There are all sorts of reasons why Ed Sheeran is a remarkable person and a remarkable song-writer, here are just a few to get us started. For a start, take a look at the video of One, the opening track on his new album, x. There's Ed, there's his new guitar (made of whiskey barrels, apparently), there's that crystalline falsetto voice and there's an entirely empty Wembley Arena reverberating softly in the background. As a visual representation of where this album's at, it's perfect. Succinct, melodic, utterly personal and yet hugely ambitious music that is soon to captivate a huge audience.
For another, let's talk about hits. "I don’t think I've really had a hit single in America," Ed says. "The A Team did alright but it wasn’t really a hit." Hit single or not (it sold over 2million copies in the US) songs like ‘The A Team’, songs like ‘Lego House’, songs like ‘Small Bump’ changed a lot of people's lives, not least of all, Ed Sheeran's. A Grammy Nomination for Song of the Year can do that. Back-to-back, sold-out headlining tours of North America can do that. A trio of sold-out headlining shows at New York's legendary Madison Square Garden can do that. A further pair of Grammy nominations - including one for Best New Artist - can do that. Being hand-picked by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Peter Jackson - who's daughter is a huge fan - to write, produce and record an original song for the latest, and biggest movie in the Hobbit series can do that. The live shows, playing to millions of people across the world can do that. What's remarkable is despite all this dizzying success, despite this huge footprint he now has, that Ed's come back from all that with his head intact.
So if this new album starts anywhere, it might as well start here. On the night of his 22nd birthday Ed was playing the Nokia Theatre in LA - it was the biggest gig that he'd done in America to date. 9000 people turned up. Ed was dressed as a pirate.
When he walked backstage after the show, Elton John was there. And so was Rick Rubin. Oh, and so was Adele, who later nicked the parrot from his shoulder. "That was quite memorable," he smiles. "Then again, so was playing the Queen’s Jubilee and having drinks at Buckingham Palace."
What about playing the closing ceremony of the Olympics with members of Genesis and Pink Floyd?
"Ha!" he laughs out loud. "That wasn't so much memorable as fucking mental." The songs for x came together whilst touring + and, in the same way as the latter was a snapshot of his life and relationship to-date, x charts his loves and life since. Only 'One', the perfect album opener and first song written for the record (in 2011 whilst on tour in Australia) looks back to that time and is the link between the two records. With 'One' under his belt, almost before he noticed he was writing, Ed had ten new songs and counting.
While on tour in England he wrote more, then, while on tour with Snow Patrol he began writing - then sharing a house - with their keyboard player, Johnny McDaid.
"There was never a point when I stopped writing," he says. "But there were these little bursts."
These bursts soon added up to the point where Ed had around 70 songs written and he said to himself, “Fine, I’m done, I’m not doing any more”, and he focused on recording. Some time later, Rick Rubin got in touch and invited Ed round his house in Malibu to play him some songs.
"The album was already demo’d at this point," Ed says. "So I played him the songs, and he was stroking his beard and being all, 'I don’t know if this is the right way to do things. If I was going to do it with you, we’d do it like this…'."
The core element of all of these new songs is the intimacy and power of the live performance. You can hear it everywhere, from Afire Love - written about Ed's grandfather, who passed away last Christmas, to Photograph - written in May 2012 in a hotel room in Kansas while on tour with Snow Patrol, to Bloodstream (a Rubin production) written the day after a particularly eye-opening wedding party in Ibiza. "I fell in love with a beanbag at that party," Ed smiles. "I literally went home the next day and bought six of them…" Thinking Out Loud - written in Suffolk with Ed's old friend Amy Wadge - is the sort of first-rush-of-love song that really ought to be a wedding day first dance classic for years to come, while Sing (the first single) and Runaway were written during Ed's time with Pharrell Williams in Virginia. "He really pushes you," Ed says. "He wants you to do the best thing possible. So you don’t go for the first thing he plays…"
Ed thinks Pharrell was on about his 17th idea when he stopped dismissing everything.
"I just didn’t really get it," he says. "I don’t really get jazz chords and Pharrell’s very jazzy! He played me the beat, and I instantly dismissed it, but I had a guitar in my hand, and I started playing that riff and absent-mindedly started playing the song, and he looked at me and said, 'Do you know what you’re doing, man?' I just said, 'No', and then he puts the song back on, we pieced it all together, and we were done!" The wounded and heartfelt I'm A Mess - written in Ed's own shower just after christmas last year, while Don't - produced by Rubin and Benny Blanco is something quite different again. It began as a riff Ed had on his phone, while the lyrics describe someone who comes across as a very, innocent person, but quickly stuff unravels and you see a whole other side to them.
With the album ready to release, Ed is keen to get his music heard and for "constant evolution and continued humility. To stay true and humble and make music that people can debate." He plans to start again. No Madison Square Gardens to begin with. He wants to get to know his fans again, so he is focussing on small venues, small radio stations, almost becoming a new artist again. "England likes people who make good music and are humble," says this guy who's done so much but remains so resolute, so likeable.
"This really is my best work and I’m just incredibly proud of my new album." he says. “I’m happy and ready to share this with the world”. May 2014 // Ends //