The electro-dance heroine (and closet bookworm) talks about being "pulled home" as she continues playing shows and collecting hits.
"I need to sort my life out," says Ellie Goulding with a sigh, fiddling with her bright blonde hair as she talks. "And if I don't do it soon, I may as well just be forever on the road, because that's what it feels like."
Curled up in the corner of a black leather couch in her modest dressing room backstage at a Washington, D.C., venue, Goulding describes her next six months as if she's been asked to run endless wind sprints. (Although, as it turns out, that might make this fitness addict happier.) This is what you dream of when you imagine being a pop star: hit singles, a world tour, award show performances, screaming fans.
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But the reality is not exactly a dream. It's work, and a long string of empty dressing rooms like this one that tend to look the same whether you're in North America, where Goulding will be until May, or Australia, New Zealand and Asia, where she'll travel to immediately after. Some stars favor drink or drugs to combat the boredom. Goulding, a self-professed "shy geek," brings books. (Latest faves: Laurent Binet's historical fiction novel "HHhH" and Eckhart Tolle's self-help best-seller "A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose.")
She runs her fingers through her hair again, and the silver sparkles on her gold nail polish catch the light. It's a mixture of awkwardness and disco glamour that pretty much define the 27-year-old U.K. singer. "As much as I love what I do, and music is obviously everything to me, I'm being pulled home, and I've got to do that soon, I think," she says. But in the United States, Goulding's career has been building slowly to this point, and it's too late to stop now. A little less than three years after she performed a selection of understated songs at the April 29, 2011 wedding reception of Prince William and Kate Middleton, Goulding has transitioned from an acoustic-leaning pop songwriter to an electro-dance siren.
Her debut album, "Lights," was released stateside through Cherrytree/Interscope in March 2011, a year after its U.K. bow. It took more than another year to connect, when the sixth single — the ethereal title track — became a surprise summer hit, peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in its 33rd week on the chart in August 2012. That was just two months before the release of her second album, "Halcyon," which has spawned a growing collection of radio hits, as well as tour after tour and music video after music video, each one designed to feed the other.
Onstage, Goulding displays the same mix of goofy and glam that she does in conversation. Her dazzling live show is dominated by uptempo dance tracks. She speaks to the audience in a warm, upbeat tone, and she's visually magnetic, constantly in motion. Some moments she gyrates with sexual abandon, while in others she busts out a running man. Goulding says that she gets lost in her dancing, which is equal parts geeky and joyful. "When I'm onstage, I'm like a monster," she says with a laugh.
To stay in shape for the stage, Goulding exercises religiously. (In 2011, she teamed up with Nike for a short film about training for a half marathon — "I'm a runner. I've got no choice but to keep running, and I can't stop," she says in the movie, which sounds oddly like her current tour schedule.) At home she does boxing and gymnastics, along with running. But on tour she uses the "Insanity" video, sometimes in a hotel room (if it's big enough to run drills in — she describes it as "boot camp kind of stuff, with lots of squatting"), or at a venue if she's working out with other tour members. "I feel like people associate keeping fit with something negative, but with these fun gyms, you don't even realize that you're working out," says Goulding, mentioning a free-running parkour gym she likes in Los Angeles.
Goulding grew up in the countryside of Herefordshire, England, worshiping electronic music, and discovered the joys of Basement Jaxx before the appeal of Bob Dylan. Her debut album hinted at that passion, but was more steeped in alternative, synth-pop and folk music. "Halcyon" (and its accompanying deluxe edition "Halcyon Days") marked a move toward the dance scene, with singles like "Anything Could Happen," "Burn" and "Goodness Gracious" currently keeping Goulding's collection of strobe lights busy on her current tour.
"I always imagine her when she first came out as playing acoustic guitar and singing — that's my image of her," says Greg Kurstin, who produced "Burn," "Goodness Gracious" and Goulding's new single "Beating Heart." "But I think her voice really lends itself to electronic music. It's the perfect voice for that."
Even with her opening spot on Katy Perry's California Dreams Tour in late 2011, Goulding's first album hadn't achieved anything close to a major hit in the States. But then the title track to "Lights" began to click slowly but surely with one audience after another. It went top 20 on Billboard's Mainstream Top 40, Dance/Mix Show Airplay, Adult Top 40, Rhythmic and Adult Contemporary charts along with the Hot 100.
That's part of the reason Cherrytree Records chairman Martin Kierszenbaum uses the word "multifaceted" when talking about Goulding. "She's a musical egalitarian," he says. "Often with an artist, you'll have to target a niche area, grow it and ‘cross over,' as they say. With Ellie, it's always been a multipronged approach — targeting the alternative audience, the electronic audience, the pop audience, the folk audience."
"Lights" is still Goulding's biggest hit to date, with 4.3 million downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan, but more importantly, the song triggered a steady stream of well-received U.S. singles beginning in late 2012, including "Halcyon" lead single "Anything Could Happen" (1.2 million downloads), the Calvin Harris collaboration "I Need Your Love" (1.3 million) and "Burn" (1.7 million). As these songs expanded Goulding's fan base, the singer embarked on a European headlining run in spring 2013, then on Bruno Mars' North American tour as an opener last summer, then a U.K. tour in late 2013 and a European tour in early 2014.
Instead of departing the "Halcyon" campaign last year and turning toward Goulding's next project, seven new songs were added to "Halcyon," and the "Halcyon Days" deluxe edition arrived last August. "The way our audience wants to consume music is changing, especially in the pace in which they consume it," says Kierszenbaum, whose Cherrytree released Robyn's three-part Body Talk series of mini-albums in 2011.
Kierszenbaum adds that "Burn" is still being worked at pop radio, but that the label will start focusing on "Beating Heart," Goulding's single from the "Divergent" film soundtrack. "I grew up just being obsessed with soundtracks, and the thing I would always remember from the film was the music, and so I loved the idea of setting my music to a film," says Goulding. She contributed three songs to the soundtrack for the big-budget adaptation of the dystopian best-seller, and "Beating Heart," which she performed acoustically on NBC's "Today" on March 12, is the most vulnerable. "Beating Heart" finds Goulding sorrowfully crooning over echoing drums, "And I don't know where I'm going, but I know it's gonna be a long time/'Cause I'll be leaving in the morning, come the white wine bitter sunlight."
British singer-songwriter Joe Janiak wrote "Beating Heart" on banjo in 2012, before Goulding heard the song and reworked some of the lyrics. "[Goulding] brought the middle section of the song back to life with her own touch on it," says Janiak, who is in Sweden working with Max Martin's publishing company, MXM Music. Janiak's original was inspired by dropping off his American girlfriend at the London airport, while Goulding lent her own long-distance experiences to the "Divergent" version.
"It's about touring," says Goulding of the song, "about being away and never being able to spend enough time with someone, and hoping we'll end up colliding again, somehow." In late 2012, Goulding and dubstep star Skrillex ended their months-long romance because it was too difficult to sync schedules, and although Goulding doesn't specify the partner that "Beating Heart" is connected to, she admits the song "did remind me of someone, recently. It's just such a sad song, and so relevant to what I do — not being able to have a physical closeness with someone, because you're just never around."
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Goulding doesn't consider "Beating Heart," which has sold 20,000 downloads, to be a starting point for her third studio album, which she'll begin from scratch when the time is right. "I'm not a pop artist in the sense that I get a bunch of strong songs and say, 'Cool, I've got an album,' " she says. "I want to be hopefully in one place and for it to have a specific theme."
But being in one place isn't in the cards for her until September. Assuming Goulding's tour isn't extended yet again, that's when she'll be free from obligations. The hope is she'll start focusing on her "Halcyon" follow-up by the end of the year. But first some time off is in order. And as for the theme, something she says about her "all-time hero" — mysterious London electronic artist Burial, who worked completely anonymously before 2008, never appears in public and doesn't perform live — might offer a clue.
"Burial's one of the most wonderful people I've ever met," says Goulding. "Obviously I make money for what I do and promote myself, but I always remember him, in everything. The nobleness of it, where you're just making music and making people happy … I use a bit of that for myself." Maybe, just maybe, by the next time she makes an album she'll have sorted out her life, and there will be room for a little more of that.