Ellie Goulding pulled something of a bait-and-switch at last month’s Brit Awards, England’s answer to the Grammys. Nominated for best female artist, the singer-songwriter began strumming the opening notes to “I Need Your Love,” her hit with Calvin Harris, on a white acoustic guitar, accompanied only by a pianist. In her white flocked hood, blouse and skirt, she looked (and sounded) for all the world like the confessional folkie that she started out as in 2005.
Suddenly the lights went out, a electro-pop beat boomed through London’s O2 Arena and Goulding reappeared in white shorts, a shiny gold bra and white boots. She began belting out her No. 1 British single, “Burn,” wailing like the dance-floor princess she’s become. The latter guise may have won Goulding the award for best female artist that night, but it’s her folkie roots that make her far more interesting than most dance-pop stars.
“When I played ‘I Need Your Love’ at the Brits the other night,” Goulding says by phone from London, “it was a real throwback to what I used to do in the pubs, just performing by myself with my guitar. Even today when I play my guitar, it settles me and allows me to sing better. Once you get comfortable playing the guitar, you can forget it and concentrate on your voice, because you know the chords are going to be right there with you. I’m still as passionate about acoustic music as I am about electronic music. My voice can be quite quiet and fragile when I want.”
“Halcyon,” the 27-year-old singer’s second full-length album, was released in fall 2012 but didn’t peak on the British charts until this January, 65 weeks later. That long crawl to the top has been typical of her gradual but steady rise in the pop-music world. Last fall, the album was re-released as “Halcyon Days” with a second disc of bonus tracks. With a U.S. tour and several songs on the soundtrack for the upcoming movie “Divergent,” Goulding is poised for a breakthrough here as well.
If that happens, it will be because Goulding has a quality that separates her from the pack. Goulding can nail a rave anthem like “Burn” but also deliver an understated ballad like “Dead in the Water.” Not only do the “Dead” lyrics serve up vivid metaphors for a broken relationship — the couple have fallen through lake ice and are trapped in the shadowy water — but her vocal also has the bruised vulnerability one expects more from Taylor Swift than from Katy Perry. More personal still is “I Know You Care,” a piano-backed ballad about Goulding’s father, who left the family when she was 5.
“I’ve always wanted to write about him, because I don’t understand what’s going on there,” she says. “One day I got moved to do it, and there was a studio around the corner run by Justin Parker, so I went over to see what we came up with. And that’s what came out. I keep expecting him to respond, but so far he hasn’t.”
Goulding was raised by her mother in public housing in Herefordshire. Despite a tough childhood, she excelled at school and went to the University of Kent. There she wrote poetry, did some acting and started playing her sister’s guitar.
“I was playing in pubs where not many people were paying not much attention,” she recalls. “Though at the end, when I got my contract, they were paying more attention, so it was the right time to sign. The songs back then were a lot more wordy, lots of verses and pre-choruses, because I was telling a lot of stories and didn’t have a pop sensibility yet as a writer.”
Goulding had pop tastes as a listener, but she also went through a phase of going to raves. How could she combine her two musical passions: the emotional honesty of an Ani DiFranco and the body-thumping power of a Fatboy Slim?
“I’ve never tried to cover up the fact that I love pop music,” Goulding says. “I’m just as passionate about electronic music as I am about acoustic music. Even when I was writing those acoustic songs, I knew I wanted to go in the electronic direction. . . . I started working with electronic producers before I got signed.”
The first producer Goulding clicked with was Finlay Dow-Smith, whose stage name is Starsmith. He found a way to preserve the emotional transparency of Goulding’s soprano even when the synthesizers and drum loops were exploding around her like an artillery drill. The key, it seems, was resisting the usual diva tricks — all the extra notes and warbling that clutter a track and sound more like showing off than confessing secrets. By relying on understatement, Goulding has been able to stand out in crowded field of dance-music singers.
“It’s an instinctive thing for me,” she says. “I wanted to make dark music that people can relate to emotionally. Because of technology, I can still sing softly and they can pump me up so I can be heard over the production. If I feel like wailing, I will. If I feel like holding back, I can.
Starsmith produced seven of the 11 tracks on Goulding’s 2010 debut album, “Lights,” and “Starry Eyed” became a top-five single in Britain. But it was another track — a simple, piano-and-cello-backed version of Elton John’s “Your Song” — that lifted Goulding out of the dance-music silo and into the broader pop consciousness. It even won her an invitation to sing at Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding reception.
“Halcyon” was a more ambitious, personal project. Working with a variety of producers, Goulding dissected her tabloid romances with BBC Radio 1 host Greg James and superstar club DJ Skrillex. On the title track, you can once again hear the strum of her acoustic guitar and the confidentiality of her whisper over minimalist bass and keyboards. The song describes that stage in a relationship when a couple is pulling back without actually breaking up. “It’s gonna be colder now,” Goudling sings in a pensive tone, later admitting, “We could be closer.”
After the third verse, however, programmed drums and brassy synths enter like a herd of elephants, and Goulding cries out, “It’s gonna be better,” as if breaking through her own thoughtfulness to voice an irrational hope.
It’s that ability to shift even within the same song — from introverted ambivalence to extroverted catharsis and back again — that makes Goulding more than just the flavor of the month.
Himes is a freelance writer.
Appearing Sunday at
7 p.m. at Echostage, 2135 Queens Chapel Rd. NE.
202-503-2330. www.echostage.com. Show is sold out.
For a sampling of Ellie Goulding’s music, check out:
“I Need Your Love”