Sitting opposite Ed Sheeran in a Dublin hotel room, it’s hard to believe he is a 20-year-old still enjoying only his first months as a certified pop star.
In the course of our chat he explains exactly why ‘selling out’ is a bad idea, defines his vision for success and — helpfully — provides a world-weary explanation of how music reviews work. But first he tells me about being interviewed.
“It’s starting to become enjoyable. When I first started out I was doing the lower rungs of the press and it was just people quoting my Wikipedia at me and I’d just nod and say yes. These days people have actually done their research,” he says, perhaps providing a subtle hint.
But then anyone who has done their research on the pale, ginger-haired Brit currently crooning (or rapping) out of radios everywhere knows that he’s no wide-eyed newbie coming straight off the pop production line.
Instead, he has arrived at the summit of the album charts this month on the back of playing 312 gigs in one year and earning some impressive public endorsements — the very things, funnily enough, that he’s sick of talking about. He says he’s lost count of how many times he’s been asked about ‘the number of gigs I’d done, my ginger hair, Jamie Foxx and Elton John [both of whom are fans].’
Born to Irish parents (we’re here for Arthur’s Day, where he’ll perform in front of his extended family) and raised in Suffolk, Sheeran released his first EP in 2005, followed by yearly small releases until he finally broke the mainstream with ‘+’ in 2011.
A gifted guitarist and vocalist, he made the decision early in his carrer to reject attempts by a major record label to restyle and repackage him, something Sheeran addressed with his second single ‘You Need Me, I Don’t Need You’.
“That song wasn’t just about one particular person, but the industry in general,” He says.
“I came from a small farming town in Suffolk and just wrote songs and did gigs, and suddenly I was being told: ‘other people need to write your songs, you can’t be looping, you can’t be beat boxing, you need to dress like this and have that image’. I was like: f**k that, I going to do what I want.”
In terms of sales, he’s been more than vindicated. But perhaps paradoxically, resisting becoming a pop puppet hasn’t brought him much critical acclaim.
One the UK’s better known music journalists Alexis Petridis gave ‘+’ a somewhat lukewarm review, prompting Sheeran’s legion of Twitter followers to temporarily fill the Guardian writer’s timeline with abuse.
“And remember, reviewers don’t buy albums, they just listen to it once and do a five minute review of it. So I don’t really care about what Alexis Petridis has to say. His job is to review an album, and if he doesn’t like it he’ll give it a bad review. I’m fine with that. What I would care about is if a fan bought my album for £10.99 and said ‘you know what Ed? This isn’t up to scratch.’ F**k it.”
And yet Sheeran — or at least someone in his team — does seem to care about how he is being received in the press. During a day of frantic interviews, a colleague from the NME (in which ‘+’ was given a scathing 4/10 review) is refused a slot to talk to him. As we discuss his second album –- for which he is sensibly giving himself two years to record — he returns to the theme unprompted.
“Even if I wasn’t successful with the next album, as long as I do what I want and I’m happy with it, it will be fine. I think the worst thing is when people call other people sell outs. If I had got that bad review from Alexis Petridis in the Guardian and thought ‘oh f**k he’s right’ — that would be selling out. But I am 100% happy with everything I did on the album. I don’t think I’ll ever lose that. I come from a scene where we like to be credible and do what we want.”
Understandably, he also wants to make a living at the same time. I ask him why he went for such an unusual album title, and as well as representing progress and positivity in his career he said that ‘+’ was chosen because: ‘you can’t Google it so it’s quite hard to find it on torrenting sites’. So, does that mean illegal downloading annoys him?
“Yes. I have to make a living and musicians don’t make that much money these days. People think because you’re on the TV you’re a millionaire, but we still have to make money. I’ve never illegally downloaded anything, I’ve always bought CDs.”
Later the following evening, Ed comes on stage for set at Dublin’s Olympia. Again, it’s hard to believe how old he is. His set is delivered with remarkable polish and precision. But more impressive is how he manages to whip up his fans into a frenzy.
“They’re militant aren’t they? Crazy. I love them. I think the reason[that his fans are so loyal] is that they’ve grown with me from a point and lived my success with me. When I went to number one I gave out a free EP, so I am good to them I think. They’re just normal, lovely people.”
As for what happens next: “I want to be able to achieve more success with the second album than the first one. Someone like Coldplay, or Adele or Plan B have all done that and cemented themselves as household names. That’s what I want to achieve.”
On all the evidence so far no one — least of all a few unimpressed journalists — will get in his way.
Interviewed for AOL, September 2011