Having already conquered her native Britain with her debut album, Lights, premiering at No. 1 on the U.K. album chart, four hit singles she co-wrote, and a BRIT award, singer-songwriter Ellie Goulding is ready to make a similar splash in America with her sparkling electro-folk-pop sound. Lights is, as the New York Times put it, “a happy car crash of signifiers: part electro-pop, part soul, part blues, part indie rock, part folk” that mixes heartfelt emotion with other-worldly atmospherics. Anchoring her songs with acoustic guitar, Goulding and her producer, Starsmith, spin cool electronica into dreamy warmth on “Starry Eyed,” “Guns and Horses,” “The Writer,” and “Under the Sheets.”
“I’m not afraid of pop or electronic music,” Goulding says of the euphoric, dance-till-you-drop vibe of Lights, “but I also wanted the album to embrace my love for folk music, not just by my playing guitar on it, but by writing about things that have truly affected me. I wear my heart on my sleeve and am aware of how I’m feeling all the time, so it’s impossible for me to write words that are contrived or meaningless.”
Goulding’s lyrics are refreshingly direct as she chronicles the highs and lows of love in her airy, gossamer voice. “Under The Sheets” addresses sleeping around, while “Animal” revels in the feverish state of falling in love. “The Writer” cops to her being paralyzed with obsession over a lover. “I’ve gotten so many messages from girls who can relate to ‘The Writer,’” Goulding says. “I think anyone can get to the point where they love someone so much that they just start doing ridiculous things, like smoking or drinking, or dressing differently, I know I’ve done it.” “Guns and Horses” is about falling in love with someone who doesn’t really know how to love and wanting to take their pain away. The album takes its title from the song “Lights,” which is about Goulding’s fear of the dark. “Having a light on always makes me feel safe,” she says. “It gives me strength, which is why I named the album after that song.”
Then there’s the first U.S. single “Starry Eyed,” which Goulding describes as “one of those rare songs that isn’t melancholy and is actually a bit happier. I kind of throw everything to the wind and say, ‘Who cares about emotions? Let’s just have fun,’” she says with a laugh. “I love sad songs, but I also appreciate feel-good songs.”
A self-taught singer and guitarist, Ellie was raised with her three siblings in Hereford, a cathedral city about 16 miles east of the Welsh border. After her parents divorced when she was five, Goulding moved to the tiny rural village of Lyonshall with her mother and her mother’s new boyfriend, a lorry driver. “I basically went from living in the city to suddenly living in the countryside,” she says. “At first I hated it, but I slowly grew to love it and became completely fascinated by being surrounded by all this wide open space – it still colors everything I do to this day.”
Money was scarce, so Ellie shared a bedroom with her two sisters. “It wasn’t easy, plus there was the added stress of my dad leaving, but I got along okay,” she says Her first memory of becoming interested in music is wanting to sing the loudest in her school’s assemblies. “I was pretty quiet, but I really loved to sing and would use my voice at any opportunity,” she says. “We couldn’t afford lessons, so I learned by copying other singers, like Lauryn Hill, Beyonce, and Celine Dion; I loved singers whose voices were really powerful.” Being a performer, however, didn’t seem like a real possibility. “It didn’t feel like something that could ever really happen, coming from my background,” she says. At 15, obsessed with bands like Deftones, Pearl Jam, and Rage Against the Machine, Goulding taught herself to play guitar. “The minute I could master actually strumming and singing at the same time was when I started writing proper songs,” she says. In her teens, Goulding sang one of her own compositions for a family friend, who encouraged her to listen to folk music. She soon became inspired by such artists as Alison Krauss, Fleet Foxes, Joni Mitchell, and Sufjan Stevens.
It was while studying Politics, English, and Drama at the University Kent in Canterbury, where Goulding first found the confidence to perform onstage after winning a university talent competition. Gigs in London followed and soon Goulding was looking for a producer to help her flesh out her songwriting ideas. She discovered Vincent Frank, a British electro-pop musician and producer who goes by the name Frankmusik, and got in touch with him via MySpace. “He listened to my demos and really loved them, so we started working together and writing more songs,” she says. “I began getting more gigs and that’s when I realized I wanted to drop out of university to focus on music.”
Goulding moved to London and locked herself in her room with a guitar. Songs like “The Writer,” “Starry Eyed,” “Salt Skin,” “This Love,” and “Your Biggest Mistake,” came pouring out. After a friend sent her a link to a MySpace page for Fin Dow-Smith, a remixer, composer, and musician who works under the moniker Starsmith, Goulding sent him a demo she’d done, which resulted in a fruitful working relationship that continues to this day.
“Fin understood that it was pop, but a bit more emotional,” Goulding says of Starsmith, who’s known for his remixes of tracks by Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Passion Pit, among others. “I liked that he was this really cool DJ with really fresh sounds, but wasn’t afraid of pop music. Working with him was when I started to have faith in my writing and thinking something could actually come of giving music a go.”
The two began making tracks an album in the summer of 2009, demos of which caught the attention of the major labels in the U.K. Goulding signed with Polydor Records and released her first single “Under the Sheets,” which she later performed, along with “Guns and Horses,” on Later…With Jools Holland, a star-making appearance that won her the attention of both critics and fans. In early 2010, it was announced the Goulding had topped the “BBC Sound of 2010” poll, which surveys critics and broadcasters for their top choices for rising stars in the coming year. She also won the Critics’ Choice Award at the 2010 BRIT Awards (previously won by Adele and Florence & the Machine). In February, “Starry Eyed” was released as a single (climbing to No. 4 on the U.K. Singles chart), followed by the March release of Lights, which shot straight to the top of the U.K. Albums chart.
“I found out that the album was No. 1 while driving through the countryside on my way home from a gig up north,” she says. “I was very emotional and, quietly, very proud. I felt like this was just the beginning.” And it was. More hit singles followed, “The Writer” and a cover of Elton John’s “Your Song,” which climbed to No. 2 after being featured in a Christmas commercial for British retailer John Lewis. Goulding hit the road and sold out three headlining tours in the U.K., and performed at numerous music festivals, including Glastonbury, V Festival, and T in the Park, earning rave reviews for her joyful, no-holds barred live shows.
Currently nominated for two 2011 BRIT Awards (for “British Female Solo Artist” and “British Breakthrough Act”), Goulding is now gearing up for the Stateside release of Lights. “I’m really excited to come to America and visit new places and see new countryside,” she says. “I feel ready to introduce my music and see what people think of it there. I’m hoping they’ll like it and be inspired, the way I was when I first heard certain artists. I want to create that excitement you get when you’ve discovered something special and feel happy to have ever come across it in the first place.”