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Ellie Goulding opens up on the pressures of pop stardom before Tampa stop

Ellie Goulding couldn't sleep.

"I went to bed about 1, woke up at 3, and then was just wide awake," she said. "It's so frustrating. I've tried all the different techniques to try and sleep, but none of them work."

Why is that? What is it that has one of the world's most successful pop singers — chart-topping, Grammy-nominated, playing every huge summer festival, about to embark on her first major tour of North American arenas — tossing and turning in her lavish London home?

"It's too many things in my brain. It's like they're literally whirring around my brain as fast as a roller coaster, just constantly. And then it starts to shut off, and then I'll get a song in my head that I just can't stop. I have to complete the whole chorus. It's so annoying. I've just got one of those brains."

Few can know what it's like inside Goulding's head these days. The list of women under 30 who can headline venues this large isn't long: Taylor Swift, Adele, Rihanna, Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato, Nicki Minaj, Miley Cyrus, Ariana Grande. That's about it. Goulding's Delirium World Tour, which hits Tampa's Amalie Arena on Thursday , affirms that the 29-year-old singer is squarely on their level.

Yet on those long, sleepless nights, Goulding can't help wondering if she should leave it all behind.

"It's kind of got to that point where I really do need to separate myself from it for a bit," she said. "Music is everything to me, and I wouldn't be anywhere, wouldn't be where I am, without it. But I want to really enjoy as much of it as I can. And when it becomes such a stressful job — lack of sleep, late nights, early mornings, flying and traveling and worrying what's going to be said about you in the press, all that kind of stuff — I used to love it, and I've just realized that I'm not loving it as much anymore.

"It's very emotionally draining and physically draining," she added. "I've been touring nonstop for seven years, and I really just need to stop for a while, basically, in a word. Stop."

• • •

Pop artists aren't supposed to talk like this. They're supposed to smile for the crowds and the cameras, keep the press at arm's length, give milquetoast responses when prodded.

Goulding isn't wired that way. Since emerging into the electronic pop realm in 2010 with her debut album Lights, she has always seemed like an indie, almost folkish spirit. She's an avid runner — on the day of our interview, she lamented missing her morning workout and looked forward to making it up with an afternoon "boot camp." If you had to summarize her appeal in one word, it might be relatable.

"I'm a very open person, and I don't like the idea of not being honest with a journalist," she said. "Because you never know what's going to come out of this conversation. Sometimes I've had some of the most interesting conversations with journalists and writers. I don't like to flog them off with generic answers."

But because she's a pop star, blond and beautiful and blessed with a distinctive, lilting warble, she can't always be the everywoman she might like. Paparazzi shadow her in airports. Her relationships — from exes Skrillex and One Direction's Niall Horan to a rumored fling with Ed Sheeran that's said to have inspired her one-night-stand anthem On My Mind — are dissected daily by the frenzied British tabloids.

"I think I pay for my honesty," she said. "I'll end up saying something I really mean, and something that I feel passionately about, or I'll talk about my personal life, and then that becomes the main subject of the story, and then everything else — the fact that I'm a successful musician, a touring artist, etc. — is sort of forgotten about. But that's the risk I take."

Over the years, Goulding has developed a pretty good B.S. detector for questions that feel like traps. But even when she talks about her music, questions about her personal life end up seeping in.

Take On Her Mind. The lead single from last year's Delirium was Goulding's fourth to crack the Top 15 of the Billboard Hot 100, following Lights, Burn and the Grammy-nominated Love Me Like You Do. Co-written with Swedish pop maestro Max Martin, it's perfectly on trend with the vague dancehall sensibility of many modern hits, from its skittery percussion and synthesizers to its slinky, hypnotic guitar riff.

But the only thing everyone always wants to talk about is who inspired the lyrics.

Next thing that I know I'm in a hotel with you / You were talking deep, like it was mad love to you / You wanted my heart, but I just liked your tattoos...

"It's rare for a girl to be so honest about having a one-night stand, because I feel like we've been made to feel like maybe it's not proper, or it's not very ladylike to talk about stuff like that," she said. "It's a situation that I think a lot of girls can relate to — a modern-day You're So Vain kind of thing, you know what I mean?"

As with that notorious Carly Simon hit, Goulding won't say who On My Mind is about.

"It's just a good song, just a good hook, a good melody, and I love the guitar," she said. "As soon as I heard it, I knew it had my name written on it, regardless of it being something I'd never done before. I just knew it was for me."

• • •

Goulding is confident that now's the time to leap into large American arenas. She frequently tours giant venues in Europe, and has played them here, too, though never on a trek of this magnitude.

"When you've got a big production, you have to have big venues," she said. "You can downscale it a bit, but it's not quite the same. You end up doing arenas whether we sell them out or not."

The pressure on performers at Goulding's level has never seemed more intense, particularly among solo female stars. From Swift's globe-conquering 1989 World Tour to Adele's record-shattering album 25 to Beyoncé's culture-jarring Formation and Lemonade, it feels like a constantly escalating arms race to see who can make the biggest splash on any given day.

"I feel flattered that I can even be mentioned in the same sentence as those other artists, because they're all just insanely brilliant," she said. "I still see myself as the British girl that was playing Shepherd's Bush Empire and Hammersmith Apollo in London. I still see myself as that. Anything else is a bonus."

Unlike those other A-listers, Goulding is a regular presence at major music festivals — this year alone, she'll play near the top of the bill at more than a half dozen, including Coachella, Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza and Glastonbury.

"I'm in a unique position," she admitted. "Maybe that's where I'll always stay. But people do talk about my shows, because we do put on a hell of a show. We don't half-ass it. We put everything into every single show every night. That's probably why I'm exhausted."

Exhausted, yet unable to sleep. Those nights, she said, are the worst.

"I think about all the millions of things I've still got to do for the tour," she said. "There are so many things I could do. I could be writing. I could be in the studio. But I can't, because I'm on tour. I really have to focus on one thing at a time. I have to focus on getting the shows done, and doing it to the best of my ability."

Then, perhaps, a break. A nice long run. And at the end of the day, some shut-eye might be nice.

Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

Ellie Goulding

The singer performs with Matt and Kim at 7 p.m. Thursday at Amalie Arena, 401 Channelside Drive, Tampa. $21.75 and up.

(813) 301-2500.

Ellie Goulding opens up on the pressures of pop stardom before Tampa stop 05/31/16 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 31, 2016 10:36am]
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