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Ellie Goulding's Music 'Lights' Up U.K., U.S.

Ellie Goulding sings "Your Song," which she dedicated to the late Amy Winehouse, at NPR headquarters in Washington D.C., on July 25. (NPR )

A new generation of women singers from the U.K. have risen as of late, including Adele, Duffy and Estelle. Their distinct voices and styles have won hits and fans here in America.

But there's another star on the British music scene: Ellie Goulding.

Her debut album Lights became the biggest and fastest-selling debut album of 2010, taking the top spot on the U.K. albums chart. Goulding won the Critics' Choice Award at the Brit Awards. She earned recognition as the BBC Sound of 2010, making her the second artist to win both honors in the same year after Adele did in 2008. Goulding also performed live at the wedding reception of Prince William and Kate Middleton, singing her rendition of Elton John's "Your Song" for the couple's first dance.

The young British star is now on a U.S. tour. She shares with Tell Me More host Michel Martin that her childhood dreams never even involved music stardom. Goulding says she wanted to be an actress at the time, particularly because she lived in a country where there wasn't much to do besides watch TV and films. Thus, acting was a big deal for her.

Goulding says she had been strengthening her voice ever since she was a young girl. She also developed an interest in running, training and martial arts, so she wanted to become a personal trainer.

Then she started doing gigs around London, becoming known as a "shy" performer. Goulding taught herself how to sing and play the guitar because she couldn't afford professional lessons.

She says her stage confidence didn't quite develop until after she signed a record deal. "I started performing in a non-apologetic way," she says.

Goulding recalls that suddenly being in the spotlight, where those attending her shows are analyzing every aspect of her performance, made her think people were missing the point of her craft. She says she just brushed off all the attention, whether negative or positive, and developed thicker skin.

When it comes to her songs, The New York Times calls each "a happy crash of signifiers."

Listeners can hear a range of genres in Lights, including electronic, folk, pop, blues and indie rock.

Martin notes that the sound of Goulding's music is buoyant, but that the lyrics are quite sad. The singer replies, "I like that sad songs can give you hope in a way."

But what is the root of that melancholy tone?

Goulding attributes it to her childhood. Her father and his family were undertakers. She recalls her mother helping her dad apply cosmetics to dead people.

"I was kind of strangely familiar with death and murder at a young age, because my dad had loads of books on crime, murder and stuff like that," Goulding says. "I used to go see my dad on weekends, and that was the only literature I had to read."

Goulding's interview took place within days of musician Amy Winehouse's death.

"I don't think an artist is ever really satisfied," Goulding says, "and I think that links to pain, because you're never quite happy with anything."

On the brighter side, Goulding is focusing on her next album.

"I can't wait to have new music out there, because I think it'll be slightly different to what I've done already," she says. "So we'll see."

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Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

When you think of hot spots of soul music, maybe you think about Detroit or St. Louis or Memphis. But soul has found a new home across the ocean. In recent years we've seen the rise of a new generation of women singers from the U.K. like Adele, Duffy and Estelle. Those big voices and soulful stylings have scored hits and won fans here in the U.S.

And now we have a new star and British soul to tell you about: Ellie Goulding.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIGHTS")

ELLIE GOULDING: (Singing) You show the lights that stop me, turn to stone. You shine it when I'm alone. And so I tell myself that I'll be strong and dreaming when they're gone. 'Cause they're calling, calling, calling me home. Calling, calling, calling home. You show the lights that stop me, turn to stone. You shine it when I'm alone.

MARTIN: That is "Lights" from her debut album of the same name. It became the biggest and fastest selling debut album of 2010, premiering at number one on the U.K. album chart. Goulding won the Critics Choice Award at the Brit Awards. She also earned recognition as the BBC Sound of 2010, making her only the second artist to win both honors in the same year. And she performed live at the wedding reception of Prince William and Kate Middleton, the duke and duchess of Cambridge, of course, singing her rendition of Elton John's "Your Song" for the couple's first dance.

Now Ellie Goulding is touring the U.S., but she was nice enough to take a short break from her busy schedule to stop by our studios in Washington, D.C. Welcome, Ellie Goulding. Thank you so much for joining us.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

GOULDING: Hello.

MARTIN: And you brought some friends, if you wouldn't mind introducing them.

GOULDING: Yeah, these are my friends. This is Chris. He just happened to play instruments. And this is Max over here.

MARTIN: Hello, Chris and Max. Thank you so much for joining us as well.

So, Ellie, when you were a little girl last year, and dreaming - that was a joke.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I guess I need to translate to humor...

GOULDING: I'm not (unintelligible) anymore. I'm not (unintelligible) anymore.

MARTIN: When you were dreaming about what you wanted to be when you grew up, what were you thinking about? Was this what you had in your mind?

GOULDING: No. I wanted to be an actress for a while. I suppose because I lived in the countryside, there wasn't much to do other than watch films and watch television, so acting was like a big thing for me. And then I'd always sang since I was young. I'd always - I guess I've been strengthening my voice since I was very young.

And then I went to university and studied drama and I was still singing. And then I got really into running and training so I wanted - and martial arts, so I wanted to be a fitness instructor at one point, randomly - like a personal trainer. I don't know why. And then I started gigging around London. I taught myself guitar when I was about 15. And then I just started playing shows - or writing and playing shows.

MARTIN: And I wanted to ask you about that. You are, in fact, a self-taught guitarist and singing as well - you're self-taught.

GOULDING: Yeah.

MARTIN: That's amazing.

GOULDING: I couldn't really afford to pay for the lessons. So I just taught myself. Yeah.

MARTIN: So, when you started performing, what gave you the confidence to get out there?

GOULDING: I didn't really have any. I think - I really didn't I went out and I was really shy and I became known as this shy singer who was quite good, I suppose. And then I eventually signed a publishing deal and then a record deal. And for some reason I got this confidence out of nowhere and I sort of - I started performing and not in a apologetic way. I started to realize - I started just not caring and just, you know, going out there and doing it.

MARTIN: Was there a breakthrough moment for you? One particular thing that was in your head that you said to yourself - well, I just started...

GOULDING: I think - yeah - I think I just kind of felt like - I think it's when you're suddenly in the spotlight and when you start getting people coming to your shows and analyzing every single part of your show and think about - that kind of made me think, well, I think people are missing the point of what I do. So I decided that I was going to brush it off and the more attention I got from my music, whether negative or positive, I just - I got a thicker skin. I try and perform as confidently as I can, I think.

MARTIN: Well, let's hear something. I think you want to play "Guns and Horses," right?

GOULDING: Yes.

MARTIN: That's from "Lights." Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GUNS AND HORSES")

GOULDING: (Singing) You're so quiet, but it doesn't phase me, you're on time. You move so fast, makes me feel lazy. And let's join forces. We've got our guns and horses. I know you've been burned but every fire is a lesson learned. I left my house. I left my clothes. Door wide open. Heaven knows. Were you're so worthy, you, you, you, you are. But I wish I could feel all it for you. I wish I could be it all for you. If I could erase the pain and maybe you'd feel the same. Well, I'd do it all for you well, I would, I would, I would.

(Singing) It's time to come clean. And make sense of everything. It's time that we found out who we are, who we are, who we are, who we are. 'Cause when I'm standing here in the dark, I see your face in every star. But I wish I could feel all it for you. I wish I could be it all for you. If I could erase the pain and maybe you'd feel the same. But I'd do it all for you, well, I would. I would, I would. I'd do it all for you, I'd do it all for you. I'd do it all for you. I'd do it all for you. I'd do it all for you. I'd do it all for you. I'd do it all for you. I'd do it all for you. Whoa oh-oh. Whoa oh-oh. Whoa, oh-oh. Whoa, oh-oh. Whoa, oh-oh. Whoa, oh-oh. Whoa, oh-oh. Whoa, oh-oh. Whoa, oh-oh. Whoa, oh-oh. Whoa, oh-oh. Whoa, oh-oh. Whoa, oh-oh. Whoa, oh-oh. Whoa, oh-oh. Whoa, oh-oh.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're visiting with singer-songwriter Ellie Goulding about her debut album "Lights," and whatever else is on her mind.

Your music, I mean here you're accompanied by a guitar as well as your own. But on the album people can hear, there's electronic, you know, there is indie rock. There's lots of different genres. The New York Times called your music a happy crash of signifiers.

GOULDING: Ooh.

MARTIN: Do you like that?

GOULDING: Yeah. I think I like it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well...

GOULDING: A happy crash of signifiers.

MARTIN: A happy car crash of signifiers.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: And I'm wondering whether in a way you felt kind of free to make that happy crash because you didn't have anybody telling you what to do.

GOULDING: Well, my song started off on guitar and then and I met somebody that I really connected with musically and I'm really fascinated by electronic music. And I like the idea that a lot of my songs are melancholy but they kind of ended up being quite kind of uplifting.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that, too, because the sound is very buoyant and uplifting. But some of the lyrics are what?

GOULDING: Quite sad. Yeah.

MARTIN: Quite sad.

GOULDING: But I like that. I like that sad sometimes still give you hope in a way.

MARTIN: There's a sadness at the core, not always. Do you mind if I ask where does that come from? Do you live in a sad place in your head?

GOULDING: I guess a lot of that comes from my childhood. And also I think that kind of unhappiness kind of manifested into other parts of my life. I was in the mindset of always being negative and kind of pessimistic and fatalistic and so I, that kind of came through into my writing and stuff.

MARTIN: Forgive me. I don't want to get, go beyond where you want to go but, you know, your dad was an undertaker. Do you think that had something to do...

GOULDING: My dad's family were.

MARTIN: His family was.

GOULDING: I have nothing do with that.

MARTIN: Would that have anything to do with it?

GOULDING: No. I mean I didn't really know any of my dad's family. But they...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GOULDING: His family were undertakers in the place where I grew up in and my mom used to like go and help my dad out and like put makeup on dead people. And so I was kind of strangely familiar with death and murder and so from a young age because my dad had a fascination with murder and with - he used to have these like loads and loads of books on crime and murder and stuff like that. And so I, I used to go and see my dad at weekends and that was the only literature I had to read, and so I knew a lot about crime from a young age.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GOULDING: It's just so weird. But then when my mom found out she went mad and she like burned the books that I brought home and stuff, so. No but it sounds a lot weirder than it was. I don't see my dad but I'm sure he's fairly normal.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I understand. But it's just, just the contrast is interesting to me, so.

GOULDING: Yeah.

MARTIN: And you, forgive me for asking this, but as we are speaking, many of us are still reeling from the loss of Amy Winehouse. And obviously it's a shock in one way but it's not in another way. But there are those who still feel that somehow art and pain are inextricably linked and I just wondered if you feel that way as well.

GOULDING: Art and pain. I mean in that situation it's incredibly sad and we've lost a really, really amazing talent. But I'd say that without wanting to go too deep, I don't think an artist is ever really satisfied and I think that that links to pain because you're never quite happy with anything. I don't know if that's the case with all artists, but actually here's a song that I dedicated to Amy the other night.

MARTIN: Oh. Well thank you for that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUR SONG")

GOULDING: (Singing) It's a little bit funny this feeling inside. I'm not one of those who can easily hide. I don't have much money, but boy, if I did, I'd buy a big house where we both could live. So excuse me forgetting but these things I do. You see, I've forgotten if they're green or they're blue. Anyway the thing is what I really mean. Yours are the sweetest eyes I've ever seen.

(Singing) And you can tell everybody this is your song. It may be quite simple but now that it's done, I hope you don't mind. I hope you don't mind that I put down in words. How wonderful life is now you're in the world.

(Singing) If I was a sculptor, but then again, no. Or a girl who makes potions in a travelling show. I know it's not much, but it's the best I can do. My gift is my song and this one's for you. Ah, ah. Ah, ah. Ah, ah. Ah, ah. Whoa, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh. Whoa, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh.

(Singing) And you can tell everybody this is your song. It may be quite simple but now that it's done, I hope you don't mind. I hope you don't mind that I put down in words. How wonderful life is now you're in the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

MARTIN: Of course, that was "Your Song" by Sir Elton John. And I understand this was the song that you sang at the wedding reception. Correct? Or is that all secret? Is that top secret? Is that a secret?

GOULDING: I might've.

MARTIN: Oh, you might've?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: That must've been nerve-racking. Have you met him?

GOULDING: No I haven't, actually.

MARTIN: No?

GOULDING: No.

MARTIN: But we know he's been quoted as saying how much he appreciates your music, so that must be kind of - is that intimidating or, you know, do you not even think about it?

GOULDING: No I don't. I wish I could give you like a good answer, but I don't think about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well, more power to you. So what are you dreaming about now? You know, I think you're done with being a personal trainer, though. That probably is over with. You weren't really interested in that anyway.

GOULDING: Yeah. Although, yeah, I wasn't very into that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GOULDING: Yeah, I won't go into that, because I can do a lot of (unintelligible). But yeah, I just I hope my next album will be something that I - well, it will be something that I'm really proud of and I just can't wait to have more new music out there of mine. Because I think it'll be a slightly different to what I've done already, so we'll see.

MARTIN: What shall we go out on? What shall we say goodbye to you?

GOULDING: Why don't you play "The Writer."

MARTIN: "The Writer." Okay. Ellie Goulding is a singer-songwriter. Her new album, her debut album is called "Lights." And she was nice enough to take a short break from her U.S. tour to visit us for a performance and conversation in our studio in Washington. She bought friends with her.

MAX COOK: Max Cook.

CHRIS KELLY: Chris Kelly.

MARTIN: Thank you so much. Ellie Goulding, thank you so much for joining us. We're going to go out on "The Writer." Thank you so much for coming.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WRITER")

GOULDING: (Singing) But I've got a plan. Why don't you be the artist? And make me out of clay?

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. And before we go, we want to welcome a new member to the ever-growing TELL ME MORE family. It's WMMU in northern Michigan. We're so glad to have you. And to tell us more, and this invitation goes out to all of our friends, our new friends, and those who've been with us for a while, please go to npr.org and find us under the Programs tab. You can also Friend me on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at TELL ME MORE/NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WRITER")

GOULDING: (Singing) Why don't you be the artist and make me out of clay? Why don't you be the writer and decide the words I say? Cause I'd rather pretend I'll still be there at the end. Only it's too hard to ask, won't you try to help me?

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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