- 12 Jul 19
To celebrate the release of his star-studded new album, we're revisiting our Ed Sheeran cover story, originally published in 2018. Stuart Clark gets the inside word on Ed from some of his closest musical allies, recalls his own time hanging out with the stadium-filling superstar, and hears about his very first visit to Dublin home from home, Whelan's.
Forget Pope Francis and his one feeble gig in the Phoenix Park. If it’s religious levels of adoration you’re after, look no further than Ed Sheeran’s nine Irish sellouts next month, which will send 400,000 of his devoted Irish flock into musical raptures.
Helping him knock it out of the park/stadium/playing fields here will be Beoga, the Northern Irish (albeit with a Limerick lead singer and fiddler) trad merchants who feature on two of the fan favourites from his gazillion-selling divide album, ‘Galway Girl’ and ‘Nancy Mulligan’.
“We were laughing last night at the ridiculousness of us going out on stadium tour with one of the biggest artists in the world,” reveals their bodhrán maestro, Eamon Murray. “‘What night are we playing Páirc Uí Chaoimh, again?’ isn’t a question we’d have asked ourselves before hooking up with Ed. ‘Pearse Stadium: that’s only 25,000, right?’ It’s insane but brilliant.”
Ginormous as they’ll be, those crowds pale in comparison to the one Beoga and Ed played to at Glastonbury 2017.
“He got one of the biggest ever Pyramid Stage audiences,” Eamon resumes. “It’s really hard to describe because I’ve zero reference points for it. The eeriest part was leaving the dressing room and being pretty much the only people in this massive production area as we waited to go on and do ‘Nancy Mulligan’. It was pretty intimidating, but we got stuck into it and enjoyed every second. I was trying to take it all in because, let’s be honest, we’re not going to get to headline Glastonbury ourselves. It’s definitely one to tell the grandkids.
“Maybe he was nervous underneath, but Ed was just chomping at the bit to get out there. He’s a powerful, powerful dude. Nothing seems to faze him: he takes it all in his stride and keeps working and building. People have to appreciate that Ed’s absolutely relentless. If he’s not touring, he’s writing with Johnny (McDaid) and Foy (Vance). During his recent Australian tour, the three of them were always huddled together conspiratorially. His output is phenomenal. He’s working on album number four at the same time as coming up with songs for other people.”
Those other people include Notting Hill and Love Actual’s Richard Curtis who wants to sprinkle some Sheeran glitter on his new Danny Boyle-directed movie, All You Need In Love. As well as supplying part of the soundtrack, Ed is reportedly cameo-ing in the yarn “about a man who wakes up one day to find that he’s the only person who can remember the songs of The Beatles.”
With a net worth in the region of €42.5 million – he’s said to have made €54,000 per day last year – Ed certainly doesn’t need the extra money. “You always get the sense that it’s for music’s sake rather than Ed wanting to be even more rich and famous,” Eamon Murray concurs. “He goes out of his way to keep things normal on the road. The crew are all sound and his family are around a lot. You see other stars that are puppets for the industry, but nobody tells Ed what to do. He’s re-writing the rulebook in terms of the artistic control he has.”
His friend, songwriting partner and executive producer, Johnny McDaid, also remarked on Ed’s fierce rebellious streak in a recent issue of Hot Press.
“Ed is more punk than any of the fake sounding Clash wannabes out there,” he insisted. “He does it the way he does it, and he’s not to be told. There’s a real authenticity that permeates everything he does. When he signed first, they wanted him to change his name, dye his hair, get a band, lose weight and become this skinny little pipe-cleaner pop star. And Ed was like, ‘Well, that’s not who I am.’ I saw him do it.”
Nodding his agreement, Eamon says: “Johnny’s spot on. If somebody tried to tell Ed what to do, he’d in that ever so polite way of his tell them to ‘fuck off!’”
Can Eamon get his head round stats like ‘Galway Girl’ being viewed more than 346 million times on YouTube?
“No, not even remotely,” he admits. “I genuinely haven’t looked at it on YouTube in months, which is partly because of the comments posted underneath. We’re well aware that ‘Galway Girl’ is loved and hated in equal measure! It probably doesn’t help that every busker in the world has it in his or her repertoire. I’ve heard versions that are amazing, and ones that have made me want to run home and issue a public apology! The cynicism towards it here doesn’t really exist in places like Australia and South America where they go absolutely nuts for ‘Galway Girl’.”
Ed acknowledged that he’s not everybody’s cup of Barry’s in an interview last month with the New Zealand Herald.
“I had quite a thin skin when I first started out playing,” he admitted. “I played on an acoustic singer-songwriter scene in London where I didn’t have a vast amount of success but nobody ever called me ‘shit’. Everyone was supportive and like, ‘Go for it!’ because I was quite young. As soon as you’re out in the wider world, people who basically you can’t see – y’know, that write on the internet – start picking holes. I feel I make music that people either really, really love or really, really hate. Thankfully, there’s more love than hate, which is why I’ve come not to care. I get to tour round the world, I get to make the music I want to make, and play it to people who like it. I also get the opportunity to convert people: there are boyfriends and husbands and dads that might not be fans coming to the gigs, but leave thinking, ‘He’s alright.’ There’s nothing negative about not being liked.”
Ed has insulated himself from those anonymous keyboard warriors by quitting Twitter.
“This last two weeks I have no idea what’s going on in the world: life is just fucking great!” he enthused. “My first instinct when I woke up was to go on Twitter and search my name. I’d spend half-an-hour looking at people saying, ‘I hate him!’ I’d be like, ‘Now it’s time to start my day…’ Not doing that is really good. I’m still on Instagram, though, because no one really posts mean comments on it.”
Returning to Beoga, and Eamon & Co. have the aforementioned Bangor troubadour, Foy Vance, to thank for the upturn in their commercial fortunes.
“We actually go way back,” he reminisces. “Foy got me to play bodhrán on a record he was producing twenty years ago. Later on, I was living in Belfast at the same time as he was doing a regular gig in the Rotterdam Bar, which is sadly no longer with us, and we got to know each other. It’d be Foy and his friends messing around in front of a dozen people. Like Ed, the passion for music just oozes out of him. He isn’t from a traditional background but, courtesy of people like Liam Ó Maonlaí, has got more and more into it. A couple of years ago, he got in touch and said, ‘We should record together.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, absolutely.’ The next message he shot me was, ‘Actually, do you fancy doing a bit of writing with Ed?’ I said, ‘Fucking sure!’ Foy had played Ed some of the songs from our 2011 album, how to tune a fish, and he really liked them.”
A few weeks later Eamon and his bandmates were jamming away in Ed’s studio with Foy, Johnny McDaid and another of his songwriting inner circle, Amy Wadge.
“We were there to track ‘Nancy Mulligan’ and another song that didn’t make it on to divide, which we did in two or three takes. I remember a sound engineer saying to us once, ‘The most disciplined people in the studio are trad and metal bands. You get the job done because musically there are no weak links.’
“It was a gorgeous day, his family were there and as he got the suss on us and realised we were cool, Ed opened the door a bit,” Eamon continues. “He’s really into ‘Minute 5’ from how to tune a fish and said, ‘I wonder if we could play that tune over an idea I have?’ The rest, as they say, is rock ‘n’ roll history!”
With every other Irish journalist seemingly otherwise engaged, I was asked to host the press conference that Ed held on Friday July 24, 2015 before the first of his two Croke Park sellouts.
Despite his well-documented love of Irish drinking emporia, he’d spent the previous night hanging out “down by the Wexford border” with his 93-year-old granny, Annie, AKA the Nancy of ‘Nancy Mulligan’ fame.
“We ate pasta, played with the dog… nothing really that rock ‘n’ roll to be honest,” he told me. “Whenever I come to Ireland I just want to spend as much time with her as possible. Ireland is more about catching up with family, cups of tea and things like that – not necessarily going out and doing 15 Jägerbombs. I’m not saying that I won’t at some point. I’ll have a Guinness – I can’t have more than one because it feels like a meal – and then move on to the spirits.”
I’d never set out to be the envy of every 16-year-old girl (and a good few boys, too) in the land, but that’s precisely what happened at 1.02pm that day when Ed gave me a great big bear hug that was later broadcast to the nation on the RTÉ Six O’Clock News. For those who’ve dreamed of such an eventuality more than I have, I can reveal that he’s extremely well toned, smells delicious – I’m guessing Boss, possibly L’Eau D’Issey – and has skin that wouldn’t be out of place on a baby’s bottom.
During the presser, he confirmed what Eamon Murray said about him not being overly concerned with sales figures.
“There’s definitely pressure, but it doesn’t come from me, it comes from the record label,” he stated. “They all see it as their big release of the year. It’s their chance to get their Christmas bonuses. There’s a lot of pressure from their side but as long as I’m happy with it, that’s alright. I’ve never put out an album and thought: ‘I want to make a certain amount of money from it.’ I can’t really see anything selling more, unless you go into Adele territory, which is just ridiculous. I’m just going to make what I want and put it out.”
Ed wasn’t entirely pleased with the nicest man in pop and/or rock status that’s been bestowed on him.
“I find with having that title, whenever I do something that’s not nice it’s really blown out of proportion,” he rued. “I guess in any business you do sometimes have to be firm and nasty – and I employ other people to do that. I don’t ever like being mean. I like being friendly. Actually, Dave Grohl is the nicest man in music.”
There was the obligatory shout out to his hero of heroes, Christy Moore, who he went to visit in Kildare after the Croker meet the press session finished.
“I’m a big Planxty fan in general,” Ed elaborated. “If you want to get the vibe of them, the Live At The Point album and DVD from 2008 are great. Gary Dunne, who’s an Irish singer songwriter, ran a night I was at 12 years ago in Portlaoise where he got Andy Irvine to come and play. That was really good! All of my best memories of concerts have been in Ireland. Firstly, you’re all mental! When you go to a gig you’re madly up for it, so you don’t have to get people going. You step out on stage and instantly they’re there. It’s always the best crowd you can get.
“I was brought up on Irish music. I’ve listened to a whole bunch of it and it’s definitely been an influence.”
Chuckling as I recount the story, Eamon Murray suggests: “Ed could go on Mastermind and have Planxty as his specialist subject. All London and Mancunian Irish kids growing up back then would have heard Christy and Andy and Donal courtesy of their parents. I used to play in a band with Noel Gallagher’s first cousin, Emma Sweeney. They’re all good trad musicians in that family.
“As for that press conference, yeah, I imagine there’d have been a lot of very envious Ed fans. They’re such a loyal and eager bunch that when divide came out, they all went in to forums and shared how to reset their Spotify clocks to Australian time so that they’d be first in the world to hear it. They’re also great in that no matter what type of artist you are, they’ll give you a chance if you’re a friend of his!”
One of the downsides to hanging around with Ed is that you end up getting spur of the moment tattoos.
“That’s become a bit of an ongoing joke with my wife,” Eamon reveals. “Actually, it’s more, ‘Don’t you dare get one!’ I know Ed and Johnny have matching tattoos.”
Both of their bodies are adorned with “Nuair is gá dom fháil bhaile, is tú mo réalt eolais”, an Irish translation of the “When I need to get home, you’re my guiding light” line from a Foy Vance song, ‘Guiding Light’, that Ed features on.
It’s just as well Mrs. Murray’s put her foot down given Ed’s latest tattoo goal.
“I did an episode of The Simpsons and I’m trying to get them to do cartoon versions of my two cats so I can get that tatooed,” he informed another Kiwi journalist. “They live with my girlfriend: I miss all three of my girls.”
The non-feline in question being Cherry Seaborn, an old sweetheart from his primary school days in Framlingham, Suffolk who’s moved back from the States where she was at college to set up home with him.
Still being on Instagram meant that Ed was able to post a smoochy photo of them accompanied by the message: “Got myself a fiancé just before the New Year. We are very happy and in love, and our cats are chuffed as well.”
The latest of Ed’s collaborations is the song that Ryan McMullan and him have come up with for the Cillian Murphy, Andrew Scott and Eve Birthistle movie, The Delinquent Season.
“It’s called ‘In This Room’ and features in the trailer, which just came out the other day,” enthuses Ryan. “We wrote it with another guy called Antony Genn who was pulling together the score. Ed called me in and was like, ‘Man, I’ve got this idea for a movie thing I’m doing, do you want to help finish it?’ Once we had, I went into the studio and stuck down the vocals. The way it happened was very organic.”
The Portaferry singer laughs when I liken Ed to the Duracell Bunny. “You’re spot on! His drive and passion for music amazes me. Most of our conversations are about what we’re writing at the minute. ‘Any new songs? Yeah? Let me hear one.’ He just doesn’t stop working. I was doing a couple of shows with Ed in Sydney recently, and he was going straight from the studio to the stage and sometimes back again.
“His tenacity is second to none – he’s always ‘on’, and it’s so infectious and inspiring,” Ryan continues. “Every time I’m in Ed’s presence, he has something new on the horizon. He’s a great mentor too. When I was touring round Europe with him last year I was trying to think of a song to release, and he came in straight away and said, ‘It has to be ‘Oh Susanna’. I thought about it and went, ‘Yeah, that’s a great introduction.’ Every time he’s suggested something to me it’s turned out to be the right advice. He’s been there and done it all, so he knows what he’s talking about.”
Going back to Ed’s tattoos, McMullan, who’s copiously inked himself, says: “I love them because they all tell a story. If you ask Ed, ‘What’s that about?’ he’ll tell you, ‘Oh, I was in Philadelphia and this, that and the other happened.’ He hasn’t just gone through an art-book and thought, ‘That looks kind of cool.’ As Festival Republic supremo Melvin Been recalls, Ed is no slouch in the wheeler-dealer department.
“I’d been watching him on and off before he made a record when he was just playing in pubs and clubs,” he recalls. “He was clearly talented and was making a name for himself. My son’s school was celebrating its 450th anniversary and they said to be, ‘Melvin, would you consider putting together something that the kids might like?’ I asked Ed, he said ‘Yes’ and came and blew the whole school away. In return he asked for a spot at the Latitude festival, which was near to where he grew up. Four months after the school gig, he opened the Main Stage at Latitude in the pouring rain and was so good that we gave him slots at Reading and Leeds. By then, his first single was out, BBC Radio One were getting behind him and you couldn’t get near the stages where he was playing.”
Also appearing with Ed as he wends his way from Páirc Uí Chaoimh to Belfast’s Boucher Playing Fields are the first he act he signed in 2015 to his Gingerbread Man label, Jamie Lawson – Foy Vance followed soon after – and Anne-Marie, the former Clean Bandit and Rudimental guest vocalist whose solo debut, Speak Your Mind, drops this week and looks certain to establish the 27-year-old from Tilbury in Essex as a star in her own right.
The lead single, ‘2002’, which references Jay-Z, NSYNC and Britney Spears in its insanely catchy chorus, is a co-write with Ed.
“He’s someone I look up to for sure: he’s so focused and determined,” she says. “We’ve been friends for nearly ten years now, so we’ve always wanted to work with each other.”
Ryan McMullan is as big a fan as Ed Sheeran is.
“She’s a darling, a sweetheart,” he gushes. “A great voice, and dynamic in the extreme on stage. Ed’s assembled a big family of people around him who all love being in each other’s company. It just so happens that most of the family are some of the biggest songwriters in the world.” The last word goes to Bren Berry, the Aiken Promotions booker who’s been taking care of Ed’s gigs here since the off.
“It’s usually bands with ten albums and a massive stage show that get to headline Croke Park, but he did it with a couple of FX pedals, some mates of his and just two record’s worth of material,” Bren reflects. “He pulled it off big time – which I knew he would, otherwise I wouldn’t have proposed it! Some artists struggle making those sort of step-ups, he doesn’t. It helps that he has one of the best sound guys, Chris Marsh, in the business. I’ve never seen Ed looking nervous: he’s a natural. He loves making music and is very generous in his championing of other musicians that he’s a fan of. I can’t off hand think of any artist who does as many collaborations as Ed does. One of the first times we worked together, I went and got him a load of trad albums and he was like, ‘Wow, Planxty, ‘West Coast Of Clare’ is my favourite song of theirs from that record.” He told me that story about seeing Andy Irvine in Portlaoise as a teenager too! When Ed played Croker, we got a luthier here, Frank Tate, to make him a bouzouki. When we gave it to him his eyes literally lit up. He was like, ‘What is that?!’ He took it out of the case and rehearsed to the point where he was able to play two songs that night to 80,000 people on it. He’d never picked a bouzouki up until that day.”
It was on a night out in Dublin that Bren sold Ed the idea of going on a road trip here.
“When we’d done Springsteen around the country before, it was just incredible,” he resumes. “Ed has the Bruce thing of being able to communicate with a crowd at a very intimate level. The sincerity and appreciation of his fans is real. He has a genuine relationship with Ireland, so it made sense to bring the show to towns other than just Dublin. Despite it being the biggest tour in Irish history, Ed will try to maintain an air of normality. He’s very tight with his parents who are at most of his big gigs, and has a good few of his friends on the road working for him. He’s incredibly excited about being the first artist to play in the new Páirc Uí Chaoimh, which I’ve been down to look at and is incredible. Can you imagine what the reaction’s going to be when he plays ‘Galway Girl’ in Pearse Stadium? He’s got some amazing things planned for next month!”
See Music News for details of the new Beoga single, ‘We Don’t Have To Run’, out now and featuring Ryan McMullan
Ed Sheeran's First Night in Whelan's
He was the boy who stood out in the crowd at the front of the stage that Saturday afternoon, in September 2004.
The rainbow-coloured entrance tickets officially proclaimed the Damien Rice show as an ‘All adults must be accompanied by an U18’ event, at Whelan’s of Wexford Street. An exception to the rule, the ‘child’ that got me in that day, and stationed beside the stage, was a two-year old called Chance – my professional digital camera.
Surrounded primarily by willowy teenage girls in the front row, thirteen-year old Edward, with his vivid yellow t-shirt topped by a speckled-with-freckles face and conspicuous orange hair, immediately caught my eye. Fidgety but attentive, his wide eyes reflected the stage lights, while also revealing his internal excitement, as he listened for the first time to one of his favourite musicians performing live. With his unconcealed youthful curiosity, Edward gave the impression of being a human sponge. Or that was the way I saw it at the time. I didn’t know until later that I had been right all along.
Edward’s accompanying adult that day was his greatest inspiration as a child – his father, John Sheeran. John had noted already that his son showed little interest in school, but was drawn to music – and so had started taking him to concerts.
In May 2004 his dad took him to see Eric Clapton – the musician who two years previously had inspired a then eleven-year old Edward to take up the guitar. Four months later, at this gig in Dublin, Damien Rice became the third leg in the tripod of inspiration, which would become the foundation of something truly extraordinary.
Edward’s attendance at that Whelan’s gig is often referred to as his turning point, or musical epiphany. Noting that Damien could hold the audience enraptured with just his guitar and voice, Edward realised that he wanted to do the same thing – and that he did not need a band to become a musician and songwriter.
After the gig, Damien met and spoke with Edward. That meeting and conversation, in the front bar after the gig that day, effectively solidified the Celbridge singer-songwriter’s inspirational influence on the boy. Edward stayed up to write his first six songs after arriving back in England that same evening.
Unfaltering Work Ethic
Within five months of being inspired at the Damien Rice gig, Edward had recorded his first songs, with a home unit received as a Christmas present, and had launched his personal musician’s webpage at edsheeran.com. Edward had transitioned into the musician Ed Sheeran, effectively setting his course in life. He had not yet reached his 14th birthday.
Chance, both the camera with that name, and the opportunity I intuited, had an effect on my day at that Damien Rice gig back in 2004. I photographed Edward in the front bar after the gig. The resulting first image I created that afternoon is a visual reflection of inspiration in the glowing face of a curious young man.
However, inspiration is nothing without perspiration. As it transpired, the human sponge I saw in the front row at Whelan’s was more a Miracle Mop in the making. In the intervening years, Ed has combined his talent and passion for music with an unfaltering work ethic. His natural curiosity has kept him experimenting with his songwriting, and ensured that he continues to learn about, and adapt to, the fluctuations of the modern music industry with a level of ingenuity and success that is itself inspiring.
Now the most popular male musician in the world, whose songs have reached into the hearts and minds of so many, the boy who once stood out in the crowd at the front of the stage in Whelans will soon stand out on a stage in front of crowds totaling close to half a million people, in Ireland alone, when he performs nine dates here during the month of May. On an island with a population of just over six million people, that is an extraordinary, record-breaking achievement. Long may it continue.