Ellie Goulding: 'Being number one is sweet, though it's not quite sunk in'

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A boy wearing skinny jeans is rattling the keys of a synthesiser and a lad with glasses is pounding the skins of a drum. In front of them, a 23-year-old cardigan-clad girl with her hair dyed platinum, raises her arms to the ceiling. The venue is the O2 Academy, the location, Glasgow, and Ellie Goulding is half-way through her sound check. Goulding is belting out the words to her recent single "Starry Eyed" – "Hit me with lightning," she sings, in a quivering, note-perfect voice. Watching from the sidelines are various members of Passion Pit and Little Death, two bands playing on the same bill later that day. One of them breaks into a mocking dance.

It is Goulding, however, who will have the last laugh. Just 24 hours later, her debut album, Lights, released earlier this month, is crowned number one in the album charts. It sold almost 40,000 copies in its first week and forced Lady Gaga, arguably the most famous female pop artist in the world right now, off the top spot. Goulding is a far cry from Gaga, not least in the style stakes, but over the past three months she has experienced the British music industry's modest version of Gaga-esque hype. She was named number one in the BBC's influential "Sound of 2010" poll in January, and picked up the Critics' Choice Brit Award the following month. While she follows in a long line of British pop princesses – Adele, Little Boots, Elly Jackson of La Roux – the speed of her rise from unknown to chart-topper has rarely been precedented. Her melding of folky lyrics with glossy production has, it seems, given her instant mass appeal, jump-starting her propulsion into the limelight.

The chart announcement heralds the end of a typically frantic weekend. The Friday night before her gig on Saturday in Glasgow, Goulding had gone drinking in Manchester with Marcus Mumford, another London-based musician and lead singer of the "nu-folk" band Mumford & Sons, who were also gigging in the city. The amount they imbibed sounds like it could have levelled an army. Because Goulding doesn't drink that often, she became somewhat merry, and with little time to recover, she was back on the road, hangover in tow, arriving via train in Glasgow around lunchtime. Through the yawns and droopy lids she just has time to shower in her room before walking into the hotel's lobby.

Overall, though, Goulding appears to be coping well. It could be because she exercises well, looks after her diet and abstains from alcohol – well, usually at least – hardly the hedonistic behaviour expected of the latest pop star on the block. The morning before her Manchester gig, she had even gone for a four-kilometre jog with some fans. "It's not very rock'n'roll but I thought it would be nice," she says. "My manager and I got to take in the city a bit. It was so sweet – one of my fans had gone out and bought a tracksuit from a charity shop that morning. I don't think they were prepared; I think they just wanted to meet me." She jumps to her feet to do an impression of a cheesy fitness instructor.

Settling into a seat in the hotel lobby, modestly dressed in jeans, sleeveless black top, quilted Barbour and trapper hat, and sporadically breaking into laughter, Goulding epitomises the highs and lows of new-found fame. On the one hand, she has a lot of fun, and is heading towards more music-biz gongs than she can shake a microphone stand at. On the other, she confesses that she often has panic attacks, admits to episodes of self-doubt and, for the present time at least, seems to have little time to relax, or to forge a relationship. She plays with her hair and fidgets with her phone as she speaks, breaking off occasionally to sign autographs for the fans who spot her.

Lena Jane Goulding was born in Hereford on 30 December 1986. Her parents split up when she was five. She no longer sees her father but says that her mother, who now works in a supermarket, enjoyed rave culture, went to art college and hankered after a creative career before deciding to start a family. "She was a very positive influence," Goulding adds. "She introduced me to a lot of music." Young Ellie started practising guitar when she was 15, playing in local bands around Hereford. "I played recorder in assembly, then I became passionate about the guitar, I don't know why. I started on electric then moved to acoustic – my brother was playing bass in the next room."

She moved to Canterbury to study drama at the University of Kent when she was 18. "It wasn't because I wanted to be an actress," she says. "I just liked the physical stuff. I liked it when we got to kill people on stage. When I look back it was quite zany and pretentious." She says she spent most of her time pursuing part-time jobs to pay her way, even working in a local theatre because she got to see plays for free.

But music was always her passion. She played in London at an open mic night, and it all seemed to come quite easily. She got a manager, set up a MySpace page and ended up collaborating with Vince Frank (aka Frankmusik), a 24-year-old former beatboxer from Croydon, who remixed one of her early demos, "Wish I Stayed". Finally, after two years of studying, she took the decision to leave university. "I thought I would give it a shot," she says, "though I fully expected to go back." But Goulding was lucky enough to come quickly to the right people's attention, signing a publishing deal with Chrysalis Records in 2007 – a regular salary in exchange for future royalties – which enabled her to focus on music. The following year she hooked up through MySpace with the eventual producer of Lights, Fin Dow-Smith – a "bedroom" production wizard for which great things are predicted this year – who performs under the name Starsmith. She sent him a demo for "Starry Eyed" and within two days he had composed its main synth riff. "Something in me loved it," she recounts enthusiastically, bouncing up and down in her seat. "We just kept adding layers, we were being young, exciting, music-making people. Me and Fin love Nineties dance music." She suddenly breaks into song, chanting the chorus to Baby D's 1994 track "Let Me Be Your Fantasy". "We got to the bridge and decided to make it epic and dancy. We just experimented for ages. It's not how it was towards the end of the album, when we had a schedule and had to get things done. We could do whatever we wanted."

Meanwhile, she was increasingly being written about on fan sites and music blogs, and a scramble for her signature resulted in her being recruited by Polydor Records last June. Her debut single, "Under the Sheets", was released in a tie-up with independent label Neon Gold in November and peaked at number 53 in the charts; "Starry Eyed" was released last month, reaching a not-too-shabby number four. Her music is described as "folktronica" because of her troubadour-style lyrics – "I can't explain it really," she says. "My album is very much a series of ramblings of mine since I was about 18."

All of which, one would presume, is a lot for a young person to deal with. Just before Christmas, Goulding says that her panic attacks – which have apparently accompanied her success – reached their peak. "I don't see my mum that often but she came down to see me and we went to [the giant west-London shopping centre] Westfield," she says. "I was in a positive mood. I'd been in the studio – I'd had panic attacks there but I felt like I'd been recovering. But when I was walking into a shop I got this sickly feeling and it was like, 'Oh no, it's happening again'. You become completely depersonalised from everything. You literally don't care about anyone, you become a zombie, and feel like you are going to die. It's weird, you begin thinking really dark thoughts. My mum started panicking; she rang A&E, and they said, 'She sounds like she's having a heart attack'. The only way I could recover from it was by lying on my bed in the foetal position and trying to forget about it."

Since its release, Lights has received some mixed reviews from certain quarters; some saw it as a missed opportunity for someone so keen on splicing folk and pop, and as an overt attempt to appeal to the mainstream. Goulding treats such things with diplomacy. "I have kept my silence about this," she adds. "I don't care about reviews, really. I am proud of the album and what I have done. It is not in my nature to criticise reviewers and these people are clearly very clever. I respect anyone who has a passion for writing."

She has support from those around her, although she doesn't have a boyfriend – she says she doesn't have the time. She often touches on the subject of relationships in her songs, however, something which caused a recent interviewer to conclude that she had a "reputation for sexual frankness". At their best, her lyrics seem to be ambiguous, though she is not averse to discussing past loves. "Under the Sheets" contains the lines: "In our house made of paper, and your words all over me; we're under the sheets and you're killing me". "I am very honest," Goulding says. "I can't really explain my

behaviour with lovers. I can't explain why I do the things I do. I feel like I have been in a lot of relationships because I don't have a father figure, or maybe I just like being in someone's arms. But my songs are not about that. They are about many things." She elaborates: "I do wonder where I get things. I mean, the way I talk about sexual encounters; I always associate it with violence and blood. I feel like when I'm in a relationship I'm numb to things."

The love of her life so far was a 32-year-old former sound engineer called Matt. They still speak regularly, but they split after the passion fell out of their relationship. "I feel like I am always going to be alone," Goulding says now.

She checks her watch, makes her apologies – she's late for the sound check – and pulls her hat down above her eyes. As we walk to the O2, Goulding describes a recent incident. "At my show in Manchester, someone shouted, 'I love you, Ellie,' and I went, 'I love you, too,' and the fan just went: 'Aaaarrrrgggghh'," she recalls, doubling up with laughter at the memory. "It was the loudest scream I have ever heard." Her face cracks into another grin.

She poses for more pictures with fans outside the venue, before making her way inside. She sits on a stool at the back of the main arena to watch her band rehearse; she laughs as they mess around, playing her songs in a "jazz style", before burying her head in her hands and recalling her drunken indiscretions from the previous evening. There's talk of a possible number one – in nervous anticipation of the following day's chart announcement. "That'd be nice, wouldn't it," she says.

Goulding takes to the stage in Glasgow shortly after 8pm. The venue is packed with teenagers, many of them drunk for the first time. A huge glitter ball spins, reflecting light on to the crowd below. To a volley of wolf whistles, hysterical screams and mobile-phone camera flashes, Goulding suddenly appears. Despite the teenage chatter filling the room, there is something properly awe-inspiring about a pop machine in full flow. The opening chords of her first song ring out and her band steps forward as one; youthful exuberance and bashful talent fuel a hormonal maelstrom of urgently jostling bodies. Before long, it's over – time for a quick sleep at the hotel before Goulding is due back on her tour bus, for the journey to Norwich early the following morning.

"It's sweet, though it's not quite sunk in," she says the next day, talking from the bus after the number one announcement. She sounds half asleep. "We are all really chilled here at the moment, but I might have a celebration when I get back to London. "

She's conquered the charts at the first attempt – so what next for Ellie Goulding? "I want to run a marathon next year," she says. "Maybe in New York." Not London? "No, not the London Marathon," she laughs. "I've seen London, it's boring."

'Lights' is out now on Polydor

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