Released in 2012, Halcyon – and its subsequent reboot, Halcyon Days – was the turning point for Ellie Goulding. Lights, her 2010 debut album, had proved a strong critical and commercial success, with the acclaim focusing on her distinctive voice and sharp songwriting sensibility. Goulding’s breakthrough had an organic energy that suggested she could develop her musical identity in a number of different ways.
There was a strong folk-pop core to a lot of Ellie Goulding’s songwriting, mixed with an interest in electronica and a gritty, almost untethered appetite to explore complex emotional themes and exciting soundscapes. That it all gelled so brilliantly on Halcyon speaks volumes about her talent, laying the groundwork for her elevation to the next level: pop’s premier league.
Anything could happen…
Halcyon had been recorded in breaks between the relentless promotional pressure of Lights, largely in studios near the Herefordshire village where Goulding had been brought up. Along with producer Jim Eliot, from electro-pop act Kish Mauve, 12 tracks emerged from the album sessions (Eliot worked on seven, while other collaborators helped with the rest). As the UK was consumed by Olympics fever in July 2012, a cover of Active Child’s “Hanging On” was released as a promotional track and featured Tinie Tempah on one of the remixes.
The album’s first official single, however, was the electro ballad “Anything Could Happen,” which emerged the following month and became an immediate smash, reaching No.5 in the UK, No.1 in the US club charts and even breaking the US Top 50. With performances on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and TV plays on Gossip Girl and Nikita, the song created a strong base for Halcyon’s release that October. When it finally hit the shelves, the album raced into the UK charts at No.2 and did solid business in the US, with a Top 10 peak from the offset.
The album’s second single, “Figure 8,” was a sonic sundae of dubstep and dance that nestled just outside the Top 30, and was followed by the powerful ballad “Explosions,” which hit No.13. But it was a Calvin Harris collaboration, “I Need Your Love,” that really set Halcyon alight. The dance smash was actually the seventh single from his 18 Months album and became one of the biggest club hits of the year, making UK No.4 and earning a Brit Award nomination.
The dawn of Halcyon Days
Goulding had been touring Halcyon solidly since late 2012, when she had previewed the album at the iTunes Festival at London’s Roundhouse, and the reaction from the crowds had been staggering. She was drawing energy from her audiences’ euphoria and seemed focused on maintaining it across her work. As the tour dates continued into the summer of 2013, she went back in the studio to record “Burn,” a dance-pop banger that became her first UK No.1.
The big guns had also been brought in to create 10 new songs with the singer, and the sessions featured collaborations with Ryan Tedder and Greg Kurstin. The results were so strong that they led to Halcyon’s reissue, on August 23, 2013, as Halcyon Days. The expanded album was a turbo-charged blitzkrieg on the pop charts that allowed Goulding to enjoy enormous radio hits without sacrificing any of her critical credibility. The smash songs kept on coming, with “How Long Will I Love You?” hitting No.3 in the UK and “Goodness Gracious” making the Top 20. By Christmas 2013, Goulding was on The X Factor final, performing with one of the contestants and taking her place in that roll of honor, which also includes Lady Gaga, George Michael, and Beyoncé.
Every artist comes to that crossroads, where different paths take them to commercial success, critical acclaim, or less inviting places. With Halcyon, Goulding kept us guessing as to which way she would turn. By the end of the campaign for this multi-million-selling album, it was clear she had pulled off the extraordinary: found a route that would allow us to enjoy that soulful authenticity while creating some of the biggest commercial hits of our time.