Tucking her pale-pink hair behind her ears, Ellie Goulding explained recently that her new record reflects a blur of experiences over the past two years -- a period in which she became such a star in England that Prince William and Kate Middleton asked her to sing at their wedding reception.
"It's definitely opened me up," she said of the whirlwind stretch since she released her debut album, "Lights," in 2010. The singer was curled up on a sofa in her dressing room at the site of Conan O'Brien's show, preparing to perform her current single, "Anything Could Happen." "It's given me more intensity and a keenness to be very, very honest."
That intensity resounds throughout Goulding's strong sophomore set, "Halcyon," which entered the U.S. charts inside the top 10. It's a more daring, personal effort than "Lights," with a greater emphasis on her singing than on the blippy synthesizer tones that drove the debut's title track to No. 2 on Billboard's Hot 100 this summer.
"Only you can see the emptiness I feel when you're with me," she sings in the soulful "Only You."
Yet early signs suggest the fresh approach is paying off: She'll have a song on the final "Twilight Saga" soundtrack alongside Green Day and Feist.
"Ellie's sound is really unique," said Michelle Boros, music director at L.A. pop radio station KAMP-FM. "And it's not just the music -- it's the quality of her voice. That's what cuts through and makes you say,
As befits the album's intimate vibe, Goulding, 25, recorded much of "Halcyon" not in some state-of-the-art London studio, but at the family home of her co-producer, Jim Eliot, in Hay-on-Wye, Wales.
"It's quite a rural place," the singer said of the bookish burg not far from where she grew up in Herefordshire. To demonstrate the atmosphere, she picked up her phone and played a video of Eliot's young daughters jumping around their living room to the album's title track.
"There'd be times when she'd say, 'This has to be on my record,' and I'd almost go, 'Are you sure?' " recalled Eliot, who has also worked with Kylie Minogue. "She was so liberated creatively."
In the studio -- with no cellphone signal and "no contact with anybody in the outside world," Goulding explained with a laugh -- risk-taking was the goal. "The whole experience was really beautiful," she continued. "And I think if I'd worked in a studio (in L.A.) or in London, it would've been such a different story."
However open she may feel in an artistic sense, Goulding admitted that public interest in her personal life -- specifically, in her relationship with dubstep superstar Skrillex -- has been harder to negotiate.
"I've never said this to another journalist, but it's got to the point now where I don't really want people to ask me about it," she said. "I don't want to disclose certain things anymore. I did it for a bit because it made sense to me; I wanted people to understand what I wrote about. But now I feel like people are talking about aspects of me that I don't want to be a focus."
Goulding said she'd prefer if fans look for meaning in the songs on "Halcyon," which she plans to spend as much time supporting -- particularly in America -- as she did "Lights." The single from that album took nearly 18 months to become a hit.
"I'm not afraid of spending a year singing 'Anything Could Happen,' " she insisted.
"Other people would be afraid: 'It's been a year, we should probably give it up,' " Goulding went on. "But we never gave up on 'Lights,' and look what happened."