Ed Sheeran used to be a misfit who was ridiculed for his stutter; now he’s a hard-drinking superstar who has Elton John over for dinner. But, he tells Patrick Doyle, what he really wants is a normal life. Easy to say when Taylor Swift is your best buddy,
‘Let’s go to my place for the finale!” Ed Sheeran shouts as he hops into an SUV. It’s just after midnight in London. Sheeran spent much of the evening in a bar, but even with his bright-red hair hidden under a baseball cap, people started to recognize him. The DJ played one of his songs, and his friends had to create a wall around him so he could drink in peace. It all made him a little anxious, which is why we’re speeding to his West London home to keep the party going.
Sheeran is celebrating tonight because he knows he’s about to score his first number-one hit in America with
a sleek, funky stomper from his new album,
We’re joined by his girlfriend, Cherry, and his old friends Zack, Nathan and Catherine, who have been watching him perform since he released his first album,
when he was 13. “I went plywood,” Sheeran, now 25, jokes about that LP. “Not gold. I sold 100 copies.”
Sheeran has been going hard tonight: espresso Martinis and rum-punch shots at dinner, gin and tonics at the bar. It’s my birthday, and at one point he grabs my phone, takes a selfie of us and posts to my Instagram, writing, “It’s my birthday bitches #london #hashtag #believe #achieve #inspiration.” He encourages friends to knock back pints with a drinking song that ends, “
You, Divide. The Spinning Man, You’re a cunt!”
Soon, we arrive at his house, a fivefloor, industrial-style space with brick walls, wood floors and several personal touches: a Charmander Pokemon stuffed animal in his bedroom and a bong shaped like songwriter Benny Blanco’s head in the living room. There’s also a recording studio, a gym and a full bar, where he recently entertained several young cast members of his favourite show,
As we arrive, Sheeran offers bedrooms to anyone who wants to “get rowdy”, then goes to work mixing drinks.
of Thrones. Shape of Na na na na/Hey hey hey/ Game
With the possible exception of Justin Bieber, Sheeran is the biggest male pop star alive. But pop-machine refinement is something he resists full force. His life is a chaotic blur of too much pub food, 3am pool games, shots at dinner and impulsive decisions: “If you ever need a wedding band . . .” he says shortly after we meet and he learns I have a girlfriend. “I always say, ‘It’s free if I’m free’. As long as you sort me out with a lot of booze and a bed, I’m there.” (During our time together, I will meet at least three friends whose weddings he has played.) He is filterless. “Powerful shit upstairs, man. Who did that?” he asks after emerging from the bathroom, until a friend admits to it.
As his fame increases, holding on to a semblance of normalcy is important for Sheeran. He’s been hanging out with old friends a lot; he even wrote about them in his new single, a tribute to their rebellious schooldays in Suffolk.
Around 4am, Sheeran runs upstairs to grab his guitar and then takes a seat at the kitchen table. He proceeds to play for two hours straight — a gig considerably more intimate than the stadium shows he plays all by himself, backed only with an acoustic guitar and a loop pedal. Tonight he plays songs from as well as several unreleased tunes he says are planned for future albums. He takes requests, too — including the number-one hit he wrote with Justin Bieber. “You know is originally
right?” he jokes before playing that version.
This is Sheeran’s gift in a nutshell: He’s a mix of old-school troubadour and Top 40 technician, a guy who could kill it at a coffeehouse open-mic night, but is also one of the most pop-savvy songwriters alive. (He also raps surprisingly well.) His crowds are mostly teenage girls, but Sheeran is craftsman enough to impress someone like Elton John, who signed him to his management company in 2011. “He can write melodies so simply,” says Elton, who points to which won a Grammy in 2016 for Song of the Year. “Van Morrison would have been
Castle On The Hill, Divide, Love Yourself, Love Yourself Yourself, Thinking Out Loud, Fuck
very proud to write that. He reminds me of me when I first came to America, in 1970. It was all systems go. Nothing was impossible. The unfortunate thing is, now, everyone sounds like Ed Sheeran: Shawn Mendes, Justin Bieber . . . ”
“Sorry, I’m a bit drunk,” Sheeran says after flubbing a line to a new track. He stops to roll a cigarette and heat up a pizza. Then he sits down and plays a fingerpicked waltz from Like most of the songs he writes these days, it’s about Cherry, whom he’s known since school and reconnected with at an after-show party in New York. They kept their relationship secret for a full year, until Taylor Swift invited them to her Fourth of July party in Rhode Island, and a friend Instagrammed a picture of a banner celebrating their one-year anniversary.
I found a love to carry more than just my secrets,” I don’t deserve this, darling, you look perfect tonight.”
Sheeran sings. “
“My tear glands are just throbbing,” says Catherine.
“Let me think of another tear-jerker,” Sheeran says. “Please don’t!” she says. He gets up and makes another gin and tonic. “Everyone cool? I am very cool.” Around six, it’s time for bed. Early last year, Sheeran and Cherry were touring a volcano in Iceland, when Sheeran ignored a guide’s directions to not stray from a path. As he approached a bubbling geyser, the thin crust of earth started to collapse beneath him, sending both feet into nearly 200-degree water. It was the first time Cherry had heard him scream. She ripped one of his socks off, taking his skin with it. “I still have posttraumatic stress over it,” she says. He had to be airlifted to a hospital.
The couple could have headed home — instead, they pushed on with a trip that lasted six months. Sheeran, it turned out, really needed to get away from being a pop star for a while.
Sheeran’s default mood is relentlessly upbeat. But he admits that every now and then he “spirals”. This happened in 2013, when he scored an opening gig for Taylor Swift and moved to Nashville, where the tour was based. “I was on the most amazing fucking tour in the world,” he says. “I was just living in a country that I didn’t belong in, in a town I didn’t really know anyone.”
He began to drink — a lot. His frequent songwriting partner, Snow Patrol’s Johnny McDaid, was worried about Sheeran when he saw him at a show in Hollywood in 2015. “He was just go, go, go,” McDaid says. “I sat him down and said, ‘Look, man, please have all the fun in the world. But be careful because if that elastic snaps, it could take a long time to recover from it.’ ”
A single Twitter comment could ruin his day. “Everyone online was saying, ‘Ed’s going bald’. And I’m not. But I convinced myself that I was. Ginger hair is just very fair — my hair is completely fine. I was also quite big at the time,” he adds, referring to his weight, “so I kind of got a complex about two things I would have never given a fuck about.”
He also lost some friends. “The list actually fucked it up,” he says, referring to a report in the magazine indicating he made $57m in 2015. “I was getting texts from people with pictures of cars going, ‘I’d like this for my birthday, please. This one’s only .06pc of your annual income’.” (He ended up ditching his phone; he uses an iPad to communicate and a flip phone for close family.)
So after attending the Grammys last year and winning Song of the Year, Sheeran skipped the afterparties and boarded a plane to Iceland. Once his foot had healed, the couple traveled around rural Japan for a month, from Hokkaido to Okinawa, where he was able to walk around in anonymity, “eat weird food, soak in the hot springs and ski”.
Sheeran stopped smoking and cut way back on his drinking. In June, he spent three weeks in Ghana at the invitation of Ghanaian-English singer Fuse ODG. Working in Fuse’s house, he started writing African-influenced music. “Any time we made a song, they would throw a party for the song,” he says. “He would invite 200-plus people around, and we would just