How Ed Sheeran – the rock star who looks like a roadie – reshaped pop

ByQuyen Anne

Jan 18, 2024

The scruffy troubadour created a new solo superstar brand with his unstoppable rise. His new album Subtract is his most personal yet

Global superstar Ed Sheeran performing at the 2022 Brit Awards
Global superstar Ed Sheeran performing at the 2022 Brit Awards CREDIT: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

This Friday, Ed Sheeran returns with a new single, Eyes Closed, a stripped back emotional ballad about grappling with grief. It is the first taste of his forthcoming fifth album, Subtract (-), a set of songs the 32-year-old superstar describes as “opening the trapdoor to my soul.”

Paring back his instinct for people-pleasing hooks and chart-smashing energy in favour of something deeper, it is the album the troubadour – who has taken the singer-songwriter genre to commercial heights no one could have predicted – was always destined to make.

I first took note of Sheeran when his major label debut single, The A Team, started creeping up the British charts in the summer of 2011. It was such an anomaly, I could hardly believe my ears. Amidst the banging electro, rap and digital R’n’B pop that had taken over the top 40, here was a ginger, bespectacled young scruff playing an acoustic guitar ballad about a homeless girl. It was like discovering Ralph McTell at a rave.

So I headed to the Boileroom in Guildford, Surrey to find out what the fuss was about. I was surprised to see a queue of young women stretching around the block, before I was introduced to the 20-year-old singer-songwriter for his first ever national interview.

Sheeran was exactly as we have come to know him: friendly, humble, with badly cut hair, a wisp of beard and dressed more like a roadie than a rock star. He plucked away on an acoustic guitar and tapped on a laptop. There was a fug of dope smoke in the air, but he was drinking Robinson’s Peach Fruit and Barley Water. “You’re never too old for squash,” he joked. “This is as rock’n’roll as my rider gets.”

Ed Sheeran performing in London in 2011
Ed Sheeran performing in London in 2011 CREDIT: Robin Little/Redferns

Every time he passed the dressing room window, cries of “We want Ed! We Want Ed!” floated up. “I haven’t got used to the screams yet,” he admitted. “I’m not exactly boyband material, am I?”

He has turned out to be something far more impressive, a new breed of solo superstar, the world’s greatest one-man band with one foot in a folky past of classic songcraft, and the other pressed down on a digital loop pedal that has sent the genre crashing into pop’s future. But even back in the cramped confines of the Boileroom, he held his audience spellbound, with stagecraft the Suffolk native had been perfecting at open mic nights since he was 15.

I had seen someone pull off a similar trick before, the mercurial Irish singer-songwriter Damien Rice, who self-released his debut album O in 2002. It turned out that Sheeran, age 11, had been taken to see Rice in Dublin pub venue Whelan’s while on a family holiday. Following the show, Sheeran had a brief conversation with Rice that left an indelible mark.

“I had an epiphany” Sheeran told me. “I got home that night and wrote a whole bunch of songs and that’s where the whole thing started.” His very first song was called City by The Sea, the title borrowed from a Robert De Niro DVD on his Irish cousin’s shelf. “It was a really awful song. The second tune was called Typical Average Teen. Yeah, I was one of those.”

Sheeran still has a tattoo of Rice’s name on his arm. He was enamoured of other classic troubadours, from Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell to the obscure but richly gifted Northern Irish singer-songwriter Foy Vance, who Sheeran has seen play more than 40 times. “His dad used to bring him to my gigs, and he got a photo of us together at the Norfolk Arts Centre, but I had no idea he was a singer,” Vance (17 years Sheeran’s senior) told me this week.

'This kid's got chops': Foy Vance with Ed Sheeran at Latitude Festival in 2016
‘This kid’s got chops’: Foy Vance with Ed Sheeran at Latitude Festival in 2016 CREDIT: Paul John Bayfield

Years later, the two met again after a Vance show at Whelan’s. “We sat ’til about five in the morning, song sharing, passing the guitar back and forth. I was bowled over. I remember going, holy s–t, this kid’s got chops.”

Sheeran’s long-serving manager, Stuart Camp, spotted him playing a support slot in Leeds in late 2010. “He has a magical presence,” says Camp. “I defy anyone to see him perform and not be converted.” The career path he originally envisaged for his client was “solid, Gold album standard, sell out Hammersmith Apollo,” but expectations were soon being raised. “The goalposts keep moving. There is a hunger to do more, reach more people, and be better at everything, which is both a challenge and joy. There’s never any rest.”

“He was incredibly ambitious,” recalls co-President of Atlantic Records UK, Ed Howard, the A&R executive who signed Sheeran to Asylum Records (a division of Warner Atlantic) in early 2011. The team have helped guide a career that has achieved more than 150 million album sales and billions of streams, while picking up dozens of awards.

In 2019, Sheeran broke U2’s records for the highest grossing concert tour ever. “Nobody could have predicted that, except maybe Ed himself,” laughs Howard. “He had this intense magnetism and self-confidence, coming up with almost mad ideas, but not in any way that was arrogant, because it was matched with a really strong work ethic”

One thing that comes through strongly talking to people who work with Sheeran is his almost boundless creativity.

“The challenge with Ed, unlike almost every artist I’ve worked with, is an overabundance of output,” says Howard. “He writes because he needs to write, to make sense of what he’s experiencing. I think for other songwriters, it can be a bit of a shock working with him. You have to bring your A game. And you might need a stiff drink after.”

Not everyone has found Sheeran’s music so charming, however, with one critic describing his sound as a mixture of “nostalgia and comfort, campfires, scented candles, spilt pints of Guinness and, for those not enthralled by his algorithmic songcraft, the sharp stench of a salesman’s cheap cologne.”

In 2019, fellow British singer-songwriter Sam Fender articulated a general unease with Sheeran’s ubiquity when he said “I don’t trust songs that can be played at a kid’s party and a club at the same time. There’s something reptilian about that.” He has also faced multiple dubious plagiarism accusations calling his originality into question.

But Sheeran is acutely aware of, and motivated by, such criticism. “Everyone saw me as a joke, and no one thought I could do it”, he told Rolling Stone. “And I think that’s still the drive. There’s still this need to prove myself. And I’m still kind of not taken seriously. If you were to speak to any sort of muso, ‘Oh, I love my left-of-center music,’ I’m the punchline to what bad pop music is.”

Ed Sheeran with his wife Cherry Seaborn at last year's Brit Awards
Ed Sheeran with his wife Cherry Seaborn at last year’s Brit Awards CREDIT: JMEnternational

He has also had more important things to think about, such as marrying his childhood sweetheart, Cherry Seaborn, becoming a father of two girls Jupiter and Lyra, accruing a net worth in the hundreds of millions and acquiring a multi-property estate in Suffolk, near the market village of Framlingham where he grew up, that locals have nicknamed Sheeranville.

What is fascinating about Sheeran’s Subtract project is that it pivots back to his original inspirations, eschewing the hip hop, dance and mainstream pop elements that have made his music so all conquering. It is an album that he says has come out of a period of “fear, depression and anxiety” coping with his wife being diagnosed with a tumour while six months pregnant, which couldn’t be operated on until after the birth. “There’s nothing you can do about it,” he told Rolling Stone. “You feel so powerless.” She had successful surgery in June last year – the morning Sheeran performed at Wembley – and will contribute to May 3’s four-part documentary series, Ed Sheeran: The Sum of it All, streaming on Disney Plus.

Sheeran was also rocked by the death of his “best friend” and music entrepreneur Jamal Edwards last February (from complications from recreational drug use). When another close friend, Australian cricket star Shane Warne, died a month later, and Sheeran had to contend with the stress of a plagiarism trial he eventually won in April 2022, Seaborn convinced him to see a therapist. “I’ve always had real lows in my life. But it wasn’t really till last year that I actually addressed it”, he told Rolling Stone. “No one really talks about their feelings where I come from. People think it’s weird getting a therapist in England…”

Working with Aaron Dessner of US alt-rock band The National (who also had a major creative role in Taylor Swift’s rootsy Folklore and Evermore albums), Sheeran wrote and recorded very quickly, grappling with his “deepest darkest thoughts”.

All indications are that this will be his most pared back and serious work. “For the first time I’m not trying to craft an album people will like,” Sheeran has said. “I think it will surprise everybody,” says Howard. “It [has] no (commercial) pressure or expectations, because it is pure. It’s the record he had to make.”

To be a commercial superstar is not the same thing as being an artistic master, though, and the question is whether Sheeran can measure up to his ultimate heroes.

Vance has no doubts. “Ed’s not a tributary, man. He’s the main river. He’s tuned in, he’s in deep.”

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