Inside his record-breaking return...

Aside from every single one of Donald Trump’s rampant and increasingly deranged tweets, do you know what makes for a spectacularly jaw-dropping read? Try the one-sheet of Ed Sheeran’s unbelievably impressive achievements that arrived in Clash’s inbox just days before our scheduled rendezvous.

“Ed was the most-streamed artist in the world on Spotify for the month of January 2017,” begin the notes, which are littered with words like “biggest ever”, “first ever”, “most viewed” and “most shared”, and astonishing numbers like “200 million combined streams”, “100 million views” and “90 platinum certifications”. It’s incredible when you realise that these triumphs have accumulated over just six years, and that this towering pile of broken records shows no signs of toppling yet.

Because, just this morning, a new raft of world-conquering feats were announced in the wake of the release of ‘÷’, his third mathematically monikered album after debut ‘+’ and its smash hit follow-up, ‘x’. Surpassing the first week sales of ‘x’ in just one day, ‘÷’ had also outsold the entire top 200 albums chart twice over, with nine of its tracks occupying a place in the UK singles top ten.

Before ‘÷’ saw the light of day, however, the man himself stood atop the heights of his success to catch his breath, and took the opportunity to do what any one of us would do ahead of dedicating ourselves to another two-year window of non-stop work responsibilities: he went on holiday. For six weeks.

“I left school at 16 and went straight into gigging and then had success from it, and then just worked from there,” Ed reasons to Clash, when we meet him in North London. “I’m 26 now, so that was 10 years of straight work, and so the first opportunity I had… All of my mates went on gap years, and I just wanted to do that.”

“And I think it’s better to do it not on a budget,” he grins. “I think it’s more fun.”

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Having signed off social media to ensure the break could be enjoyed in the moment, Ed embarked on an insightful tour off the beaten path in Japan, then a road trip around the west coast of Australia, and finished off with a quick pit stop in New Zealand. Of course, you don’t accomplish Ed Sheeran’s level of conquests without a tenacious and infallible work ethic (more on which later), so his time away was not spent completely unplugged from the day job’s responsibilities. For a start, he’d already amassed over half the tracks for what would be ‘÷’; the downtime would merely allow him time to refine those choices, and feel out the direction the remainder should take.

“I kinda picked places to travel where I knew I had friends,” he explains, “so I was playing the album to people I knew, and you can sense when people like things and when they don’t like things - even if they’re really polite and say they like everything - so in that time you can really whittle it down.”

His friends would prove themselves prescient. Their favourite, he notes, was ‘Castle On The Hill’, which would be released alongside ‘Shape Of You’ as the lead singles for ‘÷’, with both tracks occupying the top spots of charts worldwide. Though other songs were discarded, Ed knew exactly how he’d fill the gaps. “I just knew what every song would sound like,” he says. “I knew I wanted a folk song, I knew I wanted a rap song, I knew I wanted a Springsteen stadium anthem, and then I just wrote as many songs as I could to be that one particular song on the album and then picked the best one. So there are a few ‘Castle On The Hill’s out there that just aren’t as good as ‘Castle On The Hill’.”

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I just knew what every song would sound like...

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Written during a lengthy stay in the US, that song’s fond nostalgia for a childhood spent in leafy Suffolk was inspired by a sudden bout of homesickness (“I’ve not seen the roaring fields in so long,” he sings, “I know I’ve grown, but I can’t wait to go home”), and is another evocative example of Sheeran’s inherent ability to relate through the recognisable minutiae of suburban life. Memories of “smoking hand-rolled cigarettes” and “getting drunk with my friends” are universal, and in such natural admissions lie the key to his widespread popularity.

“I think the more honest you are, the more people will get into your music,” he attests. “You can definitely tell when people aren’t being honest because the songs don’t last. You don’t hear the songs.”

Being too honest does have its drawbacks, he admits, especially if it has a negative impact on someone else. “There was a song on my last record that I really didn’t want to put on and I put it on and it really upset someone, and in hindsight I really regret it,” he confesses. “I knew it was going to be that decision, but it’s a song that a lot of people listen to and like because they can relate to it, if that makes sense.”

Compelled by the power of song, Ed - already an evidently affable and open conversationalist (seriously, mate, next time pub, yeah?) - becomes most animated as we peel back the layers of the craft to which he has dedicated himself. “I like being known as a songwriter,” he enthuses over a pack of peanuts. “I am a performer, but I want to be remembered as a songwriter… A song is something that exists forever.” He’s stocked up his arsenal by clocking up collaborations with One Direction. Jessie Ware, Rudimental, Robbie Williams, Justin Bieber, Major Lazer, Jess Glynne, Ryan Tedder, and Taylor Swift, further dominating charts, albeit surreptitiously, while developing his chops. “The more songs you write, the better you get,” he says, “and the more different artists you work with the more rounded you get, and the more your tools get sharp, I guess.”

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I like being known as a songwriter...

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One of his more surprising creative detours was the 2011 EP, ‘No. 5 Collaborations Project’, on which he joined forces with a cross-section of UK grime’s leading exponents. “That’s my favourite thing I’ve put out,” Ed says of the eight-track release that featured bars from Wiley, Devlin, JME and Ghetts, among others, but it wasn’t without its headaches.

Coming before Kanye’s salute to grime at the 2015 BRIT Awards or the breakthrough success of Skepta’s ‘Konnichiwa’ LP the following year, Ed’s association with what was still a relatively localised grass roots movement was challenged by those who failed to recognise its commercial appeal. “I remember playing [one of my friends] that EP and he was like, ‘This is the worst decision you have ever made. This is pretty much going to stall your career for a long time.’ I really wanted to do it, and I really love that music, but everyone around me just kinda thought it was a little pet project that I was doing.”

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Despite his genuine love for and patronage of grime music (which arguably, given his own rising prominence, did help the genre’s unyielding advancement), a storm would erupt in 2014 when the BBC radio station 1Xtra put him pole position on the their Power List, deeming him the most important artist in the UK. Immediately there was criticism surrounding the whitewash of the broadcaster’s dedicated “black music network,” with Ed facing particular hostility as even Newsnight posed the question, “How did middle-class, white boy Ed Sheeran get named the most important act in black and urban music?”

“That pissed me off, man,” he sighs, recalling the uproar, “because I had no fucking say in that, whatsoever. I just woke up one day and then that was online, and then I got loads of fucking backlash for something that I didn’t even put myself up for. It was just online. It was a really, really weird thing.”

A disappointing consequence, then, of a legitimately engaging endeavor whose deserved acclaim ultimately defied the naysayers and vindicated Ed’s artistic instincts, which have since thrust him down other musical avenues and, in the wake of its commercial breakthrough, further away from direct dalliances with grime. “I’ve been very conscious of now it’s getting big to kinda take a little step back from it,” he confirms, “because I do really fucking enjoy listening to it, but I feel to jump back on it now it’s getting fucking huge would be quite odd.”

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Six years down the road, you’d think by now Ed Sheeran would be exempt from a repeat of such unwanted intrusions, but when his label heard new track ‘Galway Girl’, which employs the contributions of Irish folk group, Beoga, they begged him to reconsider its inclusion on ‘÷’. “That’s the weirdest thing for me,” he scoffs, “because ‘+’ sold 10 million, ‘x’ sold 14 million, and both of them I made with the same process, and I find it fascinating that I haven’t got to a point where people are not questioning it. I mean, I think it’s good to be questioned, because it means you make a good album, but to be like, ‘I want to make a folk song,’ and for people to be like, ‘Well, it’s not really that cool,’ I don’t really understand why I wouldn’t be allowed to do that.”

“I mean, it worked out,” he shrugs. “The song sounds good.”

More than just an affectionate celebration of his Irish roots or the debt of influence owed to Van Morrison, Ed’s forays into folk is simply an extension of the great heritage of storytelling that strand of music maintains, and its instantly identifiable melodies. “I was trying to explain [to my label about] that Avicii song, ‘Wake Me Up’. I mean, that’s essentially, if you take that melody, a folk song, and it was fucking massive. I was trying to say, ‘Look, I know that’s an EDM song, but if you make that a folk song, it’s just as good and just as big.’ But yeah, I am right,” he asserts, earnestly aware of his market, “and my point will be proven in a week and a half when that song comes out.”

A week and a half later, and ‘Galway Girl’ hit number one in Ireland, became the top trending song in the UK, and arguably became the unofficial anthem of this year’s St. Patrick’s Day. In your face, folk haters.

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His unrelenting doggedness can only be admired. It’s spurred him through the arduous years spent couch surfing around an endless gig circuit and kept his heart in pursuing every fortuitous opportunity when it presented himself. He is fanatically conscious of his sales figures and that of his contemporaries, and purposefully drives himself to excel beyond all of them, resolutely sticking to the career plan he’s already got mapped out, and playing the game every step of the way to ensure he’s not derailed.

He readily forsakes the surprise album drop (a la Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’ and Kanye’s ‘The Life Of Pablo’) in favour of more traditional methods that involve exhausting amounts of promo at all levels. “All the biggest artists I know still do it,” he says of his efforts. “Taylor, whenever she releases an album,all the fucking radio stations in America get a signed plaque dedicated to them, or something like that, and she will meet and greet them and remember all their names. She does it, but some artists just don’t fucking do it at all - and it still works for them, but eventually, when the day arrives that it doesn’t work, the radios will just stop playing them because there’s no loyalty or love there.”

Upholding this intensive commitment to the finer details of his career has obviously paid off, but while the more productive areas of his world have benefitted from the focused time and graft bestowed, he does admit others have suffered as a result - namely his personal life. Having previously regarded girlfriends as just another commitment in his rigorous schedule to juggle between projects, he admits that only over the course of his relationship with long-term partner Cherry Seaborn has he learned to appreciate that you don’t have to compromise to find true contentment.

“I always thought to have a really good career, you always had to be incredibly unhappy, and I always thought to be really happy, you had to have a bad career, because I didn’t see the balance of the two,” he says. “I thought you’re either really fucking happy and your career doesn’t exist, or you’re really unhappy and your career is massive. And I’ve realised that that’s obviously bullshit, and just what you tell yourself to justify it.”

“I live with Cherry now,” he says, beaming with domesticated pride. “We’ve got cats, we have takeaways and watch movies, we have people round for dinner. I’ve never had that.”

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Confronting change and adjusting accordingly will set Ed in good stead for what may lie ahead. Three albums into his envisioned five-album plan (the first, he promises, of many), his sights are set on something a bit more unpredictable for his next move. Citing as a precedent Bruce Springsteen’s decision to release the stripped bleakness of ‘Nebraska’ as the follow-up to the well-received ‘The River’ in 1982 ahead of the surefire might of ‘Born In The U.S.A.’, Ed has in mind a comparatively lo-fi successor to ‘÷’ that he insists will split opinion.

“I know people will like it, but I don’t think it will sell as much as the last three, and that’s the kind of intention,” he says, explaining it as an opportunity to stem his ascent with a considered retreat that will then empower an impacting comeback.

Ed Sheeran is in complete control. He has weathered the grind to master his own destiny and become a paragon to a new generation of enterprising artists looking to learn from his attentive methods (and the old generation, too: “Van Morrison wanted to know about Spotify. He was fascinated by it. I don’t really know much about Spotify though,” Ed laughs). The hours he’s put in have catapulted him to international stardom, and his unerring resolve will likely keep him there.

“I don’t think my career will go pear-shaped,” he says, “but I do think at some point I will step back from it, and the moment I step back from it, I’m just going to write songs and every now and then go and play a gig. I saw a thing that Noel Gallagher said - he said: ‘If everything goes wrong, I know anywhere in the world I can get up and play in front of 500 people for the rest of my life, anywhere.’ Maybe I’m not going to play Wembley for the rest of my life, and maybe I’m not going to have number one hit smashes for the rest of my life, but I will always be able to do those two things and make a living off them.”

“I’m not worried about it at all,” he adds, exuding an air of certainty that’s as assured as his superstar status and as down-to-earth as his preference for comfortable trainers over expensive alternatives. “I think if it all ended tomorrow I had a fucking good run.”

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Catch Ed Sheeran at the following shows:

April
17 Glasgow The SSE Hydro
19 Newcastle Metro Radio Arena
20 Newcastle Metro Radio Arena
22 Manchester Arena
23 Manchester Arena
25 Nottingham Motorpoint Arena
26 Nottingham Motorpoint Arena
28 Birmingham Barclaycard Arena
29 Birmingham Barclaycard Arena

May
1 London The O2
2 London The O2

Words: Simon Harper
Photography: Neil Bedford

For tickets to the latest Ed Sheeran shows click HERE.

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