Clear as folk
The bright lights are already shining on Ellie Goulding, whose unique meld of electronica and folk has seen her laden down with both awards and expectation. She talks to Brian Boyd
ANOTHER north London indie dump: on stage is a diffident young woman strumming an acoustic guitar and singing as though she was force-fed Joni Mitchell and Janis Ian records growing up. She’s also wearing a hoodie about three sizes too big for her. This isn’t looking good – even with the beer at £2 a pint.
But then the white English girl suddenly shifts through the gears. A live rhythm section kicks in, she turns her voice up to 11 and goes into wonky Scandinavian pop overdrive. The audience visibly relax – this is going to be a show, not death by a thousand old school folk music cuts.
Ellie Goulding has, as they say, got it going on. Just 23 and from the rock’n’roll paradise of Hereford in the West Midlands, her mantelpiece is already coming down with awards even though her debut, Lights, only hits the shops today. Her folk stylings leavened with electro-pop flourishes now have an official name: “folktronica”. Translated, that means “quality contemporary pop music”.
What distinguishes Goulding from the pack – and you can’t throw a stone these days without hitting a female solo artist who has had a number-one album – is her reluctance to join the “I’m bonkers, I am” production line of “eccentric” female artists populating
the upper reaches of the charts at the moment. Granted, there may be the odd reference to Murakami (a postmodern Japanese novelist), but more often she’s talking about her “horrible Hereford accent” or about how her family would always tell her to “shut up” whenever she started singing because she sounded so awful. She’s also more likely to be out on 5km runs than getting her photos airbrushed for publication in a men’s magazine; she’s almost abnormally normal in comparison to the Kate Bush/Björk wing of “weird female” and has no time for the lip-synching pelvic thrusters of the girlie pop brigade.
Using her student overdraft to buy an acoustic guitar when she enrolled at Kent University to study drama, she banged out a few cover versions at a student talent night and won the first prize. Enthused, she decided to write her own songs and went to work with a vengeance on her MySpace page.
“I knew there was something missing in my sound; I was still very folky,” she says. “I came across Frankmusik [the English electro-pop songwriter] on MySpace and I just e-mailed him a song I had, called Wish I Stayed. He seemed to like my voice, so we met up and spent a week together working on the track. He brought some depth to my sound.
“At this stage, I knew I couldn’t make a folk album, but when I heard what we had together, it was a lot more of a starry-eyed, synthesised sound. There were layers coming into the songs, and harmonies also. We chopped all the vocals and put them all around the song and it really worked.”
Allowing a whole slew of new influences into her work, her songs grow quick and fast, and she began to attract more than a few new fans. “Two years into my drama course and the music was just taking over,” she says. “I knew I wasn’t going back to covers [though many Goulding covers can be found on YouTube; check out her versions of Passion Pit’s Sleepyhead, Bon Iver’s The Wolves and Robyn’s Be Mine].
“I thought I had something with these new songs. The interest was growing; I got a publishing deal. I went to see the board of the university to tell them I was thinking about dropping out. I remember showing them my MySpace page, telling them what all the ‘hits’ on it meant and how I seemed to be making an impression in the music world. They said to me, ‘You’ve really got a case here’, and they wished me the best of luck.”
Moving to London, things began happening quickly. “I signed a deal with Polydor, I went on tour with Little Boots and I got to do two songs on Later With Jools Holland, which was great,” she says. She also hooked up with Starsmith (a noted electrodance producer), who helped her shape the sound of Lights.
Her plan was to release a few singles in 2009 and release the album later this year. What people in the industry heard, though, was a very bright sound by a very grounded young woman (her Later appearance had also helped push her profile). By late last year, to Goulding’s astonishment – “I think I almost cried when I found out” – she was awarded the Critics Choice award at the Brits. The previous two winners of the award were Adele and Florence and the Machine. Then within a few weeks, she found herself winning the equally influential BBC Sound of 2010 award. It was like she was living the lyrics of a Specials song – done too much, much too young.