Ellie Goulding - This one's glitter is gold

Ellie Goulding recently won the Brits Critics' Choice award and topped the BBC Sound of 2010 poll. Elisa Bray explains why she justifies the hype that surrounds her
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The Independent Culture

The new pop sensation for 2010 has been revealed. But before you roll your eyes cynically, wait up. Ellie Goulding, pop's newest starlet, wasn't picked up by a record-label A&R exec looking to tick a few boxes: young, female singer-songwriter, mixing folk with electronica, and a voice that's a little bit kooky. She is not a product of the music industry's power house, the Brit Performing Arts & Technology School in Croydon, whose predictably successful graduates include Kate Nash and Adele. She does not have close relatives in the music industry. There is something that bit more authentic about the 23-year-old singer songwriter.

Goulding was discovered at a university talent contest she entered for fun – she was voted the winner by audience members. Back then, she was a drama student at Kent University performing cover versions. In that talent-show audience was also, by chance, a representative from a music management company, who went on to become her first manager. It was then that she thought about writing her own songs - and so, as easily as that, she picked up the cheap acoustic guitar that she had bought using her student overdraft and started writing, song after song. Two years later, having quit her course, and with a major deal with Polydor behind her, she is being touted as pop's most promising newcomer, having scooped both the Brits Critics' Choice award and topped the BBC Sound of 2010 poll, accolades which went to Adele in 2008 and Florence and the Machine in 2009.

While many set out on a route to attain pop stardom, Goulding's youth, though it included clarinet lessons and guitar lessons, and singing in the local operatic society, was far from being the hothouse of musical encouragement enjoyed by her predecessors. "My mum hates me saying this," she says, "but she used to tell me to be quiet whenever I sang. She'd say, 'Oh, Ellie, don't do that, it doesn't sound very good.' It's maybe fair enough, though: my music wasn't an obvious thing in me, it was gradual. I almost didn't want people to know."

It would be her peers at the talent contest who discovered that Goulding's voice does indeed sound very good. It is, in fact, her top trump. It is sunny and poppy enough to fit in the charts, while boasting the beguiling resonance of Björk and the quivering intensity of Kate Bush. The songs, too, bridge a gap, between the saccharine electro-pop and instant hooks of last year's chart darling Little Boots, and more thoughtful, acoustic, folk-tinged songs.

Home life for Goulding would provide the right fodder for songwriting, but not the space and encouragement to put it to practice. She grew up in various cramped council houses in a small village in Hereford with her mother, two sisters, brother and a stepfather with whom she didn't get along. Playing music in the bedroom wasn't an option, as she shared with her two sisters. Her mother works in a supermarket while her stepfather is a lorry driver and she was the first member of her family to go to university. If there was one musical aspect she gained at home, it would be her pop sensibility. "I like simplicity, which is why I'm not afraid of pop, or dance music. I just look for the hook," she says. In a recent interview, she recalled: "My mum really was super into music. It wasn't like she was introducing me to things like Bob Dylan and The Beatles, but she introduced me to pop music. I remember when Florence first came out, or the Kooks or Franz Ferdinand, she would always be the first person with their record, and then she would get bored of them and move on to something else."

Her folk knowledge, meanwhile, was informed by her uncle, an occasional live performer himself who would play her records by Alison Krauss, Jim Moray, Seth Lakeman and Fleetwood Mac. It would help explain her discerning choice of cover songs, which show a broad taste in music that sets her above her peers. There is the intimate cover of the Swedish pop star Robyn's "Be Mine!", recorded with the newcomer Eric Hassle, and her version of indie-dance band Passion Pit's "Sleepyhead". But it is her covers of the US indie darlings Midlake's "Roscoe", and Bon Iver's "The Wolves" that best showcase her vocals and guitar-playing, while taking the original songs somewhere else.

After winning the talent show, Goulding played some acoustic gigs while at university. When she missed her train back to Canterbury after a London show, she met another manager and set up her own MySpace page.

Then things took off for Goulding. She multiplied her fanbase with the help of the electro-pop singer and producer Frankmusik. From her newly set-up MySpace page she contacted Frankmusik, asking if he could help with one of her acoustic songs. He invited her to his home and the pair worked on the song – "Wish I Stayed" – which went on to rack up 100,000 plays in just three months. Goulding left behind her folksy acoustic sound for more of a euphoric disco feel.

She has since worked with such big names in production as Basement Jaxx, Burial and Starsmith, and has fans in Florence and the Machine, Marina and the Diamonds, Passion Pit and Theophilus London. Her first single, before she had signed the deal with Polydor, "Under the Sheets", made the Radio 1 playlist and saw the DJs Jo Whiley and Huw Stephens championing her. Mark Ronson was so enamoured that he has invited her to sing vocals on his album.

The songs work equally well in minimal, stripped-back, acoustic form and as synth-driven pop nuggets, justifying the hype that is now surrounding her. As Paul Rees, the editor of the music magazine Q, has said: "Her songs have a folksy feel coupled with a dash of soothing electronica, but essentially they stand out simply because they're great songs."

Ask Goulding the artist whose career she would most like to follow, and she says: "Someone like Björk. She's not had a straightforward career, but she's one of the most celebrated artists on the planet and she's carried herself with dignity. She's not afraid of being different and she grows and grows. I want to last a long time and to do that you have to keep your integrity, which is what Björk has done."

Goulding may now have a make-up artist, but she retains her authentic look. She doesn't have a striking haircut to rival La Roux, the stage costumes to match the Noisettes' front-woman Shingai Shoniwa or the theatricality of Florence and the Machine. Instead, she'll perform in a hooded top hiding a more glitzy top beneath. But, having been too shy to be the main singer of a band at the age of 16, she has been building her fanbase with some live performances that have gained more praise from her critics. Her performance on Later... with Jools Holland, in October last year, came a month before the release of her debut single, and she has since played a string of gigs supporting Little Boots on tour, with a tour supporting Passion Pit and some more headline shows to come.

With the performances and the music to justify the accolades, she could just be the real thing.

The single "Starry Eyed" is out on 22 February on Polydor; the album 'Lights' is out on 1 March


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