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If the singing voice is merely a vehicle for a melody, a means of putting across a verse, a bridge, a chorus, well, somebody forgot to tell Ellie Goulding. As her debut album, Lights, made so thrillingly clear, Ellie uses her voice as a texture in much the same way that a skilled instrumentalist would. It is, in other words, a sound – in Ellie’s case, an utterly distinctive and unforgettable one – that can play as important a role in her songs as any other musical detail. Cascading, dovetailing, soaring, swooping, Ellie’s layered vocal parts bring a haunting complexity to songs that often come from relatively uncomplicated origins: observations, memories and emotions that trigger a melody, a lyric, bare bones around which Ellie will then build musical and verbal narratives that are at once ornate and austere, passionate and enigmatic. Never likely to be one of those singers who is content just to turn up, lay down a main vocal part and leave, Ellie’s approach to writing and recording is, she admits, borderline obsessive – but then, anything less, she says, would be a waste of time.
Not even the most ardent fan or keenest student of Lights is going to be prepared for the shock of Ellie’s new album Halcyon, however. A musical, vocal and lyrical tempest, the new record describes a journey out of heartache and towards hope, from desolation to renewed faith in the future, set to music that is alternately strident and stunned, emphatic and tentative. It is almost as if you can hear Ellie’s psyche shrinking and then renewing, rebooting itself. From the opening vocal chanting of “Don’t Say a Word” to the last bars of “Dead In the Water,” Halcyon is the product of two-and-a-half tumultuous years in Ellie’s life: a Brit award, the release of Lights, love, loss, writer’s block, a new relationship, singing at the White House and at a certain spring wedding, a number one pop single that has done nearly 3m in America, confronting her doubts and fears, digging deep and locating her artistry again, returning to the countryside she grew up in and, in a converted barn, making a record that confirms her as one of this country’s most singular and compelling songwriters.
Not surprisingly (and as Halcyon makes plain), that journey wasn’t an easy one. “There was a period where everything felt stale,” Ellie says. “I wasn’t writing, I wasn’t reading, I wasn’t taking anything from the experiences I was having. Usually I can walk down the street and just absorb everything; but there will also be times where there is this complete block, and that’s how I felt. And then when my relationship broke up, that all suddenly changed, I went to the countryside and just wrote and wrote. I had to make a decision in my head to close off one thing and open another. Once I did that, I realised how much I had to write about.”
Recorded just down the road from the Herefordshire village where Ellie spent her childhood, and co-produced by Ellie with Jim Eliot (Kish Mauve, Kylie, Ladyhawke), Halcyon is an album whose title belies much of its content. “Giving it that name does seem a bit ironic,” Ellie concedes, “because it’s quite a sad album. But then the songs that are joyous are so joyous. And it’s such a beautiful word.”
Talking in the comfort of her flat in central London, Ellie is able to have more perspective now about events in her life since the release of Lights. But it wasn’t always thus. “When someone goes away for a long time and travels far and wide, if someone says, ‘How was it?’ you tend to just go, ‘Yeah, great’. You couldn’t possibly go into everything you’ve seen and done. And my life recently has been like that, I can sit here now in this lovely flat, but I’ve been through the best times and the worst times in my life, ever; so many strange things have happened.”
If Ellie addresses this period both directly and obliquely on Halcyon, on tracks such as “My Blood,” “Joy,” “Figure 8,” “Explosions,” “Don’t Say a Word,” the almost unbearably tender “I Know You Care” and the breathtaking “Atlantis”, she also ventures outside her own experiences, most powerfully on the closer, “Dead in the Water,” a song inspired by reading a tragic account of a couple walking peacefully by the sea, only for the husband to be swept away on the tide. “I’m there in the water,” Ellie sings, “still looking for you.” Admitting that “Dead in the Water” inevitably ended up channelling some of her own heartache, Ellie is also able to joke: “I couldn’t have called the album that, because I know exactly what would happen.”
As doubting and crushed as she felt when she first started writing for the album, Ellie found the process incredibly empowering. “The biggest change that has happened is that I don’t feel that I need to impress people or justify the things I do. It would be mental if now, at this point, I was still apologising for myself, which is something my manager used to tell me off for doing. I’ve got to the stage where I see that I can believe in myself, and that I can have a feeling of self-worth about my music.”
Halcyon’s lead single, “Anything Could Happen,” is classic Ellie: as well as being a song of irresistible propulsion and ferocious, hook-filled power, it is a track whose euphoric optimism is stalked by doubt and ambiguity. When she sings, repeatedly, “I know it’s gonna be”, you can hear Ellie clinging tenaciously to confidence even as uncertainty snaps at her heels, striding towards the future but with a glance over her shoulder at the pain in her past – at war with herself, with the opposing instincts that have always informed her songwriting. If, ultimately, hope triumphs over fatalism, hers is a victory that seems hard-won. It is perhaps this duality, above all other facets in her work, that makes Ellie’s music so riveting, and that so ensnared fans from the start.
Two such fans are a young couple who, 17 months ago, were married in London and, for one of the few private moments the world allowed them on the day, approached Ellie and asked her to sing at the party they were holding following the wedding reception. It isn’t every day, of course, that a musician will stand on a stage as a pair of giant doors open, and watch pretty much the entire Royal Family advance into the room, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at their head, ready to be entertained. But that is exactly what happened to Ellie and her band at Buckingham Palace in April 2011 when, after months of secret negotiations during which Ellie was sworn to – and maintained – her silence, she sang a selection of her own songs and cover versions (including tracks by Michael Jackson, Tina Turner and, inevitably, Elton John’s Your Song) for the newly-wed royals, and afterwards mingled with their guests. An enduring sense of loyalty and discretion prevents her from going into too much detail, but Ellie clearly found the experience surreal. “We’d gone for a rehearsal the day before. I’d driven past the palace so often, I’d stood outside it as a child and thought, ‘I wonder what it’s like in there’. And all of a sudden, I’m driving in. Mental.”
Ellie’s success in America – her single, “Lights,” has sold 3 million copies and spent two consecutive weeks at #1 on the Top 40 radio chart while securing the upper reaches of the Billboard Hot 100 chart – has been another experience she finds hard to describe.
America has clearly got under her skin. “They embrace everything,” Ellie says. “They’ll take your biggest fault and turn it into something positive. And the work ethic in music over there isn’t like anything I’ve ever known. You get back to your hotel at one in the morning and someone will contact you and go, ‘Do you want to come over to the studio?’ So over you go. Everyone’s just hanging out, making music.”
Capturing a period of profound change and transition in Ellie’s life, Halcyon is, despite the mournful nature of much of its inspiration, ultimately a redemptive album. Above all, it communicates the sense of a young musician poised on the cusp of new adventures, the war won (although, this being Ellie, it may turn out to be only a temporary truce), lessons learnt. When she says, “Loneliness has been the biggest influence on this record; I feel like what I do is lonely”, you want to give her a reassuring hug. But then Ellie will follow this with: “I still feel like there’s this force, pushing me to do this.” And you are reminded of precisely what it is that makes her so special: honest and self-aware enough to endure and acknowledge her propensity for what she herself calls “over-thinking”; brave enough to confront this and go into battle again; and possessed of a talent, and a voice, of such extraordinary power that, for all her vulnerability, you sense that, deep down, Ellie Goulding knows she is impregnable.