Your current smash “Shape of You” was originally intended for Rihanna. How often do you write a song for someone else you wish you’d kept for yourself?
Rita Ora has a song coming out in a couple weeks, I don’t even know what they titled it [they titled it “Your Song,” and it’s the top-trending track in the U.K. this week], and that’s a song if it hadn't gone to her, I would’ve kept it and released it. “Shape of You” was started originally for Little Mix and Rihanna. That was something I had in mind, but, I mean, like some songs were meant for me that ended up on other people’s projects. Some of the songs on the One Direction album definitely started for me and ended up on the One Direction album.
Do you hear yourself in your songs that are performed by other artists?
As many times as I can if there’s a song I have a writing credit on, I try to have some sort of element of me on it, just as a kind of signature. Even if it’s me doing the backing vocal or me playing the guitar, I just like having that element on songs I’ve been involved in. Much like DJ Mustard would have "Mustard on the Beat" or Mike Will Made-It would have a Mike Will Made-It [beat] on a track, it’s just having something that’s in the background. It’s subliminal, but it’s there.
“The A Team,” your breakout single as a performer, has a powerful story behind it.
It was written in 2009, and at the time I was doing local gigs around London. One of my friends was running a homeless center in East London to feed the homeless over Christmas, and he said, "Come and be the entertainment there," so I went and ended up chatting with this girl named Angel. I was 18 and hadn't really seen that much of the world. I grew up in the countryside, and you don’t really see heavy, heavy drug addiction in the countryside. You kind of just see drinking, so being in the city and seeing hard drug addiction and the way it can affect someone was a pretty eye-opening thing. I was living at a student house about an hour away form London, and I remember getting back and writing it and recording the demo on iMovie, because I didn't have anything else to record it on. It came very quickly; it was a 20-minute song. Some songs can take an hour or two hours to write or even a full day, but I do think the best songs I’ve written have been written in 20 minutes.
These are few and far between, but is there a song that didn't go on to become a hit that’s special to you?
I wrote “I See Fire” for the Hobbit movie [The Hobbit: The Desolation on Smaug], and it never ended up getting sent to radio because it came out on a label I wasn't signed to, so no one was allowed to push it to radio. I got the opportunity to write and record and produce everything on it, so it was the first time I’d ever properly been a song producer. I flew to [New Zealand] and watched the Hobbit film like really, really jet-lagged, and the CGI wasn’t in there yet, so it was quite sort of rough. And then I went upstairs to this little studio and basically wrote this song and did a rough production of it and got to play everything else on it the next day and then flew home. It was all very quick, but it’s one of the songs I’m most proud of, because I got to do every single element of it.
And you wrote it jet-lagged, even trickier…
I think the best songs come when you’re tired as well. Songwriting always seems to happen at night rather than early morning, or maybe it’s actually very early morning.
So you’re a night owl?
I think so, yeah. I think the songs that have the most meaning to me were written late at night, but I do write in the day because most producers keep daytime hours. I remember doing “Shape of You” in the studio, and that was the first song we wrote that day, at 11 o’clock.
What’s the song that got away, the one you wish you’d written but didn't?
There’s a sing called “Jealous” by Labrinth which I just love. I’ve played it for other songwriters, and they have the same opinion as me -- that they wish they’d written it. Fantastic concept, fantastic emotionally, sparse, and just like the best sort of songs: not overly complicated but you listen to it and you think, "That sounds real." I remember listening to it and welling up, and that’s always a very powerful thing to me for a song to do that.
Who’s a writer or artist you’d like to collaborate with but haven’t yet?
I think Beyoncé would be someone great to work with. She’s someone I’ve been fortunate enough to play with before, and she has incredible energy and an incredible mind. That would be something there.
What are you listening to now that’s exciting you?
You know what? The guys I’m on tour with have been playing the Kaleo album, and that sounds great.
Is that what you listen to before you go out onstage?
I haven’t had time to really listen to music. My dressing room is always filled with friends and family, so I don’t have time to put on records. The friends and family usually leave about two minutes before I go onstage, that’s my routine… I probably need to change that. [Laughs]