everyone together and I see people in the crowd just so happy and it has some kind of rave element to it that makes everyone go a little bit crazy. Yeah, so I have such good memories of that song and it was also just one of those songs I wrote in half an hour. It just happened. I also am very proud of the song "Flux," which I played earlier. I was just proud of myself for the honesty and the way that I managed to capture what I was feeling.
Sometimes I'm like, "God, do I really want to write this about this person?" but sometimes I just have to tell the truth and even if it shows how emotional I am or shows my true colors or whatever, it just has to happen. That was one of those moments with that song. I'm proud of all the songs I've written. I'm proud of the huge cheesy pop songs and I'm proud of the more obscure weird ones, like when I first released a song called "Under the Sheets" on an EP with a song called "Fighter Plane," and I'm proud of how I was thinking at that age. I was maybe 20 and I was already writing in a somewhat mature way. [Laughs.] I'm having a proud moment.
It's like the songs are the chapters of your life, and while the stories are super specific to you, so many people can relate to them.
I think subconsciously I've always written with other people in mind. Not in the sense that I want to please people, but I love the idea of providing people with a resolution, or with some kind of consolation for what they're going through. Music is one of the most powerful things in the world and we all speak its language. When I write lyrics, I understand how much of an impact they can have on people, so I'm always aware of that. When I'm writing about a breakup or I'm writing about the state of the world or the planet or whatever, I try and make it hopeful. If I could be described as being a musician that gave people hope, then I'd be really happy.
"If I could be described as being a musician that gave people hope, then I'd be really happy."
You've worked with some really big names in dance music: Diplo, Skrillex and Calvin Harris, to name a few. Can you talk a little bit about what you've learned working with those producers?
I think collaboration in general is somewhere you learn about yourself and you learn about compromise and it makes you realize how much of a unique artist you are because you're never just going to go in and have completely the same opinions on things and artistic ideas or directions. It's a learning curve, working with other people. I've written with writers where we both agree that it's not right; it was great to meet you, but it didn't quite gel well. Sometimes I write with writers where we're best friends by the next day and we're texting every day. There's some people that I feel so comfortable with, which is not that many people, that I just text them lyrics and say, "What do you think about this?," or send ideas or voice notes.
Diplo is someone I've gone back to. He's completely bat sh*t crazy. [Laughs.] But he's funny and he does respect artist's individuality, so he's really great to work with. And you know whatever he's going to do is going to be completely fresh and new and no one else has done it.
And then Skrillex, when I first met him, he was a pioneer in electronic music. Actually, I really feel like he was a new sound, he was refreshing and I was completely fascinated and completely enthralled by what he was doing and I just wanted to be a part of that. I have such an affinity for electronic music and since I was a kid, my mom listened to lots of rave music and dance music and we had a very specific phase in the U.K. in London, especially of dance music.
We had garage and then we had deep house and we like to think of ourselves as having a very unique place in music in that sense in London. I was completely inspired by that growing up. I only discovered musicians and people playing instruments in bands when I was a teen. I never listened to The Beatles. I never listened to Fleetwood Mac. I never listened to Bob Dylan, so it was just a sensory overload by the time I listened to all these singers like Stevie Nicks, Joni Mitchell, that it was a new world. That's probably when I realized that I could be a singer because I had this really unusual voice that I didn't know could be a thing until I heard other singers with unique voices and lyrics and honesty and I thought, "Oh, I could do this."
Is there a specific moment where you remember an artist that you listened to that you then thought, "Oh, I could have a place in music"?
Yeah, I came home one night and I was a bit drunk and I think we'd been out camping somewhere in a field. I grew up in the middle of nowhere. I switched on the TV. Tiny box TV at the time and Björk was singing on stage somewhere. I think maybe at the Albert Hall in London. I just remember being completely transfixed. I'd never seen anyone sing or perform like it before. All of a sudden I'd gone from listening to pop singers. I loved Lauryn Hill. I loved Alicia Keys. I loved Beyoncé. I loved Destiny's Child. I loved girl groups, and then I saw this singer and it resonated with me because people had always told me that I shouldn't sing because I had this really unusual voice. It had such a lack of control and I could sing high, I could sing low, I could sing hard, I could sing soft. I could do these crazy things with my voice, but it didn't ever really seem to have a place anywhere and I couldn't write the right songs and nothing seemed to sound right.
When I heard Björk, I suddenly was like she's got this beautifully inventive and unusually curious voice and it suddenly made me feel very powerful, like I could sing after all. It took a few years for people to really get me and some people would come along and listen to me sing. Not that many, but I've played my own songs. I carried on. I just kept singing and playing and I thought I had something maybe because more and more people were coming and at that point, I was able to sing and play effortlessly and not have to think about guitar and it was just there. Then, eventually it clicked after a solid few years of trying to get people to come and watch me play. Eventually I signed a publishing deal to be a writer and then I signed a record deal the year after that. After a long, long time of what we call "fanning around" in the U.K.
That's so cool. I love Björk.
Yeah, I saw her the other night in New York at The Shed. Oh my God, you have to see it, if you can. You can't even for a second lose focus or concentration because there's so much going on and the visuals are 10 years in the future. It's mad.
Do you have any dream collaborators you haven't worked with yet that you'd like to in the future?
I'm a fan of so many different producers and classical composers actually, maybe more than I am of artists, just in the sense that I can see so many possibilities with my voice with musicians and producers, but I'm always open to singing with other singers too. There's electronic producers I've always wanted to do things with; Jamie XX I've loved forever. One day he'll work with me. Mura Masa, I love. I love this guy George FitzGerald from the U.K. I love Frank Dukes, who makes a bunch of records here in L.A. There's a guy called Arca, who just did Björk's latest record.
There's actually a guy serpentwithfeet, who I love, who I discovered relatively recently. His voice is out of this world and he's a beautiful pianist, so maybe one day I'll work with him. I love experimenting and I love this classic producer and composer called Ola Gjeilo, who based in New York, he's from Norway, makes beautiful music. And then there's the classics like Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard. My dream is to eventually do film soundtracks and go down the Lisa Gerrard road where she's just f***ing cool and just puts her amazing voice on things. You know, in Gladiator she's the voice that you can never forget, and I'd love to do that at some point.
— Ellie Goulding (@elliegoulding) June 5, 2019
For World Environment Day, you posted on social media encouraging your fans to take action. You've done work with the UN and you've always been vocal about standing up for what you believe in. Can you speak a little bit to using your platform as a catalyst for change?
I do think it's important for me to use my social media to influence young people for the better. Social media can be used for all sorts of weird, wonderful and sometimes not-so-good things. Relatively speaking, I have a small following, but it's enough to get people talking and sharing about the things that I care about. The things that I care about, and what we should all be caring about because it's essentially all of our futures at stake, is protecting the environment, which involves things like cutting massively down on plastic and eating less meat, which is better for the environment. When you think about how much goes into producing meat, but that's a whole other story. Go to my Instagram if you want to know more.
I talk a lot about climate change; it is the biggest threat to our existence. There's never been more CO2 in the atmosphere. Every single year it gets hotter and I think that's enough for us all to be quite scared, but because there is another agenda, a huge agenda in this world to promote climate change as a hoax because of oil, the meat industry, things that are trying to crush it for their own financial advantage. We are the warriors on the other side of that, making it come to light and showing people that what they can do makes a difference individually. I really just try and spread the world that climate change will ultimately be the end of us, if we don't do something about it, which means drastically changing our habits, changing the way we live.
Stop plastic production because that is linked to climate change. We need to eat less meat. We need to stop cutting down forests. We're simply not growing trees quick enough to replace the CO2 that is being created. Ice caps are melting, which means methane and other things being released. Ice caps reflect the sun more, so the less ice there is, the less sunlight is going to reflect it back into space. Ultimately, everything is going to screw us unless we act quickly and it's not like, "Oh, maybe we'll be okay. We'll start acting in a few years." We have 12 years exactly to save the planet, so with that in mind, I do use my social media to try and push that a bit and get people on board with me.