The sensitive singer-songwriter grapples with the big time as Taylor Swift's pal, a hot Pharrell collaborator and a new status as a one-man arena band
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He built up his redheaded ressentiment growing up in Suffolk, where his father was an art curator, his mother a publicist/jewelry designer and together they ran an art consultancy. He moved to London at 17, in 2008, where his independent approach to his music solidified.
"He turned up at the studio with a guitar on his back, when he was living on sofas," says Jake Gosling, who produced almost all of Sheeran's debut album and parts of the upcoming follow-up. "We found we had the same influences - [Bob] Dylan and Johnny Cash and Joni Mitchell and all that kind of stuff. Then he suddenly said, 'I love rapping.' But it wasn't rap-rap, it was singing rap â¦ He'd record an EP with me and then walk around after gigs and sell three or four, and it'd give him enough money to get some food and pay his bills a bit. He worked really hard for it. It didn't fall in his lap." In 2009, when Sheeran self-released his fourth EP, he played 312 gigs. By 2010, he decided to move to Los Angeles, where he played open-mic nights. And within a year he had a label deal.
"I did five EPs, all in different genres," says Sheeran, "ending with a collaborations EP where I worked with all the underground rappers that I met. That last EP that I put out did close to 10,000 copies in week one, without a label. So by the time I signed to Atlantic, I had a fan base that was buying CDs and I had the radio expectancy." Elton John's Rocket Music Management snapped him up, too. His album debuted at No. 1 on the British chart, selling 102,000 copies its first week.
But while the single "The A Team" bowed at a lofty No. 3 in England, it had a rougher road on its way to the top 10 of multiple radio airplay charts in the United States. "They certainly win the longevity award" at Atlantic, says Tom Poleman, Clear Channel's president of national programming. "Talk about sticking with a record for a long time. The first time I really got it, other than seeing Ed live, was when I went to my daughter's camp and saw the kids all listening to 'The A Team' and realized there was something about this guy that had already started to seep into the teen world regardless of radio. Sometimes the consumers get it faster than the programmers. But I think what took him a year to achieve last time, he can probably achieve in a couple weeks this time."
Says Atlantic chairman/COO Julie Greenwald, "'The A Team' was a challenging record for a lot of people, especially because of the lyrical content." As in: It's about a possibly dying prostitute, like so, so many freshman pop singles before it. "We said, 'But look, this song is already a bona fide smash in every country but the United States, so it's going to be a bona fide smash here, too.'" The single peaked at No. 16 on the Billboard Hot 100 and has sold 2.1 million copies, according to SoundScan. It helped that not everyone listened to the lyrics. "Not everyone gets that tune," says Sheeran. "But rappers always did. Rappers f-ing love that tune."
If he could go top 10 at the top 40, adult contemporary and rock formats in the United States with that bleak song, the reasoning went, imagine what he could do with something slightly more in radio's pocket. He started writing for the new album three years ago, he says, before + even came out. The first song he came up with was "One," which also happens to be the last song he wrote for Alice, the ex-girlfriend who was the subject of all of his debut album's romantic songs. "One" takes his minimalist live approach to its furthest degree, putting your ear right next to his acoustic guitar strings as he bids farewell to his former muse. It's an intimate moment, and transitional both lyrically and musically, as Sheeran then shifted from one extreme to another, setting out to work with Pharrell Williams, who at that point was only about the third-hottest driving force in popular music, as opposed to his pole position now.
"Sing," the new single, represents the first time Sheeran has worked with a pre-existing track. And it almost didn't happen. Williams recalls that when he played Sheeran a demo, "He was like, 'Nah, I love it, but it's not for me.' And I said, 'Just give me a shot. Pick up your guitar and strum along with it for a little bit, and see what happens.' So after figuring out the chords that I had laid down, in between jokes and people coming in with coffee, he kept playing it, and he looked up at me, like, 'Shit, is this really happening?' as I'm looking at him with an 'I told you so' smile." Thirty minutes later, the song was pretty much finished. "He's one of the most impressive, underestimated singer-songwriters of our time. And now he's got a dance record. I say 'dance' not because it's electronica, but because it's danceable. And he was able to still tell a really good story on top of it."
Asked if he might have been unconsciously inspired by Timberlake on "Sing," Sheeran proves willing to go beyond that: "It was pretty close to a direct inspiration," he says. "I love Justified and FutureSex/LoveSounds, so I took inspiration from those."
There is at least one other track on the new album that pursues a similarly groove-based R&B direction: "Don't," co-produced by the unlikely team of Rick Rubin and Benny Blanco. Until early March, this was slotted to be the first single, but a chorus hinged on the lyric "Don't f- with my love" may have prompted a desire to give Sheeran's newest and youngest fans something a bit less provocative first.
There's a story behind the historic summit meeting suggested by the production credits of "Don't." "I did it with Benny and I loved it; I tried it again live with Rick and loved it," recalls Sheeran of his indecisiveness.
Sheeran first cut "Don't" with Blanco, who has worked on hits from Katy Perry and Maroon 5. But then he tried it again with Rubin, known for his naturalistic, classic-rock approach. "I loved elements of both," says Sheeran, "and I knew that together they could make something really super-powered, between Benny's pop sensibility and Rick's raw, earthy, gravelly coolness. So Benny went to L.A. and sat with Rick." Offers Blanco: " 'Don't' is so f-ing raw, right to the chest and a jab in the stomach."
It's certainly Sheeran's most provocatively confessional song to date. "The last album was more young and dewy-eyed and innocent," he says. "I've still got very nice songs on this record. But some of them are bite-y. The story in 'Don't' is 100 percent true. I could have gotten nastier - there was more shit that I didn't put in. I was seeing someone for a bit of time, and then they ended up physically involved with one of my friends in the same hotel that we were staying in, while I was downstairs. And I feel like: Treat people how you want to be treated."
"He has heartbreaks, as we all do, and he puts it down and he mentions people's names," says Snow Patrol's Johnny McDaid, who's a co-writer and producer on the new album. (The pair roomed together for most of 2013 in Nashville to work on songs, when Sheeran wasn't away on the Swift tour, and the friendship has worked out pretty well for McDaid - when the recording sessions moved to L.A., Sheeran introduced him to Courteney Cox, who's now McDaid's girlfriend.) "The first song we wrote together was 'Nina,' a love song about heartbreak, both self-inflicted and otherwise, where he basically calls someone up and advises her not to be with him. That sort of self-deprecating diary is pretty honest. Most people are fearful of being naked in front of the world, and afraid to expose their weaknesses. Ed isn't."
But "Don't" isn't a self-deprecating diary entry; it's an indictment. "I never saw him as a threat/Till you disappeared with him to have sex," goes one lyric. "If I show courtesy and respect to someone, I expect to receive it," says Sheeran. "When we're in the same hotel, and I'm downstairs at my party and you're upstairs doing that, that's disrespectful."
There's a British emphasis on manners that infuses Sheeran's statement of sexual betrayal. But he adds: "If you date a songwriter, be prepared to have songs written about you. If you do nice things, you'll have nice songs. And if you do f-ed-up things, you'll get a horrible song." Translate that sentiment into an American accent, and he suddenly sounds a lot like Swift, a fellow member of pop stardom's Candor Faction.
Rubin was impressed less by Sheeran's Swift connection than the Nina Simone connection. "The thing that really surprised me was going to see him, seeing who his audience was," says Rubin, "and then seeing him do a Nina Simone cover in the show -- and seeing 12-year-old girls screaming their heads off for a Nina Simone song."
For all the attention that R&B songs on the upcoming album will get, there's still plenty of trademark acoustic strumming at its core, including one of the tracks that Rubin worked on. "Ed played me a lot of the demos or other tracks he had done with other people," says Rubin. "Some of them worked really well, and some of them â¦ Ed is not a pop artist who's singing on tracks, you know? And some of the songs, what's good about Ed didn't come through. And then as soon as he played them on the guitar, it was like, 'That's incredible!'" That Rubin-Sheeran collaboration wrapped up the project, and the producer characterizes the session as "solo Ed performances, even though they sound like total records, in the same way that when you see him live, it doesn't sound like he's missing a band. They sound full and rockin'."
If there's a contradiction - the stripped-down solo songs that rock like band tracks - it's one that Sheeran reconciles simply by not recognizing. That's his way: He's the scruffy guy who doesn't care what he wears, but turns up on the red carpet of the Vanity Fair Oscar party; the open-mic songwriter who has come up with the biggest hooker-themed radio hit since Sting sang about Roxanne. And, let's face it, being the only guy onstage is a smart business.
The biggest inherent contradiction of all may be Sheeran's status as Britain's least glamorous heartthrob. He recently came in at No. 2 in a British poll devoted to readers' favorite "weird crushes." "I don't see myself as a sex symbol, but if other people do, I'm not going to complain," he says. Nonetheless, the new song "Take It Back" has him proclaiming, "I'm a singer that you never want to see shirtless." Is he sure about that? "No one does! I haven't got a six-pack or pecs." He may get some cards and letters begging to differ. "To each their own," he shrugs.