Burning Bright: Ellie Goulding - The Music Week Interview

Burning Bright: Ellie Goulding - The Music Week Interview

It’s not easy promoting a new album during a global pandemic, but Ellie Goulding is giving it her best shot. Here, the star is joined by execs from Polydor, Tap Music, Paradigm and new livestreaming platform LiveNow to share the secrets of the innovative No.1 campaign for Brightest Blue...

Suddenly, it all made sense for Ellie Goulding. It was the early 2000s, and the Herefordshire-born future superstar found herself instantly mesmerised by the enigmatic, ethereal Icelandic genius illuminating her television screen. “Björk has always been a mystery – like an otherworldly being I can’t touch, go near or speak to – and I kind of want it to stay that way,” muses Goulding. “It’s always hard to explain your idols, but she put me under a spell when I was 14 or 15. I stumbled in late one night and turned on the TV and she was playing the Royal Albert Hall, and I just sat there transfixed for the whole show. I’d heard It’s Oh So Quiet on the radio years before, but I’d never really heard anything else by her.”

Not only was the awakening a bolt from the blue (no pun intended), it inspired Goulding to find her own voice – literally. “Hereford was still a bit behind the times and when people heard my voice they found it very unusual,” she explains. “So when I heard Björk, it was the deepest catharsis I’ve ever had with music. I was like, ‘Her voice is unusual, but it’s just beautiful’ and that gave me strength. It gave me some kind of validation of what I was doing.”

Catching up with Music Week via Zoom, the now 33-year-old Goulding references her recent short getaway (“lovely”) and Covid test (“not lovely”), as well as her unbridled amusement at being beaten to the MW cover by her managers at Tap Music (“so funny!”). Expanding on the subject of magazine covers, Goulding admits to being rankled with her past treatment by elements of the music press.

“Q Magazine has finished now and I am sad for any music magazine to finish – I grew up reading NME every week religiously,” she offers. “But they never really did anything with me and I always found that odd because they championed British artists – especially ones that can play guitar well [laughs] – so I always found that baffling.”

Goulding’s accomplishments, which include two BRIT Awards, three No.1 singles, 23 Top 40 hits, three chart-topping albums, multiple sold-out arena tours and a royal wedding performance, are certainly worth shouting about. But for now the Polydor-signed singer/songwriter is more concerned with the present – specifically her fourth LP Brightest Blue, which landed at the top of the UK charts last month with first-week sales of 14,820, according to Official Charts Company data.

“It was a rollercoaster that week,” says Goulding. “Not because I was releasing an album, but because I was releasing an album in this time. Everyone is experiencing new emotions right now and because of not being able to be there in person, or perform the songs and allow them to speak for themselves, I’ve had to overcompensate by describing the album in detail, which at times did take the fun out of it.

“Also, nobody knew how it would pan out. Everyone is in that boat – even major artists releasing music are having challenges they haven’t faced before – so it’s definitely a time where the music does the talking, which I think is positive. I never appreciated things being overridden by what I was wearing, or how I was in person that day. But to make up for it I’ve had to talk and talk and talk about myself, when my natural inclination is to ask questions and learn about other people. So that is the long answer, but it has definitely been a rollercoaster of some sort!”

Goulding, whose top seller is 2012’s Halcyon (1,262,245 sales), wrote the majority of Brightest Blue two years ago. “I would go back and forth with it because I felt it was strange to release music that was a bit old,” she laughs.

“Obviously, no one else is going to know that it’s old, but it is old in my mind. At the same time, I didn’t completely dismiss it as something that couldn’t stand the test of time.”

Polydor co-president Tom March had no such reservations, describing the record as Goulding’s “best and most personal” to date. “She has taken her songwriting to another level and it has been fantastic to see such a warm reaction to it from fans and critics globally,” he says.

Originally set for an early June release, Brightest Blue was pushed back to mid-July due to the pandemic.

“We had announced the initial album release date of June 5, which was shortly followed by confirmation that we were in a global pandemic,” explains Goulding’s manager Ed Millett of Tap Music. “Firstly, it was important to run through the logistical impacts this would have at a physical production level, followed by how it might impact fans, the consumption of music at this time, and the change in traditional radio and TV album promotion before establishing the new date.

“The biggest decision was undoubtedly how far the album release needed to be pushed. With so much uncertainty, the overriding factor was how important it was to Ellie to give her fans the music they’d been waiting for, especially during a time of need. Once we’d agreed on the July 17 release date, we worked closely with Polydor to build a condensed marketing and D2C strategy. It was important to have those key TV promo moments with a bigger level of production than we’d been able to deliver during complete lockdown, which we really pushed to achieve with The One Show and Peter Crouch: Save Our Summer.”

Polydor marketing director Lucy Dann says the restrictive circumstances necessitated a more “ad hoc” approach for the project. “We normally would be a little more structured in planning a bit more in advance, and make sure everything was a little more polished,” concedes Dann. “But it was really [a case] of grabbing what we could, when we could and everyone rolling their sleeves up. There is always a challenge with every new album an artist releases because the market has changed, sonics change and what is popular is different. But one of the blessings we have with Ellie is that no matter what the song, her voice is always the identifier.”

Warmly received by critics, Brightest Blue is Goulding’s first since 2015’s platinum-selling Delirium (359,318 sales, OCC). The intervening period saw her link up with Tap after an amicable parting of the ways with her longtime representatives First Access Entertainment. Split into two parts, the first side of the new record comprises songs penned by Goulding, with the second an EP of her collaborations with the likes of Blackbear, Lauv, Diplo and the late Juice Wrld.

“We set out on this journey with Ellie with the aim of getting her the recognition she deserves as one of this country’s greatest songwriters, as well as one of our brightest pop stars,” says Millett. “There was a lot about Ellie as an artist that we felt was not understood, but fundamentally we needed to underline what a brilliant songwriter she is. It was important to focus on the songwriting side of her as much, if not more so, than the hit side of her career. This way of thinking was behind the two-sided album concept. With an artist like Ellie it’s so important to clearly delineate and celebrate those two sides rather than just focus on big radio singles, which would have been a huge disservice to her as an artist and a creative.”

Dann points out the campaign is still in its infancy. “We want to let the record breathe because it’s brilliant and there is a lot of discovery to happen,” she says. “There is a habit of moving on from a body of work when, actually, there is a hell of a lot of legs still left in it, and we are just at the start. We are working Brightest Blue for the the rest of the year, but Ellie is constantly writing and has constantly got other things up her sleeve. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a few clever collaborations coming later in the year.”

One of the rare highlights of the first weeks of lockdown saw Goulding wow a global audience with an acoustic rendition of her 2015 smash Love Me Like You Do as part of the One World: Together At Home charity livestream. Filmed from the comfort of her front room, the stripped-down performance offered a reminder of a simpler time.

“You don’t have any special effects to help you, it’s just your voice and there is something quite special in that,” she smiles. “It was a good test of going back to basics, pulling everything away and going back to where I started, which was just playing guitar and singing in a room of 10 people.”

In contrast, Goulding’s work with Vevo on Official Live Performance videos of three album tracks was a more advanced beast, shot using new XR “mixed reality” technology, which mixes camera footage with CGI content in real time. But was no less enjoyable.

“It was perfect for me because it meant I could fully concentrate on my voice,” reflects Goulding. “Everything happening around me was done in post-production, they were creating things I wasn’t even aware of.”

Goulding, who scored the final No.1 single of the 2010s with her Amazon Music exclusive cover of Joni Mitchell’s River, is scheduled to tour in the first half of 2021, taking in concert halls such as Hammersmith’s Eventim Apollo and O2 Apollo Manchester. Although that, as with everything else in the current climate, is subject to change.

“We have our tour on sale for next spring and we are hopeful it will happen,” notes her agent James Whitting of Paradigm. “Obviously, with what’s going on right now there are more questions than answers but we have to move forward with a positive attitude that shows will return soon. Ellie hasn’t toured for a few years so is really looking forward to getting back on the road.”

In the meantime, Goulding is readying herself for the Brightest Blue Experience pay-per-view livestream at London’s V&A Museum on Wednesday, August 26. Goulding will be joined by a special guest at the event, which is being broadcast via partner platform LiveNow, with ticket packages priced from £13.50 to £100.

“With the new album release, it’s important we utilise what is available to us in terms of promo and live performances,” says Whitting. “We would all like to be in a room with an audience, but current circumstances are not allowing that so we are having to look at alternatives whilst giving something unique to the fans.”

“This isn’t a show without an audience, it’s a fully unique, creative idea that will celebrate this album, Ellie as an artist and also her brilliant catalogue,” elaborates Millett. “Creatively, it will focus not just on the album and some of her biggest songs, but also on what inspires her as an artist and a person.”

LiveNow’s tie-in with Goulding will mark its first foray into live music PPVs since launching last year. “It’s a very exciting moment for us,” enthuses LiveNow director and former BT TV chief Marc Watson. “It’s an ambitious project and shows that we’re committed to rapidly developing our content offering. “In terms of the performance itself, we’re working with Ellie’s team to deliver a really special virtual show. Ellie has a huge, dedicated fanbase around the world and there’s a big appetite from fans to see her perform even at a time when they can’t be with her in the flesh. She’s an ideal partner to really establish our offering in the music world. We have agreed to a series of shows with Ellie already and we are in conversation with a number of additional artists.”

“Our focus right now is on this album campaign, but certainly there are lots of other plans, both musical and not, that we are hoping to bring to life together in the near future,” affirms Millett. “Without giving anything away, Ellie will achieve anything she sets her mind to.”

Goulding certainly has a lot on her mind, as Music Week discovers in our one-to-one chat covering major label life, gender equality and being a “Glastonbury veteran”...

It’s your PPV livestream at the V&A Museum next week, how are you feeling about that?

“I am optimistic about it. First of all, it’s at the V&A, which is so incredibly beautiful and that in itself makes it unique. It is going to be unusual because of having no audience, obviously, but I’ve got to a place where I have a great team of people creatively and for the first time I feel like my vision has been able to be realised a bit more. With Delirium, it was very much about dancers, crazy lights, glitter and big poptastic performances, but Brightest Blue has given everybody such a vision of hope, natural elements and etherealness. I love creating an escape, I think we all need that right now. It’s never the same without an audience, it just isn’t, but I did a show for Vevo at Ally Pally and managed to get lost in it, which was quite an achievement! But I won’t take for granted the connection with fans, people who sing along to every word and are genuinely moved by what you’re doing. I don’t want people to forget the unique and powerful experience you have when you watch one of your favourite artists live.”

Earlier, you aired your frustrations at not being championed more by certain music magazines. To what extent do you think that was due to being pigeonholed as a pop star?

“I think it’s really snobby to not shine a light on a pop star. The fact is that I’ve played more rock festivals than a lot of the people they’ve had on their cover. I’ve headlined Lollapalooza, I played right before LCD Soundsystem at Coachella and I’m a bloody Glastonbury veteran! So I think it’s partly that, but also I sadly feel that, if I’d have been a male in my position, I probably would have had more attention. I don’t want to play the female artist card, but it just seems more obvious than ever. Maybe that’s because of lockdown and how everything has been amplified? But I’ve been thinking about it a lot.”

You’ve been signed to Polydor since 2009, how would you sum up your major label experience?

“It has changed a lot. Back in the day, it was much more about close relationships. There was simply less to conquer and concern yourself with, it was just marketing, A&R and a press person. Now, there is so much more nuance in everything: there are experts on TikTok, there are experts on Twitter, there are experts on Instagram… There is a lot more going on and a lot more people. But – and I say this truly – I’ve had creative freedom on Brightest Blue. I feel like my label is very conscious of how hard it is for any artist, especially in this time. It’s a tough time for everyone and it’s an even tougher time for artists and crew whose livelihood is touring. I try to be in my own world as much as possible. I hate getting involved in technicalities, because I feel like it just changes the experience for me of writing and performing, so there have been a lot of conversations between my management and label without me getting concerned with it. I only get involved if I want to release a song and there’s an objection to it. It is healthier for me and my mental health to not get involved in the extreme technicalities that now exist in the music industry.”

Are you confident attitudes towards artists’ mental health have improved?

“Yeah, everyone is just so much more aware and conscious of it. I did a panel a few months ago before lockdown with Annie Mac and Ben Mawson, my manager, and also with Maya Jama and Ben [Mortimer] from Polydor as well. We were saying that, back in the day, if I’d had a few days off it would be filled with promo and you’d be made to feel like it was going to harm your career if you didn’t do it. There was never time off because there was always something to do. If I turned to my label now and said, ‘I’ll do every single thing that is offered’, I would never have an hour off. There are so many opportunities and platforms now and you can ’t do everything, it is impossible. Back in the day, I was kind of made to do everything. But it was my choice as well – I probably could have said, ‘Fuck off. I’m not doing that!’ [Laughs]. But I didn’t because I thought I owed it to myself. I signed to a major record label and to me that was a success because I’d struggled for years to get any attention, so I wasn ’t going to turn it down. You don ’t get anywhere if you don’t work hard and I took that to be just part of what I had to do for my job. But going back to being a female artist, there were definitely times where I was told, ‘A male artist would do this’ if you didn’t. Or I would protest and say, ‘Why am I doing this when he doesn’t have to?’ And there was never really an answer to that. In hindsight, it was a situation where the male artist simply didn’t have to do as much as the female artist did. We have to think about so much more. I mean two, maybe sometimes three hours a day goes into hair and makeup and that’s just insane. Often, I didn’t want to wear makeup and was told I had to so there was always extra work, there was always extra stuff for female artists to have to do.”

Is that still the case?

“It seems like I’ve finally got to a place where I can say, ‘I don’t want to spend two hours in hair and makeup, that’s not who I am’. I don’t know if that’s who I ever was, but I think that probably exacerbated the ‘pop star’ thing, because I felt I had to wear lots of makeup and wear certain things. But also, there were songs on my first two albums – especially Halcyon – that were critically acclaimed. I know so many pop artists that love the most insane, crazy genres of music. But because you are a pop artist, people want to hear your hits and that’s it. It’s a tale as old as time for pop singers and that’s what you have to sacrifice.”

Did you hear Spotify’s Daniel Ek claim that artists can no longer just release music “every three to four years”?

“I didn ’t. But this is not him dictating, this is how it is. I don ’t think it is the fault of streaming platforms, it is social media, it is people being able to do things very easily and efficiently to the point where we have become people with very short attention spans – and that’s not to do with streaming. There is so much music and so many new songs, and that accessibility is amazing and so useful, but it also has caused us to have very short attention spans. I think the idea and mystery of fame is also a contributor – no one’s a mystery anymore. So if making music is your livelihood then, yeah, you probably do have to deal with a lot more than you used to and that is no one’s fault. That is just the nature of the ease we have now to access things. It’s constant sensory overload – we need loads of information all the time, coming in and going out – so I understand why Daniel Ek said that.”

What do you want to do next in your career?

“Every day, everyone is thinking of new ways to work around not doing live performances. That’s definitely made teamwork more of a thing and it’s made me appreciate technology in a different way. Obviously, my priority now is to be on tour. I am itching, craving to be on tour. I feel ready to make Brightest Blue come to life and that ’s how it has always worked for me, so my priority is to figure out exactly how it’s going to work. Also, we’re thinking about the tour in a sustainable way, to figure out how to make it as green as possible. And then I am writing again, I’m getting in the studio next week because I enjoy it. But we’re all just wondering what is happening next, right?”

It was five years since your last album, is it fair to assume it won’t be five years until your next one?

“It won’t be five years! It won’t be five years. I will continue to release music because I can, because it is possible and because I don’t see why not. I will keep making music until I can’t anymore. I am lucky enough to have a job that I love so much.”

For more stories like this, and to keep up to date with all our market leading news, features and analysis, sign up to receive our daily Morning Briefing newsletter

subscribe link free-trial link

follow us...