Ahead of today's Sunday slot on the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury, Spotify caught up with Ed Sheeran to talk about his new album X and what's been going on since his debut album was released nearly three years ago.
Sheeran discusses his new album track by track, and is candid when it comes to the influence of recent relationships on his songs. Other gems include the time he had a transformative relationship with a beanbag in Ibiza…
Quite a lot has happened to Ed Sheeran since his debut album was released nearly three years ago. Here are some of the near-to unbelievable events he can actually remember.
"Doing a song for The Hobbit," he laughs. "Going over to New Zealand to find Peter Jackson’s daughter is a fan, then being invited round to their house and seeing his collection of movie memorabilia, which is just insane. Playing the Queen’s Jubilee and getting drunk in Buckingham Palace with all the royals, that was pretty cool. Playing the Olympic closing ceremony with members of Genesis and Pink Floyd, that was fucking mental."
Didn't you play in LA on your 22nd birthday?
"Yeah! The Nokia Theatre - that was the biggest gig that I’d done in America at that time. It was 9,000 people and I was dressed up as a pirate, the whole crowd was dressed up as well. When I walked backstage, Elton John, Adele and Rick Rubin were just sitting there. That was quite a random experience. But, do you know what? It's the stuff that people wouldn’t’ really care about that makes all the difference, those stories are great to tell the grandkids, but, if, say, someone in the family wants a wedding, just being able to just sort it all is great. Or even just going out to the pub and paying for everyone, never having to worry about any of that stuff again."
Ed says he's been through a life-changing transition. "I never had money," he says, "and then I had a lot of it. There was never and in between. It wasn't that long ago I was having to ask friends to pay for train tickets so I could get to the studio. I'd have one pound a day to buy chips and I was always thinking about where I would sleep next. That's all gone."
And it's all gone because Ed writes the sort of songs that an enormous amount of people want to listen to over and over again. His top ten most streamed songs on Spotify have been played around 250m times and every track from his new album - X - is in our UK Top Tracks playlist.
"I've spent a long time pushing a door open very slowly," he says. "And now, hopefully, I can step through with this next record…"
With that in mind we sat down with Ed to talk about some of the songs that appear on his new record, where they come from and what they mean to him. X is, he says, "quite an angry record, quite pained" and it all began during Ed's first ever trip to Australia back in November 2011. His debut album had only just come out - then he wrote a song called One, "and the record just started from there," he says,
Weirdly enough, the whole first record was about one girl, and One is the only song on this record that’s about her - it's the last song that I ever wrote about her. It was a kind of closure to a lot of things, it was the end of everything for that first record. It was a closure for that relationship - and that album - and it was the start of the new album and the start of moving on. It always felt to me like the first song on the record. Track one, it’s called One, and it would be the first thing that people hear. So it worked out. I think!
Ha! Well, originally he tweeted “This Angels To Fly song is great” a while ago and then at the Grammys, I don’t think he knew what I looked like, so I just went up to him and said, “I’m a massive fan, I just wanted to say that’s my tune!”, and then we swapped numbers. Sing was from my first session with him, and when you work with Pharrell, he tends to push you: he wants you to do the best thing possible. So you don’t necessarily go for the first thing he plays you. It must have been on the seventeenth thing that he played me, and I had just dismissed everything. I just didn’t really get it. I don’t really get jazz chords and Pharrell’s very jazzy! He played me the beat, and I instantly dismissed it, it’s not for me. OK, fair enough, move on, but I had a guitar in my hand, and I started playing that riff and he just looked at me and said, 'Do you know what you’re doing, man?' I was like, 'No!', and then he puts back on the song and I said, 'Oh, OK, but I still don’t want to do it”, but just said, 'Man, just try it, it’s not going to kill you to try it!' So he went off – he has three different studios in his building and has three different sessions going on at any one time - and I wrote the top line. He came back in, we pieced it all together, I wrote probably seven different verses and three different choruses and then we just picked the best ones and stuck them together…
Let's talk about Bloodstream - it was originally called Lovestream?
It was, yeah. I don’t know how much I can tell you about that. I’m not a massive drug-taker, but that song was written after an experience in Ibiza and it's basically about all the feelings that I got from that time.
It was an ecstasy experience?
Yeah, it was weird, because I haven’t taken it since, it was literally just a one-time thing. It was a wedding, and I was having a mojito, and my mate was like, “Do you want to try it, it tastes really bad if you put it in your mouth but I’ll just put it in your drink and it’ll be fine”. It was MDMA and I fell in love with a beanbag. I literally got home and bought six beanbags! During it all I felt a lot of things: I felt anxiety, I felt love, I felt warm, I felt a bit weird. And afterwards, you spend all day just thinking about what you've been through. So, I’ve only done it once and I’ve told my mum and dad about it, but I did actually go through two months where I’d been such a good boy for such a long time that I went and tried everything.
And I found out I’m not missing much - that experience was probably the best out of all of them. I think alcohol’s a lot more fun.
That was written about my grandfather, who passed away at Christmas. He was always the hero of the family, such a cool guy. He had Alzheimer’s, so he never really knew who I was. I have 24 cousins, so there's a certain generation of cousins that he knew, and certain generations that he didn’t! But it didn’t really matter, because he’d always pretend that he did. That was was a weird song, because I actually started writing it about two weeks before he passed away - thinking “What if?” - and then he did. So it was odd how it came about.
That was written on the Snow Patrol tour in May 2012, in a hotel room in Kansas. My friend Johnny McDaid who plays guitar and keyboards with them was on his laptop, and he had a loop of this piano piece just going on and on. I was sat on the floor making a Lego X-Wing Fighter to give to his sister for a charity auction and this piano loop keeps playing, and I start singing a line and the song kind of unravelled from there. We sat for about four hours, me making Lego, and him on the laptop, just building stuff and then I picked up a guitar and we properly structured it. I think Photograph is the backbone of the whole record, when I first wrote it Photograph was my insurance - I knew I had at least one good song for the next record! And it was actually my insurance record for a very fucking long time to come. All the stand-out songs were the last ones to be written."
A lot of people tell me they have that moment when think they’ve finished the album and then more come out and they're the ones they love most.
"Give Me Love, Small Bump and Kiss Me were the last three that I wrote for the album - so, yeah, I definitely agree with that."
The pressure's relieved and anything else is a bonus...
"Yeah! You stop trying to write a radio single. Ironically, radio singles come when you don’t try and write radio singles.
That was a riff that I had on my phone for a year. The song’s pretty self-explanatory, story-wise, it was one of those situations where someone comes across as a very, very sweet, innocent person, and you take that for granted, then stuff unravels and you see a different side to them. It's a frustration song, I'm saying, 'I didn’t really know she was like this, fuck! You bastard…”. But I got over it quite quickly [laughs]. On the first album, I’d only really ever dated one person, and I’ve had a lot of experiences with this album - good and bad - but they’ve all been positive, I’ve learnt from all of them. And if I didn’t make all these mistakes, I wouldn’t’ have written a good album. That song will ruffle some feathers - I'll get a few angry emails...
That's about my ex-girlfriend [Nina Nesbitt], we dated for a year. It was written on tour with Snow Patrol in another hotel room. It was based on a sample from a Wretch 32 song called Welcome To My World from his third mixtape, Retrospective. I sampled the piano and made a song out of it. When you’re a musician and you date someone, there’s always an in-between. Like, you put your family and your friends first, always, and then your career second. But when you date someone, they kind of fall in between the family and friends and career, and you don’t really know whether they’re more important than the career or whether they’re more important than family - so this is a song about that. You just need to find someone that’s OK with it, and I think by the time you have kids, that’s when your family comes first, and that’s where the woman comes, because she’s your family now. I think kids change everything, but up until then it's different. My family understand I had to go away for 12 months last year, but until you find a partner who'd happy with that, you shouldn’t even bother. Well, you shouldn’t bother committing.
The first year I was at the Grammys I went with my girlfriend who I’d been with for a fair amount of time back then. She came with me, it was a new experience for me and her and I just remember being at a party with lots of people chatting about loads of stuff I didn’t really understand, and wasn’t interested in, and thinking, 'Shall we just pop off?' We were surrounded by all the musicians I look up to about neither of us wanted to be there - you just want to be with this one person. It's called Tenerife Sea because her eyes are seriously blue, like electric blue. So I just thought like, when you see holiday magazines of Tenerife, that’s where the sea’s really blue. Yeah - it's a bit cheesy! Maybe it will become the anthem for ravers going Tenerife.
That's just a pure stream of consciousness. I had a lot on my brain, I just put it all in a song and left it for a long time, and then came back to it. It’s a bit brutal, so I don’t really know what to say about it, because the whole song was this stream of consciousness…
So, does it feel good to be going back into battle?
It does. Last time I went in as the only singer-songwriter, so everyone had that singer-songwriter slot available for me, but now they’ve got Jake Bugg and Ben Howard and the rest - that slot is already filled, so I need to get back in. It has scared me, you know, not getting my own slot back…