Pretty girls are lined up in rows across the darkened room. They stand in three neat tiers around the dance pit of Melbourne’s Ding Dong Lounge, every second or third face softly lit by a smart phone pointed at the stage. With their lips moving in sensuous unison, they look for all the world like a choir, elegantly groomed in city office chic for a lunchtime recital. When their heavenly pitch rises for the chorus, they sound like one too. “I want you to carry on singing after I’ve stopped,” Ed Sheeran tells us over a percussive acoustic guitar, electronically looped with slaps of his open hand into a propulsive funk rhythm. “I want you to carry on singing after I’ve left the stage; after you leave the venue, after you get home . . .” and so on. The song, see, is called “Sing”. At this moment, roughly 15 hours after he performed it live at the Logie Awards on national TV, it’s the number one song in Australia. Someone, somewhere, on a spreadsheet titled “Ed Sheeran Multiply Promotion”, ticks another box.
“We’ve been doing gigs like this all month,” the 23-year-old British pop sensation will shortly confide, after his choir of lunchtime angels has dispersed to spread the word through another city on his whistle-stop promo run for his second major label album, X.
“The guy that runs my label had this mad idea, like, ‘OK, the album is called Multiply, so you should multiply the shows: start the day playing to three or four people, then 200, then 2,000 in the evening . . .’”
Hence yet another early wake-up call today, for an intimate morning TV crew. “We’ve been doing it in every single country, three gigs a day: Paris, Brussels, Zürich, Cologne, Sydney tomorrow, then Auckland, London next week
. . . I’m a little bit fucked,” he’ll cheerfully confess.
That’s in no way evident to this afternoon’s 200 radio comp winners, about 170 of whom are female, standing here in the Ding Dong dark. Sheeran’s six-song set is an energetic mix of spitfire rapping, keening love songs and dexterous sound layering. The twinkle in his eye telegraphs pure joy to be here. His street urchin smirk reminds us he can barely believe it.
“I like other artists but he’s just the ultimate,” says Belinda, a 20-year-old student with silky black hair and big dark eyes. She first caught Sheeran on YouTube, singing his breakthrough tune “The A Team” en route to its 8 million views, 800,000 sales, Grammy nomination and Ivor Novello Songwriting Award of 2012.
“I knew straight away he’d be a star,” she says. “His voice and his lyrics; the way he writes about serious issues and everything. Like, he’s so young, so for him to come up with all the music that he does . . .” A roll of her eyes registers due amazement.
“My favourite is ‘Kiss Me’,” she reveals with a squirm. “He’s gonna play that at my wedding one day.”
Nice. She’ll still love him then?
“Oh, for sure.”
The fans are younger in the opulent lobby of Crown Towers, the casino complex overlooking the Yarra River. Amy, 15, and Georgia, 14, are among the schoolgirls sitting cross-legged in their uniforms, desperate for a glimpse of their idol before they’re missed in class.
“You know how he goes to awards shows in, like, a hoodie and stuff?” Amy enthuses.
“Yeah, and he’s just so gorgeous! Ack! I love him!” says Georgia.
“His red hair! I love his red hair!”
“And his voice is so perfect!”
“He’s not your typical celebrity if you get what I mean. All the other celebrities are just so stereotyped.”
“And he’s not into all that bad stuff that most celebrities get into, like Miley Cyrus and Jason Derulo,” Georgia adds.
Amy laughs in a way that suggests that maybe a teeny bit of the bad stuff might be – oh, sorry girls, there’s the lift.
A bad boy Ed Sheeran almost certainly ain’t. But nor is it a stereotypical prince of pop who strolls into room 506, five storeys above the hand-wringing schoolgirls, with the Ding Dong stage sweat freshly towelled from his hair.
The dark, long-sleeved shirt he’d earlier discarded to squeals of joy is back on over his black T and copious tatts. Loose jeans and fine stubble on his freckled face complete the come-as-you-are image.
“Is this for us?” he asks, apparently amazed that a lunch tray of sushi could possibly be for his own sustenance. Even high-flying in the diamond collaborators’ zone with Taylor Swift and Pharrell Williams, the humility of the London tube busker remains a pillar of Sheeran’s appeal. But surely he’s spent half his life willing all this to happen?
“Yeah, but not like this though, man,” he says, snapping apart his chopsticks. “It was more like being a relatively successful singer-songwriter in England, you know, on the scale of Seth Lakeman or Ed Harcourt, that kind of ilk, where you have that very solid fan base.
“It’s turned out really well, man,” he concedes. “I don’t know when it’s going to stop; when the enormity of it is going to end, because I saw this as having a glass ceiling and I haven’t even touched the sides yet. It’s quite weird.”
The number one chart result and the lobby full of schoolgirls represent the least of today’s weirdness. The trending Ed Sheeran news as we speak pertains to a Twitter account he set up for his kitten, Graham, and a video from last night’s Logies red carpet in which he was expertly manipulated into revealing the identity of his current love interest.
“Oh, I didn’t see that,” he says, feigning fascination in lieu of embarrassment. “I don’t know how many people would care, to a point. I think there’d be an initial interest but I don’t know that there’s anybody going to be bothered with that two months down the line.”
Or two hours. Later today, salacious gossip blogs will be confirming that “Don’t”, a song from X, is definitely about Sheeran’s fling with Ellie Goulding going sour after she cheated with Niall Horan from One Direction. It’s extrapolation reported as fact, but Sheeran will take it in his stride.
“I find with those press things there’s an explosion of people talking about it for a couple of days and then they move onto the next thing,” he says, the pungent irony of which absorbs several precious seconds of today’s media blitz.
“I’m pretty comfortable, man,” he says of the insidious trappings that come with the free sushi. “I think about it more and more, whether I want to be one of these tortured-soul musicians who doesn’t really like the media and doesn’t want to be too commercialised.
“Then I think ‘Fuck it, I signed to a major record label [Warner Music]. Why wouldn’t I want all of this stuff?’ I see tons of artists complaining about conformity and all of this bollocks; commerciality; complaining their fan base is too young. If you don’t want that, then don’t sign a major record deal.
“Once you’re happy with the music, it’s credible to you, then it doesn’t matter what anyone else says. Never sell out on the music, but in terms of everything else? Do it.”
The truth is that Sheeran’s music and his sordid/ glamorous personal life are inextricable. The affecting portrait of a homeless call girl in “The A Team” was an exception to three albums and nearly a dozen EPs which are almost exclusively about Ed Sheeran: a “typical average teen”, to cite one early chorus, negotiating a personal minefield of ambition, hangovers and heartbreak to find the perfect love that lies somewhere within or without the daily choir.
The songs on X, he feels, “are a lot more personal. Even though the last album was personal, it was kind of childish-personal. The musings of a 17-year-old, sort of. I had never had my heart broken at that point. So I think once you go through that, you tend to write more interesting songs.”
Indeed. The sighs and slaps of a whole series of lovers scroll through X like phone numbers punched into a roaming media device. In between such poignant lines as “I don’t really know if she’s a keeper” and “Will your mouth still remember the taste of my love?”, the cocksure rap of “Take It Back” is the most telling new tune.
In a plainly autobiographical update on the earlier manifesto, “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You”, it’s a breathless career stocktake with all the dissing and bragging hallmarks of the proverbial hip-hop ghetto. For all of Sheeran’s cherubic charm, the pointed reminder that “I went from sleeping in a subway station to sleeping with a movie star” is surely the gist of his rags-to-bitches legend to date.
It may be a cheeky question, but does he ever stand on stage, gaze out at the adoring choir and think to himself, “Eeny, meeny, miny . . .”?
“No,” he replies evenly. “I haven’t been a saint over the last three years but I definitely haven’t taken it to . . . I haven’t really done that, no.
“I remember playing a gig in San Francisco and a beautiful woman came up to me afterwards and started having this long talk with me and in my head I’m being a boy: ‘Oooh, she is rather nice.’ Then she gives me her sobriety token. Eighteen months. She said, ‘Your music has helped get me through my addiction and I want you to have this token.’
“Instantly, I was just, like . . . that creates this separation. And a good separation. I wouldn’t want to spoil that for anyone.”
There’s nothing false about Sheeran’s social concern, nor his romantic streak. In the winsome “Thinking Out Loud”, when the 23-year-old sings “Darling I will be loving you till we’re 70”, it’s the utter conviction in his voice that makes the girls swoon. Here, among the bad Jason Derulos and Miley Cyruses, is a good man who truly believes in love.
“That’s my dad I think,” Sheeran says. “He’s Catholic. Very into one woman, that’s it, and going for it. He fell very hard for my mum. They’re now 30 years married. I guess I look at that and want to emulate it. But I’ve obviously tried with the wrong people.”
Seven hundred more starry-eyed fans have won this evening’s radio station lottery to pack the ornate and graciously vintage Ormond Hall on St Kilda Road come 6pm. The multiplication principle is amply reflected in the bigger crowd, bigger production and all round bigger vibe. In the upstairs VIP section, the presence of Michael Gudinski and other Frontier Touring folks suggests the announcement of the full-scale arena tour won’t be far off.
After an electrifying, extended opener of “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You”, Sheeran warns that this set will be mainly new songs, though he finds time for a truly magical singalong to “The A Team” and “I See Fire”, his song for the closing credits of the second Hobbit film, before the inevitable climax of “Sing”.
“When you get in your car, you carry on singing this,” he tells us. “When you get home, you carry on singing this . . .” and so on. So we do, for several charged minutes after he runs from the stage into a waiting van, doubtless to elude more schoolgirls in the Crown Towers lobby before another early morning wake-up call.
After a tantalising seven songs, the absence of encore is a masterstroke on the schedule that ensures the fans leave well primed but wanting more. One 20-something woman accepting a free souvenir laminate on her way out is slightly disappointed that her prince had to leave the ball so soon, but her friend is more forgiving.
“He’s got other places to be,” she says.
All whirlwind romances considered, here’s hoping Ed Sheeran turns out to be just as understanding.