- 22 Jan 15
Before X arrived to match the success of his debut, Ed Sheeran talked to Hot Press about his struggles writing the record and the help he got from a few famous friends – namely Pharrell and Rick Rubin...
As the world and its Irish mother knows, Ed Sheeran is a blackguard and a braggart. Here the two of us are, kicking off an end-of-promo-day chat, three weeks before the release of his second album x, and already he’s talking about how size matters. What's more, he's telling me how he’s got it in spades.
Well, sort of.
“To say there were more songs to choose from on this one is an understatement,” Ed ventures, comparing x with its predecessor +. “I mean, I put 12 out of 20 on the last one. This time, I’ve been able to choose 12 out of one hundred and twenty!”
In truth, the 24-year-old singer isn’t at all being boastful. Rather he offers the information quietly and with a chuckle which suggests that he can’t really believe his luck; he just happens to have a plethora of melodies knocking around in his noggin. Because in reality, Ed Sheeran is as down-to-earth as they come.
Make no mistake, he’s been curious to see what people make of the latest work. The reviews have been predictably mixed: after all, not many critics like to go doolally over someone who’s guaranteed to sell millions upon millions of records. The fans, meanwhile, have been loving it: the album shot straight to No.1 in Ireland, the UK and the US, as well as France, Germany and Australia among other territories.
“It is a step up from the debut album”, he says modestly, adding – with an exaggerated, humorous moan – “I’m very aware that it’s taken such a long time to put it together.”
We’ll forgive him for the delay. One of the benefits that come with making an album as startlingly successful as his debut + is that you don’t have to rush the follow-up – no matter who puts you under pressure. Even if it’s yourself!
Released in 2011, + (that’s ‘plus’, while the x of the newie is also a mathematical reference, to ‘multiply’) was the breakthrough Ed craved. There had been plenty of crashing on couches along the way, as the school dropout turned rambling busker released five EPs, all the while building a name for himself the hard way, on the UK live circuit.
His single, ‘The A Team’, was the tipping point, a track that went triple platinum in Canada and the US, shifting over two million copies in the latter country alone, as well as being nominated as Song of the Year at the Grammys. In addition, it scooped the Ivor Novello Award in the UK, where the single also went platinum.
"It wasn't really a hit," he says abstractedly – doubtless reflecting on the fact that it never actually went to No.1, anywhere in the world. But as slow-burners go, it was absolutely huge, creating the ultimate platform for him. As for its parent album, + immediately hit the summit of the British charts, going gold in week one. It would then go on to be the biggest selling album by a foreign solo artist in the US since – well, since Susan Boyle actually.
Before long, inevitably, Mr. Sheeran was rubbing shoulders with a host of true A-listers. Indeed it was Academy Award-winner Jamie Foxx who properly introduced his debut to the world. In jig time, he had been taken under Elton John’s managerial wing; was getting emails from Peter Jackson, asking if he could use one of his songs for The Hobbit; and touring the States with bosom buddy, and alleged one-time paramour, Taylor Swift. It was a classic case of toiling for years to become an “overnight success."
Talking before x was released, Sheeran couldn't have known that it would shoot to the top of the Irish Album Chart and surpass Coldplay’s Ghost Stories as the fastest selling album this year in the UK. He admits with a smile that things are going well – but, such is his sunny disposition, he’d probably react in a similar manner if he’d just been upgraded from floor staff to the tills at Tesco.
And if he's been known to namedrop, it’s simply because the names belong to people who are actually friends. So he can mention Pharrell or Swift in the same nonchalant, matter-of-fact way I would drop the name of, say, Joe Panama of Overhead, The Albatross (you’ll be a megastar one day, Panama, don’t worry).
He is, as they say, on top of the world.
Born in Halifax and bred in Framlingham, Suffolk, before he went wandering, Ed Sheeran has strong Irish roots. It's a connection he's nurtured through his interest in Irish folk – and by keeping in touch with his relatives.
“Ed’s been working his hole off for years at this stuff,” his cousin and prominent Galway artist Laura Sheeran told me in 2012. “Even when he was a teenager, he’s always been doing the music. He’s that type of personality that will be [shouts eagerly]: ‘This is what I’m doing!’
"He came to stay in my house in Galway when he was 13," she recalls, "and we were recording out in the shed. He was mad into Damien Rice, so he’d go, ‘I’ll be Damien and you be Lisa!’ as we recorded these duets. I probably have them somewhere, I should dig them out (laughs). We’d come into the house and Ed would be talking to my mom non-stop. Like it was the most important thing in the world and everyone wanted to know about it.”
Looking back from this vantage point, it feels less like youthful fantasy and more like a premonition from a young man with an older head on his shoulders. In a similar vein, gifted Northern Irish songwriter Foy Vance filled me in on the experience of joining Ed on his journey to conquer America, and how he manages to be the most unassumingly ambitious character you are likely to meet. For Ed, it really is all about the music.
“Ed’s a regular bloke," he observed. "It’s the boy next-door type thing. And he can sing and play and write songs that relate to his generation. I mean, he has a wide audience, of course – but it was mainly young girls screaming that were at gigs!”
It was an experience that left the 38-year-old Vance – who is a father himself – feeling a bit like Ed’s “demented uncle.” When I tell Ed, he sounds slightly bemused.
“It’s always different playing in a country you don’t come from," he reflects. "But I actually thought Foy went down better in the States than he did in the UK. They really took to him over there.”
Talking to Hot Press previously, Sheeran described his own hard-working ethos and commitment.
“I’ve been playing music for quite a long time. When I was 16, I was like, ‘Right, I really need to knuckle down and do nothing but gigging and writing songs'. Trying to get into an industry that’s very image-driven as a chubby ginger kid who sings songs about homeless prostitutes isn’t the easiest thing.”
That there have been struggles should go without saying. Indeed, Ed admits now that he’s only recently over a particularly tough period.
“2013 was a difficult year,” he sighs. “For many artistic reasons. But I felt like by the end of it, and by the beginning of this year, I was in a very good place. Do I get disheartened with the music business? It's a good question, but not really, no. Because I've tended to have success with it recently, so I don’t feel disheartened often.”
Much of that low period centred around his burning desire to properly and definitively break America. The logistics of touring that vast country meant that the second album had to be put on the back-burner for a time. On a creative and artistic level, he was frustrated. But it had to be done. Finally, the way forward became clear with the arrival of everyone’s favourite bearded producer.
Is Rick Rubin as zen-like a guru as we all imagine?
“Of course, yeah!” laughs Sheeran. “He re-energised me. He got me back into the album. Back into music again. Was I feeling jaded? Before Rick, I was at that stage. But Rick brought me back to a kind of normality, musically as well as everything else. He got me to play the whole thing live and made it all about the songs, rather than about doing anything flashy.”
While Rick Rubin gave Ed Sheeran his confidence back, the singer decided that a full-album collaboration would have to wait if he wanted to stay true to his pop roots on x. Enter Pharrell Williams.
A fan of that prostitution-themed pop hit ‘The A Team’, the man with the Midas touch (‘Blurred Lines’, ‘Get Lucky’ and ‘Happy’ have dominated the past 12 months alone) told Ed at a Grammys party that they should work together.
It turned out that Pharrell had different plans for Sheeran – and they were big. He played the riff from the song that would become ‘Sing’ to the flame-haired troubadour, who was initially unsure whether he could make it work.
"Then I found myself playing it absent-mindedly on the guitar," he admits, leading Pharrell to smile. “See, got it stuck in your head,” the producer told him.
The resulting song would become the lead single on x, signalling a new direction for Ed. It sounds, in essence, like Justin Timberlake just after he went solo.
“Working with Pharrell on that song, I definitely went in wanting to do a Justin Timberlake-y sort of thing,” he agrees. “His album, Justified, was my favourite record that Pharrell had produced.”
While the record company initially had concerns that the song was too drastic a departure for a first single, coming at it from entirely different perspectives, Elton John and Taylor Swift both argued that he would be mad not to go with it. So that was that: he pushed the boat out,
Sheeran himself experienced no real crisis of faith, having always seen his sound as a very malleable thing. He has long shirked the “balladeer” tag, countering critics who think + was simply love songs for teenage girls.
“I guess from an outsider’s perspective, the album would be considered ‘taking chances’,” he says of x as a whole. “But at the time I was writing so many songs, that the ones that would be considered 'chances' weren’t necessarily that at all. They just added to the plethora of songs that I had, ready and waiting.”
From the first number written – ‘One’, which was recorded using a guitar given to him by Gary Lightbody and made from a whiskey barrel – Sheeran was eager to experiment within a pop framework.
“Throughout the album,” he says, “I tried to keep quite an open palette and always to be open-minded when it comes to other music. My attitude is to try different things. I don’t really come from a generation where genres exist. I come from a generation where people just tend to buy single tracks. So if you were to look on any kid’s iPod nowadays, they’d have an Adele track, a One Direction track, Bruno Mars, Mumford & Sons... They’re not specifically into one set genre. That’s the generation I come from, and therefore my music reflects that.”
His openness shouldn't surprise anyone who's kept a close eye on his career to date. His two LPs aside, Sheeran has proven himself to be an adept writer for others, penning songs for the likes of Ms. Swift, Olly Murs and One Direction.
Needless to say, the two numbers he wrote for 1D’s Take Me Home were far removed lyrically from the warts ‘n’ all, confessional style he adopts for his own work. Considering how much crossover there is between his fanbase and that of the world’s biggest boy band, how has he managed to get away with songs dealing with drunkenness and, on x, even more illegal activities?
As a friend of One Direction – we can confirm that he gave Harry Styles his “crap” padlock tattoo, which Styles now regrets – he seems a bit baffled at the Daily Mail-led outrage over the video leaked of two of their members, Zayn Malik and Louis Tomlinson, smoking cannabis and joking about it. Sheeran insists that it wouldn’t be a big deal if he featured in a similar video.
“I’ve never shied away from that stuff,” he says, referring to the matter-of-fact way he's addressed drink, drugs and the rest in his songs. “And there’s lots of touches of that, even on the first album. I don’t think it surprises anyone if you act now in the way that you mean to go on. No one’s going to be shocked now if I’m open about it myself. Rather than being caught doing it, it’s taking control of your own situation."
He pauses for thought.
“I know it’s a completely different thing,” he continues, “but take Sam Smith coming out last week. With him doing that first, no one batted an eyelid, because he was very upfront and honest about it. It is a normal thing, nowadays, anyway. He's gay: so what? Whereas I feel, like, sometimes in the media, when celebrities get caught doing stuff, it gets made into a far bigger deal than it actually is.”
You can say that again. As a young man getting used to his personal life being scrutinised and intruded upon, Sheeran naturally struggles with the trappings of fame occasionally. Amiable throughout this interview, a week later he’s being labelled a social media grump. Evidently weary from non-stop travel, he posts three tweets.
“Please stop coming to airports to meet me, I really appreciate the love but getting off of long haul flights I’m not in the best of states”, he appeals in one. “No disrespect whatsoever intended, I always take time with fans where I can, just airports are awkward,” he adds; and finally there was a textual shrug of “Whatever”.
The comments were subsequently deleted but, with close to 10 million followers, the inevitable "storm of outrage" had already been stoked. And that’s just dealing with the people who adore him. More potential pitfalls lie when he’s faced with the people who want to dissect him. Indeed, Sheeran is so open in his lyrics, that your average hack will argue that it means his personal life is fair game. Not that it gets them very far.
“Do those questions seem redundant?" he asks. "Sometimes, yeah. Sometimes you’ll get interviewers asking a question and I'll say, ‘Look, I’ve explained that in the song'. I dunno, people always wanna know more.”
Lately, this has been causing him some concern, particularly in relation to one track, the angry kiss-off ‘Don’t’ – which boasts the key line “don’t fuck with my love” in the chorus. “I never saw him as a threat/ Until you disappeared with him to have sex,” Ed complains, not unjustly you'd intuit.
There are clues in the song that it's about another singer. And as a result there has been widespread speculation that he’s agonising over the failure of his brief relationship with Ellie Goulding – which ended after she allegedly left him for One Direction’s Niall Horan.
Sheeran isn’t giving anything away, but when a Telegraph journalist suggested that Goulding might be upset by the track because, regardless of whether or not it’s about her, people will still think it is, Sheeran began to worry about a possible “backlash”. The truth, however, is that he's just getting on with life – and using what happens for his art. It's what writers do...
“I manage to find the balance now and then,” he ventures. “And I think that’s exactly what I’m meant to be doing at 23-years-old!”
He smiles. But there's no secret about the fact that his personal turnaround, earlier this year, coincided with meeting his current girlfriend, Athina Andrelos, who works for chef Jamie Oliver. She inspired the clearly smitten ‘Thinking Out Loud’ – and its arrival marked the moment that everything came together with the album. Right now, Ed Sheeran is in a good place: content – at least when he’s not jetlagged!
He confesses that he’d like to properly settle down some day. A decade from now, he imagines that he'll be a father. He might frolic about in Nashville with Taylor Swift and crash in Courtney Cox’s Malibu home rent-free – payback for setting her up with Snow Patrol’s Johnny McDaid, he laughs – but there’s a house in Suffolk with his name on it. He even reckons that, while he feels he’ll “definitely be involved in music in one way or another”, he’ll eventually opt for a proper retirement rather than living life like a Rolling Stone.
“Eventually,” he nods. “Eventually...”
Don’t set up those helplines for grief-stricken teens just yet though. “I’m not slowing down anytime soon,” he adds. Just as well. As the world and its mother knows, Ed Sheeran is here to stay.