British pop star Ellie Goulding is the first one to admit that photo shoots aren't really her thing.
"I know for a fact that there are certain angles of my face I don't like," she explains, the fake eyelashes from her first-ever U.S. cover shoot still in place as we settle into a small, no-frills Italian restaurant in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. It's the type of spot where Frank Sinatra plays a little too loudly over the speakers and the 25-year-old's swooping mass of hair -- currently the color of Strawberry Shortcake's bonnet -- seems a bit out of place. "But I'd rather someone see lots of different things that I do with my face than one pose."
This makes sense given that it's Goulding's commitment to exposing the different sides of herself that's defined her music career thus far. Her electro-pop hit "Lights," released in 2011 off her debut album of the same name, is still holding strong at number three on Billboard's Hot 100 after 36 weeks on the chart. It's the only song of the summer that escaped an embarrassing Internet meme, and as fall takes over, the thumping single can still be heard creeping through the speakers at the coolest cocktail lounges in Williamsburg, as well as in heavy rotation on Kiss FM stations nationwide.
It would seem that after opening up for Katy Perry on her "California Dreams" tour last year, she's a regular pop princess in training -- except that she's not. Goulding's the girl who also landed the posh gig of singing her stripped down cover of Elton John's "Your Song" for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge's first dance as husband and wife. And in 2010, she became the second person ever to win Britain's two most prestigious awards for up-and-coming artists (the "Sound of..." poll and the Critics' Choice Award at the Brit Awards) in the same year. The first was Adele. And then there's her darker, more underground side that becomes evident as she sweeps her fingers through the left side of her hair revealing a shorn, punky look that wouldn't look out of place at a sweaty, basement rave. It's this side that appeals to electronic and dubstep producers like Blood Diamonds and Bassnectar, who scramble to remix her songs. Her boyfriend, Sonny Moore, aka Skrillex, is the poster-boy for Electronic Dance Music's explosive revival. "People try to put me into different categories, but maybe I'm not in one," she muses. "I feel like I'm in so many different worlds in music. I have this amazing respect in the electronic world, there's the more folk-y stuff from the early days that I just do with guitar [she does a semi-acoustic set for shows in smaller venues] and there's also this world of pop lovers who picked up on me from the Katy Perry tour. That doesn't happen for a lot of artists." It's true that a photo may not be able to capture all the different sides to Goulding, but listen to her music, and a layered -- at times upbeat and hopeful, at times tortured and raw -- portrait of a pop singer emerges.
Her sophomore album, Halcyon (named for a mythical bird who is said to calm the sea), is out this month and takes from all the worlds she's passed through on her rise. The first single, released in late August, is a glitchy, anthemic song that's halfway between a ballad and a club banger called "Anything Could Happen," and is sure to take over the Billboard slot that "Lights" has been keeping warm. "I suppose 'Lights' was successful, but it wasn't life-changing," says Goulding. "I listen back to it and I'm very proud of it, but I'm still very surprised that it did so well. I feel like I've come so far musically as an artist, being able co-produce and write everything on Halcyon. I just have more confidence in myself." This is especially evident on tracks like "Explosions," a synthy answer to Adele's heart-wrenching "Someone Like You."
It's precisely this strange yet blissful world between dancing your heart out and crying your eyes out that Goulding inhabits -- and any self-conscious feelings she has in front of the camera melt away when she's behind a microphone. On Halcyon, her voice -- a haunting elfin soprano -- is much more present both literally ("On the last record the vocals and everything were weaved into the production, but [on Halcyon] it's layered.") and figuratively, sharing the pain of having broken up with BBC Radio 1 DJ Greg James, whom she dated for a year and half. "And God knows it's the only way to heal now/ With all the blood I lost with you/ It drowns the love I thought I knew," she croons on the track "My Blood." "This album is really about coping with loss," says Goulding. "I don't really hold back when it comes to emotional stuff. I'm very explicit, very honest and very open and I can't help but write quite sad songs. It just happens. I do try writing happy songs but every single song has a downside."
Even as a child growing up in Herefordshire, one of the most rural and sparsely populated emotional, solitary young girl. Her mother worked in a pharmacy and her father was from a family of undertakers. She spent most of her time roaming the countryside, often alone. "That's when I developed my fascination with open space and even dead animals -- I always saw dead animals," she says. As a teenager she got into heavy metal (one of her favorite bands still to this day is System of a Down), which is one side of her she has yet to explore in the studio. Her social life mainly consisted of riding around with "boy racers," whom Goulding describes as "these boys who would buy a shitty little car and drive it around the country really fast. We thought they were amazing because they had cars at that age and they'd take us driving. We'd listen to happy hardcore and the most terrible music." Her father moved out when she was five and she's barely spoken to him since -- with no plans to in the future. "I have no idea who he is really, as a person," she says picking around the spindly, spider-leg-y bits of the calamari we order. "It just feels like a missing piece. It's sad. It's like something that could have been really awesome came to nothing. I think that's something I question a lot, and it's had a big effect on my record as well," she says. "[But it's helped] being able to write songs that explain so much. It's like, OK, there it is written out and I get to sing it every night. That is probably daunting to a lot of people but I find it really reassuring and comforting because I'm not alone anymore, you know?"
It isn't just her fans she's been confiding in these days. Skrillex and Goulding started talking after he sent her an e-mail to say that he was a big fan -- an e-mail that was on its way to her spam folder. "I get a lot of e-mails from people saying they're fans. But I studied this one a bit closer; it said Sonny Moore, and in brackets 'Skrillex.'" They met up and collaborated in the studio -- Goulding's voice can be heard on his song "Summit" -- and stepped out for the first time as the cutest couple with matching side-shaved haircuts at the 2012 Grammys, where she watched him win three awards. "Without wanting to sound too sappy, he's genuinely the hardest working, most talented person I know," she says earnestly of "Sonny" as she refers to him. The 24-year-old wunderkind plays a super-human, Ibiza-worthy show almost every night, so in order to see him, Goulding flies around the world where there's always a ticket with her name on it. When Goulding's in a relationship it's all or nothing. "Feminists hate me for sure," she laughs. "I'm almost always like 'I'll do anything for you!'" But so far the feeling seems mutual. A quick glance at their Twitter feeds and you'll see sweetly supportive sentiments, in 140 characters or less, like "@skrillex safe flying I watched the lorax on my last flight," "miss my boy" and "just want to congratulate and say how proud I am of @elliegoulding for working so hard and finishing her new album, it's so incredible." On Instagram, they post filtered photographs of Skrillex writing "Thug Life" with magic marker on Goulding's midriff as they travel the world together, spreading the joy of break beats and sideswept hair everywhere they go.
Click to enlarge image.
Hopping back and forth between musical genres makes things a little more unpredictable as her star begins to rise -- especially as she gears up for her third U.S. tour. "I like the fact that I have no idea where my career is going to go in the next year, or my life," she says. And the pink hair? Don't get used to it. "I'm going to start wearing wigs," she says, "and I'm just going to grow my hair out to its natural color."
For her next photo shoot, she may be unrecognizable in an electric blue bob or maybe we'll see her au naturel. It'll all depend on what angle she's working.
Styled by Andrew Mukamal
Photo 1: Ellie wears a hat by Marc Jacobs and holds dress by Skaist-Taylor
Photos 2 and 3: Ellie wears a dress by Miu Miu and bra and underwear by Dolce & Gabbana
Photos 4 and 5: Ellie wears a coat by Alexander Wang and shoes by Gianvito Rossi for Altuzarra.
Hair by Harry Josh for HarryJosh.com assisted by Blake Burkholder / Makeup by Beau Nelson for Beauté Cosmetics/ Manicure by Dawn Sterling. Photographer's assistants: Kat Slootsky and Amanda Hakan / Stylist's assistant: George Richards / Fashion coordinator: Kelly Govekar / Interns: Sophie Yalkezian, Simone Francese