Pop superstar Ellie Goulding speaks for the first time about the relationship that took her by surprise and why her husband is the one man she won’t write a song about.
Ellie Goulding is surrounded by boxes. A lot of them. She describes it as ‘a warehouse amount’ because her record company has just sent her ‘not joking – about 20,000’ bits of merchandise to sign to promote her new album.
The problem is, she’s currently spending lockdown in a cottage in Oxfordshire with cat Wallace and her husband Caspar Jopling, who was studying for his MBA at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School until the global pandemic ensured all the courses went online only. The cottage is too small to contain all the boxes, so Ellie is in the process of returning them to the record label, who will then send them back to her in more manageable batches.
‘I mean, I’m going to be getting, like, what’s it called?’
Repetitive strain injury?
These are the occupational hazards of being a globally successful pop star in lockdown; the woman behind a dazzling array of hit songs including ‘Starry Eyed’, ‘Love Me Like You Do’ and a cover of Elton John’s ‘Your Song’, which she sang at the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding reception.
Today, when we meet over Zoom, things are more low-key. Ellie, 33, is wearing an oversized hoodie, her hands wrapped around a giant mug of green tea. But like all the best off-duty stars, she is still undeniably glamorous with her long blonde hair, bee-stung lips and the cat-like brown eyes that make her look like a gorgeous female version of Elvis Presley.
Her keenly anticipated fourth album, Brightest Blue, is about to be released, a month later than originally scheduled because of Covid-19. Releasing it in these conditions is ‘bittersweet’. On the one hand, she wants to be able to get out there and ‘show the world this album that I’m very proud of’. On the other, she acknowledges that ‘it’s not so bad being at home. Sitting having some tea. Chatting on Zoom.’
Brightest Blue is her first album after a five-year gap, during which she met her now husband, the Eton and Harvard-educated son of an aristocratic Yorkshire landowner and the nephew of art dealer Jay Jopling. The couple got married at a star-studded wedding at York Minster last August, attended by everyone from the Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson to the actress Sienna Miller and singer Katy Perry.
There are no songs on the new album about Caspar, partly because, Ellie says, the first year of marriage has been ‘love hearts and butterflies and bliss… It just hasn’t struck me as something that I want to focus my writing on.’ And it is true that many of the tracks on Brightest Blue seem to have sprung from darker places of inspiration: ‘Power’ is about a woman disillusioned by the lies and embellishments of dating in an age of social media; ‘Hate Me’ delves into the angry desire to erase an ex from your life.
‘I may analyse [my marriage] at some point,’ she says. ‘But no, it was one of those things where it was a different level of sacredness. I write about [past] relationships – and still do – and it doesn’t bother Caspar whatsoever, but I explore these things because they’re valid, and they happened in my life and they’re things that made me who I am. So I think it would be wrong to get married and then think that you have to completely close your past away. He accepts that.’
The pair met in 2016 after they were seated next to each other at a dinner arranged by their mutual friend, Princess Eugenie. At the time, Ellie was determinedly single and enjoying her independence after years of what she describes as ‘serial monogamy’. She had taken a break from the relentless pace of the music industry and was stepping back from the pressures of fame and from the exhausting public act of Being Ellie Goulding.
‘I think a common misconception with me, and maybe with other performers, too, is that we’re confident and that we’re super “out there”,’ she says. ‘But it is terrifying for me to go into a group of people and I think that’s always been the case. When I look back at even being at school and college I am just a shy person. I don’t have a huge amount of confidence.
‘It is funny seeing myself on stage – when I have to watch myself back – you know, how I sort of take on this confident role as a performer. But as soon as I’m off stage, that’s gone again. I didn’t attend a single afterparty on my tour. And they were every night. I didn’t go to a single one. Too shy.’
Despite this shyness, Ellie has had to become used to her every move being closely scrutinised. Ever since her debut album, Lights, reached number one in the UK album charts on its release in 2010, her personal life has been the subject of intense media fascination. Her exes include One Direction’s Niall Horan, the Radio 1 presenter Greg James, the record producer Skrillex and Dougie Poynter, the bassist from McFly (she did not, as is popularly claimed, date either Ed Sheeran or Prince Harry).
But, she points out, ‘me and my friends had really similar dating patterns, you know? It’s just that obviously mine were a bit more in the public eye. I was made to feel as if it was unusual to have relationships until you find the right one [but] it’s just part of being young and learning about yourself and evolving. Sometimes it requires other people to come into your life to make it so. But then when I met Caspar, I was just at this really independent phase of my life and I was like, “Goddammit!” because I was in such a strong place and then this guy comes along and I realised after about six months, “Ah, s**t – time to get married!” I knew we were going to get married. Weird feeling. Yeah.’
She is laughing as she says this, poking fun at her own reaction. Does she feel she was treated differently in the media from her male contemporaries? Her eyes light up.
‘Without a shadow of a doubt,’ she says with an alacrity that suggests she has been waiting for someone to ask her this very question. ‘Male musicians can get away with so much more than women… I felt like it was OK for a guy to go from relationship to relationship or from girl to girl without really being judged too much. With me, there were several articles that began, “So and so’s fling, Ellie Goulding.” I became the secondary thing, even though I was consistently a successful musician and I worked hard, I didn’t mess around. I didn’t make a career out of drama, out of publicity, out of hype, I just made it out of the music. I was killing it! I was touring and I was performing – every single night. I worked hard and that was my job, I saw it as my job, something that I was passionate about. But at the same time it still felt like relationships I was in seemed to take precedence over my success, over my talent. That was slightly confusing to me, and still is, really.’
I can see why. There is no doubting Ellie Goulding’s success. She has built up an estimated fortune of £20 million and has won so many awards that they warrant their own Wikipedia page. She is that rare thing: a commercially successful artist who also garners substantial critical acclaim. And she has done it all through sheer hard graft.
Her childhood could not have been more different from the exalted social circles she now finds herself mixing in. She was born Elena Goulding in Lyonshall, Herefordshire, the second eldest of four. Her mother Tracey was an art student who dropped out of college when she became pregnant with her eldest child. Her father Arthur was an undertaker and part-time musician who left when Ellie was five. Her mother later remarried and, for years, Ellie was estranged from her dad, although they reconciled before her wedding and he walked her down the aisle.
‘I suppose part of being in relationships consistently [in her 20s] was because I just always was like, “I need someone, I need someone!” And you feel as though you can’t exist without someone, which is just madness. I put that down to my dad not necessarily being around, and needing that comfort,’ she says with brutal honesty. Ellie’s formative years were spent not knowing when the electricity would cut out, taking caravan holidays in Tenby and attending the local state school. She was a straight-A student (her favourite authors are Sebastian Faulks and Haruki Murakami) but she never felt part of the ‘cool gang’ and was bullied. She failed her music A-level: ‘I didn’t show up [to the exam] because a girl was bullying me. It was not something that I could emotionally handle because I think the only way to deal with someone like that was to be even meaner than they were. And that was just not in my make-up. So instead I simply stopped going to college.’
She refers to her teenage years as ‘chaotic’. She shared a bedroom with her two sisters – ‘it was quite challenging’ – and then left home at 16 to move in with a boyfriend. ‘I was doing every waitress job I could find. Then I was working at an old people’s home. I had three jobs while in college.’ She also started writing songs and playing guitar and found that she was able ‘to write down my emotions. I was very angsty. People used to call me a goth because I dyed my hair black and I had my lip pierced. It was a teenage thing where you’re suddenly finding out about yourself.’
She changed the way she wrote – from left-handed to right-handed – and the way she spoke, dropping her natural Herefordshire accent in favour of the people she saw on TV. ‘I listened to newsreaders and period dramas and I was like, “Why don’t I talk like that?” But I must say I do regret that now. I don’t know why I did that.’
To me, it sounds like a young woman aspiring to better things, driven to reinvent herself without much guidance other than her own instincts, and it’s simultaneously impressive and rather heart-rending to think that, as an adolescent, she never felt good enough as herself. Later, she went to the university of kent to study drama – the first in her family to go on to higher education. It was there that she was spotted performing by a music manager who signed her at the age of 19 and got her a record deal. After that, Elena became Ellie and a modern-day pop star was born.
Before meeting her, I hadn’t fully appreciated the rapidity of her ascent or the level of dedication and work it must have taken to get to where she is. She has spoken in the past about her struggles with anxiety and body image and the fact that she found solace in regular exercise and eating healthily. She runs, boxes and does yoga. In the past, she has been a vegan but these days she’s more interested in bio-hacking (the practice of using technology and diet to boost physical and cognitive performance) and has reintroduced some dairy. Caspar, by contrast, was raised in a farming family, and is an unapologetic meat-eater.
I wonder how much of Ellie’s exercise and dietary regime stems from a desire to impose some sort of order on her life. Having experienced the chaos of not being in control as a youngster, then pitched into a world of endless touring and performing at the behest of management teams, is it important to her to control what she can?
‘Yeah! My god! I mean, isn’t it for everyone? I have to have such a huge amount of control in my normal life because my songwriting and my performing are so the opposite… When I’m in the studio I have to let myself go and completely lose control to get to a place where I can write honestly and truthfully and access something that I don’t when I’m just in the zone of training or… I don’t know, making some kind of mad smoothie or something.
‘I have to constantly go from “crazy person writing songs and performing on stage” to having to keep this control. I find training to be such a core, integral part of my life – keeping fit and healthy and strong, both mentally and physically.’
Exercise, for her, ‘is not just about being physically strong. I mean, it literally lifts your mood, you know? It releases endorphins. You never regret a workout.’
Love, in the end, was also beyond Ellie’s control. She never planned to meet Caspar but, when she did, ‘part of the urge I had that I was going to marry this person was because, for the first time ever, I felt like there was someone that was supporting my happiness rather than being my happiness.’
I’m intrigued to hear what future songs she will write from this place of contentment and stability. For now, there are 20,000 bits of merchandise to sign. Although she did once teach herself to write with her right hand as opposed to her left, ‘sadly, I can’t write with both at the same time otherwise I’d sign these a lot quicker, wouldn’t I?’
Give her a few years. I’m pretty sure that Ellie Goulding could achieve anything she sets her mind to.
Ellie Goulding’s new album Brightest Blue will be released on 17 July. For tickets to her UK tour in April and May 2021, visit livenation.co.uk
Photographer: Louis Browne WMA Agency @louis_browne. All clothes, shoes and jewellery: Gucci @gucci. Make-up: Lucy Wearing @lucylovebird. Hair: Anastasia Stylianou The Only.Agency @anastasiastylianou. Location courtesy of Adot.com @adotdotcom for charity event M2M @mothers2mothers.