Ellie Goulding on her new album, feeling free on stage and making the pivot into acting

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When Ellie Goulding finally returned to the recording studio after lockdown, she knew for sure what her new album wouldn’t be. “Nobody was in any kind of ballad mood after two years indoors,” she laughs.

Her fifth studio album, Higher Than Heaven, came out of those sessions, and there’s not a ballad in earshot. It’s bright, cutting electro-pop that’s dancefloor ready and feels reminiscent of Swedish pop sensation Robyn in places. “I think it was an almost direct reaction to the pandemic and not being able to do the thing that I love, which is performing, and the fact none of us could go and dance with our friends,” she says.

It is Golding’s most assured album to date and feels like the sister to its critically acclaimed predecessor, Brightest Blue, which earned Goulding her third number one. It includes upbeat collaborations with the likes of Calvin Harris and Big Sean – both of whom she’s worked with before – and there is a feeling of positivity and celebration running throughout.

Yet despite the fact she’s sold more than 18 million albums worldwide and has over 23 billion streams to her name (not to mention 50 million followers on social media), Goulding says she still experiences imposter syndrome, plus a fear of expressing her ambition in a music industry that continues to be largely male dominated.

“I feel I have to stop myself when it feels like I’m being too ambitious,” Goulding smiles, reflecting on her success after 15 years in the industry. “I often take a step back, especially when I’m in the presence of men, [thinking] that maybe my opinion isn’t the right opinion or maybe I don’t have as much validation in what I’m saying… I then have to be counter-intuitive and like, ‘No, I’m going to stick with what I believe’ and not apologising for wanting to be successful, wanting to keep going and move forward. Some days I feel more confident than others,” she says, “but lately I’ve been trying to feel like I’m meant to be here.”

It doesn’t help that despite all her achievements, Goulding is still a footnote on some festival line-ups this summer – just like all the other women on the bill with her – as male line-ups dominate festival season once again. “I actually joked about a festival that I’m playing this summer because I’m way down on the bottom line on the line-up,” she says with a wry smile. “I was like, ‘Hang on, that’s a bit weird.’ Then I looked at the line-up and it was basically all men. Then I was like, ‘Ahhh…I get it now!’”

Goulding started out when the industry’s treatment of women was dire. She spoke to me about her MeToo experiences (in the past, she’s expressed regret about not doing so sooner). “It was very important to be part of that movement and to speak out,” she reflects now. “Things have changed for the good I believe…I think the [MeToo] movement had such a powerful effect and thank God it happened.”

While things are a long way off being equal for women in the industry, Goulding says she is slowly “seeing a shift”, citing people like Sony’s Cassandra Gracey, who frequently organises women in music networking events. “I’m not sure if events like that would’ve happened 10 years ago when I started out,” Goulding says. “Being in the room with all those other women feels powerful…I feel like things are changing. I don’t see as many women feeling like they need to apologise anymore.”

She is now a supportive voice for younger artists coming through – the musician Mimi Webb spoke recently about her helpful advice to her at the BRITs, for example – something Goulding didn’t really have when she started out. Goulding, who has suffered with anxiety from a young age, says she was thrust into the spotlight just months after signing with an incessant cycle of television appearances, interviews and live performances. She says she would have welcomed more support at the time.

“For a young person starting out in the music industry, it can be quite intimidating and scary,” she says. “It would’ve been nice to have had somebody telling me that [what was happening] wasn’t normal. You need a bit of extra support. Now, record labels provide counselling and therapists and all the things that young artists need to cope with the many different elements that come with being a performance artist.”

Goulding eventually sought out a therapist to help her anxiety. “It helps you to just word it out and sometimes you end up learning things about yourself that you didn’t know, or they end up telling you things that you’d never thought of about yourself or your life…it’s been effective.”

Her anxiety can, even now, be debilitating on account of the physical symptoms she experiences. “These symptoms are sometimes so overwhelming that it can stall me and stop being the very best version of myself. It’s always been really important for me to talk about it,” Goulding says, adding conservations about mental health are more important than ever. “People know it’s been a struggle for me and it’s like an everyday struggle [still]. It’s not something that sort of comes and goes.”

One of the biggest things to alleviate her anxiety though, she says, was the birth of her son. She’s sat behind a ‘world’s best mum’ card and beams when she talks about him. She was pregnant at the start of writing Higher than Heaven. “Having anxiety makes me really appreciate the moments when I am calm and peaceful and present – like the time I spend with my son. I can truly enjoy him doing anything.”

In an industry notorious for not supporting mothers who want to continue to work, Goulding says having a strong team of women behind her has made all the difference. “An all-female team has been a crucial component to the balance between motherhood and work,” Goulding says. “I don’t have to make requests with my duties as a mother – they’re assumed and factored in… being surrounded by women has made my life a lot easier.”

As well as being a mum and a successful musician, Goulding still finds time for her activism – particularly in terms of helping the homeless and the environment. She spent Christmas (as she does every year), helping those on the streets and in 2021, Goulding became one of the first artists to run a carbon neutral tour. Recently, in her commitment to being a more sustainable artists, she’s pushed back her album release date several times to ensure the wrapping on the product is environmentally friendly.

“We’ve had to keep moving it back, but you know what? …it’s drawn attention to being very conscious of the environment and that is my number one priority,” she explains, saying a push back is “no bad thing” if it raises awareness of climate issues.

Aside from being with her son, there’s only one other place her anxiety is truly absent: on stage. “It’s the one place I don’t feel anxious,” she smiles. “When I’m on stage singing, I just feel like I’m free. There’s not one second that I don’t enjoy it.” Goulding says she’s most looking forward to taking her son to some shows too. “He hasn’t seen me perform yet so I’m excited to see what his reaction is,” she laughs. “He does dance a lot, so I’m hoping I’ll get a good reaction from him!”

As for the future, Goulding reveals that she’s branching out in new directions. She’s working on some classical music, as well as a possible move into acting. For the past two years, she’s been training as an actor. “I’ve been really enjoying it,” she reveals. “It’s brought me out of my shell somewhat.” She’s now looking for the “right project” to begin with. The contentedness in Goulding’s voice returns once more. “There’s always something new to be done,” she laughs. “I’m just excited to see where it all goes next.”

Higher Than Heaven will be released on April 7