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Ellie Goulding: ‘I Was As Influenced By Björk As I Was By Beyoncé’

Ellie Goulding phones SPIN from the backseat of a cab en route to a photoshoot, the latest in a series of promotional appearances for her upcoming (and uplifting) third album, Delirium, out November 6. Produced almost entirely by certifiable Top 40 legends Max Martin and Greg Kurstin, the LP marks Goulding’s most tangible play for superstardom yet, the culmination of a few years’ worth of ascending the music industry’s ranks. If you’ll recall, the 28-year-old English singer performed at the Royal Wedding in 2011 (covering Elton John’s “Your Song”), headlined a sold-out 2014 gig at Madison Square Garden (another show at the historic venue will follow next summer), and maintains a high-profile friendship with Taylor Swift (she played Destructa X in the 1989 star’s “Bad Blood” video) — all thanks to her signature breathy vocals and the nearly three million in sales racked up between the pop star’s two full-length albums, the 2010 breakout Lights and 2012’s broken-hearted Halcyon. (A reissue of the latter, dubbed Halcyon Days, arrived in 2013.)

Despite those many successes, Goulding has long lurked just outside the confines of pop’s elite, a barrier she’ll likely break through (with ease) with Delirium, which dives into glitchy dance-pop without sacrificing the lived-in intimacy of her songwriting. Lead single “On My Mind” presents longing as obsession, reflected through funky dancehall-sampling fractals. “Keep On Dancin'” skews darker, swaddling Goulding’s vocals in the murky harmonies put together by producer and cowriter Ryan Tedder. Clocking in at 16 tracks, Delirium contains a strong handful of potential singles, but each track complements the surrounding songs; it’s a proper pop album that serves as a likely chart-topping pop play without losing any of Goulding’s artistic integrity in the process.

SPIN talked with Goulding about enlisting pop heavyweights Martin and Kurstin, maintaining her lyrical core, and how she keeps tabs on what fans are saying.

You performed at the Taylor Swift show in Dallas on Saturday, and now you’re in New York. You must be exhausted.

I’m not really tired, but you know we got into Dallas at about 1:00 in the afternoon, and we just chilled — well, I had soundcheck, and then we just chilled. They really took care of us, so it was actually quite nice. It was the flight that we got the next morning to New York to do a shoot all day which was sort of awry. We got on the flight at about 6:45 a.m., so that was a tough one for me. That’s the only thing that makes it tiring — is just all the flying. It totally screws your body up. It’s never like, “Oh yeah, have a day to recuperate.” [Laughs.] I, like, never have that. But I’m good, though.

You’ve been constantly touring and working for the past couple of years. When did you actually start putting pen to paper for this album?

Pretty much after Halcyon, a couple of years after touring that. I just picked from a couple of producers I wanted to work with, some of whom I didn’t end up working with for whatever reason — but it was because I hadn’t actually knuckled down in the studio. Somehow, I’ve still been on the road, so it feels like Halcyon just sort of never ended. At one point, I started thinking about people I wanted go in the studio with. And so the first night for Delirium, I linked up with with Jimmy Napes and Disclosure. I definitely wanted to make sure I worked with people that I’ve worked with previously, too, because I feel like when you make that connection with someone, it’s crazy to just cut that off and forget about it. So I went back with [“Anything Could Happen” writer] Jim Eliot and we did a few more tracks together. Then there was Paul Epworth, who I did a couple of bits with. As soon as I discovered my connection with Greg Kurstin and Max Martin, it made sense to stay in L.A. for a while. I had such a good thing with those two guys that I didn’t really need anyone else.

What was it about Max Martin that gelled with you?

Because I had only ever really heard big, radio-pop records from Max — the songs that I grew up with — I wasn’t sure how he and I would work together. I recorded [the Martin-produced] “Love Me Like You Do” in a bit of a rush, so I only got one day with him. Then the first day we got back together, we did “On My Mind” and I realized that he was very humble and very down to earth and very funny, and wasn’t remotely dated. He didn’t have a particular strategy for me. He was just very intuitive. As soon as I got in the vocal booth, I started doing the things I do with my voice — you know, I wasn’t sure how he was going to take that. I just felt like it worked really well. Maybe he doesn’t get on with everyone, but I felt like us in particular — he was in Dallas the other night — we’ve got something really good. 

Last month, your collaborator and “Love Me Like You Do” producer Savan Kotecha told an interviewer that the general public doesn’t care who’s behind the scenes of a pop song. You’re known for writing all of your own material, so do you feel otherwise?

I think so. I’ve always written my own songs. I think with this album, I definitely let my guard down a little bit and put my trust in other people because I’m so used to crafting my own lyrics and my own vision. I think the last album was very self-indulgent. It was all me, every single lyric on the album. This album I had to trust other people. I’ve never written in a 50-50 kind of way before, other than “Outside” with Calvin Harris. But I think the fact that Max Martin is such a name now and that people are so interested in a Max Martin song or even like, “Oh this is a Max song,” or “This is produced by Timbaland” or “This is produced by Kanye” shows that maybe people are becoming more and more interested in the behind-the-scenes [stuff]. I’m always interested to hear who’s written a song, whether the artist has written a song or not. 

Was there any reason you were so keen on collaborating and opening yourself up to new creative partnerships this time around?

I just see it as another freedom that I have. I feel like I’ve done a lot of collaboration but I’ve written so much of my own stuff. I don’t think there was much to lose in opening myself up like that. I saw it as a really good experiment. When you get to know people like that and hang out with them and trust them, it’s more than just writing songs. I feel like I’ll work with them again. I just wanted to. It’s my third album: Why not? There’s no reason why not.

Genuinely, it’s the most exciting thing that I’ve done. And it was hard. Like sometimes, someone would suggest a lyric and I’d be like, “I’m not too sure about that, and you know what? I’m going to give her the benefit of the doubt because she’s an amazing songwriter so let’s see how this goes.” Now I’m listening back to the song and I’m so glad that I did that. There’s so much trial and error in what I do, and I’ve been lucky enough to have a long career so far. My voice is always the string that ties everything together. I’m lucky to be able to sell records but still do my own thing and still get to do these experiments because not everyone is that lucky. The main thing is that I chose the people I worked with. It wasn’t like, “I’ll just experiment and go with someone random that I have no idea what they’re like or anything about how they make records.” It was still my creative decision.

What’ve you learned about your voice as an instrument as you’ve gone from album to album?

I’ve found that some people care about my voice and some people care about my songs. It’s still a mystery to me. I never really quite understood how much power my voice has. Whether it has a lot or whether it’s just I make good songs. I never really know, but initially, the interest in me was that my voice was very unusual. I could carry a pop song but I could also sing some really weird stuff too. [Laughs.] I was as influenced by Björk as I was by Beyoncé. I suppose initially, that was the interest: You could hear my voice and know exactly who it was straight away. Now I don’t know. I make songs that could potentially be sung by a lot of different people. That’s another thing that I’ve never been able to figure out because I’ve never heard anyone else sing my songs, so it’s like, would this song still be good without my voice or not? I don’t know. That’s always a mystery to me. [Laughs.]

You’ve managed to turn Delirium into a cohesive album, despite working with such an expansive collaborative team. How conscious were you of that goal? 

That’s definitely a conscious decision. I wrote probably about, I don’t know, 40 or 50 songs for this album. This album and the final track listing was a conscious thing. It all just kind of comes together. I don’t know if it’s fate, or it’s meant to be, but I have a song with Greg and I have a song with Max and I’m like… “These sound like they belong on the same album together.” Not everyone gets that [opportunity]. Usually, if you work with the same producer, then yeah, of course you’re going to have an album that sounds quite cohesive. Maybe it’s my voice that makes everything sound cohesive, but I think that both Greg and Max are very intuitive and they’re also really respectful of what I’ve done so far in electronic music and in pop music.

Max isn’t the kind of producer — and neither are the writers — to give me songs and be like, “These are hits, sing these.” They’re really respectful of who I am. They know everything that I’ve done so far and I think they just want to bring the best in me out. Max is always like, “You know, this is the album where you’re going to break out and people are going to see how good you are.”

The album deals a lot with the push-and-pull that occurs between heart and brain. Have you been able to find a happy middle ground yet?

Yeah, I didn’t overthink this album as much as I did with my last album. I really think about how Halcyon was a lot about turmoil. Everything was out in the open and I had to sing those songs over and over, realizing I didn’t want to sing them anymore. They just bum me out. They make me feel so sad. I feel like my fans are going to have a little laugh about some of these lyrics because they’re so obviously me. When I say things like, “Everything you do / I overanalyze,” everyone’s gonna go like, “Oh, we know you do that because you delve into that so much.” I definitely held myself back a little bit because I wanted to make something a bit more spirited and happy. I could have easily — as you know with my last two records — gone in and in and in. So I know how to write something very sad and heartfelt, but I just didn’t want that. I wanted to be honest, but I didn’t want to be… I just wanted to give just more of a positive vibe.

Taylor Swift just gave an interview to GQ in which she talks about how important it is for pop stars to remain completely clued in to their public perception and narrative. Do you subscribe to that theory too? 

Some artists choose not to, but I don’t think it benefits them, to be mysterious anymore. You have no choice, really. I personally like to be connected to the people that listen to my music. So yeah, I agree with her. I use social media for that connection. There’s still a lot of things that people don’t know about me and I’m sure it’s the same with her, but yeah, what’s not to agree with? In this day and age, when people just want everything right now, it’s quite hard to be mysterious.

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