The biggest pop act on the planet smokes rollies and doesn’t own a hair brush. Ed Sheeran lets Jimi Famurewa into his understated, mega-selling world
Last year, Ed Sheeran found himself sitting outside a locked door on the streets of Compton. He was sure he had the right address, but there was no way of getting in. He’d travelled through California’s most notorious district on his bicycle – past shuttered dollar stores and slumped street drinkers – late at night to record at face-tattooed former 50 Cent protégé The Game’s studio. But now all he could do was wait.
He’d had no trouble on the way, and this may just have been because, in his own words, he’s never “got anything worth robbing” beyond his rucksack and battered guitar. Or, perhaps, the sight of a messy-haired ginger kid from Framlingham whizzing through the city (the US’s eighth most dangerous in a 2010 crime survey) on his bike was so incongruous it momentarily dumfounded any opportunist Bloods or Crips lying in wait. Anyway, The Game eventually opened the door and expressed his surprise that Sheeran wasn’t shivering in his underwear, recently liberated of everything he owned. It’s a good story.
And like a lot of good stories, it’s not strictly true.
"He’s told so many people about this I just go with it now,” chuckles Sheeran, taking a furtive sip of tea in his dressing room. “I did go to Compton, but I got an Uber there. And when he came out of the studio there was a bike next to me. He looked at the bike, looked at me and went, ‘Yo, come in.’” He laughs, pauses. “I’m not contesting it, though, because if I’d had a bike I would have ridden it there.” Of course he would have. And it’s that knowledge that makes the story, the embellished one, so perfect, so plausible that it’s almost truer than the real version.
It reveals something about, not just how far this 23-year-old former busker has come, both figuratively and literally, but also how he’s done it. His life seems as charmed as it is contradictory. He’s the kid who looks like he still pays for pints of snakebite with exact change, who bumbled his way to pop stardom, he’s the most connected man in music, the critically-mauled troubadour who sold four million copies of his debut album. Cross Compton on a BMX? Well, why the hell wouldn’t he?
Straight Outta Suffolk
Earlier that day Sheeran bounds into ShortList’s ad hoc studio – a sticky-floored Camden bar that, coincidentally enough, he used to gig in – cracks a Red Bull and dives into a photoshoot that variously requires him to contort his frame into a box and boil in an outsize rollneck under Gestapo-grade spotlights. In real life, he’s probably taller and thinner than you’d imagine, with the faint tufts of a beard on his chin, those colouring book sleeve tattoos that are like visual non sequiturs (A cat! ‘Starry Night’ by Van Gogh! A Lego head!) and a chirpy, good-humoured attitude you wouldn’t expect from someone who got off a plane from Australia yesterday.
Yes, the circadian dubstep that accompanies success in modern music is in evidence. Before Oz, it was two months playing to packed stadiums in the US – part of an ever-expanding tour that included three sold-out nights at Madison Square Garden and the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury this year. Tomorrow he’s doing Radio 1’s Live Lounge and a gig for Amazon. Then it’s off to Dublin for the start of a run of the UK and Ireland’s enormo-domes and arenas. Tonight, though, he’s headlining the penultimate show of the iTunes Festival. As the shoot ends I’m bundled into a people carrier with Sheeran’s small team and afforded a view of the queue of fans encircling the building a good three hours before stage time.
“Some of them have been here since 5am,” notes Ed matter-of-factly, picking out a few of his hardcore fans in the crush near the doors. “A few were doing their homework in the queue,” adds his tour manager. Between this and figures that get more absurd every day – this year’s biggest and fastest selling UK album, streamed on Spotify a record 23 million times in one week – things are going pretty well. But, as recently as 2010, in this corner of London, life was very different.
“I used to live on a dude’s couch just behind Chalk Farm station,” he says, reaching for a pouch of tobacco and settling into a low sofa. “And every single day, I’d finish a gig late and go to this place called Cafe Metro, which did these steak baguettes with teriyaki sauce and mushrooms. That would be my dinner. So it’s weird coming back.” This part of his origin story is, of course, well established. He was the 16-year-old kid who left Suffolk for a life dossing in London friends’ houses and slogged his way to an enormous word-of-mouth audience via relentless gigging, self-released EPs, savvy social media and tear-soaked melodies. He’s soundtracked countless first wedding dances and, in his capacity as a sort of Barry White for the Facebook generation, a fair few conceptions. As he says with a grin: “I was once playing blackjack with this guy from Google and every time I lost he bought me back in. I said thanks and he went, ‘No problem, I get laid to your music all the time.’”
In 2011 his debut album +, despite getting in his words “two good reviews”, sold by the skipload, and it’s here that we alight on one of the more interesting aspects of the Ed Sheeran phenomenon. Despite his success and likable demeanour, there are certainly detractors. Say his name in certain company (roughly half of the ShortList office) and people will pull faces, emit groans and put his catchy acoustic soul on a par with the acts of various war criminals. It’s actually a misconception that his two albums have been totally savaged by reviewers, but there remains a sizeable chunk of the populace, in Britain especially, that have taken a look at the annihilated sales records, platinum discs and the big name collaborators and effectively gone, “Him?” Does he find that annoying?
“I don’t know,” he reasons. “There are always people who feel like there should be better music pushed out there [by me]. I really cared on the first album, but I don’t know how much I care now.”
It should also be pointed out that a lot of the ire is fairly abstract. There’s the general sense that he’s somehow responsible for every numpty with a guitar brutalising Lego House on The X Factor, and sometimes even well-meaning forces conspire against him. In July, his place at the top of black music station 1Xtra’s Power List caused spluttering controversy and misreported news items that stopped just short of screaming, ‘Ed Sheeran Named Heir To James Brown!’
“Well, the list was made up of people that were on their playlist,” says Sheeran now. “I was p*ssed off at how other people worded that and how people reacted. But apart from collaborations, it had been the first time I had a song that 1Xtra could play. I wasn’t too freaked but I kept my mouth shut during that situation, because you don’t want to add fuel to the fire.”
It’s a typically magnanimous response to a decidedly silly hoopla, and makes perfect sense when you consider the “song” and “album” he’s talking about. A one-two punch that’s perhaps prompted people to think of him as something other than what he calls “a depressed singer-songwriter who just does love songs”.
Get yourself connected
Unleashed in April to widespread cries of “Is this Justin Timberlake?”, Sing – the irresistible Pharrell-powered earworm from second album x that became Sheeran’s first UK No1 – looks, from the outside, like the moment everything changed, or at least shifted, for the occasional critical whipping boy. The truth is, it was the culmination of three-odd years of canny moves – that trip to Compton, performing at the Grammys with Elton John, touring with, and befriending, Taylor Swift, recording with hip-hop and rock deity Rick Rubin – that made the kid in the crumpled T-shirt and surfer necklace seem, well, a bit cool.
“I think this album has changed a lot of opinions [about me],” he concedes, preparing a second rollie as his team circle and try to wrap up our chat. “I’m not sure they really know where to place me now.” Evidently, he’s been enjoying taking this new musical and public persona for a spin. He’s necked espresso martinis at The Hobbit premiere in Berlin (“I had so many I thought a wardrobe I was leaning against was vibrating like a fridge”), hung out with rapper Rick Ross (“When I was brought over to him he was topless and just started looking at my tattoos”), did his bit for Ibiza’s bottled water industry (“[MDMA] is not something people should do, but I felt I should experience it”) and generally had a ball forging connections with people as far-ranging as Paul McCartney and dreadlocked future-soul king Ty Dolla Sign.
Then there’s the continued chatter around his song Don’t, an uncomfortably candid gospel-tinged account of an ex who may or may not be Ellie Goulding cheating on Ed with a guy who may or may not be one of two speculated members of One Direction. “I’m in a good place at the moment, so I don’t think songs like that will come out again,” he says, swatting away perhaps his 354th question about the saga.
Now this is all quite far from the charges of blandness fired over by his fiercest critics. He’s clearly not about to start swanning around in a personal jet called Ed Force One (“I only fly private when someone else is paying”), but is he enjoying embracing a bit of rock’n’roll? There’s even talk of a Liberace-ish habit of having hired puppies delivered to hotel rooms.
“Is that rock’n’roll?” he says, blushing slightly. “Surely renting puppies is the least rock’n’roll thing ever. I like to enjoy my success with my people, though. I flew all my cousins to Vegas recently and we got a private room to gamble. We went to this club with a table of free alcohol and it ended up with me and four of my cousins DJing hip-hop and rapping on stage with Macklemore. Let’s just say if you’d paid to be there that night you’d have been p*ssed off with a bunch of drunk Irish lads singing Nate Dogg.”
One man band
With show time looming I leave Sheeran and head outside to meet his queuing fans – who have tripled in number and run the gamut from the teenage girls you’d expect, to the middle-aged dads you wouldn’t. So why do they like him? Well, apart from a waggish 20-year-old called Pete, who suggests the guys may be here because of the high girl quotient, it seems (predictably) to be about authenticity and tunes. Bluntly, no one seems particularly arsed about appraising “Ed the man”. But, as 14-year-old superfan Aashna puts it: “He writes heartfelt songs and he doesn’t seem too arrogant or bothered by fame.”
And here he comes, shuffling on stage to a huge roar in an unbuttoned lumberjack shirt, the fabled ‘guy with a guitar’. Another part of Sheeran’s appeal, you’d wager, is his live show. He performs without a band, instead deploying a set of loop pedals to layer sound – chords, guitar-thwacking drums, backing vocals, beatboxing, slightly Craig David-ish rapping – to form a tidal wave of noise you can’t quite believe is coming from one man.
Watching him create it all on his own – sprinting between microphones, crouching over the pedals – is mesmerising in itself. It’s like some demented cross between an item on The Generation Game and Stomp, and it would take an icy-hearted cynic to not be impressed by the sonic plate-spinning, the showmanship, the choruses that get under your skin. Yes, it’s cheesy and unashamedly crowd-pleasing (he demands singalongs, Instagrams the audience and segues into Everybody (Backstreet’s Back) at one point), but in the age of terminally embarrassed rock stars counting a mumbled “Hello London” as the height of patter, it’s also pretty refreshing.
The crowd, for their part, are putty in his hands. Tough-looking young lads mouth along to every word, lost in the moment, while girls in homemade ‘Sheeranator’ T-shirts and glow-in-the-dark bracelets throng the railings at the front. “My name is Ed and for the next two hours my job is to entertain you,” he bellows, a shiny jacket away from Robbie territory. And suddenly it strikes you. For all the talk of the improbability of his rise, the wrongness of his place atop pop’s Empire State Building, he’s not some awkward introvert or nerdy outcast. The man’s a swaggering, natural performer. A born frontman in a roadie’s body. And, as he noted earlier, that may just be his secret weapon.
“Elton John didn’t look like a conventional pop star, Lionel Richie didn’t, Adele doesn’t. And maybe that’s why they get big. Otherwise, how can people relate to you? If you’re too preened nobody feels like they could know you.”
New single Thinking Out Loud is out 23 November, the album x is available now, and Sheeran is on a UK arena tour until 31 October; edsheeran.com