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Ed Sheeran: Man of the People

On the road with the world’s biggest male pop star.

For our issue #769 (December, 2015) cover story, we head out on the road with the world’s biggest male pop star.

As the hands of the clock on his dressing room wall ticked towards 11 p.m. on the night of July 12th, Ed Sheeran sat in solitude and silence, the excitable babble of friends and family outside the door drowned out by the persistent hum of an overly-aggressive air-conditioning unit. Minutes earlier, he had stood onstage at Wembley Stadium, courteously accepting the applause and raucous cheers proffered by 87,000 ticket-holders on the third of his three sold-out shows at England’s largest and most prestigious venue. Now, as he decompressed, the Yorkshire-born singer/songwriter was struck by the disorienting thought that at the age of 24 he’d reached a point which would be considered a pinnacle in the career of the world’s most iconic musical artists.

As ostentatious as Wembley’s claim to be ‘The Venue of Legends’ may be, such grandstanding is not without foundation. It was on this site, if not in this actual stadium – the original grand old lady of European sporting stadia being demolished in 2002, replaced, in 2007, by the current state-of-the-art facility – that the first post-World War II Olympics were held in 1948; that England won soccer’s World Cup in 1966; and that the UK leg of the Live Aid spectacular took place in 1985. In the ensuing 30 years the likes of Madonna, Queen, U2 and Michael Jackson (whose seven-night residency on the 1988 Bad tour set a record for the old Wembley) have copper-fastened their global megastar status with multiple nights at the national stadium. It’s a measure of Wembley’s rarefied status that in the summer of 2015 only two acts got to play headline gigs beneath the venue’s iconic 133-metre high arch, with AC/DC’s pyrotechnic-laden one-night stand rather eclipsed by Sheeran’s trio of shows.

“I said, ‘We’ll do three nights’ and everyone was like, ‘Er, no Ed, we’ll do one, and be happy with it.’ But I wanted to make a statement with it… and I don’t think one is enough of a statement. One night is like, ‘Holy shit, he’s got to that point?’, but three is, ‘This is bloody ridiculous, what the fuck?’ A lot of people can do one Wembley, but I think the last people to do three Wembleys were One Direction and Take That – genuine phenomenons – and I wanted to go out on this album campaign as a phenomenon.”

Ed Sheeran delivers these words in a measured, matter-of-fact tone while sitting on the floor of his dressing room in Croke Park, Dublin, two weeks on from his weekend at Wembley. Six hours ahead of stage-time at the first of his two scheduled appearances at the Gaelic Athletic Association’s headquarters, Sheeran is dressed unfussily in a red check shirt and plain blue jeans, and with his tousled red hair, wispy beard and ruddy complexion looks suspiciously like a second year agricultural student who’s just rolled in from a night on the tiles, rather than a global pop phenomenon. But Sheeran’s stats are undeniable. A number 1 record in 22 countries including the UK, U.S. and Australia, 2014’s x album has now shifted nearly 10 million copies worldwide, almost twice as many as 2011’s sleeper hit +, a remarkable trend-bucking achievement in the digital age. Last year Sheeran was the most streamed artist worldwide on Spotify, with 860 million streams, with x‘s hit ballad “Thinking Out Loud” becoming the service’s most streamed song of all time. At the time of writing, in Australia – where Sheeran is set to become the first musician ever to undertake a stadium tour entirely solo – x hasn’t left the Aria album chart Top 10 since its release in June 2014, notching up eight weeks at number 1, and with cumulative sales now nudging towards 500,000. By any measure, these are serious figures.

Originally, the singer’s three night stand at Wembley was conceived as the final act of the promotional trek for x, an emphatic exclamation mark to end an extraordinary 18-month campaign. But then word came through that Croke Park was available for two nights, offers were made for another run through America, and six stadium shows were proposed in Australia and New Zealand. Now Sheeran’s diary has engagements pencilled in through to December 12th in Auckland. Having averaged 250 gigs a year during his pre-fame apprenticeship, this additional shift clearly doesn’t faze Sheeran. And while those three sold-out Wembley shows, documented in his new full-length concert film Jumpers For Goalposts, will forever be remembered as milestones in his remarkable journey, the reception meted out to him in Ireland suggests that more glorious victories lie ahead.

It speaks volumes about Britain’s self-regarding cultural elitism that on home turf Sheeran’s phenomenal success is regarded as something of an embarrassment, his nakedly emotional heart-on-sleeve songwriting dismissed as gauche, graceless and wholly lacking in gravitas by the critical intelligentsia. Indeed, in the run-up to the singer’s Wembley appearances, the paucity of coverage on the concerts from the London media was such that it would have been entirely possible for all but inconvenienced local residents to remain wholly oblivious of his homecoming.

By contrast, in Dublin there is a palpable buzz for the return of a singer whom Ireland has adopted as one of their own, due to Sheeran’s grandparents hailing from Derry and Wexford. Per capita, this is Sheeran’s biggest market – x has already been certified 10 times platinum – and his Croke Park double-header is above the crease front page news in the national papers: everyone – from Dublin’s preternaturally voluble taxi drivers to the city’s most imperturbable inked baristas – is hip to his presence. It’s impossible to navigate the alleyways of Temple Bar, the Irish capital’s vibrant tourist trap entertainment district, without hearing a spirited cover of Sheeran’s hit singles. One enterprising city centre restaurant is offering a special 20 per cent discount to customers with ginger hair in oblique tribute to the man, and ice cream makers Walls have created a special ‘Ginger-Ed’ edition of their popular Gingerbread Sandwich desert, complete with a guitar-wielding likeness of the singer, in recognition of his visit. (Sheeran will later share a photo of the snack with his 4.9 million Instagram followers with the caption “You know you’ve made it when…”)

There is, then, a full turn-out for the afternoon press conference Sheeran hosts – ostensibly to plug Jamie Lawson, the first signing to his new Gingerbread Man record label – in one of Croke Park’s executive boxes ahead of the first of his two Dublin shows. The singer charms the ladies and gentlemen of the fourth estate by referring to the stadium, like a native-born Dubliner, as “Croker”, hails his Irish audience as “fucking mental… always the best crowd I’ve played to”, and announces “I said after Wembley was done that this was going to be more fun.” Seasoned hacks can’t resist queuing up for selfies when proceedings draw to a close.

“A lot of people can do one Wembley. I wanted to go out on this album campaign as a phenomenon.”

Sheeran’s natural charm is similarly evident when Rolling Stone joins him in his dressing room, aka The Chewie Dungeon – titled in tribute to ‘The Chewie Monsta’, the effects pedal board which throws up the loops that fill out his folksy, acoustic hip-hop sound – 30 minutes later. Even in the forced intimacy of a promotional interview set-up, the singer has a disarming way of making you feel like a guest in his home, rather than a customer in his shop.

“Cup of tea?” he offers, popping a tea bag into a mug, as he waits for the kettle to boil. This homely ritual is temporarily stalled when he discovers that the fridge contains no milk, but a polite entreaty to a uniformed staff member resolves the situation. With a steaming cuppa in his hand, Sheeran then plonks down on the carpet beside a coffee table over-spilling with catering detritus and declares himself ready for interrogation.

“I’m quite free to be honest and say what I want,” he offers by way of introduction. “That doesn’t always work out great in interviews because there’s usually a headline to be grabbed that isn’t always positive. But let’s see how this goes.”

Earlier this year, Ed Sheeran decided he would like to attend a music festival in the company of the friends he grew up with in the small Suffolk market town of Framlingham. Mindful that his presence at the event might attract attention, the singer and his pals opted to cover their faces with costume party masks, and consequently were able to mingle undetected, raving in the woods until daybreak. It was, says the singer, a “liberating, joyous” experience.

“That’s the first time I’ve been in a festival crowd for five years,” he confesses, smiling, “and it felt really normal and really cool.”

Asked to name the festival, the singer politely demurs. “I won’t say, because I’d like to go again,” he explains. “With a different mask.”

Sheeran in Camden, London on February 8th, 2008.

The idea of freedom as one of life’s most valuable commodities crops up time and time again in Sheeran’s conversation this afternoon, in matters both personal and professional. Coming as he does from a DIY background, his determination to retain complete artistic autonomy in tandem with his commercial success is understandable, and there’s a note of pride in his voice when he speaks of pushing through recent collaborations with Macklemore and the Weeknd despite record label reservations, or when he suggests that, taking a cue from UK grime star Wiley, he may in the future off-load a few hundred songs which didn’t make his first or second albums as a free download offering to hardcore fans. There’s a sparkle in his eyes too when he speaks of landing an acting role in Karl ‘Sons of Anarchy’ Sutter’s new historical drama The Bastard Executioner, knowing full well that his presence in the brutally visceral TV series will jar with his wholesome, clean-cut image. These little acts of independence, you sense, matter.

“I’m not going to get ideas above my station doing whatever I want just for the sake of it,” he insists. “Being able to do whatever the fuck you want is great, but maybe the biggest bonus amid this success is having people who you trust telling you what you should and shouldn’t do.”

There’s something rather sweet about Sheeran’s lack of artifice when discussing his success. He genuinely appears to attach no more weight to his friendship with Elton John (a surprise guest at his opening Wembley show), or summer hangs backstage with the Rolling Stones, than he does to the WhatsApp notifications pinging up on his phone this afternoon from friends teasing him about fictitious tabloid stories alleging a new romance with former Pussycat Doll-turned-TV star, Nicole Scherzinger. At one point today, when discussing his relationships with Taylor Swift, Jay Z and Beyoncé, the singer refers to the trio as “ridiculously huge artists who’re at surreal levels of fame”, as if he himself doesn’t belong in this bracket. He may not radiate the same incandescent star quality as his storied pals, but when he talks of being stalked by paparazzi or chased by fans in cars, it’s hard to argue with Jamie Lawson’s contention that Sheeran is “so famous it’s almost dangerous”.

“But unless I go to the awards shows I never get treated that way,” Sheeran protests. “Most days I’m around people who’ve known me for years and treat me exactly the same as they always did. When you’ve been mates with someone since you were 14, going to parties and throwing up for the first time, those people won’t ever be impressed by what you become.

“At award shows I never really feel like I fit in, but I think most artists feel the same way,” he adds. “We all put on a front to sit there. But, I mean, I went to Taylor’s 4th of July party and it was just her and her mates and it was perfectly chilled, there was no real glitz or glamour to it, so I feel like she’s the same way. Even Jay Z and Beyoncé, when we went out in Brooklyn we went to a really quiet pizza place and then went to a dive bar. Even they have that normal side. Everyone does.”

By his own admission though, life for Ed Sheeran is increasingly becoming “less and less normal”. He recognises this by the fact that it now takes him half an hour to negotiate grocery shopping trips in his local supermarket, owing to an increased demand for selfies from fellow customers.

“People are always very polite and respectful,” he notes. “The thing that annoys me most when artists have success is when they complain about it, or say they can’t do this or that. I’ve wanted to be at this point for my whole life, so dwelling on the negatives would be such a mistake. Because when this does go downhill, I’m sure I’ll wish I could relive every moment of it again.”

It was in Dublin, 13 summers ago, that the 11-year-old Ed Sheeran decided that he would like to be a professional singer-songwriter, after witnessing a gig by local hero Damien Rice at the invitation of his cousin Laura.

“I never expected it to get to this point,” he concedes, “but I knew that I’d be able to make a living and survive. I hoped then to get to a point where I could play 200 capacity venues. To me that was always an achievable dream.”

For a time, it looked as if the realisation of that dream might represent the summit of Sheeran’s achievements. Recognising the word-of-mouth buzz on the singer garnered by his relentless gig schedule, in 2009 Universal Records signed Sheeran to a development deal, but subsequently withdrew the singer’s contract ahead of the scheduled release of his debut single. Insistent that the snub didn’t dent his confidence – “all my peers were making a living comfortably without the backing of massive labels,” he notes – the singer concedes that the label’s decision did serve as a catalyst for a re-evaluation of his game plan, effectively leading him to split the songs he had earmarked for a potential debut album into five separate independently released EPs. Suggest that his subsequent success might now serve as a glorious two-fingered salute to those who doubted him back in the day, and Sheeran looks startled and perhaps even a little affronted by the notion.

“My competitive streak is not vindictive. But, yes, of course, I’ll always want to come first.”

“The Beatles got turned down, the Rolling Stones got turned down, Taylor Swift got turned down… every big act has been knocked back by some record label: that’s just how life is,” he says slowly, as if explaining the mechanic to a flustered child. “I was turned down by every label… I got turned down by the label I’m on now! I guess I wasn’t a good proposition. But the moment things start going well you don’t ever really need to do a two-fingered ‘Fuck you!’ to anyone, because it’s self-explanatory.”

“Ed didn’t fit in. He didn’t conform. The world conformed to him,” says Johnny McDaid, keyboard player with Northern Irish arena rockers Snow Patrol, fiancé of Hollywood actress Courtney Cox and co-writer of five songs on x, who describes his friend as “a quirk of timing, talent and truth”.

“Being a great artist is hard,” he adds. “Being a great artist who reaches a lot of people is much harder. To stand out, you have to be brave. Ed stayed true to himself, he sated an appetite for something fresh and he did it in spite of the nay sayers who would rather bank on a safe aesthetic.”

“I think that the way artists become successful is by being themselves,” Sheeran muses. “I don’t think you should ever do anything that doesn’t make you happy. I spent the first few years of my career trying to fit in, and I wasn’t happy, and the moment I just started doing things the way I wanted, I got a buzz from it, and things started to come together. And I’m still happy now. The downsides that come with this life are so miniscule compared to the upsides.”

Pressed to elaborate on what exactly those downsides might be, Sheeran speaks in only the vaguest terms, suggesting that “some of the darkest hours come after the biggest highs”. He does concede, however, that his relentless work-load hasn’t exactly been conducive to finding a significant other to share his life with.

“I’ve kind of learned the hard way over the past five years of trying to make relationships work that you have to have time to put into them, and I just haven’t had that,” he admits. “I’ve had some really great relationships, none of which could blossom into something real because of how much I was away. But I can’t beat myself up about that.”

It doesn’t bother you?

“Oh, it definitely bothers me, because it’s quite hard to be a human being when you’re in a different city every day. But this isn’t an endless thing. At some point my career will slow down, and I can think about finding ‘The One’. But that point isn’t now.

“Career-wise, there’s still plenty to do. I can look at a band like U2, who play stadiums worldwide, and see that as something to emulate. Not by doing the big show-big guitars thing that they do better than anyone, but by following my own path.

“Because equally,” he says, with a gentle smile, “U2 can’t do what I do.”

Sheeran onstage at Wembley last July.

On a warm summer evening in north Dublin, U2’s home turf, in front of 85,000 people, Sheeran proves just that. From the instant he steps onto the stripped-back stage with the words, “Hello Croke Park. My name is Ed. My job for the next two hours is to entertain you”, the lone figure on stage is spell-binding company, a natural entertainer blessed with an easy charm and no little charisma.

There’s a warm-hearted playfulness to Sheeran’s performance, which was surely learned during his formative years busking in London. Appending Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” and Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” to “Take Me Back” is a well-received early gambit, as is a bold, straight reading of the Dubliners’ take on traditional standard “Raglan Road”, while opening up the Hobbit-soundtracking “I See Fire” with an extended intro of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” makes for excellent theatre. Local heroes Kodaline get to share the spotlight for a reading of “All I Want”, but it’s in the home stretch where Sheeran truly dazzles, turning in versions of “Thinking Out Loud” and “The A Team” that leave the 75 per cent female crowd a moist-eyed, mascara-dripping mess. With Sheeran now clad in an Ireland soccer shirt, bullish underdog anthem “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You” – featuring the singer’s brag not to “stop till my name’s in lights at stadium heights” – restores the party vibe, even before it segues into Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy”. Then “Sing” sends Dublin into raptures, with Republic Of Ireland soccer captain John O’Shea singing and fist-pumping the air in glorious denial of a hundred camera phones trained in his direction. Quite the party, all told.

Engulfed by beaming family and friends backstage, amid the euphoria, Ed Sheeran might be the only person in Dublin tonight thinking beyond the bottom of the next drink. While the desire to get back to doing “normal shit” ranks high on the ‘To Do’ list to be consulted after the curtain falls on the x tour in Auckland in December – Item No. 1 on said list, he says, is learning how to drive the Mini he purchased earlier this year; Item No. 2 to stock the £900,000 farm he bought in Framlingham with animals – Sheeran’s thoughts are already turning to his third album, for which some 40 songs have been penned. One of these, a quite beautiful dedication to Johnny McDaid’s late father John, simply titled “Mr McDaid”, is described by Sheeran as “the best song I’ve ever written”, but the frighteningly prolific songwriter predicts that he’ll amass a further 150 songs before giving consideration to which tracks will make the final cut.

“There’ll be certain expectations because of the success of the last records, but I can’t let that affect me,” says Sheeran. “If I can keep releasing albums and stay on this trajectory I’ll be happy.”

If you stay on this trajectory, next time out you’ll be the biggest pop star in the world.

“Well, just as a personal thing it’s good to make a statement to yourself to show that you’re progressing,” Sheeran considers. “My competitive streak is not vindictive, it’s not a competitive thing in terms of looking at Taylor or Rihanna or Lady Gaga or Jay Z and thinking, ‘I’m going to win this race and I hope that you don’t!’ I don’t want to trip anyone else up. But, yes, of course, I’ll always want to come first. Doesn’t everyone?”

From issue #769 (December, 2015), available now.