Getting to Know Ed Sheeran

Christie Goodwin

Says Taylor Swift: "When someone is as approachable and outgoing as Ed, you know you're not going to deal with tantrums or diva-like behavior that I really have no patience for."

Ed Sheeran has acceded to a request to roll up his sleeves and show off the story of his life. The tattoos on his right arm document his professional accomplishments, while “the personal stuff” is segregated on the left arm. “This mother-and-child Matisse is for my mom. This is clover for my granddad...” The teddy bear? “My nickname’s Teddy. I was called that, by my friends. But now I’m Ed,” he adds, just in case a visitor might get any ideas about getting overly familiar. The three red boxing gloves signify the three nights he sold out Madison Square Garden as a headliner last fall.

Does he foresee getting any tats in honor of his sophomore album, due out in early summer?  “Well, I’ve already got the tattoo of the album name,” he says, removing his watch. “Those are the four albums over the next four years…” First there is +, for the debut album he put out in 2011, and then x (which will be pronounced “multiply”) for the sophomore effort coming out in June. He is getting to the tattoos of his projected third and fourth album titles when he suddenly realizes that this is more of a game plan than he meant to give away. He puts his watch back on. “I wouldn’t print that,” he says, half-asking, half-telling.

The secret of his long-range album titles is safe with us. Not many performers would be so confident about their plans for years from now to have them inked onto their body, but then, not many artists of any age are as self-possessed as Sheeran, now 23, has been since at least his mid-teen years. Boldness doesn’t begin to describe the confidence you need to book an arena tour going out as a one-man band bearing only an acoustic guitar and a loop pedal. Sheeran already has venues like L.A.'s Staples Center and Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena booked for this fall -- along with at least one full-on stadium he won’t yet reveal. Rest assured, from his tats and his track record, that he’s not the kind of guy who makes his plans in pencil.

Sheeran is the subject of this week’s Billboard cover story; in this bonus feature, we thought we’d look at a few other aspects of the burgeoning pop star’s personality,  as revealed by himself and some of his star collaborators.

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One question we had to ask him: What’s it like having the attention of 18,000 fans and knowing there’s nothing else on stage for them to look at but you?

“Uh, good,” he answers, almost a little bit bashful to admit just how un-bashful he is as a performer. “Good. Because if I f--- up, I know how to change it, and I can rework it within a couple of seconds. Whereas if I was in a band and someone else f---ed up, or if f---ed up with the loop pedal, I don’t know how they’d react. I’d have to have played with them for a while.” He has plans to go out with an actual band eventually, but for now, there’s no need to sacrifice his unusual calling card and fix what his screaming fans clearly don’t feel is broken.

Sheeran can be tough on himself, or at least objective. He’s candid about why he feels his second single in America didn’t perform as well as the first. “’Lego House’ probably wasn’t good enough, and that’s why it didn’t shine through. I can accept that. ‘The A Team’ is out and out one of the best songs I’ve written. ‘Lego House’ I wouldn’t put up there.” Really? That one did go to No. 5 in the UK, even if stalled at No. 42 on the Billboard Hot 100, so somebody was into it. “I like it,” he qualifies. “I just don’t think it’s the best song I’ve written.”

There probably won’t be a lot of stalling when it comes to “Sing,” the first single off the forthcoming album, and an instant attention-grabber of a Pharrell Williams production. He’ll be performing that on this weekend’s Saturday Night Live, along with an album track that may also have hit-single status in its future, “Don’t,” the album version of which was co-produced by Rick Rubin and Benny Blanco.

Williams has a lot of thoughts about why Sheeran has become a star, and how he has even more to offer. “Ed speaks for a lot of people, and sets people free,” says the super-producer. “And I only work with people who I believe have the ability to set people free. I used to just work with people I believed in from an aesthetic point of view, which is very shallow, and a lot of times the result would be shallow. It would feel good, but it wouldn’t be holistically rewarding.” In Sheeran, Williams believes he found that kind of deeper and richer collaborator. “Ed deserves all of the love and the light and the positivity that he’s getting right now. Because he’s shining the light for those that didn’t know that they could do it. He’s one of us. He’s an ordinary guy with a weird imagination that had the guts to go ahead and express it to people, and the universe is rewarding him.”

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Pharrell even talks of Sheeran in terms of mild-mannered superheroes. “Ed’s an everyday guy, and he just wants to be happy. But there’s a melancholy side to him. You know, there’s a sad corner in him that he rarely talks about. He gets into it here and there on his album. He’s not a deeply depressed guy at all -- he’s a happy guy -- but there’s a part of him that he rarely shows to the world that I saw peeking out every once in a while. And he’s beginning to realize, with all of the success and adoration that comes his way, that there’s no reason to have that sad corner. He’s beginning to realize that the world is healing him. Every time he goes in and overachieves and supersedes his own expectations, he realizes that slight insecurity is actually his Superman cape.”

Taylor Swift says that it’s not just his superstar potential that led her to bring him along as opening act on her entire North American tour last year. His good nature figured into it, too.

“I've found that choosing a great opening act depends just as much on who the person is offstage as who they are onstage,” says Swift. “When someone is as approachable and outgoing as Ed, you know you're not going to deal with tantrums or diva-like behavior that I really have no patience for. He became friends with the band, crew, and dancers. He came out onstage again every night during my show to sing a song with me. We have a big party for fans we've randomly selected from the crowd after the show, and Ed was almost always there. Ed just goes above and beyond for people and having that kind of a generous spirit around lifts everyone's mood. I think the fans can see that in him and that's why he's connected in such a profound way.”

Lest he seem milquetoast, though, Sheeran also has a wicked sense of humor, which is how he bonded with producer Benny Blanco.

“Me and Ed just saw through each other from our first emails. I remember when we connected, he wrote me this long, heartfelt email. And I’m not a serious guy. So all I wrote back was that I had to take a poop. And then, instantly, me and Ed were friends, because Ed’s a jokester, too.” But his work ethic is no joke. “He’s such an honest guy, and all his songs come straight from the heart. We’ll be talking up on top of my roof, with him pouring his heart out, and he’ll pick up a guitar, and it just comes through so clearly. When he starts writing, you just kind of get out of the way and stay there to be his spotter. He’s a musical genius.”

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Snow Patrol’s Johnny McDaid also speaks to Sheeran’s tirelessness in everything but matters of housekeeping. “We lived together in Nashville and L.A., yeah. Can I have no comment on that?” he laughs. “Ed is one of my favorite human beings in the world, and he is quite certainly a genius, but he’s also one of the messiest human beings I’ve ever met in my life. But I think part of that is because he was working so hard. He was on tour with us, and he worked crazy hard and did every single radio station, interview, and promo that he could do. He’d come back from a show with Taylor at 2 a.m. and say ‘I've got an idea,’ and we would sit at the piano and work for hours. And he’s gracious and kind, and knows the energy he gives to people is important. So, as a roommate, messiest guy in the world -- and he needs to take a course in washing dishes -- but worth every single second of it.”

On a new song, “Take It Back,” Sheeran sings, “I don’t have an enemy except the NME.” That’s a reference to when the British music magazine’s editor encouraged readers to share a hashtag that read: “#howshitisedsheeran.” “They weren’t a very nice publication to me, and I was just making it clear that I don’t have another enemy,” Sheeran says. “Like, I get on with everyone. What I’ve found about [other] magazines is even if they don’t like my music, I still get on with the people. They don’t have to like my music to get on with me as a person. That’s all I’m asking for… The NME issued a public apology in the next magazine. And I just kept my mouth shut at the time. So this song is me saying something… something like, ‘Hey! I remember. F--- you.’”

His cheeky side also comes out when we ask what he might do with the nearly 60 songs he wrote for the new album that didn’t make the cut. (Rick Rubin says that the two of them alone tracked more than 30 songs.) Might he give some of them to his pal Harry Styles and One Direction, like he did with a couple of outtakes in the past?

“No, they’ve got enough people that will write acoustic songs for them now. Yeah, that’s their new sound, though, isn’t it?” Sheeran says. “I gave One Direction a song [‘Little Things’] that ended up being a No. 1 in England, and the week it was playlisted, I went to playlist with my new single, and it didn’t get [added] because [the BBC] said ‘We already have an Ed single on the playlist.’ So I’m done with giving songs to people.”

Is he being tongue-in-cheek or honest, there? Possibly only his tattoo artist knows for sure.

Twitter: @chriswillman

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