Sounding just right

Sounding just right

Brit invasion

Sounding just right

In a room at RAK studios, Ed Sheeran is unveiling his new album. The singer-songwriter has, after some stops and starts and revisions, just completed the record he has titled X.The 23-year-old from Suffolk introduces the selection of songs one by one.

First out of the studio’s giant speakers is the softly strummed ballad “One”, written in his dressing room while on tour in Australia. It’s the “last song about the person who was on the first album,” he says. “One”, he thinks, is a good way to end both that period and that relationship.

Then there’s “Sing”, the first single. It’s “quite different”, which is something of an understatement. It sounds like One Direction meets Justin Timberlake. Which is not so surprising when you remember that Sheeran — a prolific writer for both himself and other artistes — has written for the mega-selling boy band, and when you learn that “Sing” is a collaboration with one-time Timberlake producer Pharrell Williams.

Later he plays “Don’t”, which at this point is scheduled to be the second single. It’s a song born of frustration, recounting in bald, sweary and specific detail his brief sexual relationship with another A-list artiste, and her subsequently betraying him with another pop star. “I’m gonna get some angry emails after it,” he says with a rueful chuckle.

Stage presence

Then, picking up his guitar, Sheeran performs a couple of songs, beginning with “I’m A Mess”. It was “written in the shower”. Like “Thinking Out Loud”, it’s about his new girlfriend of four months, Athina Andrelos, who works for Jamie Oliver.

And finally he plays “Photograph”. It’s his “collateral” song. “If the rest of the album is s***t, we can sell it on this one,” he says. It’s a typical Sheeran statement: a touch of swagger, but shrouded with humility. It’s a winning combination. It delivers both the double-Brit Award winner’s ambition and his self-confidence, but also undercuts it just enough to have people looking at this cuddly, tow-headed ginger and going “awwww…”

Nine days later, I meet Sheeran again. He’s been bunkered in central London all day, doing eight or so hours of international press. What, I ask, are the dominant themes that emerged during those interviews? “How the Pharrell collaboration came about,” is his instant reply. “That was the key one. I just think that because everything he touches now turns to gold, everyone’s keen to talk about him. So yeah, I get that. Also, Rick Rubin.” As well as the “Happy/Get Lucky” singer, X features Rubin, the eminent American producer of everyone from Beastie Boys to Adele.

The release of x is, at this point, two months away. What is the cynical view of Ed Sheeran? “Right now? Before this music comes out? Um, I am a acoustic balladeer who sings soppy love songs to teenage girls. Which is a correct analysis for an outsider who isn’t a fan. And that’s something I’ve never really shied away from, or wanted to shy way from. ’Cause I think it’s something I can do quite well. But with this record it’s more of a step forward. I’ve tried some new stuff on it. Stepped outside of a my comfort zone a little bit.”

Sheeran is quite the showman. It is, again, a skill he’s honed from his mid-teens. His art historian father and jewellery-maker mother encouraged his incipient love for music. His brother Matt, two years his elder, is also a working musician. But he arrived there via a more conventional route, studying “at the Guildhall and the Royal something-or-other of music…”

Sheeran concedes that at school he “lacked focus… My dad always used to have a go at me for not working hard. And it wasn’t that — it’s just that I didn’t see any point in working hard for those particular things. As soon as I found music, that’s what I worked hard at. But when you’re trying to teach a kid trigonometry, and that kid’s saying, ‘when am I going to use this?’, and they don’t have an answer…” He shrugs.

Sheeran left home at 17. He was “technically homeless” for three years, sofa-surfing with a network of friends made in pubs and clubs. When he finally secured recording and publishing deals early in 2011, he bought a home in Suffolk.

His itinerant lifestyle isn’t just a legacy of old habits dying hard. He could have released his second album in 2012, but chose to delay it by 18 months so he could concentrate on attempting to “break” America. Even for this inveterate songwriter, that was his priority. Why was being successful in the US so important to him?

“It’s just one of those things. I’m a competitive person. When I see that someone else can’t do it, it just makes me want to do it more. And before, I felt like America was this untouched gem that only Coldplay did. But then when Adele smashed the door down, and then One Direction and Mumford & Sons did it, I was like: not only is it possible now, other people are doing it. So,” he shrugs, “I needed to go over.”

Sheeran seems relieved that the release of x is now within spitting distance. There was a time when he wondered if it would ever come out. He’d finally stopped touring, and felt “directionless”. He’d decided that a whole album of Rick Rubin-produced songs wasn’t right for him. Not at this point anyway. “It would be great for the third album… But it just wouldn’t work on pop radio. And I’m still in that world.”

“Sing” is a great choice for a comeback single. But Sheeran admits that decision was “so debated”. In fact, at one point, it wasn’t even on x. It was feared that those soppiness-loving teenage girls might be too alarmed by such an energetic song. Luckily, the well-connected Sheeran had some superstars onside.

“Elton John came into the office to listen to the album,” he says. Sheeran is looked after by Elton’s management company, Rocket. Then he played “Sing” to Elton, introducing it as a song for a future project — he wanted to do a whole album with Pharrell. “And Elton said: ‘you’re mental if you don’t put that on the album. That’s your first single.’ So he originally planted the seed in my head. Then I went out for dinner with Pharrell around a month ago…”

Collaborations

Pharrell too thought “Sing” should be x’s curtain-raiser, as did Taylor Swift. ‘She said I was mad if I put out ‘One’ first. She was like, ‘that’s just gonna… not bore people, but just satisfy them. But you want people to talk. And if they listen to ‘Sing’ they can love or hate it, but they are gonna talk about it.’”

Meanwhile, this fashion-unconscious mover-and-shaker is also both writer for hire and romantic fixer. As well as Swift and One Direction, he has written, or is writing, for one-time Disney stars Hilary Duff and Demi Lovato, new boy band Rixton, London soul singer Jessie Ware, UK dance collective Rudimental, American R&B titan Usher, teenage Dutch DJ Martin Garriix...

“Taylor and Elton are two of the people I would play music to and really listen to their advice. Taylor has not put a wrong foot, ever. So I played her every song I ever wrote for this album.”

But at the end of the day, Ed Sheeran knows the kind of artiste he wants to be. For all his famous friends, he’s a man of the people. That, he insists, is where lie his heart, and his sales.

“It’s always wrong to view your career as what the tabloids put it at. The real people that buy my record are Jenny in Stoke or Jasmine in Glasgow. Real, and all over the country. So I never really take much notice of the capital city/tabloid opinion. ’Cause it doesn’t really affect (things) out in the sticks, which is where most people buy the records.”

Still, there is a niggle itching at Sheeran’s default beatific positivity. “I hope I don’t get any backlash for that song…” he says, frowning just a little.

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