After topping the charts, winning awards and even playing at William and Kate’s wedding, two years ago Ellie Goulding almost crashed and burned. Now she’s back with new music, a new attitude and a brand new fiancé.
Ellie Goulding, 32, is listing the mistakes she made in her 20s: relationships with the wrong men, drinking too much, exercising to an obsessive extreme, ‘allowing myself to play a bona fide pop star’.
She shakes her head as she slowly recounts the sins of her youth. I am looking at her aghast. I have known the singer since she was a fresh-faced 21-year-old newbie winning her first Brit award, barely able to breathe at the sight of Lady Gaga backstage, and unsure whether she had to pay for a Jo Malone candle that had been thrust into her hands in a goodie bag. I’ve been to her home in London, sat with her on several occasions, and met at least one of her ex-boyfriends (the musician Dougie Poynter).
Ellie has always struck me as hard-working, thoughtful and connected – one of the smart ones who has been able to steer her way from a council estate to a triple-platinum global career, a Grammy nomination and close friendships with Taylor Swift and Britain’s young royals.
Hers was an old-school route – no X Factor or YouTube. She went from being an insecure singer-songwriter, playing small pubs and clubs, to performing to packed arenas all over the world and at two royal weddings (William and Kate’s and Eugenie’s). With an estimated £15 million fortune, 14 million Instagram followers and her own wedding later this summer to Caspar Jopling, nephew of art-world mogul Jay Jopling and the son of a Yorkshire landowner, the Honourable Nicholas Jopling, this is surely a woman who has accomplished a life beyond her dreams.
‘Ellie,’ I say, ‘you never went off the rails. Yours is a great success story and you worked your backside off.’
Finally, she drops the frown and laughs. ‘I have to give myself credit for that. And for somehow navigating being a woman in the music industry, which can be a strange dark place, far from the real world. You get to do what you want, but you also don’t always get to be who you are. I was drinking, probably more than you know. It’s what you do in this job: you can drink any time of the day or the night; no one tells you not to. But maybe I was more controlled than I thought. I never made it become a problem. I think I kept my dignity.
‘But the real issue for me was I was getting to 30 and I didn’t know who I was. I was working too hard to allow myself to find that out. And if you don’t, you never give yourself the chance to become a fully formed adult. So I had to take time out, leave everything and just be on my own.’
In 2017, almost a year after splitting from Poynter, her fiancé of two years, and after completing a world tour of her third album, Delirium, she decided to take a break – from music, from relationships, from being Ellie Goulding. ‘I’d spent most of my 20s touring, recording, promoting, writing. Delirium was written like a series of pop songs. I was performing with dancers, allowing myself to play at being a pop star, and that wasn’t really me, but that was where I’d ended up. I felt I hadn’t stopped.’
It was said – in newspaper headlines and on social media at that time – that Ellie had retired from music. But in many ways her break was about getting back to writing the music she wanted to write, slowly, organically, without pressure. There is – as yet – no new album, just a series of songs she is ‘dropping’ into the Spotify-sphere; the latest include the standout Woman I Am and Start, a return to her soul-searching, Björk-influenced best. ‘I definitely feel that as a songwriter, I’m back. These are personal, emotional songs that have taken time,’ she says, ‘but they come from me.’
The decision also came from a realisation that she was burning herself out. I’d seen her a few months earlier, and remember her almost falling asleep as we talked. She was also incredibly upset over an incident on an MTV show where she’d been asked to change her hair colour an hour before she went on stage. It was the sort of situation she’d have laughed about a few years before, but it brought her to tears. She nods.
‘You get to that point where you can’t deal with these things. You just need to say “stop” and duck out. You need to do normal things: go to the shops, actually see your family, spend time with friends, go to the birthday parties you’ve missed for the past decade.’ She also put a lot of time into her role as a UN Environment Goodwill Ambassador on climate change, as well as her other passion project: raising awareness of homelessness on behalf of the charity Streets Of London.
After 10 years of relationships (from One Direction’s Niall Horan to Radio 1’s Greg James, to the record producer Skrillex and Poynter – though she did not, as is popularly believed, date either Ed Sheeran or Prince Harry), she felt she needed to be single. ‘I made a decision that I wanted and needed to be on my own, to have that feeling of independence. That was going to be the way I worked out who I was – and, actually, I loved it.’
But then, within a couple of months of deciding to live as a strong single woman, Goulding met The One – Eton- and Harvard- educated Caspar, 27 (who was then working at Sotheby’s in New York) – when they were sat next to each other at a dinner in London arranged by their mutual friend Princess Eugenie, a director of the London branch of Hauser & Wirth gallery.
Initially, Ellie wasn’t interested in dating this Clark Kent lookalike and former Youth Olympics rower. ‘It was weird because I was talking to him about being vegetarian and he was talking to me about coming from a farming family and the way he sees eating meat and animals. It was fascinating to listen to someone intelligent and articulate who had a very different point of view to mine. And he was funny, which is always a massive hit with me. But I felt I wasn’t in the place for a relationship.
I was committed to being single, not having to succumb to the pressure of engagement, marriage, children. After that dinner, he sent me a lot of long texts suggesting places we could go, and I’d send short texts with excuses. This went on for a couple of months until finally we went on a date…’ She pauses and smiles again. ‘And that was sort of it.’
Their first date was in New York, and within another month the two of them were living together in a SoHo apartment. ‘I did lots of cooking, chilling, wandering around the streets, writing songs,’ she says. ‘It all felt right. He felt right. The fact he is younger than me makes no difference; he’s one of the smartest men I know. He’s my best friend. We talk about everything.
When you are in this business, you always seem to end up with another musician, but it never works because you are too similar. Caspar didn’t even know anything really about my music. His passion is art. He’s taught me a lot about art, and I love that it means so much to him.’
He asked her to marry him while they were doing a jigsaw puzzle together. For 10 minutes, she said absolutely nothing. ‘I was so shocked,’ she says. ‘I can’t actually think what was going through my head apart from knowing I wanted to be with him not because I needed to be with him but because I wanted to be with him. And thinking marriage felt right. It didn’t feel like a pressure; it felt just natural. And then I said yes.’
Elena Jane Goulding was born in Lyonshall, Herefordshire, the middle child of Tracey, an art student who dropped out of college when she became pregnant with her eldest child, and Arthur, an undertaker who spent most of his free time playing in local bands. When Ellie was five, Arthur left. A few years later her mother remarried – a lorry driver who ‘couldn’t have been less interested’ in Ellie.
They split up shortly after she left home at the age of 18. She rarely saw Arthur, and hadn’t seen him for almost a decade when I first met her a few years ago. Part of the reason she and Poynter bonded was having dads who had walked out on them. ‘That is never a good reason, is it?’ she says now.
Her childhood was ‘beans and chips for tea, going to Spar to put money on the electric-meter card and never knowing when it would run out, caravan holidays in Tenby…’ With two sisters, Isabel, 33 and Jordan, 30 (who both work in shops), and a 29-year-old brother, Alex, who is a guitarist and photographer, Ellie see-sawed between a life she had and a life she wanted.
She hung out with kids from the council estate, dyed her hair (‘I was basically a goth’), got piercings and watched as others got deeper and deeper into drink and drugs. ‘I didn’t. Something held me back; I knew that was not the way I wanted to go.’
At her local state school she did well, and hung out with middle-class kids. ‘I’d go to their homes, they’d have books in their houses and organic food.’ She copied the way Nicholas Witchell, the BBC’s royal correspondent talked, and consumed books from her local library. Music was part of her home landscape because her mother, an ex-punk, would spend any spare cash on CDs – Björk, Kate Bush and The Prodigy are all part of her earliest memories.
She was the first member of her family to go to university – she studied drama and theatre studies at the University of Kent – but dropped out after she was spotted performing by music manager Jamie Lillywhite (son of singer Kirsty MacColl) at the age of 19; he got her a deal with Polydor in 2009. The songwriting came easily but the performance side was challenging.
One smart decision she made was to ask her best friend from uni, Hannah Lowe, to come and work for her. Thirteen years on, Hannah remains part of her all-female management team. Her closest friends (including Hannah) are all women, from Eugenie to Taylor Swift and Karlie Kloss. ‘I like women, I like women who support other women and I admire women who aren’t afraid to be themselves,’ she says.
In the early days, it wasn’t easy. Much of what drives her now – her obsession for finding out who she really is, her philanthropy, her self-scrutiny, her desire to show her flaws and her struggles – comes from being told to be like someone else and create a perfect pop image in order to appeal to an audience.
‘People didn’t know what to do with me. I didn’t fit into any boxes. I’d be told to watch videos of people like Little Boots (Victoria Hesketh) and Elly Jackson from La Roux and try and look like them. I hated my nose, my chin, even my eyebrows, and I got into this awful cycle of panic attacks because I felt that it was all happening and going away at the same time.’ Underneath the self-doubt, what drove her was that she felt she had something to say and that ‘I could write good songs, make good music’.
In the end, her music – that distinctively haunting voice and those emotional, stripped-back lyrics – caught fire. Her first single, Under the Sheets, came out in 2009, and the following year she won the Critics’ Choice Award at the Brits – before she’d even released an album. Shortly afterwards, Lights went straight to the top of the album charts. She was just 23.
Ellie’s appeal has always been about imperfection. Unlike Beyoncé, Rihanna and Rita Ora, there’s a vulnerability and complexity to what she says in her songs, and in person. Hers is a voice that has resonated all round the globe. She has been open about her family issues, her body issues, her anxieties.
‘I used exercise as a pressure reliever,’ she says. ‘Everything in my life was so full on, my exercise became more and more full on. I’ve cut down the hours I used to work out, and I’m more chilled about it. But I was given an Oura ring, which measures your sleeping heart rate. Mine is 41, which is insane – that is athlete level. I’m pretty proud about that.’
We return to the subject of her upcoming nuptials. I ask her whether she has picked the dress and food, and she smiles. ‘Not quite. I have ideas; it’s in hand (she is going to Paris for a first fitting a few days after we speak). I want it to be a relaxed day. I want to enjoy it. Caspar is much more of a groomzilla than I am but he’s about to start an MA degree course at Oxford so he has more free time on his hands to sort things out.’
The couple have now moved from New York to Oxford. Their wedding will be in Yorkshire, where the Joplings own Frickley Hall, a Georgian stately home with 2,500 acres. Her father (with whom she’s reconciled) will walk her down the aisle.
‘I guess that’s very traditional,’ she says. ‘Caspar didn’t ask him for my hand, but he did ask his permission once we were engaged. It’s all good between us. My family are all involved. Everyone loves Caspar and is very happy for me. I’ll change my name to Jopling when we are married, but for work I will stay a Goulding.’
On her big day, there will be guests from country estates and council estates, and likely a royal or two. Kate and William asked her to play at their wedding after seeing her at a festival, and from that point onwards she has remained in their inner circle. The Duchess of York is a good friend too.
‘She’s funny, she’s wise, she always remembers little details about you, and she does actually care about people,’ Ellie says. As someone who is marrying into aristocracy, I ask how she feels about American-born actor Meghan joining the monarchy. She shoots me a stern look.
‘Do people seriously care about that? Do people seriously think like that? To me, people are people, and it doesn’t matter where you come from. Surely it’s what you do with your life that counts.’ Well said, Mrs Jopling.
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