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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Music -

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.

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