Bustle Mixtape

Ellie Goulding Isn't Holding Back Anymore

The “Easy Lover” singer opens up about battling impostor syndrome, going viral on TikTok, and wanting her son to be proud of her.

by Margaret Farrell

For 10 years, Ellie Goulding didn’t stop. She toured relentlessly in the 2010s and put out three inescapable albums — 2010’s Lights, 2012’s Halcyon, and 2015’s Delirium — teeming with adrenaline-rush electro-pop that dissected the fantasy and fallacy of falling in love. “When I went away, I would always want to go home again; when I was at home, I would always want to be away,” says Goulding, taking a sip from her vodka soda while we chat in a sleek hotel bar in Manhattan. “So it’s this constant tugging and pulling back and forth. Touring is like a break from reality. When you go home you’re suddenly thrust back into normal life.”

These days, she’s working on a more balanced life, juggling her music career — she recently released “Easy Lover,” the first taste of the follow-up to 2020’s Brightest Blue — with other passions like activism (she’s a U.N. environment ambassador and recently paid a visit to Ukraine) and wellness (she’s a quasi-influencer on health and fitness topics). Working on yourself is not always easy, she admits: In January, Goulding kicked off the New Year by opening up on Instagram about her years-long struggles with anxiety. But welcoming her first child, Arthur, with husband Caspar Jopling last year has lit a fire in her, Goulding says.

“I don’t want to waste any more time worrying. I really want to just do what I do without feeling scared of everything and everyone,” she says. “I think having my son has given me equal vulnerability and strength at the same time. I’m trying to figure out how to work those with each other.”

Below, Goulding opens up about battling impostor syndrome, going viral on TikTok, and the songs that make her want to kick doors down like a badass.

On Playing Guitar And Being A Teenage Metalhead

You pursued songwriting after learning to play the guitar, and then your pop career took off. In your new “Easy Lover” video, one of the characters you play shreds on an electric. Do you miss the instrument?

I’m going to play guitar pretty much the majority of the set when I start touring next year, because my album is coming out at the beginning of next year. Then I’ll have a year of festivals, I hope. That’s the plan for me. I am going to play guitar for most of it, which will just require a good amount of rehearsals. I’d love to get to a point where it’s just all natural to me. I’ve been doing a few tours with no guitar. It’s weird, but I guess I was more focused on singing.

Who are your guitar inspirations?

Tom Morello, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton — although he’s kind of a dick.

I think he’s had some problematic moments for sure.

That’s a much more polite way of saying it. [Laughs.] Maybe it’s because I’m a George Harrison fan! Also Pearl Jam’s Michael McCready, Joni Mitchell. I love Imogen Heap and Joan Baez. There’s some great folk guitarists, but I used to like shredding.

As a teen, you were into nu-metal — which artists did you gravitate toward?

God, so many. I like System of a Down and a bit of Deftones — I love their song “Passenger” with Maynard James Keenan from Tool. There was Killswitch Engage and Spineshank. [Laughs] I remember Spineshank. I basically bought Kerrang! every week and NME sometimes, but at the time I wasn’t an NME girl because I didn’t really love indie bands that much. It was always the Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I love that band Glassjaw, more like hardcore. I was a proper Kerrang! girl.

On Her Dueling Loves Of Classical Music And ’90s Boy Bands:

What is your first music-related memory?

I don’t remember much before age 10. I would love for someone to come and refresh my memory at that time because I just don’t remember anything. But I remember going to a band camp essentially at this girl’s college near Malvern Hills, which is a really beautiful area near where I grew up. Every year there was this youth orchestra thing. So I went and played clarinet, and my mum picked me up with my uncle. They were both ravers. I was in the back with a bag of sweets, and I had my clarinet — I had just smashed it, done really well. They were playing house music, which was, at the time, the biggest thing. So I was in the back raving with my sweets. I remember feeling very free. I felt like the music was passing into my soul. There was a phase of [dance music] that was really deep and cathartic, like “You’ve Got the Love” [by The Source and Candi Staton], Massive Attack’s “Unfinished Sympathy.” It really was a good time in music.

As an orchestra kid, were you a fan of classical music?

My grandfather gave me a classical CD when I was 11. Also, film soundtracks. I care more about the music than I do about the actual film. The way that James Horner did the Titanic soundtrack? The music would just kill me. I love the Gladiator soundtrack by Lisa Gerrard — she has her own band, which is amazing.

What’s a song that makes you feel like a kid again?

I guess like any boy band song or any Spice Girls song. I loved Westlife. No — I loved Boyzone first, and obviously Take That. Take That were everything before the Spice Girls came along.

On Overcoming Impostor Syndrome And The Success Of “Lights”

A sped-up edit of your 2010 hit “Lights” went so viral on TikTok that you ended up officially releasing a sped-up version. What was that experience like?

I find it really hard to be annoyed at that. I am so thrilled that young people are discovering old songs that we know and love and that shaped our musical landscape — things like Fleetwood Mac and Metallica and Kate Bush. I can never be mad at young people discovering legends and legendary songs. In the same way, “Lights” is one of those old songs now — [though] I don’t think it’s a legendary song! It just goes to show that there must have been a combination of the melody, the lyrics, the mood that I was in at the time, the way that I was singing it, the tone, the energy that I had — there must be something in that. I never would have guessed that song would even do anything. It didn’t even chart in the UK. Something connected to Americans and Canadians and people around the world, but not the UK. It honestly did nothing in the UK. It’s weird.

It’s funny you mention Kate Bush, because in older interviews you’ve talked about feeling connected to artists like her and Björk because of their unique voices.

I love where I’m from and I love London, but my voice isn’t always met with the same kind of warmth that I get when I’m here. Maybe people connect with me more here — I guess there’s more singers here like me. In the UK, people connect most with my simple ballads and songs where it could be anyone singing — I sang this Waterboys’ song “How Long Will I Love You” and the Elton John cover. Whereas here, those songs aren’t really well known. It’s interesting what different people appreciate in different places. I feel I get a lot of love here.

Were you always comfortable with your singing voice?

No. I’ve always remembered this guy telling me I should stick to playing guitar because I’m really good at guitar, that my voice was really quite unusual and not to everyone’s taste. It made me really, really insecure. I wasn’t really the kind of person to be like, “Everyone can fuck off, because I’m going to sing anyway!” I was really affected by what other people thought of me. I had impostor syndrome; I didn’t think I deserved any success. When you begin to shave off other people’s opinion of you rather than your opinion of yourself, your life becomes a lot clearer.

I was so apologetic and started trying to lift myself out of that. It was this constant quest to be cool and not just be authentic. I remember performing on SNL, and, like, Tina Fey was hosting. She’s one of my heroes. Even then, I was so apologetic about what I was doing. If I could talk to my younger self, I’d just say, “Please just believe in what you’re doing. Keep moving forward and stop waiting for other people’s validation in what you do and who you are as an artist and performer.” God, I wish I could do that. But now I can correct it a bit more and have more confidence in just who I am.

On Motherhood And The Songs That Make Her Feel Like A Badass

Are there bands or artists that you’re excited to share with your son when he’s older? What music memories are you planning to pass down?

I’m just going to take him to every gig. I’ve got ear [protection for him] — I’ll take him to a bunch of places and maybe some of the festivals I perform at. I can’t wait to see him watching me. When you have a kid, you do just love them so much. You can’t predict the amount of love that you feel for your kid. It just happens. So the idea of him being proud of me gives me goose bumps. Hopefully that’ll happen at some point, if I’m still performing when he’s old enough to know what’s going on. But he sings and he dances. One time, I discovered him on the sofa listening to bird noises. He’s quite musical. When I sing, he always gives me this bewildered look. It’s sweet.

Is there music that you associate with the beginnings of motherhood?

I was listening to the Big Little Lies soundtrack at the time, which is this dreamy soundtrack. I was in hiding when I became pregnant. We were living in this cottage near Oxford because [my husband] Caspar was studying there for like a year. We were right in the middle of the village. If somebody saw me with a bump, it would have been common knowledge. I wanted it to be very private and my own thing. So we moved up to a cottage on a remote piece of land for six months. Honestly, some of the best memories of my life. It was impossibly small and cute. The best thing was the horses. There was a field of horses. There was a really cool shop up the road so you’d walk to that and get some soups. We’d put the radio on. It was definitely a time for radio, [BBC] Radio 1. I was trying to not be anxious about it, so I wasn’t listening to anything too intense. I wanted lots of cheery pop songs at the time.

What’s an artist that immediately puts you in a good mood?

Sault. [They make] me walk along the street pretending I’m in a music video. And then I’ve listened to this Lykke Li song “Deep End,” which I know is an old song, like every day. It makes me want to walk down the street and kick a door down. [I like] the music she made with her ex-husband and Miike Snow in a band called Liv. There’s a song called “Wings of Love,” which is great. [She places her phone on the table and points to the cover.] And that looks like a vagina. [Laughs].

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.