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Ellie Goulding on Being Sick of Sad Songs and Why ‘Boxing Is My S–t’

“I write very honest songs and deal with the consequences afterwards,” says pop singer-songwriter

"I write very honest songs and deal with the consequences afterwards," says pop singer-songwriter

When Rolling Stone meets up with Ellie Goulding, she’s in the midst of a big week. Following the release of her album, Delirium, the singer-songwriter performed a huge Scarlett Johansson–directed American Express Unstaged show at NYC’s Hammerstein Ballroom. Meanwhile, Goulding’s fans may have noticed that her latest LP takes listeners in a new direction: Rather than folk or EDM, Goulding turns confidently toward pure pop here. And while she will still play fan favourites at concerts, singing sad songs hasn’t really been for her lately. “I feel grateful that I’m even making a third album,” she says. Delirium is an upbeat record, reflective of her current state of mind. 

Related: Rolling Stone Reviews Ellie Goulding’s Latest Album Delirium

Goulding spoke with RS about industry double standards, one-night stands and being “scarily good” at boxing.

Delirium is a really upbeat album, and it’s seemingly different from your previous records. Is there a misconception of you not being happy in your older songs?
I think they’re right. Lights was a confusing time because I still didn’t really know who I exactly was — not just as a musician but as a person. I was young — I was like 21 or 22. I feel like I was still figuring life out, not just in my music. When I listen to that, I think it’s sweet because I think I was really naive. It’s funny because when I think of writing those songs, I was pretty much a teenager. I wish the teenage me would know how things were gonna be now because I think I would have been a lot less stressed and worried about life. Halcyon was just a dark period of time in my life for different reasons. That definitely reflected a lot in the album. I didn’t know it at the time — how sad I was. This record, the past few years I feel like I’ve opened my eyes to a lot more things in the world and I feel like I can change them. I feel a lot more positive about life. I feel like I have a lot more confidence and power. I feel grateful that I’m even making a third album. I didn’t know I would even get to this place. It’s overwhelming.

“I realised that night after night I was performing songs that were making me sad all the time.”

You’ve said recently that you’re tired of performing heartbreaking music because it bums you out. Would you say each of your records thus far has been heartbreaking?
I think mostly, yeah. I’m such a sucker for writing those songs. I instantly go to write sad songs, but the kind of emotional energy that goes into that songs gets draining. I realised that night after night I was performing songs that were making me sad all the time. Eventually it’s muscle memory and you don’t have to sound the same way anymore, but even doing soundcheck performing these songs, it’s a whole new world. The band is really vibing. I feel like I’ve just been a touring artist for three or four years. I feel like it’s natural and inevitable that you end up considering what the songs sound like live and how you feel onstage. I spend way more time on stage than I do writing at the moment. Even writing this album, I was onstage every weekend in festivals in Europe and in the U.S. I definitely had that in mind when I was writing Delirium.

You collaborated with a lot of big producers on Delirium. Sometimes if that happens, it’s the producer’s work that stands out. However, with your record, it sounds like you. How did you make sure that it really sounded like an Ellie Goulding song versus, say, a Max Martin song?
I think when you work with those kinds of producers, there are all kinds of assumptions made, but there’s only one me — there’s no one else with my voice. It’s something I feel strongly about. I think it’s unfair, just because people work with big producers, that it could be anyone’s song. No way! My songs are mine. They’re never going to be anyone else’s, and they never were anyone else’s. My voice ties everything together, and no one else in the world has my voice, so it’s very hard for people to say things like that, the idea that you can lose your identity because of the people you work with. It’s just such rubbish.

Max [Martin] is a good friend now, and he’s so passionate about music and individuality with musicians and artists. He knows my past work, music and knew exactly what I wanted to do. He needs to be given credit for the fact that he may work with some big pop artists who don’t necessarily write all of their own stuff, but also he’s been working with some incredible artists lately. He knows I write all of my own stuff, and he knows how involved I am in the production and writing. He’s intuitive like that. People need to realize that in the studio, it’s as much you as it is them — unless you have no involvement. Everyone knows that I’m an artist — and always have been — who’s always involved in everything. That’s how you make your album. Same with Greg Kurstin — he knows exactly how I’ve worked in the past. He knows my passion and involvement for what I do. I’m never going to make music that doesn’t sound like me because that just doesn’t make any sense at all. 

Being a woman in the music industry — musician or otherwise — is challenging. Was there ever a time that you had to compromise your identity or a time when you were really shut down?
It’s interesting for me because I feel like I have to think hard about this and it makes me think I’ve had an OK time with it. Generally I feel like as a woman in music, the one thing that I’ve noticed, which I’ve said before very openly, is that I feel that there aren’t as many women representing festivals. it’s very man-heavy. I mentioned some specific festivals that are very male-band heavy. I play festivals all the time — I’ve headlined probably 50 festivals this year. Are there any other women? No, not really.

Patti Smith, which was an incredible honour to be anywhere near her on a lineup. I’ve seen Chvrches, BANKS, Florence and the Machine on lineups a few times. I was overjoyed when Florence [Welch] was given the headline slot at Glastonbury. There’s that. But I feel like I’ve had a great deal of respect in the music industry. I don’t feel like I’ve been particularly singled out. Sometimes articles might focus on what I’m wearing more than how good the show was, which pisses me off a little bit. With that said, I feel like I’ve had a generally positive experience. The only other thing that’s bothered me — not angered me, but bothered me — is the idea that I might write a song about a situation I’ve been in … like, a girl can’t necessarily write about a one-night stand and get away with it. Why is that? Why not? But men can. It’s funny. There have been songs lately, which I don’t want to be specific about because there’s no point — that are about women being good for one thing and that’s all men want you for. I wrote a song about that situation.

It’s true. Drake, Justin Bieber and so many other artists can do that and no one thinks twice. Which of your songs did you write about a one-night stand?
On “On My Mind,” I say, “You wanted my heart, but all I wanted was your tattoos.” I think it says a lot. To me, I knew there was a risk in that, but there shouldn’t be a risk.

“A girl can’t necessarily write about a one-night stand and get away with it. Why is that?” asks Goulding. Credit: David Roemer

The double standard just isn’t fair.
I feel like in the media, it’s disguised as other things. For example, when I’m in a swimsuit and I don’t look good, the media says “flaunts her bikini body.” They’re desperately trying to say something negative, but they can’t because they’d get so much shit. So personally as a female musician on the road, I feel like I’ve had a lot of respect, but there are certain things that are still unfair, I feel like.

Has there been anything particularly challenging about performing songs from this album live as opposed to previous ones?
When we’re first playing them, it’s always a challenge because you have to get used to them. It’s genuinely that muscle memory. The first time I perform a new song will never sound like the record. Well, it might actually, but as I perform, I get completely comfortable with them. It’s weird — you start performing them without thinking about them. There are a few songs I spent a lot of time on that take a lot of getting used to live. It’s always challenging in the beginning when you start playing new songs.

“Two Years Ago,” from Delirium, is about your boyfriend. What’s the scariest part of writing about your significant other?
It can be quite daunting writing songs that are so personal, but I don’t even think about it. I don’t think about the consequences until after. That’s what I do: I write very honest songs and deal with the consequences afterwards. Weirdly, my boyfriend is so incredibly understanding. He won’t even think about the lyrics — he’ll just be like, “This is a great song.” This album, I’m writing about past people and past situations. Some guys might get strange with that — maybe I would — but it’s in the past, and he’s very good about being in the present. I wrote this song “The Greatest,” and it says, “Don’t let the past dictate the way you play it now.” He’s very good about that.

Your music kind of fell between folk and EDM before. Now it’s really pop-focused. Have you had people saying, “This album isn’t you?” What do you have to say to those people?
Just because I’ve done something in the past doesn’t mean I’m beholden to that. I think people need to trust in that what I do is always from my heart. I feel like I could never with my conscience make music that’s not me. I think there needs to be a trust there in some way. If I’ve had fans saying, “Is this album you?” — of course, it is because I did it, and I made it! It was not done hastily or without thought. I put a lot of time, energy, blood, sweat and tears into this album. It is me. I’ve changed maybe, but I’m always changing, evolving, moving on and wanting to innovate. It makes sense, doesn’t it? You grow up, keep evolving and do what’s in your heart at the time. The next album might be an obscure techno album, who knows?

“Boxing is my shit.”

You said in another interview that there was a time where you were drinking too much and having a hard time. What pulled you out of that?
Therapy with a really great person who was just so understanding. It was someone who I thought was really great for me. I think when you’re on the road a lot, it’s genuinely quite hard not to … you get into a routine of having a drink before your show and after. I think I’ve just gotten a bit stronger myself. It was just a strange time. Now, my boyfriend doesn’t drink. He’s completely sober. If we’re having a night in, we won’t share a bottle of wine like some people would. So that helps. I think I was a bit more unstable than I am now. I’ve been channeling into a lot of boxing. I’ve been boxing for the past couple of years and I’m really good at it: I’m scarily good at it. Boxing is my shit. I might start sparring soon. Maybe that’s why I get the respect I do, because people are scared that I could literally beat them up, which is great because not many people expect that from a woman.