Ellie Goulding has arrived at a point in her career where the songs she is writing bear witness to the place she is in now — after five tumultuous years of professional and personal transformation. Over the course of those years, the British singer and songwriter has sold over six million albums and 20 million singles worldwide. She has scored six consecutive platinum singles: “Lights,” “Anything Could Happen,” “I Need Your Love,” “Burn,” “Outside” and “Love Me Like You Do” (which went to No. 1 on the iTunes chart in over 70 countries and broke the record for most streamed song in one week on Spotify). She has racked up over one billion plays on both YouTube and Spotify. Goulding has also performed at the world’s biggest festivals, including Coachella, Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, Glastonbury, and Outside Lands, and collaborated with such top producers as Calvin Harris, Skrillex, Zedd, Diplo, and Max Martin (on “Love Me Like You Do” and her most recent single “On My Mind”). And if that weren’t enough, Goulding, an avid athlete, is also a global ambassador for Nike Women, as well as the new face of Mac cosmetics’ Holiday 2015 campaign.
Some artists might be intimidated to consider where to go after achieving such success, but Goulding had no doubts: For her third album, Delirium, she wanted to make everything bigger, better, and braver. In short, she says, “I knew I wanted it be on another level.” The result is an expansive pop album that lays out a new narrative for the next stage of Goulding’s remarkable journey. As she sings on the new song “Don’t Panic”: “I’ve got big dreams, so don’t overcomplicate it.”
Delirium was written and recorded in London, Goulding’s native Herefordshire, Sweden, and Los Angeles with Max Martin, Greg Kurstin, One Republic’s Ryan Tedder, Klas Ahlund, and Disclosure’s Guy Lawrence, as well as long-time writing partner Jim Eliot. They have helped her craft a career-defining, jubilant, and euphoric pop statement. “If there was a slight fog surrounding the first two albums, I think it was me not being sure exactly what I wanted to be,” “Goulding says of her 2010’s Lights and 2012’s Halcyon. “For every pop artist who doesn’t see themselves as terribly cool, there’s always that slight element of insecurity. If they’re just very cool, then they want to be a huge star. And if they’re a huge artist, they want to be cool. I think I had a bit of that — not really knowing how people perceived me. But I’m done with that now. This probably sounds mad but a part of me views this album as an experiment — to make a big pop record. But it also feels like the right time to me.”
Delirium, a word she felt summed up everything she’d been through to get to this point, captures what Goulding calls “the lifting of that fog.” She made Halcyon during a particularly difficult period in her life, but it is only now, she says, that she understands quite how emotional that album was for her. “It was a dark time, but I didn’t realize how dark until I started writing and recording the new album, and felt so much happier doing it. On Halcyon, I was clearly trying to express that darkness, like a cry for help. I mean, the album ends with a song called ‘Dead In the Water.’ Not much ambiguity in that.”
Making Delirium was, by contrast, a joyful experience. “There are so many moments in the new songs that are so me — such as being annoyingly honest,” she says. “Like when I sing: ‘Everything you do I overanalyze.’ But then there are also lines such as ‘I need a love to celebrate.’ I think that’s a lovely thing to say, rather than ‘I need a love that I can tear apart,’ which is what I would probably have written in the old days!”
Delirium takes all the trademarks of Goulding’s talent — that extraordinary, soaring voice, the forensic candor and self-inquiry of her lyrics, the pulsing beats of the electronic music that first ensnared her as a teenager — and turns up the heat. She knew very early on, she says, that making the album was going to be a great experience, because the collaborators she had chosen to work with were immediately on the same page.
“I saw Max Martin as this legend, but lots of people told me that his set-up was very cool, very chill and friendly. I was still incredibly nervous, though — he doesn’t work with just anyone. When I did finally meet him, he was funny, warm, and down-to-earth. We were just going to do a couple of sessions, to try things out, but after the first one, he said, ‘Why don’t we do another week?’ and then, ‘Come back whenever you want to.’ Nothing was ever planned. It was a real blessing for me to go into this environment that Max has created. He and his team of writers make this extraordinary music; none of it is throwaway.” Greg Kurstin was another kindred spirit. “He’s incredibly intuitive,” she says. “He picks up on my mood very quickly, and that’s why we work so well together. We don’t really need to talk about things, he just gets it.”
Together, Goulding and her collaborators came up with songs like “Army,” “On My Mind,” “Don’t Panic” and “Don’t Need Nobody” — monumental anthems that still manage to retain a personal intimacy. That balance is displayed most devastatingly on “Army,” a track written about Goulding’s best friend Hannah. Overall, Delirium sounds like an artist seizing her moment. Goulding has never sounded more assertive and in control.
“I know myself so well now,” she says. “There’s a new level of acceptance, and that comes from confidence. I used to be horribly shy when I started out. You can tell if you look at photographs of me from that time — the way I posed, the clothes I wore. I was uncomfortable in my own skin.” Goulding attributes part of that to her childhood growing up in rural England. She was raised with her three siblings in Hereford, a cathedral city about 16 miles east of the Welsh border. After her parents divorced when she was five, Goulding moved to the tiny village of Lyonshall with her mother and her mother’s new boyfriend, a lorry driver. “I basically went from living in the city to suddenly living in the countryside,” she says. Money was scarce, so young Ellie shared a bedroom with her two sisters. “Mine isn’t a story of going to the BRIT school [whose notable alumni include Adele and Amy Winehouse],” she says. “I don’t come from a well-off background with supportive parents. I came from a not particularly great place and got myself to an amazing one. I used to be embarrassed about it, but not anymore. I couldn’t be more open — it’s gotten me all this way. And I think that’s pretty cool. I want that to be inspirational.”
Goulding knows that releasing “a big pop album, with big radio songs, means a different level of commitment,” she says. “You have to step up. But I want to go on being my usual clumsy self, walking around joking that I’m the worst pop star in the world. I have to hold on to that. But these songs really work. I’m not stupid — I listen to something and I’ll know if it’s working or not — and these songs just feel right.”