“Anything Could Happen” was the title of Ellie Goulding’s seventh single, released in 2012, but those three words could double as a mantra for the British singer-songwriter’s entire career. In fact, Goulding was back in her hometown of Hereford, England, the previous year, and she had just finished writing that song (the first single from her second album, “Halcyon,” which she calls her “favorite”), when she got a life-changing call.
Well, actually, calls. She kept missing the news because she was in the middle of nowhere with no phone signal. Once service returned, she was inundated with messages from her label, Polydor Records, telling her that her sixth single, “Lights,” had made it big in the U.S.
“They were saying, ‘You need to come to America right now because your song is suddenly dominating the charts,” Goulding recalls. “And I was like, ‘I just started my second album, and I’m kind of busy.’ And they’re like, ‘No, you need to drop everything.’ So before I knew it, I was abandoning ‘Halcyon,’ and I was singing ‘Lights’ on ‘Saturday Night Live.’”
Although the single stalled at No. 49 in the U.K., it started a string of U.S. hits that have continued through the decade, including the “Fifty Shades of Grey” smash “Love Me Like You Do,” her Calvin Harris collaborations “I Need Your Love” and “Outside,” and her latest can’t-escape-it single “Close to Me.” That’s about five times the lifespan of many pop stars. And in true Goulding anything-could-happen fashion, “Lights” came about in a most unpredictable way, at the end of a nearly fruitless creative session with Spice Girls producer and songwriter Richard Stannard.
“When I was a kid, I idolized Spice Girls, and so the idea of writing with the mastermind behind them was massive,” she says. “Then I remember everything he played to me just didn’t resonate. I was like, ‘I’m really sorry — nothing quite works for me,’ and he was like, ‘OK, well, there’s this one other thing, but it’s weird.’ Then he played me [hums the musical intro], and I was like, ‘That’s it. That’s the one!’”
“Close to Me,” a collaboration with Diplo and Swae Lee, also came about during a brainstorming session with frequent collaborator Savan Kotecha. “We were coming up with lyrics, and we kind of hit a wall,” Goulding says. “And then I jokingly sang this chorus thing — ’I don’t want to be somebody without your body close to me.’ It’s really simple, but it worked. It was a nice, pleasant surprise that it ended up doing so well [because] it was not really intended.”
Despite her knack for stumbling onto hits, Goulding’s longevity has been no accident. She’s stayed on top of the game by staying on top of new music and seeking out promising collaborators. “When I first heard Juice Wrld, I was like, ‘Damn, I need to do something with this kid,’” she says of the rapper, who appears on her gold single “Hate Me,” which had a chart resurgence after trending on TikTok. “Part of you wants to kind of bury your head in the sand and not pay attention to all the changes and hope you have something that transcends all the different things happening. That never works.”