The English singer says her latest work didn't start out as a break-up album, writes Nick Levine, but a split from her partner resulted in a mix of lugubrious, as well as joyful songs.
Halcyon: Ellie Goulding's sad and joyous new album
Ellie Goulding has named her new album Halcyon, a title filled with positive connotations. In Greek mythology, the Halcyon was a bird that charmed the wind and waves into calmness. Indeed, in modern usage, when something is described as "halcyon", it tends to be peaceful and joyous, or maybe even carefree.
None of these words seems to fit Goulding's album. Her Halcyon is a storm of emotions whipped up by success, self-doubt and an exciting new relationship. More than this, it's a document of a painful break-up. Even Goulding has admitted that the title seems "a bit ironic".
Raised in rural southern England, Goulding's upbringing was humble, but she was encouraged creatively and began clarinet lessons at the age of nine before moving onto guitar as a teenager.
Her creative breakthrough came years later when she met Finlay Dow-Smith (also known as Starsmith), a London-based dance producer. Together, they found her natural sound; it was folky but electronic, and Goulding did clever things with her distinctive, fluttering singing style.
Goulding signed to British record label Polydor in September 2009. Within months, she was voted "Sound of 2010" by a panel of music industry experts. She proved them right that February, when her debut album Lights entered the UK charts at number one.
More success followed. Goulding covered Elton John's Your Song for a television advertisement and her version became a number two hit in the United Kingdom. After a slow climb up the charts, her single Lights reached the same position in the United States. And in April 2011, she was asked to perform at the wedding reception of Prince William and Kate Middleton, where she mixed her own songs with classic pop covers chosen by the couple. Goulding says this was a surreal experience.
"I was nervous and overwhelmed," Goulding has admitted. "Afterwards, I didn't believe that I'd actually done it."
But Goulding's self-belief didn't grow with her sales figures. She suffered several panic attacks in 2010. She was especially anxious about that year's Glastonbury Festival, and before her performance she took a course of cognitive behavioural therapy. Thankfully it worked, and Goulding says she hasn't experienced stage fright since.
The next obstacle arrived when Goulding began to think about her second album. "There was a period where everything felt stale," she recalled recently. "I wasn't writing, I wasn't reading, I wasn't taking anything from the experiences I was having. Usually I can walk down the street and just absorb everything, but there will also be times where there is this complete block, and that's how I felt."
A cure for her "complete block" would come, but it would be bittersweet. Towards the end of last year, Goulding split from her boyfriend of 18 months, Greg James, a British radio DJ. Reeling, she returned to the Herefordshire countryside of her childhood, where she realised "how much I had to write about".
Goulding says she didn't set out to make a break-up album. And in fairness, there are songs on Halcyon that aren't about her relationship with James. But most of them draw from it, often painfully, so Goulding admits that "I think it became one".
A song called Only You begins with a stream of emotions, as Goulding sings: "Only you can be the aching in my heart, my enemy, the only animal I couldn't fight, you hold me in the dark when storms arrive." Here, she's still figuring out her feelings, but she already knows where they've landed her. "Baby I'm on my knees, I'm on my knees," she sings later.
Elsewhere, her lyrics show moments of clarity. "You promise forever and a day, then you take it all away," Goulding sighs on Figure 8. Explosions features the simple acknowledgement that "I know I've loved and lost". And the song that shares the album's title, Halcyon, contains its saddest line. "When it's just us, you show me what it feels like to be lonely," Goulding sings mournfully.
Halcyon may have become a break-up album, but it's not a depressing one.
"The joyous songs [on the album] are so joyous," Goulding insists. Perhaps highlighting her point, she's even named one Joy. It's a lovely song, with a hymn-like melody, and lyrics that deal with acceptance and moving on.
"I figured out that joy isn't in your arms," Goulding sings on the chorus, before she reaches a conclusion: "I think it's time to run." The music begins simply, with Goulding's voice set to piano and strings. Towards the end, the song explodes into life with a much grander arrangement, and the effect is incredibly stirring.
The album's lead single is also stirring - by design. "It's called Anything Could Happen, [so] I'm hoping it will make people go out and propose to their girlfriends, or go on that holiday they never ended up doing," Goulding told MTV recently.
Meanwhile, hidden in the lyrics, Anything Could Happen seems to contain a message for Goulding's new boyfriend. "Baby, I'll give you everything you need," she sings at the climax, "but I don't think I need you!"
Goulding's new boyfriend is Sonny John Moore, an American DJ and producer. He's better known as Skrillex, a poster boy for the electronic dance music scene that's currently sweeping the US.
The pair recorded a track together last year, and they've been romantically involved since January.
Skrillex's music is an abrasive mix of dubstep and electro-house that's sometimes called "brostep". Thankfully, Goulding hasn't tried to match him thump for thump in her own music. But the couple do play each other their demos, and Goulding reckons Skrillex may have influenced her "subconsciously".
Superficially, it's easy to draw a line between Skrillex and two Halcyon tracks, Figure 8 and Hangin' On, that show a slight dubstep influence. But that's a minor detail when describing the album as a whole. The truly notable thing about Goulding's second album is how scaled-up it feels. Several songs feature tribal drum sounds, and most have anthemic choruses. Even the more intimate tracks, I Know You Care and Dead in the Water, seem primed for pin-drop moments in packed arenas.
Plenty of credit should go to Goulding's new creative partner. She made the album with Jim Eliot, the man behind recent hits for Kylie Minogue and Will Young. But Goulding, who gets equal billing as his co-producer, has clearly grown in confidence. This comes through in her singing; her overdubbed vocals are still used for texture, but her lead performances are now more direct. As Anything Could Happen builds to a climax, there's a raw power in Goulding's voice that she hasn't shown before.
With this album, Ellie Goulding seems to have channelled personal turbulence into a smooth and impressive musical progression. For that reason, Halcyon might not be such an ironic title.
Nick Levine is a freelance music journalist based in London.