Ellie Goulding is half-standing, half-crouching in front of her computer so as to best position herself to show me her ‘fully cooked’ baby bump down a Zoom camera from her home in Gloucestershire.
‘Just a few more weeks to go,’ she says, stroking her neat rounded belly under her black hoodie. ‘And then I will be a mum.’ She pauses and says, half to herself, ‘It still feels strange to say those words out loud.’
Ellie’s pregnancy – the baby is due next month – was one of lockdown’s best kept secrets. She refrained from posting about it to the 14 million fans who follow her on Instagram. She kept to herself her penchant for tinned sardines and Weetabix Minis (‘Not eaten at the same time,’ she laughs), her newly developed boobs (‘A revelation: I’ve always had a runner’s body and now I have a bigger ass and these rather nice boobs’) and her two visits to McDonald’s. (‘I know!’ laughs the health fanatic, who has long extolled the benefits of spinach, blueberries and all things organic and clean. ‘But it was only two!’) She told family and friends, including fellow mums-to-be Princess Eugenie and the singer Katy Perry, ‘who gave me excellent advice like where to find the best pregnancy pillows to get a good night’s sleep’.
The first the world knew about the Grammy- and Golden Globe- nominated singer’s news was in February, when photographs of her looking glowing and Madonna-like at home, wearing white Alberta Ferretti, appeared in Vogue, alongside her announcement that she was 30 weeks pregnant. Why did she wait so long? ‘I needed time to get my head around it,’ she says. ‘Last year I released an album [Brightest Blue, her fourth album, which went straight to number one last July] and I’d finished writing a book [a fitness guide called Calmer, Fitter, Stronger, to be published in September].
‘Then, after living in lockdown, walking around in my husband’s big coats to hide my bump and living in different places in Oxfordshire and London, we moved into a new house. Our house. It felt like we had these proper roots and it was the right moment to say something – I’d also just bought a new bath that I was very proud to show off in the photographs!’
For 34-year-old Ellie – whose hits such as Anything Could Happen and Bittersweet have a confessional intimacy – there were other reasons why she kept silent, choosing instead to nest in her new home with her husband of two years, the aristocratic Eton- and Oxford-educated art consultant Caspar Jopling.
I’ve known Ellie since she first arrived on the music scene, winning her first Brit Award (Critics’ Choice) in 2010, and have interviewed her several times over the years. As this bright, independent young girl from a council estate in Lyonshall, Herefordshire, has navigated her way through fame and the music business, she has always worn her heart on her sleeve.
The middle of three children, her undertaker father, Arthur, split from her mother, Tracey, who worked in a supermarket, when Ellie was still in primary school. With zero knowledge of anyone in the music industry, she left Kent University in her third year (she was doing a degree in drama and theatre studies) after the songs she put up on MySpace attracted attention from producers. As a young female solo musician, hers was not an easy road.
Only last year she spoke out about being preyed upon by many of these producers; and much of the attention she received as a young 20-something pop star was focused on her looks and her relationships (she dated Radio 1’s Greg James, McFly’s Dougie Poynter, the dance producer Skrillex, and One Direction’s Niall Horan). She struggled with imposter syndrome, often drinking heavily to cope with the pressure she was under – which is why she first cried then raged when she saw the documentary Framing Britney Spears, which aired on Sky last month.
‘I had to watch it twice,’ she says. ‘The first time it was very emotional to watch and the second time I was taking everything in and it made me so angry. I could relate to her story in so many ways: the way the focus on women is never about your work, it’s always about the men and the way you look, the tendency to make the women the villain in break-ups, the horrendous questions we get asked… And then the realisation that, for all I related to her in my experience, back as a kid at school I was fascinated by all that gossip about Britney. So we all let her down, we let it happen and it continued to happen.
‘I know I spent so much of my time feeling bad about myself, especially early on, and being put in positions of vulnerability by men with power. Watching that documentary was heartbreaking. We are going through a pandemic which – among other things – gives us time to think about what is important. Women’s issues, the Me Too movement, supporting each other, being honest about what we experience and speaking up to make things change.’
I remind her that she was always someone who spoke up – about body image, and about her own mental health issues, from anxiety to self-medicating with drink to her struggles with imposter syndrome. When I went to her London flat in 2014, we spent hours talking about such issues. Tears rolled as she said then, ‘Women push ourselves so hard to keep proving ourselves, and we still think it’s not enough, and that we need to be doing more.’
On another occasion, in 2015, she admitted that, ‘You can dress up everything as wonderful and hide behind that, or you can tell the truth. I always knew if I wanted people to relate to my music I couldn’t ever lie about who I really am.’ Ellie has never shied away from telling it as it is. ‘I think I always wanted to talk about issues,’ she says today, ‘and it’s good we are now in a place where more people are open to listening.’
She stops momentarily as the sound of footsteps heralds the entrance of Caspar, 29. ‘Say hello,’ she says and he waves into the camera. He looks like a very preoccupied Clark Kent. She swivels her laptop round so I can see that behind her, where Caspar is now heading, is a room filled with boxes. ‘We’re still sorting things out,’ she laughs. ‘There’s so much to do.’
We return to the subject of her pregnancy and the emotional reasons why – in the happiest and most stable chapter of her life – she decided to wait until her third trimester to talk about her baby.
‘I needed that space to process what was happening,’ she says. ‘I’ve always defined myself as a touring musician. That’s who I am and what I do. Being a mother wasn’t in my mind frame, I’ve never felt any woman had to be defined by motherhood.
‘Then last July I did a show at the V&A, which was an incredible, dramatic event. I remember my clothes fitted a little differently and celebrating with champagne afterwards, I couldn’t finish my glass.
‘I was actually two months pregnant. I thought I had an iron deficiency and got blood tests, which came back fine but my progesterone levels were high, though that didn’t mean anything to me. I then started struggling a bit with exercise: I couldn’t lift the same weights. That was a sign for me something had changed.’ She describes it as ‘typical’ for her that the red flag came in these fitness sessions. Throughout her career Ellie has been an advocate for health and exercise: running, attending Barry’s Bootcamp sessions and working out for up to two hours daily. She has appeared in advertising campaigns for Nike and several times on the cover of Women’s Health magazine – this is a woman who knows her own body inside out.
‘After the V&A performance, Caspar took me to Italy on a road trip for our first wedding anniversary. He went and got some pregnancy tests. And that was how we found out: on the first anniversary of our wedding. It sounds perfectly planned but it just wasn’t on my agenda – if anything, I was shocked. Caspar was amazing. He was like: “Wow! This is happening. This is wonderful.”’
I tell her that I think having a baby will – among other things – be a very healing process for her. ‘I like that,’ she says, smiling. ‘I’ve been so surprised about how happy everyone has been for me, it’s been incredible to have all this positivity. I do feel part of a bigger community and over the past few months I’ve realised why pregnant women want to talk to other pregnant women, because it’s all the little tips, worries and stages you want to hear about.’
It was her friend Princess Eugenie – whose baby August was born last month – who introduced Ellie to Caspar at a dinner in New York in 2017. Ellie and Eugenie, who have holidayed together over the years, first met when the singer was asked by Prince William to perform at his wedding to Kate Middleton in 2011. ‘She’s been a great friend throughout this,’ she says. ‘We’ve talked a lot about pregnancy and she’s been inspirational because she just takes everything in her stride. Katy [Perry] has been great too, and my manager has gone through her pregnancy with me, along with both our families and friends from home who have had babies. It just brings everyone closer together.’
Once her baby is born there will only be a matter of months before she goes on tour in October. Although no actual plans have been made, the idea is, she says, ‘that the baby will come too. Women make it work, I’m sure I can make it work. The team around me is all female which massively helps. Caspar is going to be freelancing from home for the first few months so it will be just us and the baby and we’ll just take everything as it comes.’
She looks glowing with health as we talk. ‘Yes,’ she laughs. ‘That’s because I’ve worked out Zoom has a blur button and it makes you look so much better.’ Apart from bad morning sickness and difficulty sleeping (before she found her pregnancy pillow) she has no complaints. She has continued to exercise throughout, even continuing to run. ‘I’ve been running since I was a teenager,’ she says. ‘Fitness, exercise and running are a massive part of my life. I wouldn’t recommend anyone taking up running in pregnancy but if you’ve always done it, there’s no problem continuing, although obviously you naturally take it more easy.’
I ask her to tell me about the large Victorian house in Gloucestershire where she and Caspar – nephew of White Cube gallery owner Jay Jopling – now live. They have spent the past couple of years moving between her home in London and a house in Oxfordshire, where Caspar was finishing his MBA at the university. ‘We chose this house because it’s almost a straight road to Caspar’s family in Yorkshire and it’s not far from where I grew up,’ she says. ‘I’m still very connected to my past. Apart from family, I have four friends from school who have known me for ever. I’m a keeper. My friend Hannah Lowe from uni has been with me from the start too and now she’s my manager. I like to be around people who understand me and who can always be relied on to tell me the truth.’
In lockdown it has been just her and Caspar. ‘We’ve been our own bubble,’ she says. (They don’t row, she adds.) It’s also been a creative time for her: she’s been taking acting lessons (there is a project yet to be announced), writing ‘some of the best songs I’ve ever written’, dancing in her kitchen, listening to pregnancy podcasts and – in Oxfordshire in the first lockdown – baking cakes and food for elderly people in the village. ‘A neighbour would do the deliveries. Mine weren’t the most professional bakes, but I always made a lot of food.’
Her book, Calmer, Fitter, Stronger, reflects her journey towards healthy living, which began when she was a late teenager as her way of coping with life. ‘It’s about fitness, mental health, nutrition and learning what is good for you, and just has lots of very practical tips I’ve learnt over the years. I finished it before I knew I was pregnant and then made additions once I realised I’d started craving carbs, bread and pasta. But I don’t believe in restricting anything, just finding your balance.’
She looks happy. She laughs about turning up to The Graham Norton Show last month in the most flamboyant maternity dress ever – a frothy, pale-blue concoction of tulle couture by Jean Paul Gaultier – for her performance of her hit with Silk City, New Love. As her body has developed, she has discovered new brands including luxe loungewear labels Eberjey and Skin, and Cecilie Bahnsen for ‘very spacious dresses’.
Behind her there is a window that looks on to her garden. She has been watching rabbits and pheasants on her lawn. ‘I love it,’ she says. ‘It reminds me I’m a country girl.’ In her London home, her style was boho chic: lots of Moroccan throws and a collection of paintings and images of shipwrecks. Back then, she told me, she felt a morose kinship to shipwrecks: she was a girl in survival mode.
The shipwreck paintings have all gone, as have many of the Moroccan pieces. ‘I’ve learnt a lot from Caspar about contemporary art. He’s got some amazing pieces so this house will be more minimal, very calm, peaceful and more ordered.’
A reflection of her life right now? She nods and laughs. ‘I’ve still been going to the studio [in Oxford], working on songs. But there have been a lot of days I’ve turned up and flung myself on the settee moaning and being pregnant. It’s not quite as sexy as turning up with a bottle of tequila like I may have done in the old days, but it’s so much more relaxing – and very soon things are going to change again. But I’m ready for what lies ahead.’