On pop charts populated by rappers and dance floor divas, a 23-year-old Brit with an acoustic guitar stands out. Ed Sheeran, whose sophomore album, “X” peaked at the No. 1 position on the Billboard 200 earlier this summer, says he likens his popularity to a niche that needs to be filled.
“I think there is one singer/songwriter for every generation,” he says. “I guess I’m just this generation’s one.”
This statement is characteristic of Sheeran in conversation. There’s an element of the grandiosity one needs to become a pop star, but there’s also a healthy dose of humility and even a trace of self-doubt. He says the phrase “I guess” about as often as he sings about being drunk.
Sheeran’s music is also rife with these levels of certainty.
“I like a lot of different types of music, and I like trying them out, I guess,” he says. “I never want to be a one-trick pony, even if I don’t master the other crafts.”
His live act includes experimental elements like a series of sampling pedals, and his repertoire runs the gamut from pretty ballads to confessional raps to Springsteen covers. [Listen below]
When asked about this cover, he says, "I was in a hotel room in New York with a friend who is an actor. And he was playing stuff on the speakers and that song came on, and I wasn't familiar with Springsteen. I was kind of familiar with his big hits but I wasn't really familiar with that album, "Nebraska." And I just listened to that on repeat. Over and over again that night and I got fully into it the next day.
So who was that actor?
"A friend of mine named Kit Harington," he says. "He plays Jon Snow on 'Game of Thrones.'"
Oh yeah, we've heard of that guy.
Sheeran's careful to distinguish that although he has some friends who are also in show business, not everybody knows each other and has the kindest words for each other.
On the day of this interview, a meme of Sheeran walking up to the stage at the VMAs makes the rounds, the gossip suggesting that Miley Cyrus can be seen mouthing the word "a—hole" as Sheeran high-fives a friend in her row.
When we speak, Sheeran hasn't seen the clip in question, and he says that he has never met Cyrus, but he seems perfectly content with being on the gossip websites.
"At least they're saying something," he says.
Sheeran learned about not saying negative things about famous people the hard way, as last year he was critical of Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball" video.
One other musician you won’t get Sheeran talking about is who the subject of his most recent single, “Don’t” is.
Pointing to the lyric, “me and her, we make money the same way,” many were quick to suggest when “X” was first released that it was about Ellie Goulding, with whom Sheeran had been spotted at a few public outings. So who is it about?
“No one’s got an answer out of me out of me yet,” he says, resolute that this interview won’t be any different.
What sets “Don’t” apart from other Top 40 material is how Sheeran mixes these elements that he's perfected and others that he hasn't quite nailed yet. "Don't" combines his natural sense of melody with rap, fuzzy bass, delicate falsetto backgrounds and a sing-along chorus that seems to be missing a certain word.
“That was always the original intention to put it on the record with the swear,” he says of the chorus, which was originally “don’t f— with my love.” Why did he change it? Fear that it wouldn’t receive airplay? Concern that the swear would make the tale of infidelity sound too mean? Nope. It was an eventful cab ride from L.A. to Malibu.
“I was chatting with the driver,” recounts Sheeran. “We were talking for about an hour and then he said his daughter was a fan and I said, ‘Hey can I play you some new stuff?’ … On that song he thought I swore too much, so I took it off for him, I guess.”
Elsewhere on “X,” Sheeran raps about Bon Iver and croons soulfully about how he’ll be loving the subject of his song long after “the crowds don’t remember my name.”
What’s that about?
“Everyone’s got their kind of time slot, depending on how long your audience wants to make your time slot,” he says, “so I’m just going to keep going until it starts to fade away, I guess.”