When Ed Sheeran first announced he was playing Wembley Stadium this summer – becoming, effectively, the world’s first Stadium Busker – he already knew he wanted to play several nights if he possibly could.
Within days he was selling out three – a staggering achievement not only for a mild-mannered troubadour with no band, only his guitar and a sonically colossal effects pedal, but a still-young man who was homeless five years previously (a scenario that has left him with profound financial nous).
Evidently chuffed, he tweeted his three-nights news, with three triumphant fingers aloft, to his 13.3 million Twitter followers. There was probably part of him, though, that was slightly peeved: Take That back in 2011 managed a record-breaking eight, and Sheeran is the most competitive pop star in the world…
Sitting on a sofa backstage at a sold-out arena show in Nottingham, Sheeran is spelling out just how driven he truly is. “It’s just to see if I can do it, to be honest!” he’s cackling, of the Wembley ruse, someone ever-keen to test where any “glass ceiling” might descend (none has, as yet). “When you’re up to Wembley Stadium level you’re forever at that level in people’s minds. Coldplay. Robbie Williams. U2.”
This is the only thing in my life that I can win at. Unless Adele’s about, obviously!
Last year Sheeran’s friend, electro-soul alchemist Labrinth, described his buddy’s mind as “a machine, he knows all the stats”, while Sheeran himself merrily confesses that after every TV appearance, “however big or small”, he’s straight onto iTunes, continuously refreshing, surveying sales reactions.
“It’s just because I’ve never been good at anything before,” he smiles. “I never won anything at sports, any academic award. This is the only thing in my life that I can win at. Unless Adele’s about, obviously!”
Sheeran is a curious combination of a travelling zen-state minstrel and a marketing executive CEO busting your balls over aggressively targeted demographics. When Noel Gallagher talks about the “bank manager” element to the musical giants today, Sheeran takes that as a compliment.
“I know it’s not a very artistic thing to be, into the way things work, but I wanna know everything,” he muses, a tattooed slugger of strong Yorkshire tea and smoker of hand-rolled tobacco. This attitude, he’s found, is a generational thing – “Drake’s the same, Taylor Swift knows everything about everything” – and almost feels sorry for the cavalier romantics of previous generations.
“Pop stars nowadays are just more sensible, more savvy,” he decides. “Because it doesn’t last as long. It’s do your time, earn your money, buy some property and when it all goes to shit you’ve got something to fall back on. Whereas his generation, a lot of people just lived for the day. And managers were crooks, record labels took 50 per cent.
“When I signed my deal my manager said, ‘I know the fucking deal you gave to James Blunt last week so you’ll give Ed exactly the same because I know you can.’ Before, it was, ‘Record deal? Cool! Sign, done, hits, where’s the money!?’ Now, everyone’s cautious.”
In such an era, Sheeran is a musical phenomenon (his biggest competition, in fact, while Adele remains awol, is sad-eyed Sam Smith), his sound an unfeasible merge of folk-pop troubadour, Justin Timberlake, Van Morrison and a teenage rapper from a shady estate in the provinces. His dreamy, irresistible, global number one single Thinking Out Loud is arguably the most universally loved ballad since Adele’s Someone Like You – its graceful, insanely ubiquitous ballroom-dancing video specifically created, in the era of Strictly Come Dancing, for maximum ‘viral’ potential.
At 24, he already owns three houses (two in his native Suffolk, a pad in London); a property investor since 2011 with an unlikely financial advisor in 1990s drum ’n’ bass renegade Goldie (who he first met aged 17). “As soon as stuff started to go well,” notes Sheeran, “Goldie rang me up and goes [extreme cockney], ‘Don’t be a c*nt, buy a fuckin’ aaahse!’ The older generation are passing on advice.”
If this isn’t the random recklessness that rock ’n’ roll is supposed to be about, he’s paid his chaos dues. A songwriter from boyhood obsessed with Damien Rice and Van Morrison, he left his comfortable, middle-class home (and school) at 16 for the perils of the homeless travelling gypsy, with no financial support from his parents who lost their art curator jobs in the credit crunch. He mimicked the punishing work ethic of newly huge and fully uncool James Blunt and James Morrison: “Everything they did, 200 shows a year, 50 demos, I’d double it.”
Soon, he was alone in London, hustling for open-mic nights, roadie work and a place to sleep, sofa-surfing nationwide, living on chips. Around 2009 he spent one week sleeping rough on the London Underground’s circle line: he’d play a show, stay up drinking with stragglers, wait for the Tube to open at 5am and sleep for four hours. “I actually thrived,” he insists, “because I had to work, I had to find more gigs, places to stay. I never woke up thinking I’m hard done by.”
Not even when he slept, with no sofas available, inside a stone public arch near Buckingham Palace, handily fitted with a heating vent; a scenario he deemed “fine!” – all he needed was his cigarettes, guitar and rucksack for a pillow.
“What has pissed me off,” he decides, “is I kept a diary from 2009 to 2010 and then I stopped because I just got really busy. If I’d written everything down from that point to this point it would’ve been a very cool thing to publish. I’ve still got the passage about ringing round, ‘You got a sofa? No… Spare room? Nah…’ Yikes. Heating vent.”
If you strip my music away, I was quite… a hopeless person
If many late teens today, mollycoddled by our consumerist comforts, definitely could not hack this, Sheeran excelled at sacrifice. “It wasn’t cushy living in Framlingham, drinking tea and walking to school but I was doing what I loved, touring with Example, Devlin, Professor Green. Wonderful!” As The A Team single from one of five self-financed EPs finally broke through, he utilised social media to aid a personal hygiene crisis (carroty dreadlocks were sprouting), tweeting to fans a trade-off: if they gave him a shower he’d play round their house. Occasionally, he questioned his nomadic life and was in tears one night in 2010 after what was then his biggest sell-out show in London (Cargo).
“Because I still had fuck-all afterwards,” he explains. “Everyone had gone home and I was left. If you strip my music away, I was quite… a hopeless person. That was the realisation, ‘Fuck, is this even worth it?’ When the album went to Number One [his debut + in 2011] I was still sleeping on a sofa because the first royalty cheque didn’t come through for a year.”
He persevered and by 2012 was playing The A Team (his sing-a-long anthem about a crack-addicted teenage prostitute) in front of The Queen at the Jubilee Party at Buckingham Palace, yards from the arch he’d slept in three years before. Today, second album x is a multi-million seller, he’s best mates with Taylor Swift (pictured above) and Harry Styles, met his hero Van Morrison (they had breakfast bagels) and befriended Courteney Cox and Jennifer Aniston on his year-long bachelor party in LA in 2013, living with Snow Patrol’s Johnny McDaid (he woke up one night passed out on Aniston’s swimming pool lounger).
The Big Issue has inspired the launch of 120 street papers globally, including sister titles in Australia, South Africa, Japan, Taiwan and Korea.
“I definitely lived it,” twinkles Sheeran. “I did everything I should’ve done. And everything I shouldn’t.” Even if he is, he insists to this day, hopeless at chatting up women (the more he says this, the more women love him) – the result of a series of childhood mishaps that left him with a perforated eardrum, a permanent squint and a temporary stutter (a huge port-wine birthmark around an eye had to be lasered off with complicated results).
He couldn’t play sports, like cool kids, without orthopaedic sports goggles: “Which had a flick-y thing at the top everyone said was a penis.” There’s never been anything ordinary, it turns out, about the tattooed minstrel we think of today as the archetypal boy-next-door.
“I was weird,” chirps Sheeran, happily. “A weird little ginger kid with a stutter, big NHS specs and no ear drum. It probably is why I’m not very good at chatting up women. If you grow up with women not being interested, you don’t know how to capitalise on it. I’m an outsider who found solace in music. But I do have the utmost confidence in my career. My view on it is God looked down one day and was like, ‘Fucking hell, you need some help, mate. Here’s a guitar!’”
Perhaps his phenomenal success is the ultimate Revenge of The Geek?
“No, I’m definitely not driven by vengeance, I’m driven by love, of music,” he concludes, stubbing his snout. “I’ve never woken up and thought – okay, let’s book Wembley Stadium because the cool kids don’t like me. But everyone’s a geek. In some way! Even the beautiful people. Some people can pretend they’re not weird but they are. We are all fucking weird.”
Ed Sheeran plays Wembley Stadium on July 10, 11 & 12
Author: Sylvia Patterson