Ed Sheeran: “I was too worried about the songs, now the fear is not being there for Lyra”
Ed Sheeran is at his home in Suffolk – he has just learned he is positive to Covid – when he answers our Zoom call to talk about his new album "= (Equals)" which will be released on November 29th. With the English singer-songwriter, who also happens to be the greatest contemporary pop star in the world, Fanpage.it talked about the album, about love and death, but also about his daughter Lyra, being a father, the pressures of the music industry and, lastly, about his desire to stop writing ballads and how he learned not to worry about always being better.
Hi Ed, first of all, how are you?
I’m good, man, I’m good, I’ve just been hit with it pretty bad, my daughter has it pretty bad, we’re drinking a lot of water and we’re resting.
Let’s start from the beginning: "I’ve grown up, I’m a father now, everything has changed but I’m still the same somehow”. Well, let’s talk about the song, Tides, the song that introduces the whole album. That somehow, what does it mean? And how did Lyra’s birth change your life and your way of being an artist?
You know, the song itself is basically like chaos and calm. The verses are just like a slack in the face, stadium rock, and it’s just everything that is going on in my life, and then the chorus is just completely a cappella, “and time stops to still when you’re in my arms”. It’s basically what happened: my career was going at full pelt and then I became a father, and everything stopped and just chilled out for a bit. But I would say that me saying “I’m still the same somehow” is, I think you think that when you have a kid there’s gonna be like this light switch moment that when your kid’s handed to you you go: “Right, I’m a dad!” And I remember being handed Lyra and being like “I still feel the same”. Like, when do I start feeling like a dad? And it was more, like a feel like a dad now, I’m fourteen months into being a dad, and it just happened gradually. I’d say after about a month. I slowed down my rhythm and stuff. I was a 29 year old touring musician when Lyra was born. And I was a dad when she was four months old, you know, who wasn’t touring, and turning 30, and bla bla bla.”
One of your artistic merits is your ability to write poignants ballads, that we already know will become classics, like "Thinking out loud" and “Perfect”. Can you tell me something about The Joker and the Queen?
Yeah, you know what, “Thinking out loud” was so big that I didn’t want to do other ballads. I was like “that’s my ballad”. And then there were sort of some allegations around Thinking out loud that, you know, questioned my abilities of songwriter, so I wanted to come back and prove with Perfect that I could write the biggest love song in the world on my own, and it be bigger than Thinking out loud. So I came back and did that, and you know, it kinda lived where it lived. And when I was making this album it was like it’s a lot of pressure to come up with another song that’s like bigger than Thinking out loud, and bigger than Perfect. So I just avoided that.
What do you mean?
I was like I don’t wanna write a ballad for this album. And then I made Bad habits, and in the same day as Bad Habits I got played an instruments and piano part, which was The Joker and the Queen piano part, and I quickly just write something down, the vocal and that was that, and I just went “Right, metaphors, card game, put your cards on the table, when I fold, Jokers, Queens, diamonds, hearts, ok, done!”. And it took about 25 minutes, maybe 20 minutes, it was just quick. And I felt like I kinda cheated with it, it was so easy to write, but I just sort of put it to the side, not remembering that Perfect and Thinking out loud were both exactly the same as that. They were just very very quick. And then my brother, who did all the strings for Perfect, did a string arrangement for The Joker and the Queen, and then it just suddenly became this beautiful love song. Everyone I am playing the album to says this is the best love song they heard me do, so I hope that the world likes it as much as they liked Perfect and Thinking out loud.
There is a lot of love, but there is also death in this album. The death of a friend, Michael Gudinski, in Visiting Hours, but also the one you fear the most after the birth of your daughter, you sang in the first song, in Tides. How difficult is to talk about it in a song, and how did this fear change with the birth of your daughter?
It was difficult to write about it, and it was difficult to sing about it for the first time. But I think that as soon as it gets released to the public it becomes the public’s song, and it starts becoming a useful tool for people that are going through grief to share with their loved ones. You know, I had someone the other day whose mother died, who said that they couldn’t really speak about it to their dad, but when Visiting Hours came out, they sent their dad Visiting Hours and it kinda said all they needed to say. So I’m grateful for this song’s power. But in terms of me not wanting to die, I never like wished for it, I’ve always just been like “everything happens, happens”. Then when Lyra came, my biggest fear suddenly became not being around for her. I want to live a very very long time, not for me, for her. I feel like it would be a great disservice to my daughter if she’d grow up without a father.
On December the 29th of 2019, you announced a sort of stop from social media. I think I read that you said that music becomes something bulky, something really heavy. Would you have ever imagined that music, that has been with you since you were young, would become something like a monster, something to be afraid of?
I think it just comes with the territory. I think the bigger my music became, the more pressure was put on it to be bigger than the last thing. Which is what I’m really trying to not do with this album. Because "+ (Plus)", my first album, came out and then with the second album everybody was like “This has to be bigger than +”. And it was bigger than +, and then "÷" (Divide) came out, they’re like “This has to be bigger than ‘X'” and then at what point you go “Ok, it can’t be bigger than this”, which is kind of why I put out collaborations projects, ‘cause I was like “Here’s something I know is not bigger than ÷”, that will be quite penalizing for my fans because it’s filled up with rap music, and rock music, and there’s R&B, that’s not necessarily the music my fans are connected to. So I put out collaboration projects like a palate cleanser, if that makes sense. Just like “Stop trying to make me be like the last thing I did”. For this album I feel like I’m quite free with it.
The comparison with "÷" would have been complex given the numbers, right?
I think ÷ went up selling 25 million copies, and the tour was the biggest tour of all the time. So you can’t do better than that, and you just need to stop trying. You just need to make a good album, which is why in Tides, at one of the first lines I say “I lost the confidence in who I was, I was too busy trying to chase the high and get the numbers up”. And that was literally, I was just trying to be the last thing I did, whereas I should have been doing is just creating music that I loved.
How did you manage this kind of pressure?
I didn’t really learn to manage the pressure, I think the best and worst thing for me was having the confidence knock of making a song I felt would be the biggest song in the world and putting it out. And then it ain’t happening, but then because I made it to be a big song, and it was its sole purpose, and then when it wasn’t big it hurt. Whereas if I just made a song I loved and put it out, I could stand by it no matter what. So with Bad Habits, I love that song, so if that song comes out and it bombs, I’m like that’s not you guys, I love this song, it’s just like whatever happens, that’s just the way the world. So I just needed to get back to creating songs for the love of it rather than creating songs for the sake of it.
So you never thought to stop permanently or change something drastically in making music?
I always joke, because people said I want to retire. I always joked “I never want to retire from music, I just want to retire from giving a fuck about music”. I just want to get back to “Oh fuck, you know what I wanna do today, I wanna play a show to 200 people. Oh you know what I’m gonna do today, I just wanna check out and mix tape at 15 songs and whatever, like I wanna to just start doing that. But then I had a talk with a friend of mine, he’s had a lot of success in the music, he plays stadium all over Europe, and he said don’t stop before it’s your time, because he did that, he purposely slowed down and now he can’t get it back and he really regrets it. So he just said “Just let it naturally happen”.
Is it true that you changed the title to Subtract to "="? And did you just change the title, so you had a group of songs and you changed the title, or you also changed songs into the album?
No, the acoustic album is essentially like it was made, and it was none of the songs on this record, maybe First times would have been on, I think First times I was like “Do I put this song on this or do I put this on the acoustic one?”. But it was two different records, one record really really worked during lockdown winter, you know, Afterglow was meant to be in that sort of era, and honestly what happened is that the world started opening up again. European football came back on tv, and bars were opening, and the summer was happening, and I had Bad habits and I was like “This works”. I just didn’t feel like putting out a down temper acoustic record.
You talked about First times where you sing: “I thought it would feel different, playing Wembley, 80000 singing with me”. What was the last first time you experienced?
My daughter’s first words.
Let’s play a quick game, I’ll tell you three songs, not yours, and you tell me what they remind you. Let's start from Stan, by Eminem.
I think it might be the longest number 1 single that England has had, not like weeks-wise but I think it’s about 7 minutes long, and that whole song was played on the radio without being edited. In terms of artistic brilliance, that song lives on its own as a story, but the fact that it can be a worldwide number one smash, and it’s a story about an obsessed friend who murders his pregnant wife, it’s a really messed up story if you think about it, and it’s gone everywhere. It’s now used in popular culture as the name of a fan, you know, it’s called “Stan culture” now. I think that song is just a very important cultural moment, and artistic brilliance.
I read that it was very important also for you when you were young. The second one is Cannonball by Damien Rice.
So that was the first song of his that I’d saw, and it was late night TV, I think it was MTV 2 music channel. And I just got obsessed with him, because I was only oriented to rock music before, like electric guitar, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, and stuff like that, Green Day, Blink 182, so it was always like electric, and then I saw this guy that sang and performed on his own, and wrote songs about his feelings. Suddenly there was a lightbulb moment in my mind, that just went “oh, that’s what I wanna do”.
The third is “I wanna be your slave” by Maneskin, or “Beggin’”, or any song by them!
So, this is what I think is wonderful about Maneskin. I watch the Eurovision song contest every single year, and there’s two types of entries: the joke songs that we all love, that are funny, like the Germany entry when he’s singing with a hot dog and a hand, or there’s these serious songs that come through that are really really brilliant. What Maneskin had, was they had the whole package prior to go into. They didn’t have a song, they had the package. So they were going in as this band that was super super tight, that were playing shows all around Italy and rocking it, who had like 4, 5, 6 massive songs that were just ready to come out. So that’s the first thing that I love about them: I think it’s great they won, I think they needed to win, but I think also that if they hadn’t won they’d still would have gone on to success. But what I think is really important about it, and it’s the same thing that happened with Despacito, and the same thing that’s happened with BTS and K-Pop at the moment, Manga pop and J-pop, and bla bla bla is: the world is getting more universal in terms of what it’s listening to, and language doesn’t mean what it did ten years ago. Like English radio would play English speaking music, French radio would play French speaking music, Italian radio would play largely Italian speaking music. Now you get all sorts of languages all over. We have hits in England that are from Native tongues in the continent of Africa, we have hits that come from Korea, we have hits that come from Sweden, Finland, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian. With Maneskin we had three Maneskin songs on pop radio in England, pop pop radio. I just think it’s wonderful that language is getting out, that there’s no barrier. That good music is good music whatever the languages spoken behind it.
It’s been ten years since +, how did your life change, if it did, from being the life of a singer-songwriter, to be the life of a singer-songwriter and businessman?
Well I think I’m still a singer-songwriter, but just… You know, I wouldn’t even say I’m a businessman, I’m just more careful with who I spend my time with. And I don’t think that’s being a businessman, I think that’s protecting you time and your energy. Like I would much rather spend and afternoon and an evening with my wife and daughter, than go out and, not socialize, when you like give your card out to people. You know, when you just go out and put your name out there. Business-wise, it would make more sense to me to be going out and playing private shows, and making money here, and doing this sort of ad deal there and stuff. But I love writing songs and playing shows to fans, and those are the two things I put my time into, basically. But I think the main difference between me when + came out and me now that "=" come out is not a professional difference, it’s a life difference. I was 20 then. Can you remember being 20 and how different you were? How different you were at 23, and how different you were at 26. They’re huge jumps, and I feel that 10 years, me at 40 is going to be pretty similar to me at 30, me at 50 is going to be pretty similar to me at 40, but me at 20 and me at 30 are two completely different people.
The album closes with “There's nothing but the space we're in, the hurry and the noise shut out, just stay here and be right now” these are the last words you say in the album, so is it the best wish you can make today?
Yeah, and I mean, you know what? It’s pretty much what’s happening at the moment with me and my daughter with us both having covid. There was so much going on in my life up until yesterday, it was just “go, go, go, go” and then it just stopped and it was just me and my daughter in a house. There’s nothing but the space we’re in, the hurry and the noise shut out. We’re just living and she’s napping now, she’s probably going to wake up in about half an hour. Yeah man, it’s important that sometimes you just back a little bit and just relax.
Well, thanks a lot, I hope the next interview is going to be in Italian!
[In italian] Oh yeah, un po’, un po’! Sto imparando ogni giorno, ma sto male adesso!
Trascrizione di Eva D’Onofrio