Back in 2014, backstage at Glasgow’s Hydro Arena, a young Ed Sheeran explained his goals for the next 12 months. The singer/songwriter from Suffolk had booked a hefty tour of South America, even though he’d never had a hit on the continent.
The proudly scruffy troubador also had his sights on Wembley: no elaborate set design, no light show, no backing dancers, singers or band. He was confident 90,000 people would turn out to see, effectively, a busker.
Sheeran’s confidence was well placed. He sold out three nights at Wembley Stadium, playing to 270,000 people in July 2015. That’s bigger, even, than headlining the main stage at the world’s greatest rock festival, Glastonbury, which is where Sheeran is performing this week.
Perhaps the only thing that exceeds the 26-year-old musician’s ability to connect with audiences is his ambition. Music has been Edward Christopher Sheeran’s life. He grew up in a middle-class household in Framlingham, Suffolk.
His childhood was suffused with classic albums (Bob Dylan, Van Morrison) and trips to folk and rock concerts with his dad, John, an art curator and lecturer (his mum, Imogen, is a jewellery designer).
He started playing guitar while at primary school and recorded his first collection of songs at the age of 13. By 17, he’d dropped out of school and was living in London, playing shows and staying on friends’ sofas whenever he could.
As he explained in a recent Carpool Karaoke to James Corden, one of his myriad famous friends, music was a lifeline for a ginger kid in NHS glasses who was born with a stutter and a port-wine stain on his face.
“I’ve been glued to this guitar since I was 11 years old… If I ever feel awkward, I just bring it out. I was quite an unfortunate-looking kid. I feel like God looked down at me and was like, ‘You need help getting laid, mate.’”
His faith and chutzpah were unbounded. After making a series of self-funded and self-released EPs, in 2010, aged 19, he flew to Los Angeles. His only contact was the organiser of a poetry night. But Sheeran’s knack for making contacts and connections kicked in – the actor and musician Jamie Foxx spotted him on stage.
He was so impressed with the unknown teenager that he offered him use of his recording studio, and a bed in his home.
By the end of 2010, Sheeran had signed a major record deal. His debut single, The A Team, was released the following June. It entered the UK charts at number three. First album + followed, entering the US charts at number five. Sheeran had liftoff, and he hasn’t stopped flying since.
The first taster of his second album, 2014’s x – even the mathematical-symbol album titles are following a plan – Sing, a dance number, went straight to number one.
It was also a game-changer for the first post-internet, millennial, Spotify-era superstar. His current, third album ÷ is the fastest-selling record by a male artist ever, and in the week of the release, nine of the songs in the UK top ten were his.
A supremely self-motivated self-starter, Sheeran has written for artists as diverse as One Direction, Usher, Rudimental and Taylor Swift.
It has, consistently, been about pushing himself – in terms of both improving his songwriting and performing skills, and of expanding his profile.
Jamie Lawson is a singer/songwriter from Plymouth and was the first signing to Sheeran’s own label, Gingerbread Man Records. His faith in 41-year-old Lawson – whom he met in a south London bar when both were slogging through the pub gig circuit – was well placed: last year Lawson’s single Wasn’t Expecting That won the Ivor Novello Award for best song musically and lyrically.
“Anything Ed does, he does for the right reasons,” says the older artist. “He’s not a calculating person. He’s calculated – but he’s not out to take the world for whatever he can get. He’s very genuine about music.”
I first interviewed him in spring 2014, ahead of the release of x. He’d held back the recording and release of the record to support Taylor Swift (another close pal) on her North American tour.
Sheeran poses with Taylor Swift backstage before his sold-out show at Madison Square Garden Arena, 2013
“Everyone,” he said, told him that was a risk. “Apart from Elton.” Sheeran is signed to Rocket Music, Sir Elton John’s management company. “I rung him up and said, ‘I’ve got this new album here. Or, I’ve got six months on the road in America with Taylor Swift.’ And he said: ‘You have to do the f***ing tour.’”
What, I asked him, drives him? “Once you get to that stadium level you can do whatever you want. I look at James Taylor’s career, it’s up and down. I want to have a career like that,” he said. “It gets exciting building things up and breaking them down again.”
He knew even then that he would take it “one step further” with his third album – which he has done in spades. “But after that I’ll break it all down again. That’s the goal: just to have fun with it. Never be predictable.”
Ed Sheeran hits the Glastonbury stage on Sunday, 9.45pm BBC2. Check out our complete guide to the weekend’s Glastonbury coverage here.
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