Marriage, baby, house in the country… Ellie Goulding‘s life has changed dramatically over the past year. She tells Francesca Babb how she took control of her career – and saved herself from burnout
Ellie Goulding is in Ibiza. The sun is shining, her four-month-old baby, Arthur, is asleep in the room next door, and her husband, art dealer Caspar Jopling, has just accidentally strolled into our interview naked.
Her Balearic wi-fi is so pitiful that sadly it won’t allow for a good enough connection for me to see any of this, but, from the sound of things, I can only assume she is beaming.
The past 18 months, Covid fears and frustrations aside, have given 34-year-old Ellie a rare moment to breathe. It’s only the second time since her music career took off in 2010 that she can remember actually stopping, reflecting and recalibrating. It’s not like she hasn’t worked as such – she released an album, Brightest Blue, in July last year, and wrote a book, Fitter. Calmer. Stronger, extolling the virtues of a healthy approach to life, which will be out next month. But not touring, being at home, being still… well, it’s changed her.
‘I got to prioritise myself in a way that I’ve never been able to before,’ she says of life in the Cotswolds countryside, where she and Caspar moved from London just before the pandemic hit. ‘I would go for a long walk every day, usually by myself, because Caspar would be working, and I made an amazing local friend, who I would bake cakes with, which she’d then deliver to the older people in the village. I felt like I was at this peak of real contentment and that was probably the reason I was in such a healthy place to conceive a child.’
Arthur came as a surprise, not unwanted, but certainly unexpected. Announcing himself in two blue lines on a road trip to Italy that Caspar had secretly booked to celebrate their one-year wedding anniversary, he was born in April this year. Ellie admits that prior to the pregnancy, she wasn’t sure that motherhood was for her. ‘I was always great with other people’s kids,’ she says. ‘But becoming a mother wasn’t necessarily one of my goals. After we got married, people kept asking when we were going to have kids, and I would say, “I don’t know if I will. I really love my job. I love my life. I love my freedom.” But it has come really naturally to me. I’ve never felt any disconnect or confusion about what I’m doing.’
It is pretty impressive to be able to write a book called Fitter. Calmer. Stronger mere weeks after giving birth, considering it’s quite the opposite of how most new mothers feel. But Ellie’s obsession with finding the balance between health and happiness is not new. It’s something she’s been working on for years, with the help of trainers, nutritionists and doctors. The book is her personal ode to avoiding a burnout, having spent years herself obsessing over exercise, eating badly on tour, sleeping terribly and experiencing debilitating panic attacks. It’s about managing both physical and mental health, learning how to listen to your body, when to push and when to put your feet up.
‘I was in two minds about writing it,’ she explains. ‘I look up to a lot of singer-songwriters like Björk or Joni Mitchell, who keep themselves very private, and then come out with a beautiful album. But I had reached this point where I’d found a good balance between my job and my lifestyle. I’d post something I was doing in the gym on social media and I’d get so many questions. So I thought, “Well, I should put this in a book.” Not a book about my life – I might do that at some point in the future – but focusing on how I survived in what is quite a difficult industry; how I have built up my strength and resilience.’
Starting out in the music industry in her early 20s, Ellie was catapulted to fame with a Brit Rising Star Award and has sold more than 15 million albums in the years since. Back then she had an edgy undercut hairstyle and a nervous energy that was both extraordinarily exciting and a little bit terrifying. It was as though she was at the precipice of something great or in a car driving so fast it was going to quickly swerve off course. She didn’t swerve; instead, she learned how to steer – and how to trust her instincts in an industry where young women’s voices aren’t always heard.
‘It was very easy for me to be influenced by people who thought that they understood me better than I understood myself,’ she says of those early days. ‘I was young and impressionable and I left it up to other people to make decisions because I felt I wasn’t able to make them myself. I thought I had to look a certain way and dress a certain way. I thought I had to squish myself into some kind of box as a pop singer. If I just had a bit of what I have now, which is trusting and respecting myself, it would have been a different story.
‘When I first started I didn’t wear any make-up and was a bit of a tomboy, which is just who I am really,’ she continues, ‘but wearing no make-up was unacceptable. I remember never being able to go on television without a full glam team transforming me. I was repeatedly encouraged to wear the girliest, sexiest, most feminine option at any photo shoot. I was made to feel as though I wasn’t enough by myself. I began to think it was way more interesting for me to have a storyline with a man at the forefront, which triggered a wild insecurity of who I actually was without them.’
Ellie then brings up the recent Britney Spears documentary Framing Britney Spears, which showed in shocking detail the manipulation of the singer’s career by those around her. ‘It really affected me,’ she says of watching the film. ‘Britney was so young, and she was thrown into this circus without any support. The same people who want your music and want more from you are also telling you that they want less. “I don’t want you to have mental health issues. I want you to be fine and perform and write perfect songs for me.” When I started out, there wasn’t much help and mental health wasn’t talked about. There’s more awareness now, but we’ve let a lot of people down, people who have brought us so much joy through their music.’
She’s similarly upset about the recent debacle surrounding US gymnast Simone Biles’s decision to withdraw from some Olympic events to protect her mental health. ‘Don’t get me started on that,’ she says. ‘When you sit at home and shout at these athletes, you don’t see the sheer amount of work that goes into that one performance. Anyone competing in professional sport is allowed to say, “You know what, I can’t. My mental health is not great at the moment.” You can’t be at your greatest physically if you’re not mentally. It’s bizarre to me that she’s even having to defend herself.’
These days, Ellie is in control of her career. She decides the music she wants to make and when she wants to make it, and was back in the recording studio only three weeks after Arthur’s birth. Not because of any outside pressure, but because it was something she needed to do.
‘I think everyone sensed I’d be back at work pretty quickly, because I like to work,’ she says. ‘Obviously I’ve never done this before, so my approach was to go back to the studio and see how it affected me. After a couple of weeks, I started to feel anxious, like I wasn’t there enough to see Arthur grow, so I took a couple of weeks off. That pull to be at home is new for me – I’ve never experienced it – but I’m also relieved and lucky that I’ve managed to have that balance of working too. Now Arthur wakes up in the morning, we play and I kiss and cuddle him. Then we go for a long walk together and I’ll hit the studio at about midday and get back for six. I take the breast-pumping kit with me, which everyone finds hilarious because they can hear it, and they’re like, “We should sample that sound and put it in songs!” My one rule is that I’m back for bath time, which is just the nicest time together.
‘Having a baby definitely forces you to look at yourself as a human. I care more about producing milk right now than I do about getting back to my old body shape – and that’s saying something.’
Caspar has been Ellie’s rock since they first got together. They met at a dinner hosted by their mutual friend Princess Eugenie, who purposely sat them next to each other. ‘She obviously saw something that we didn’t,’ Ellie laughs. ‘We didn’t have a huge amount in common and we had such different lives. He was working in New York, I was living in the UK, but it’s our differences that make us so compatible. He appreciates my intelligence and curiosity, my eagerness to explore and talk about things. He loves my music, but he separates me from that – he doesn’t see me as a singer, he sees me as a woman who he loves and respects, which is the dream. He’s just a really good egg – he sees the good in everyone, and he’s really kind. That’s why I married him.’
Their wedding was in August 2019 at York Cathedral, followed by a massive bash at Castle Howard, the stately home where Brideshead Revisited was filmed. Matchmaker Eugenie was there, along with her mother Sarah Ferguson and sister Beatrice, as well as Katy Perry, James Blunt, Tracey Emin, Sienna Miller, the list goes on… But the star-studded guest list wasn’t her favourite part – it was the music that she curated for the celebrations. ‘Craig David, who I’ve known for a long time, performed an amazing set,’ she says. ‘Then we had the Royal Holloway choir and Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo – spine-tinglingly beautiful. Then Jack Garratt, a friend we adore, performed and we had string players play my favourite classical pieces. I just loved it.’
Ellie is a country girl at heart, having grown up in rural Herefordshire. And the Cotswolds are providing everything she needs right now. A garden with a paddling pool for Arthur and a tepee that Caspar made, a village pub with locals she’s befriended. Then there’s the army of women she surrounds herself with, from her school friends to the ones who have provided an essential support system through motherhood. ‘I’ve met so many glorious women through social media,’ she says. ‘[The actress] Daisy May Cooper is one. Caspar and I love her [comedy series] This Country. Then Jessie Ware and Paloma Faith both reached out to me on Instagram when I was pregnant. I’ve known them for years. Jessie and I were often the only women on festival lineups. I can’t express how grateful I am for those moments where I just wanted to speak to someone about my pregnancy or the emotional side of breastfeeding.’
It’s way over our allotted hour together, and Arthur is stirring in the background. Life doesn’t often move slowly when you’re Ellie Goulding, but for now at least, it’s time for her to get back out into the sunshine and in the pool with Arthur. Back to enjoying some time off at last.