By July 2020, Ellie Goulding had nowhere to go. Wrapped up with the release of her fourth album, Brightest Blue, a collection of more personal tracks, she went ahead and released the album during the summer of the pandemic. “I wrote that while living in New York, and it was a time where I had really been able to have gotten in a space where I could reflect on the last 10 years,” Goulding tells American Songwriter. “I had been touring for a long time and hadn’t really taken stock of everything. It was an album that was so personal to me so it was strange to not tour it.”
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Disappointed with no way to support the album during the pandemic lockdown, by early 2021 the British pop star—who was also pregnant at the time with her first child with husband Caspar Jopling —regrouped with an assemblage of writers and producers to craft a new batch of songs for her fifth album, Higher Than Heaven.
Working with her hand-picked collection of friends, including Greg Kurstin, Koz, and Andrew Wells, along with Julia Michaels, Anthony Rossomando, Tom Mann, and Ali Tamposi at a studio in Oxfordshire, England, sonically, everyone’s intentions for the album began veering in the same direction. There were no ballads, weightier reflections, or stories of heartbreak.
Higher Than Heaven instinctively transformed into the ultimate dance party soundtrack.
“It really is the opposite to ‘Brightest Blue,’” Goulding says. “When I got back in the studio, I just wanted to write straight-up records that have my lyrical style and my taste for electronic music. It was really refreshing just going in and writing for fun.”
Breaking through denser synth and spellbinding tempos, Higher Than Heaven emits the swelter and euphoria of all-night clubbing. Threading into sensual pulses of “Midnight Dreams”— Heart beats faster when we move it slow—Higher Than Heaven continuously lifts around the hyped-up beats of “Cure For Love,” “By the End of the Night,” “Like a Saviour,” and “Let It Die,” centered around releasing a toxic love for good.
“When I picture the album in my head,” says the singer describing the album in a previous statement, “I picture people dancing on a different planet.”
Set around her own intergalactic dance party, the cinematic and combustible pop of “Easy Lover,” a song Goulding reveals she had archived away for six or seven years, features rapper Big Sean breaking in with You know that life that we pictured, I still imagine it / A whole city in between us and we still attached / You used to have so many layers ’til I peeled ’em back / I see the fire in your eyes / That mean we still a match.
Reflecting on her 2010 debut, Lights, and her evolution through Brightest Blue and Higher Than Heaven, it’s been the collaborations and life experiences that have been some of Goulding’s biggest writing teachers.
“I still write in the same way, but I was kind of all over the place back then,” she says. “As you go along, you work with lots of people, some who are genuinely writing the biggest songs of all time, and you pick up a lot of other ways to process things. I’ve grown myself as a writer, but then I’ve also picked up a lot. … Lyrics come much more naturally now.”
She continues, “I think my voice is always the thing that separates it from everything else. My voice is a result of shyness as a kid and my very vast range of influences to unique teenage years, so I think my voice has captured all of that. I didn’t sound like anyone else. I wanted to act when I was a kid and was far too shy and self-conscious, and so it all kind of ended up manifesting in my voice.
Previously more modest of her successes—selling more than 27 million albums and 216 singles sold worldwide, and earning three No. 1 releases in the U.K., including Brightest Blue—Goulding is more at peace these days when it comes to celebrating her big wins.
“It feels amazing,” she says. “It’s an incredible achievement. It’s nice to finally be able to take that all in. Before I was like ‘Oh that’s nice—whatever.’”
A philanthropist and activist, Goulding is devoted to helping raise awareness about climate issues as a Global Environmental Ambassador for the UN and was awarded the UN New Voices Award in 2017.
Following her carbon-neutral tour in 2021, where she opted for more trains over planes, Goulding is working to create an even more sustainable touring environment around her future shows, by still reducing the amount of flying in between cities all the way down to repurposing previous tour outfits and using recycled or biodegradable materials for all merchandise.
In 2022, Goulding also traveled to Ukraine as a guest of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his wife Olena Zelenska to speak at the First Ladies Summit on July 23, 2022, hosted by the First Lady.
“It made me realize that people are being confronted with more every day and faced with it, they’re still carrying on,” shares Goulding, who called the trip an “emotional journey,” upon returning home. “I have a newfound respect for people and how the human potential to be so strong during something so awful.”
Now a mother to her son Arthur, Goulding says that motherhood is her priority, but there will always be room for writing as long as she remains “switched on” to the world.
“I’m so focused on being a mom that by the time that he goes to bed, I’ve got the evening and take that time to actually relax, so the last thing I want to do is sit down and write,” shares Goulding. “I just make sure that I’m always reading, watching things … making sure that my brain is always switched on.”
Of writing, she continues, “It’s just those kind of magic moments of just having the stars aligned.”
Moving ahead, Goulding predicts that her next album might gravitate toward something slower, and even touch on motherhood or environmental causes.
“I’m still processing the pandemic, and there’s climate change,” says Goulding. “There are a lot of things to write about, but I think that we can party for a while and then go back to reality.”
Photos by Madison Phipps / Courtesy of BTPR