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The Saturday Interview

‘I’m a female artist and I get defined by my male partners’: Ellie Goulding on misogyny, mental health, and her new album

The chart-topping singer has just released her new album, ‘Higher Than Heaven’. She talks to Kate Solomon about hitting back at false dating rumours, music’s #MeToo moment, and how she copes with anxiety

Saturday 08 April 2023 06:30 BST
Ellie Goulding: ‘You’re not allowed to have flings if you’re a female artist’
Ellie Goulding: ‘You’re not allowed to have flings if you’re a female artist’ (Press image)

Ellie Goulding is in her gleaming open-plan kitchen trying to order a salad on an app. “Sorry, all I can think about is food,” she says. Dressed in leggings and a sweater, she looks more like a fitness influencer than an award-winning, multimillion-selling pop star with No 1s and Brit awards to spare. I’ve already eaten, I tell her – some leftover daal my housemate made for a dinner party. “Gosh,” she says. “Are you guys just farting all the time?”

Clearly, Goulding is an easy conversationalist, hence the discussion of flatulence mere minutes after I arrive. The kettle hasn’t even boiled before we’re talking about our mental health and the various pills and potions we take in an effort to reach some kind of equilibrium. This isn’t Goulding’s main home – she lives in Gloucester with her husband, the art dealer Jasper Jopling, and their two-year-old son Arthur – so there’s a slight emptiness to the spacious penthouse where we sit on squishy sofas in front of a burnished mirror wall. A long dining table that runs approximately the length of most London flats suggests the ghosts of dinner parties past, a bookshelf is stuffed with recipe books, and the milk in the fridge is almond, of course.

She is very interested in how to deal with anxiety. It’s something she has been struggling with for years, pre-dating even her first album, the heady Lights, released in February 2010 when she was 23. Thirteen years of international chart success later, a now 36-year-old Goulding has not lost the generalised fear that something bad is coming; it makes her constantly jumpy, and dragging herself to events and exercise sessions can feel like wading through mud. “It’s debilitating,” she says, leaning back into the cushions, seemingly exhausted. “I staved it off for years because I just exercised so much – I didn’t even notice because I was running so much – like, non-stop. So when I stopped I was like, ‘Oh.’” Reluctant to take medication, she has opted instead for, among other holistic solutions, lavender capsules, which calm her and also make her burp lavender like a cartoon princess.

Once vegan, she now thinks about food in a different way. She gives her body what it needs to function. “I try and eat food that has extremely high nutritional value,” she says. “I like to understand what my body’s doing and how it’s working.” She has regular blood tests to check what her body is low or high in, almost consumed with finding the perfect balance that will make her feel the best it is possible to feel.

Exercise was the focus of that obsession when she was younger, as she worked with trainers who encouraged constant motion, constant pushing, constant sprints. Now, post-pandemic and post-pregnancy, which “sent my nervous system into ... overdrive”, she feels the value of slower movements like stretching and headstands, anything that “changes where your blood is going”. Performing – which is essentially a hardcore workout – was the only time she felt her anxiety really ebb away, so spending months stuck at home during the pandemic felt all the more excruciating. “So I’m just going to keep trying stuff. Since the pandemic, I don’t know a single person, actually, who doesn’t have anxiety.”

But having Arthur has changed her, too. She loves being a mother: you can hear it in every moment she grabs to talk about her little boy, showing pictures and marvelling at how much he changes every day – “every hour, actually!” He has inherited his mother’s love of singing, and his big chubby cheeks are ripe for pinching when he grins. Many artists opt to record a swooning ode to parenthood when they have their first baby, but Goulding’s imminent fifth album, Higher Than Heaven, is a pristine, dazzling banger-fest.

After 13 years, Goulding has reached a level of success where she has the freedom to make whatever she wants – if she fancied coming back with a spoken-word freeform jazz album, no one could really stop her. Thankfully, that’s not where her passions lie, although she has been thinking about a new direction. “I was meant to meet with a composer I love yesterday because I’ve been making some classical music,” she says. “I’ve loved classical since I was 11 or 12, when my grandfather gave me a compilation called, like, Classical Chill Out or something. That’s when I fell in love with it – I’d never heard that stuff before, I grew up listening to rave and dance music so I just didn’t really know it existed.”

But for now, pop music has her attention, and she beams when she talks about playing the songs from Higher Than Heaven live. “I think it was a reaction to the f***ing lockdown,” she says. “I didn’t want to write any ballads.” She began work on it before the world started opening back up, while she was also pregnant. “Everything was hyper-real and strange. We wanted to feel some kind of joy when we were writing – I didn’t want to be delving into my deepest fears.” There is joy stamped all over Higher Than Heaven, from the swooning disco jam “Love Goes On” to the endlessly brilliant single-gal anthem “Cure for Love” with its “Here’s to being lonely” toast.

Ellie Goulding: ‘I think this album was a reaction to the lockdown’ (pictured at the 2023 Brit Awards) (Getty)

Goulding has long been tabloid catnip – a side effect of a high-profile love life – which she finds particularly frustrating. “I’m a female artist, and I get defined by my male partners – sometimes people I’ve only been on dates with! You’re not allowed to have a fling! You couldn’t possibly have a fling, no, that’s not allowed: you’ve got to have solid relationships and be married.” Most recently, there was a backlash against her about a years-old story involving Ed Sheeran, Niall Horan, and the possibility of infidelity. In January, the temptation to respond on social media became overwhelming, especially after a glass of wine: “False!!!!!” she slammed back.

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“I shouldn’t give in to that,” she says now. “For me to think that the right thing is to respond to rumours, knowing that in real life there aren’t just “heroes” and “villains” like there are in the fake world of social media and tabloids... I think, by replying, I’m kind of making out that world is real, or adding validity to a world that is manufactured to keep us scrolling and keep us in fear and fascinated by celebrities. I think that the best thing for me is to stay in the real world.” With a glint in her eye, she adds, “But sometimes you just gotta – occasionally; every, like, five years or so – put something out there...”

There is an undeniable optimism to Ellie Goulding. She is constantly pointing out positives – even to anxiety – and talks about the world’s problems as though they are things that she, personally, is going to sort out. Microplastics, violence against women, social media... she brainstorms half-thought-out plans and asks, “Well, what can we do about that?”, as if she and I are about to storm parliament and demand a solution to the problem of societal misogyny.

Taking action is a theme, whether it’s defending herself on social media or putting her money where her mouth is when it comes to lessening her environmental impact. She is a UN global environmental ambassador, and has taken pains to ensure that Higher Than Heaven is as environmentally sustainable as possible by making elements of its physical release either biodegradable or recyclable, resulting in multiple delays to the album coming out. She lights up when talking about the things she’s found out about bioplastics, and the calls with “really cool people who source renewable materials, and real scientists”. But then she flops back onto the cushions again, her positivity wavering in the face of the magnitude of the thing. “I need to create some kind of forum for musicians and artists, successful ones who are in a position to do something significant.” Suddenly she sits up with a pointed message: “I would love Live Nation to make sure that all merch for every artist they look after is sourced responsibly.”

Ellie Goulding: ‘When the #MeToo stuff happened, I think certain people in music were freaking out’ (Press image)

There are other things the music industry could do with addressing too, I suggest, like when will its #MeToo moment come? “Oh I think it has!” Really? “When the #MeToo stuff happened, I think certain people in music were freaking out – and there has been a palpable change.” Goulding has talked before about her early days of unease in an industry surrounded by men – that feeling that, even though everyone is being friendly, there is an undeniable shift into self-protective mode. She likens it to being a woman walking down a street at night and seeing a man walking the other way: the way you click into hypervigilance. That’s what’s changed, she thinks: that feeling of being unsafe. “Younger artists have to be chaperoned, female artists,” she said at the time, “and therapy for artists – which obviously didn’t exist when I started out.”

There is a line in “Like a Saviour”, the lead single from her new album, that keeps coming back to me: “Sleeping with my shadow, trying to find my faith in tomorrow.” That’s what she seems to be doing all the time – trying to find her faith in tomorrow, and all the tomorrows that will come after it. Goulding plans to take some time off after Higher Than Heaven – she wants to spend time in the countryside playing with her son, remembering the real world and what matters most. The world’s problems might not be going anywhere, but she’s doing what she can.

‘Higher Than Heaven’ is out now

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