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Ellie Goulding

Ellie Goulding is riding high – Brit Award, number-one album, sellout tours. So how is the unassuming girl from Hereford coping with global success? She opens up to Liz Jones about her hectic schedule, panic attacks, and why she’s so keen to please her twitter-generation fans

Ellie Goulding

'I want to be more like Pixie Lott. She works really hard but always manages to keep smiling,' says Ellie

It’s always interesting when you meet someone on the cusp of huge fame. It’s scary how fast people change, but Ellie Goulding’s rise has been more meteoric than most: her debut album Lights knocked Lady Gaga off the number-one slot, she topped the BBC’s Sound of 2010 poll in January, and picked up the Critics’ Choice Brit Award in February.

The speed with which the gauche 23-year-old is metamorphosing from normal Herefordshire country girl into British music’s Next Big Thing is making her head spin, literally. As we sit on a sofa after her photo shoot in a cool part of North London, Ellie sips herbal tea and dives into a bag of edamame beans (‘Would you like some?’) and I ask if the pressure, the expectation, is getting to her. She tells me she now suffers from anxiety attacks that are so bad when they strike she thinks she’s going to die.

‘The first time it happened I was in the Westfield shopping mall with my mum, and my heart felt as though it was exploding in my chest,’ she says, big greeny-brown eyes staring out of a pale, angular face. ‘I couldn’t breathe. It turned out it was a panic attack but I thought I was having a heart attack.’ Has she had another one since? ‘Oh yes. It means I can’t go to the gym as much as I used to, or go running, which is what I love to do. It’s not just the lack of time: I’m scared to push my heart too much. I wear a monitor on my wrist so I can tell if an attack is about to happen and I can try to breathe and calm myself.’

I can see why she’s in a panic. Her life seems to be spiralling away from her. After our first meeting, the PR girl from her record company says a change of plan means Ellie has to go straight to give a performance at a fundraising benefit for the ICA at Camden club Koko; Lily Allen has cancelled due to illness at the last moment. Ellie stands, eyes clouding with anxiety. ‘Half an hour is enough time between finishing the interview, changing and getting in the car,’ the PR says. Ellie sits down again to continue our conversation. I tell her she needs to learn to say ‘no’ more. I tell her that when I met Adele [who won the Critics’ Choice Brit in 2008] I admired the fact that she told her record company she was having the summer off to spend time with friends, have romances, have something to write about on her next album.

‘I’m just not like that,’ says Ellie softly. ‘I know this is a fantastic opportunity and I don’t want to ruin it. I’m a worker, I suppose – though when they told me the other day I had to catch a flight back from the video shoot in LA at, like, two in the morning, I did this…’ She pulls a face. ‘I want to be more like Pixie Lott. She works really hard but always manages to keep smiling. She never complains.’

Ellie Goulding

I tell her she needs to practise the art of being difficult on stylists and hairdressers first. ‘I know,’ she says doubtfully. ‘I need to be more like Katie Price.’ Oooh no, I say. ‘By that I mean she can be on a shoot, they try to put her in something that’s wrong for her and she just says, “No”, all deadpan, and walks off. No argument, no elaboration. I need to be more like that. But I do like dressing up. What they put me in today was quite revealing, which is new for me. Because I’ve always been a runner I love to feel that my body is shining on the inside. I wear baggy clothes, so it’s not as though I like showing it off. I just like to know I’m great on the inside.’

Elena Jane Goulding was born in Hereford on 30 December 1986. Her parents split up when she was five. Ellie grew up with her mother’s long-term boyfriend as her stepfather; her mother, who works in a supermarket but was always into music and art, has since moved north and married again, and Ellie has various step- and half-siblings. She doesn’t see her mum that often. Has she seen her real dad recently? ‘We met up when I was 19 but I thought, “This is pointless.”’

She studied drama at the University of Kent, but dropped out after two years to pursue music. Did she not enjoy acting? ‘I did, but I found it hard to pretend to be someone else.’ Being a student was not a great time for her. ‘I bottled stuff up at university,’ she says. ‘I had no money, it was difficult, I would bottle it all up and then I would cry for hours.’ Does she cry now? ‘Yeah, sometimes.’

She landed her record deal after her page on MySpace meant she was suddenly being written about on fan sites and music blogs. I ask if living in London having grown up in Herefordshire has come as a bit of a shock. ‘I miss the countryside. I will go back there, buy a little cottage one day.’

Ellie Goulding

Ellie shows some of the on-stage magic that has marked her as a talent to watch

I find it endearing she says ‘cottage’ rather than the pop star’s habitual ‘mansion’. Growing up, though, there wasn’t much for young people to do, which meant many friends fell by the wayside. ‘I was OK because I loved to go for long walks, I loved getting lost, and by 15 I’d discovered the guitar. But I knew so many others who got into hard drugs. Yes, Herefordshire is beautiful, but teenagers don’t appreciate that sort of beauty.’ Did she know she was special? ‘I did, yes. I knew I was going to do something creative, different.’

I ask if she has a boyfriend. ‘I did, when I was 18. I went out with a sound engineer called Matt who was a lot older than me. He was 32.’ Was she rebelling by having an older boyfriend? ‘No, not really. I already had the dyed black hair, the piercings. Maybe it was because I didn’t have a father figure. I don’t have a boyfriend now.’ Are men scared you might write a song about them? ‘It’s not that. Men are wary of me because they know, by listening to my music, that a relationship with me will be quite deep.’

She lives on her own in a flat in West London. ‘I’m quite lonely. I don’t go out that much. I have a lot of time to think.’ She has had a lot of accolades, but has she seen any real money yet? If so, what has she bought? ‘Clearly, no clothes,’ she says, looking down at herself. ‘Cabs! I now spend a lot of money on cabs.’

I go to see Ellie play live the next night at a club on a boat in Bristol. The bouncer stamps the back of my hand, something that hasn’t happened to me for a good few years, and I realise I’m about 20 years older than everyone else who is jammed on board, waiting for Ellie to appear. When she does, she is in her uniform of denim shorts, black tights, gold trainers, sleeveless T-shirt, gothic nail polish. I later tell her she might hate Madonna’s music – she learned to sing by listening to Beyoncé and Lauryn Hill – but that she has the Material Girl’s impressive biceps. ‘I do, don’t I?’ she says without a hint of vanity.

When she opens her mouth that distinctive cry comes out that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. She plays drums, too, and chats between numbers. She doesn’t try to be sexy, or dance; she just stands there and sings. Everyone in the crowd seems to know the lyrics that come from a dark, dishevelled place, all rumpled sheets and boys who disappoint her. Some of the lines are brilliantly observant of the way men expect women to behave: ‘I’ve got a plan. 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?’

After the show I go out to the huge tour bus parked on the quayside to meet her. She scampers on board, excited and breathless. ‘People are already twittering about what they thought of the show,’ she says, staring at her BlackBerry. ‘I was in a rush to see you, and a group of fans are twittering about how rude I was not to stop and say hello and how they hope I fail. I wonder if I can find them and apologise.’ No other generation of performers has had to deal with this instant interaction with fans, and it’s scary. ‘What people don’t understand is that how you are as an artist depends on how you are emotionally,’ she says, now crestfallen.

Ellie Goulding

I tell her to stop reading what people say about her, and remind her that Stephen Fry wrote that if he allows his gaze to drop below the line that separates him from the people who post comments about him it’s like ‘gazing into a cesspit’. She nods. ‘I can’t stop, though,’ she says, peering into cupboards on the bus like a child let loose in Hamleys. ‘This is the first time I’ve been on board,’ she adds, excited. I ask who is the first person she calls after coming offstage. ‘Um, no one,’ she says, so I can see why she gets so caught up in what her fans think. There is no buffer between her and the people who think she belongs to them.

She then, in the blink of an eye, becomes all blasé when I ask how the benefit had gone last night, and she starts telling me who she hung out with afterwards. ‘I was sitting with the artist who made things out of blood’ – Marc Quinn? – ‘yes, him, and Vivienne Westwood. And these are really clever people but I was totally unfazed. With Marc I felt really comfortable and open.’ And I start to hope that she doesn’t change too fast, that the palpitations stop, but that the naive country girl doesn’t have all her awkward edges rubbed off.

Another group of fans are huddled in the wind by the door, and Ellie asks if she can go and talk to them. She hops off the bus and is gone for ages. When she returns, frozen, her cheeks are flushed. ‘They were lovely, they liked me,’ says the young woman who has another lonely night ahead, driving through the countryside to her next gig. ‘I love your platforms, where did you get them?’ she asks me. ‘I can’t walk in heels, though.’ I tell her she shouldn’t even try, and to stay as she is, just for a little while longer.

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