Sacha Forbes meets the Pop Princess at her Oxfordshire idyll, where she talks falling in love with Caspar Jopling, embracing motherhood alongside friend Princess Eugenie and why William and Kate’s wedding was one of the best moments of her life
Ellie Goulding has had a busy year. Already one of Britain’s most successful solo artists – she’s sold more than 15 million albums and won a string of awards, including a handful of Brits – she has released an album, written a book, moved house and given birth, at the end of April, to her first child.
Her new home is in an idyllic Gloucestershire village and, when we meet, 34-year-old Goulding is already on the go, arranging an online barre class with a teacher in LA for later that afternoon. Her husband, the handsome art dealer Caspar Jopling, 29, is standing in his workout gear in the large open-plan kitchen, busy on the phone, while their baby son, Arthur, is sleeping peacefully in the corner. ‘It was the first house we saw,’ says Goulding. ‘It just had something really enchanting about it.’ Enchanting it is: the kitchen leads into a high-ceilinged sitting area with a wooden dining table, comfy sofas and bookshelves lining the back wall. But it’s a work in progress: ‘We’ve done a lot to the house,’ says Goulding, ‘and we’re still working on it.’ We settle down in what will eventually become Caspar’s study and meeting room; for now, other than a large sofa opposite the fireplace and a couple of black-and-white Gilbert & George artworks, it’s unfurnished, with packing boxes and pictures propped up around the room.
Goulding spent part of lockdown with Caspar in a cottage on the Daylesford Estate in Gloucestershire – which was, she admits, lucky. ‘I have such warm memories of living there,’ she recalls. ‘I’d go running on the estate and barely see anyone, then walk down to the Daylesford Farmshop to pick up some shopping. I’d come back and hear our neighbour, Charles Linley, playing the piano and would think, “This is just the best time.” It really was, it was a temporary but beautiful existence for us, serene and quiet. We really did love living in that little cottage.’
Goulding chose to be private about her pregnancy until fairly late on, announcing it after doing a magazine shoot at seven and a half months. ‘Most of my friends and family were shocked,’ she says. ‘It wasn’t on the cards, but it wasn’t off the cards either – we’d had such a wonderful first year of marriage. I didn’t tell anyone but then I got to a point when I was ready for people to know.’ Looking at Goulding now, you wouldn’t know that she’d had a baby just a few months ago. Her skin is flawless and minimally made up; she’s wearing a loose-fitting white shirt and jeans, with simple gold chains around her neck, her blonde hair tumbling down her shoulders. But today, she admits, she’s tired. ‘I was filming [a TV show] last night in London and got back late.’
Her new home has echoes of her rural upbringing. Her parents divorced when she was five, and she spent her childhood in a small house in Herefordshire with her mother, her partner and three siblings. ‘I think I took it for granted when I was younger, growing up surrounded by beautiful countryside, but I do feel most myself when I’m in the great outdoors.’ And when she’s working – she did odd jobs from the age of 12. ‘I wanted pocket money so much,’ Goulding says. ‘My first job was in a hairdresser’s, sweeping hair off the floor, and then as a teenager I worked in Monsoon, and in a theatre and a pub.’ Acting was her passion from a young age: ‘I just loved drama, I’d always get involved in the local plays, whatever was going on, like Gilbert and Sullivan. And I joined the local operatic society.’ She was playing guitar at the age of 13: ‘I just picked up instruments really easily.’
Goulding read drama and theatre studies at the University of Kent – becoming the first in her family to go to university – but she left the course after two years, a victim, she’s said, of her shyness. So promising was her work that she was talent-spotted and went to live in a flat in Hammersmith ‘with not much money’. But she was writing music and at 21 found herself on the open-mic night circuit: ‘It was a big thing then, showcasing your work to get people to notice you.’ At just 22, Goulding was signed by Polydor, and her glittering trajectory in the music industry began. Her 2010 debut album, Lights, reached No 1, and her hit song Love Me Like You Do has had more than one billion streams.
Becoming one of the most talked-about singers in the world hasn’t been without its challenges: ‘You have to be superhuman to deal with that kind of pressure,’ Goulding says. ‘I talk about that in my book [Fitter. Calmer. Stronger.], which is about resilience and knowing that these things will always get thrown at you, and the key is how you deal with them. I always wanted to be a successful artist, but I suppose I was a bit naive in the beginning because I didn’t know how much pressure it would be and how overwhelming it was.’ She pauses. ‘It was a very intense level of scrutiny.’ Scrutiny so intense she describes it in her book as ‘like being strapped to a space shuttle’.
So substantial was Goulding’s popularity and so wide-reaching her appeal that she was invited to sing at the royal wedding reception for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in 2011. ‘It was just a whirlwind at the time,’ she says. ‘They were fans of my music and asked me to perform. It was a big secret and testament to my band and everyone around me that we managed to keep it that way. I had never sung at a wedding before, and of course you feel nervous in any intimate setting like that, much more so than being on stage.’ It was, she adds, ‘very special’ – as it was to sing for the Obamas at the White House just seven months later.
More momentous still was what began in 2018, when she was in New York for a short spell at the end of a tour. She was living alone and dating, but not seriously, and was invited to a dinner by a friend. There she met Caspar Jopling, a 6ft 5in Old Etonian and Harvard graduate – also an accomplished oarsman who was picked to row for Oxford in the cancelled 2020 Boat Race. ‘I was exhausted that night,’ Goulding confesses, ‘and I almost didn’t go.’ Thankfully she did. A few months later, the pair had a couple of dates in London, and Caspar took her around some galleries. ‘We were painfully shy around each other in the beginning,’ she says, laughing, ‘but once we had overcome that, we realised that we were really meant to be together – he’s very romantic.’
A high-profile wedding followed in 2019 at York Minster, and a reception at one of England’s most majestic stately homes, Castle Howard; Sienna Miller, Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, Katy Perry and Orlando Bloom, and James Blunt and Sofia Wellesley were among the 300 guests. ‘There was a part of me when I was young that always wanted to have a big wedding,’ she says. And indeed she did – the once-shy self-proclaimed goth from the council estate marrying into one of Britain’s smartest families. (Caspar is the grandson of a one-time Tory cabinet minister and the nephew of Jay Jopling, the celebrated art dealer.) ‘Caspar’s family are all from Yorkshire, so the obvious choice was to marry there.’
The design team at Chloé created her elegant, high-neck wedding dress: ‘I’d had a relationship with Chloé for a few years and they had always been so good to me, I wanted to collaborate with them on the wedding. The dress was just exquisite – the craftsmanship was really incredible, the detail and hard work that had gone into it.’ (Goulding appreciates her allies in fashion and likes to wear clothes by designers who take sustainability seriously – she is loyal to her friend Stella McCartney, as well as showcasing new young talent.)
Last year, she released her fourth album, Brightest Blue, after a gap of five years. It was written, she reflects, ‘when I was feeling pretty down’. As a performer, she’s known for her candour, and Flux, one of the more heartbreaking songs on the album, ‘was always a song that was going to be written. I’d always wanted to write about the idea of staying with someone that you shouldn’t have stayed with, and what happened when you did. Just the idea that you were so close to someone at some point in your life that you are now not with, and the idea that you spent night after night sleeping next to them, and then they’re gone. To me, that is such a bizarre thing that we have to go through.’
That was then – happily now, along with an upcoming UK album tour, she is focusing on her new baby boy. How is she finding motherhood? ‘It’s just surreal. But when I have moments of anxiety, I go back to the billions of women who have been in the same situation, so I try to be totally pragmatic about it.’ Her best friend and manager Hannah is part of a support network that she has built up around her – including Princess Eugenie, who she has been swapping tips with, Eugenie herself having recently become a mother to a baby boy called August. ‘There’s a huge sense of camaraderie among new mums, not only dealing with being pregnant, but then breast-feeding, and just figuring it all out. It seems like motherhood is a time when you can never say too much about what’s going on, and I’m grateful for that.
And how is she mixing her career as a pop star with her new life as a mother? ‘I’ve had to strike a balance between going back to work and being with Arthur. But I am really enjoying those moments together – it’s a very unique experience between you and your child. He’s already got a little personality and he’s only three months old.’ Goulding smiles. ‘Nothing can prepare you for motherhood, it’s one of those things that is really daunting when it happens. But Caspar is brilliant, he’s really hands-on. And Arthur is a joy, a real joy.’
Nonetheless, Goulding will embark on a short UK tour this October, playing songs from Brightest Blue. ‘With Brexit, it was just too hard to guarantee things in Europe, and it’s not coinciding with an album as the album came out last year. But I just really wanted to perform those songs live.’ She is also co-owner of the British hard seltzer brand Served – flavoured alcoholic water made with wonky fruit. And her book will be published just before the tour. The publication was announced to her 14.1 million Instagram followers with a picture of Goulding looking remarkably fit and toned on the beach, wearing a simple black bikini. ‘That was taken at a time when I was feeling really good,’ she says. ‘Everything had just come together, my mental health was good, my eating was good, and looking good was just a bonus of that.’ Inspiration for the book came from her being asked time and again by friends, fans and family if she would write about her fitness journey, which is something she has always approached with the dedication of an athlete – she works with the trainer to the stars, Matt Roberts, boxes with Darren Barker, and takes barre classes with Catie Miller, whom she describes as ‘exceptional’.
She makes no secret of the benefit that fitness brings to her mental health and is searingly honest in the book about the panic attacks she suffered earlier in her career. (After one in 2013, she was convinced she was having a heart attack and checked into hospital.) ‘I work out every day – though it varies,’ Goulding says. ‘When I was recovering from the birth, I was just walking and taking it easy, listening to my body. And if I’m tired I’m not going to go on a long run or do a HIIT session. It’s really just being in tune with your body and listening to it.’ In London, she is a fan of Barry’s Bootcamp. ‘It’s so energetic, and so dark in the studios, so it’s easy to slip in without being recognised. It’s fast-paced and you can set your own level and the instructors are so helpful. I used to love challenging myself to get a bit more distance or lift heavier weights.’
At home in Gloucestershire, the couple have a temporary gym, with a Hydrow rowing machine that Caspar uses, along with a Peloton – ‘He loves competing on it with Joe Wicks,’ Goulding laughs. ‘They do it together and always like a bit of competition.’ And if her book encourages people to take up exercise, all to the good. But, she counsels, ‘don’t compare yourself to others. I could never compare myself to Caspar because he’s an athlete. But he does increase my drive and motivation because watching him train is awe-inspiring.’
Yet life’s not all work and no play. Weekends will often see them at the local pub, where Goulding’s brother has just started a job as head chef and now lives up the road. ‘Caspar’s parents also live nearby and we’ve been having a few people over – Caspar’s very sociable.’ And they’re toying with an anniversary trip – if they can get away. Meanwhile, Goulding is back writing in a studio in Northamptonshire, which she fits around baby Arthur’s schedule. Can we expect another album soon? ‘It will probably be out next year. I’m writing so much at the moment, sometimes you just have a really good run of songs that you really love. This album will be less of an emotional journey than Brightest Blue was; it’s more me writing straight pop songs you can really move to.’
And what is she most proud of in her career? Goulding pauses. ‘I am proud of playing in the amount of festivals I’ve played, because I always found myself on line-ups with mostly male bands and singers. So I was always proud that I could be at the top of the line-ups where there were mostly men. I can’t wait to play festivals again.’
At which point, her manager, Hannah, brings in Arthur, who has woken from his sleep. ‘Do you mind if he joins us?’ Goulding asks. He sits, bouncing, wide-eyed on her knee, already a strong and robust baby. ‘I think he takes after his dad,’ she says, hugging him. But festivals are on her mind, and the conversation turns to Glastonbury, cancelled again this year because of the pandemic. ‘It’s such a brilliant festival, it’s so iconic and you can really feel that when you’re there. It’s a really proud moment for any musician to play Glastonbury.’ She reflects, thinking of her writing studio in Northamptonshire. ‘Of course, you have got to have new music to showcase. I hope I get asked back.’ With her star quality, there is no doubt that she will.
Ellie Goulding’s Brightest Blue Tour 2021 is scheduled to take place this October in the UK and Ireland.