This article originally appeared in issue Q375.
He’s the biggest pop star in the world who is not called Adele, and yet he is also the most divisive. Dorian Lynskey meets Ed Sheeran on tour and then backstage at his Glastonbury triumph to unlock the secret to his success, and to talk prescription drugs, politics, “crushing naysayers” and how he smells a lot better than he looks.
If there’s one song that sums up Ed Sheeran’s place in popular culture in 2017, then it’s Galway Girl. This booze-crazed pipe-and-drum blarneyfest is far from his best song. In fact, when he recorded it last summer, his musical partner Benny Blanco said it was his worst. Most of the people at Asylum Records didn’t like it either. In its defence, Sheeran concocted a hard-headed commercial argument about the size of the Irish diaspora but the truth is he just really liked it. “I am quite a stubborn person,” he says. “I was stubborn about Galway Girl.”
When it came out in March, Galway Girl was duly mauled in reviews and on Twitter but when Q sees him play it live in Nottingham and London a few weeks later, the audience goes nuts. As a crowd-pleaser, it’s already up there with Sing, Thinking Out Loud or The A Team. And it went to Number 1 in Ireland. So he was right, wasn’t he?
“People do fucking hate that song so they would say I’m wrong but the general consensus is yes, it works,” he says. “That song’s proper Marmite, which is quite good. I want people to have an opinion, even if their opinion hurts me. I get called beige a lot but it can’t be beige if it’s splitting this much fucking opinion.”
When Sheeran chose to call his new album ÷ (Divide), following 2011’s + (Plus) and 2014’s X (Multiply), it referred to the two sides of his music – it was originally a double album. Now the title helpfully describes Sheeran’s effect on public opinion. His success is mind-boggling. Take Shape Of You, his Caribbean-flavoured account of wooing a woman with Chinese food and Van Morrison: Number 1 in the UK for 14 weeks and the US for 12, and streamed over 1.5 billion times. Even songs he gives away are huge, like Justin Bieber’s Love Yourself (the biggest hit of 2016) or Major Lazer’s Cold Water, a song Sheeran had forgotten he’d written. In its first week ÷ outsold the rest of the Top 200 twice over and was streamed so often on Spotify that its 16 songs swamped the Top 20. “I know in my lifetime I will never come across another artist who has that kind of exponential rise,” says Mark Cunniffe, the veteran lighting designer who has worked with Sheeran for years.
With record-breaking popularity, however, comes the opposite, because music fans will forgive anything except ubiquity. On Eraser, ÷’s story-so-far opening track, Sheeran sings, “When the world’s against me is when I really come alive.” Who’s against him now that he’s the biggest artist-not-called-Adele in the world?
“Oh mate!” he exhales. “I’ve actually never felt this much hate in my life, but also I’ve never felt this much adoration. There’s two extremes. It’s actually quite a dangerous situation to be in because you’ve got no middle ground, which I haven’t had before. People either fucking hate me and want me to die and never make music again or people think I’m the second coming."
He shakes his head. “It’s weird. With every performer, you’re kind of doing it because you want people to like you. Musically, I understand I’m not everybody’s cup of tea but there are people who’ve never met me but have this rage about me as a human being. It’s quite daunting to have millions of people who want you to fail.”
What can he do about that? “Keep succeeding,” he says instantly. “The only way to silence people who want you to fail is to keep succeeding.”
Sheeran’s dressing room at Nottingham’s Motorpoint Arena is a cheerful mess: clothes spilling from flight cases, a cabinet with a gleaming array of spirits, scattered musical paraphernalia and, for some reason, a chocolate-egg sculpture of his head. Three hours before showtime, pop’s unlikely colossus leans back on the sofa, perches his feet on the coffee table and lights a rollie.
Many artists who experience life-changing success at a young age seem brittle and disorientated, no longer able to breathe air that isn’t perfumed by celebrity. If there is a faultline in your psyche, then fame will find it and crack it wide open. Sheeran, however, still feels reassuringly solid: good-humoured, unflappable and self-aware. He doesn’t seem to have changed at all, though he’s not sure that’s a good thing. He quotes the old line about pop stars becoming frozen at the age they are when they become famous.
“It makes sense because there’s a lot of stars who act like 14-year-olds because they got massive at 14 and never got to mental maturity because the people around them change. Even if you make a mistake it gets covered up, so there’s no real growth. I definitely still feel 20 years old. I don’t feel 26.”
In crucial ways, Sheeran has retained the fundamentals of his pre-fame life. He lives in London and Suffolk, where he grew up. Despite fraternising with Paul McCartney, Elton John, Taylor Swift, Mick Jagger, Russell Crowe, Princess Beatrice, Eric Clapton and Stormzy, his closest mates are all old schoolfriends, as is his girlfriend, Cherry Seaborn. His wardrobe still consists of check shirts and skatewear and his demeanour remains amiably rumpled. At a release-day HMV appearance he looked less like a pop star than a fan waiting to meet a pop star.
Of course, that doesn’t mean he’s an ordinary Joe. People who want artists to be maverick screw-ups who only care about the music regard Sheeran suspiciously as a ruthlessly calculating human database disguised as a busker. He blames himself for being too willing to pull back the curtain.
“I get painted as a megalomaniac CEO who only cares about charts and sales,” he sighs. “Every artist you’ve ever interviewed cares the same amount, they just won’t admit it to you. I know because I speak to them. But I should be smart and not talk about it. I’ve learned from my mistake. Now everyone else is going, ‘Look at him! We don’t talk about that.’” The songwriting, he protests, is separate from all that. “I know a lot of people say it’s a very calculated album – this song’s for this market, that song’s for that market – but it’s just music that I like making.”
Sheeran belongs to a savvy generation that knows that business won’t take care of itself, but he also finds it genuinely fascinating – even fun. He may have been “shit at school” but he’s an A+ student of the music industry.
“Ed is constantly asking questions and weighing things up,” says Ben Cook, President of Atlantic Records UK. “He’s forever curious. I don’t think it comes from a place of cold calculation. He loves the game he’s in and he’s got an insatiable appetite for knowledge.”
Cook remembers signing Asylum’s contract with Sheeran in a pub in Framlingham, Suffolk, in 2011. Sheeran already had a masterplan: five EPs, five albums named after mathematical symbols, another series of five after that. On the train back to London, says Cook, Sheeran talked about what he’d do once his debut album had sold one million copies. “I was flabbergasted by the directness of his ambition,” says Cook. “But none of that drive was unattractive. It was just really inspiring self-belief.” (Oddly, Sheeran claims he thought he’d sell 30,000, tops.)
But where does that drive come from? Almost every megastar had some formative trauma that triggered their uncommon ambition, whether it be poverty, persecution or bereavement. Sheeran, however, grew up in a loving, supportive family. His dad, an art curator and lecturer, nurtured Ed’s interest in music by taking him to gigs. It was seeing Damien Rice when he was 11 that turned him into an aspiring songwriter: “a pivotal moment”. His parents allowed him to drop out of school in 2008 and hustle his way into London’s music scene while sleeping on sofas and, occasionally, the streets. Sheeran had relentless tenacity and chutzpah. Eventually, starting with The A Team in 2009, he had the songs, too.
Every Sheeran fan knows his origin story, not least because he tells a version of it on each album. He fetishises hard work and ambition over talent. “I’m not super-talented,” he insists. “I’m not the best guitarist, I’m not the best singer, I’m not the best songwriter.” He does go on a bit, though, about struggling, not going to university and so on.
“There is probably a part of me that wants to keep drilling into people that it wasn’t overnight,” he concedes. “I’m seven years in now and people forget.” He thinks that’s why he makes people angry. “They don’t understand why I am where I am. They’re like, ‘How has it got that big?!’ I think it’s confusion.”
The early battle to be taken seriously matters, he says, because it was the crucible of his ambition. “No one I knew, apart from my dad, thought I would ever achieve something. I was always being ridiculed for being a singer-songwriter with a loop pedal who rapped, playing at these fucking indie nights with skinny-jean c**ts. That’s what really drove me – no one thinking it would work and me really wanting to prove it would.”
And why did it? “You’d have to ask someone who’s a fan,” he says coyly.
OK then. Ben Cook tells a story about the making of +. “The mix engineer had put reverb on Ed’s vocal, which is a normal part of the process, but Ed thought it made him seem too distant. He took it all off and suddenly it was like, yes, that’s Ed. An unfiltered connection to him and what he’s saying. That’s a powerful thing.”
“He’s such an honest performer,” says Mark Cunniffe. “What you see is what you get. He’s incredibly accessible. I think that his humanity is unique because the whole point of modern pop stardom is that it’s packaged and Ed certainly isn’t that.”
Sheeran hasn’t thrived despite looking nothing like a pop star but because of it. In the current decade authenticity is a priceless commodity and scruffy, honest, unguarded Ed Sheeran has it in spades. He makes you think – and he will tell you this himself – that if you worked impossibly hard and got on with everybody and never faked it, then it could be you, or your mate, or your cousin, or your nephew. Even now, Ed Sheeran is the most relatable star on the planet.
What have you inherited from your dad?
And your mum?
My mum gets used a lot because she’s nice and I would like to think that’s me but I’m a bit more cut-throat. Being in the music industry, you get an edge.
In What Do I Know? you sing, “My daddy told me, ‘Son, don’t you get involved in politics, religions or other people’s quarrels.’” Isn’t that a cop-out?
Why? Who the fuck wants me to sing about politics? I think if I started singing about political issues people would be like, “Pipe down mate, you’re 26.”
Did you vote in the referendum last year?
Leave or Remain?
Er… See, that’s the thing, I don’t get involved in politics. But I will say one thing: I was born a European and I fucking love being a European. You can probably guess my answer from that.
That was deftly answered.
Have you ever tried using a stylist?
I remember having a meeting for the second album and there were clothes that would look really cool on you but I just looked like a pillock in them. I am a scruffy human being. Someone asked me why I don’t have a cologne, because everyone brings out their own scent. I’m a cleanliness freak, I shower twice a day, but I think if you looked at me on a poster you wouldn’t think, “That guy looks like he smells good.”
What’s your favourite book about music?
This sounds stupid but I don’t really read books at all, unless it’s Harry Potter. I’m very uncultured. I like fast food restaurants, I watch trash TV. I’m not someone who reads Keats. My brother’s the highbrow Sheeran. He’s a composer. He did all the strings on the album.
What’s your role in the new season of Game Of Thrones?
I’m doing a five-minute scene with Maisie [Williams]. I sing in it but it’s obviously not one of my songs. I think everyone’s expecting me to die in it. [Laughs] Hoping for me to die in it.
Do you ever get imposter syndrome?
I think we all feel like that. There’s always a bit of confusion when you’re sat next to Jay Z and Beyoncé at the Grammys thinking, “Why the fuck am I here?” There’ll even be times when I’m standing onstage and I’ll flick back to playing to no one in a pub in Holland Park and think, “Wow, how did I get here?” Everyone has this in certain situations. It would be mad not to.
If you wanted to know the symbols that will be the titles of Sheeran’s next two albums (√? π?) all you’d have to do would be to get close enough to inspect his maze of tattoos. “It’s kind of like Prison Break,” he says teasingly. “It’s all there.”
His lyrics are similar. All the pertinent facts about Sheeran are hidden in plain sight. When he feels a strong emotion, whether positive or negative, he writes a song. Most of them go unheard but if they’re good enough, then he’ll release them, regardless of the consequences.
“I’m not a hugely private person, musically,” he says. “I don’t think if you’re an artist you should have a filter. Everything in my life goes into the songs, much to the dismay of some people I know because some songs are nice and some songs are not. The problem with stuff like New Man, Don’t and Love Yourself is that there’s a waspish streak in everyone and it only comes out for an hour but in that hour I happen to write a song that lives on forever.”
One of those songs is Eraser, a breakneck “bitch and moan” about the rough end of success. “I’m well aware of certain things that will destroy a man like me,” goes the chorus. What things?
“The song’s talking about pain erasers, which are anything from alcohol to drugs to women. But lots of things that relieve pain can destroy you as well.”
On Save Myself, Divide’s final bonus track, we learn more as Sheeran sings, “Life can get you down so I just numb the way it feels/I drown it with drink and out-of-date prescription pills.” Can we take that literally? “I guess so. You can do. Eraser is about slipping into temptation. You know all these things are the wrong thing to do but you still fucking do them anyway. And Save Myself is about stopping them.”
Both songs came out of Sheeran’s last world tour. This time he’s brought three of his friends on the road but back then he was lonely. In February 2015 he broke up with his girlfriend Athina Andrelos so he was single, too. “You get into habits,” he says cryptically. “You go out with random strangers you met that night and misbehave. You get into a vortex of partying and it’s exactly what people warn you about. It’s really easy to slip into.”
This is not, however, a “my drug hell” story. Sheeran doesn’t have the makings of a tormented soul. He has an addictive personality, he says, gesturing to his tattoos with his cigarette, but not when it comes to alcohol. His main problem, which is also an asset, is that he hates missing out. “I’ve always grabbed every opportunity by the balls,” he says. “Even if I was knackered, I’d go out and something would happen.”
By the time he played Wembley in July 2015, though, a little too much had happened. Notwithstanding the occasional “disco nap”, he didn’t go to bed for three days. “I barely remember Wembley, it was such a blur.” The following year, for the first time in a decade, Sheeran took some time off. He travelled the world and reconnected with old friends. “It’s about going to a celebrity party and thinking, ‘Wow, this is fucking crazy’, then going back to a pub in Suffolk with your mates and shutting it out,” he says. “You have to have both.” They gave him perspective on his excesses, too. “They go so much harder than me. I think, ‘Fuck, I’m actually all right.’” He grins. “My mates do some weird shit. There’s not much to do in Suffolk other than weird shit.”
Nowadays when Sheeran mentions the pub, he might mean the one he’s built in his back garden. He admits that the improvement in his financial circumstances has been “quite drastic” and he allows himself the occasional daft extravagance, like the Aston Martin that he doesn’t drive. “I’m not really into cars. I’m just into James Bond. But then I’m not James Bond.” He gives a lot of money away. His brain hasn’t yet caught up with his bank balance. “If my 19-year-old self could see my 26-year-old self he’d think he was a pillock. He’d say, ‘Why would you spend that much on a belt?’”
The only thing that bothers Sheeran about fame is being constantly discussed. He reads every review, although he knows he shouldn’t. “It’s mad because it makes you actually question your work. Now everyone’s saying how shit Galway Girl is, I start to think, ‘Well, is it?’” Even when he’s avoiding himself online, he’ll see his face on one of those sponsored sidebars, click on it and end up annoyed by some daft story. Clickbait, he says, is why many of his famous friends have stopped doing interviews (“It will destroy artists doing it”) but Sheeran likes to talk. When our allotted time is up he says hopefully, “Ten more minutes?”
We talk about Glastonbury. When he was announced as Sunday night’s headliner there was predictable uproar from the unconvinced. When the world’s against him…
“I’m so fucking excited to crush a few naysayers,” he says. “At some point in the night, even if you don’t like my music, if you’re drunk with your mates and I play a song you know, you will sing it.”
Glastonbury is the summit of some artists’ careers but Sheeran’s year ahead is Himalayan. Following his arena dates, which were oversubscribed many times over, there will be stadiums. ÷, which has already notched up eight million sales, will keep on rolling. Can he get any bigger? You wouldn’t bet against it but Sheeran is, as usual, thinking ahead.
One of his friends and co-writers is the singer-songwriter Foy Vance. “I always thought, ‘Why isn’t he bigger than me?’” says Sheeran. “He sings better, he writes better songs, he’s a better live performer. But his ambitions are different. He doesn’t want to play Wembley. He just wants to write songs, play gigs when he wants to, and chill in the Highlands with his family. He’s perfectly happy.” For a second Sheeran looks almost envious. “I think eventually I would be like that, too, but I still have this fire burning in my belly.”
Sunday evening in the backstage enclosure at Glastonbury, and Ed Sheeran is nervous. This is unusual for him. Glastonbury isn’t his biggest show yet (Sheeran knows the numbers; Wembley is bigger) but it’s the most culturally significant. “It’s been the only thing I’ve thought about for the last two months while onstage,” he says. “I really want people who don’t like me to come. That’s the main goal. I just want to win people over.”
Normally he’d be chain-smoking at this point but he gave up a few weeks ago, after 13 years, in order to climb Machu Picchu in Peru during his South American tour and he refuses to lapse now. The one hundred friends and family members he’s brought along are all off enjoying the festival so he’s killing time alone in his dressing room by watching YouTube and checking Twitter. It’s not the best strategy.
“People on Twitter keep calling me a fucking Tory!” he protests, goaded into breaking his no-politics rule. “I don’t know where that came from. Make it clear that I’m a big Corbyn fan.”
He’s been reading the Glastonbury hate, too. “I do read negative stuff and it’s been getting me down but it’s added fuel to the fire because I feel I have something to prove.”
Sheeran played some of Glastonbury’s smaller stages in 2011 and the Pyramid Stage in 2014 but he’s never actually explored the festival. Today he’s straight in and out. “I like playing festivals, I just don’t like going to them,” he says. “I get very bad anxiety in groups of lots of people. I love the food stands, though. If there was no one in the festival, just food stands, I’d have a fucking great time.”
To add to his anxiety, Sheeran’s approachable, guy-next-door brand of celebrity means that people aren’t afraid to get “grabby”. He winces at the memory of taking a train to Scotland to headline RockNess, only to find that he was stuck in a carriage full of Ed Sheeran fans for several hours. If his friends insist on dragging him out after the show, he has a plan: he holds up a silver Mexican wrestler’s mask that could render anybody incognito.
It’s not just Sheeran’s smoking habits that have changed since Nottingham. He’s Ed Sheeran MBE now. “I don’t really know what it means, it’s just nice recognition. I haven’t started putting it after my name on emails.” Immediately after Glastonbury he’s recording a voiceover for “a famous cartoon comedy”, which he can’t name but sounds like The Simpsons, and taking a meeting about a movie.
“I want to have an 8 Mile moment but 8 Mile meets Notting Hill. Not gritty Detroit but, like, Ipswich.” He laughs. “I’ve got loads of songs about Ipswich that haven’t come out so I could make a soundtrack.”
You wonder how he’d find the time. Sheeran has already booked two years of stadium dates and then festivals in 2020, when his next album is due. He’s written six songs for that one and 12 contenders for the next. Sheeran’s life is so busy and fast-moving that he barely has time to appreciate what’s happening. “It makes it harder to take in,” he says. “I don’t dwell on it. Glastonbury is huge for me but I know tomorrow I’m going to be thinking about the next thing.”
Two hours later, Sheeran is in his element: a guitar, a loop pedal, tens of thousands of people who know the words. If there are sceptics in the audience, then they aren’t standing anywhere near Q. He closes with You Need Me, I Don’t Need You, the song he started when he was 15, the song that snagged the attention of Asylum Records, a song from another life.
Before that, just a few songs in, he says: “I’m going to play a song now that you might not like but I’m pretty sure you know the words.”
Of course it’s Galway Girl. Of course they sing it loud.