Everything has changed over the past five years. The world has taken on strange new shapes and forms, morphing from something we thought we knew into an alien landscape; for Ellie Goulding, this universal metamorphosis has coincided with a personal growth that she couldn’t have predicted. After years of insecurity, imposter syndrome and romantic instability, she feels like she’s finally grown into her skin. On her fourth studio album, Brightest Blue, she opens up more than ever before, sharing those dark moments and breakthroughs via songs that are experimental, brave and powerfully emotional (then dances it out with a series of huge pop bangers in the second part of the record, named EG.0, because hey, she’s still Ellie Goulding).
“I barely remember my twenties,” she sighs over Zoom from her London home where she’s currently locked down with her brother. “I know I went to all these places, did all these amazing things and the whole time I was just concerned about getting home to whoever I was in a relationship with at the time.” “All these amazing things” almost feels like an understatement, given her professional achievements alone. It’s a dazzling array of stats: all three of
Ellie’s previous albums have been certified platinum. She’s earned three UK #1 singles, two Grammy Award nominations, a Golden Globe nomination and two BRIT Awards. Her songs have been streamed nearly 20 billion times worldwide. Even after such huge success, she was struggling with her self-worth, suffering from impostor syndrome and unhealthy relationships.
She recognised that something in her needed to change. Taking some time out after touring her last record, 2015’s Delirium, she shook her life up by moving to New York, both a thrillingly vibrant city that never sleeps and a place where you can feel more alone than ever. Entering a state of semi-isolation gave her the time and space to really think about things in a way that she hadn’t had the opportunity to since her career ballooned ten years ago. She spent her time learning to appreciate art, picking over the memories she did have, trying to work out her own life and simply listening to the beat of the city. “Music has a different vibrancy in New York. It's like its beating heart.”
What Ellie realised - and what became the kernel of the idea that bloomed into Brightest Blue - was that she’d spent years defining herself and her happiness by her romantic relationships. She hadn’t really stopped and asked herself, “Who am I alone?” And that is the journey that Brightest Blue takes us on - from the needy hellscape of casual dating to comfortable independence, and her growth into a woman who doesn’t rely on another person for happiness.
Just as she’d made this discovery about herself, that she could happily exist alone, Ellie met the man she would marry. Ironically, she completed an album largely about the trauma of precarious relationships in a loving partnership, the kind of mutually supportive relationship she had been unconsciously craving. Smitten and happy, when she returned to work as a newlywed she had to consciously channel those past relationships, the ones she’d excavated to learn about herself. “Weirdly, I've never felt more independent than I have being married. Because it's really amazing when you meet someone that supports your happiness and your creativity as opposed to someone becomes the source of your happiness. It was that kind of mentality of, ‘I want him to be my partner forever, and I want him to be around forever with me on the journey with me.’ But that’s very different than my previous thinking, which was always ‘I can’t live without him’.”
She started piecing songs together two years ago; at first she was working towards a Beach Boys inspired sound, songs that sound almost gratingly happy but actually deal with sorrow and despair. “But then I realised I just had a momentary obsession with the Beach Boys...” she laughs. Instead she mixes huge 80s sounds with 90s RnB beats, euphoric choruses and swooning strings. It’s a melting pot of classic and thrillingly new sounds.
Anyone who has spent any time being single and relying on dating apps to meet people will recognise the emotions stirred by the opening few songs. Ellie mined her own pre-marriage experiences to create an album that she hopes will help the listener to realise the things it has taken her so long to work out. How Deep Is Too Deep questions how much of your feelings you are allowed to confess to a casual lover and why that is, while Power laments the way social media and self-obsession act as a barrier to true connection. Evoking 80’s power-balladry and all the melodrama of that oeuvre, she sings “Everything you do is so cruel, taking me for a fool, making me need a new fix, making me worship you”.
As the album progresses, breakthroughs are made. The one-two punch of “Love I’m Given” and “New Heights” not only employ her skill for finding an unexpected and disarming vocal rhythm but also grow and blossom into hallelujah-choruses of self-acceptance. “Ode To Myself” is a short contemplation on how she got here over a ghostly wash of reverb and on “Woman” she finds herself; here instead of questioning her emotions, she stridently accepts them and doesn’t care who knows it.
Musically she has also found more confidence in the studio. Working with Joe Kearns, she executive co-produced the bulk of Brightest Blue, finding it easier to communicate exactly how she wanted every detail of the album to sound. In particular she found freedom to experiment in the short interludes dotted throughout the record. “I just like to do what I like to do and I don't necessarily listen to current pop music. So my music is gonna have other influences that aren't going to be compatible with the music charts. But that's, that's what I'm willing to do, to push the sound forward. So I like to think of myself as a bit of a pusher.”
Ellie’s voice, too, has matured, as has her fascination with how it can be manipulated in ways that will surprise the listener. “I like to mess with it, pitch it up or down, because I’m interested in surprising people, showing them that there’s a side of me they haven’t got to see yet.” On a short interlude titled “Wine Drunk” (“Think I was wine drunk when I called it that”), the layered, robotic effect evokes Imogen Heap. “There's always like a context with singers, isn't there. You might know a bit about their background because they see themselves in the tabloids or in popular culture. And so I just wondered if people associate my voice with anything, or if it triggers anything in particular. And so I experimented with the idea of what if I literally change, fundamentally, how I sound?”
The album is actually presented in two parts (“I just said, can we do two parts? And they were like, yeah why not?!”) - the first 13 tracks are the thoughtful contemplations that make up Brightest Blue, and the second part, EG.0, consists of huge pop bangers with collaborators including Lauv, Swae Lee and the late JUICE WRLD. Because, you know, Ellie Goulding can do both. “I’m fascinated by the mechanics of writing a big pop song, but it’s something different from what’s on Brightest Blue. EG.0 is a collection of songs that I've written as a somewhat of a character, where it's literally like my alter ego. I liked the idea of being able to play a really strong powerful woman, which wasn’t the case on Brightest Blue.” Though her voice is confident and passionate on Brightest Blue, it explores her insecurities - but EG.0 is pure bombast. “They really show my craft as a writer because it ain’t easy writing those big American songs - and I’ve learned to be proud of that in a different way.”
You might think you know what to expect from Ellie Goulding but Brightest Blue shows her pushing forward, exploring new avenues and sounds with a confidence that doesn’t require her to play a character. “I stole from myself just to make you complete,” she sings on ‘Flux’, in which she considers the parallel universe where she and a previous partner were still together. But those days are over: it’s pure Ellie from here on out.