The superstar has played more than 100 concerts this year to audiences around the world, promoting Divide, his wildly successful third album, which has amassed millions of sales since its March release
Ed Sheeran on the pitfalls of being a celebrity, why he quit Twitter and his friendship with Taylor Swift
A couple of hours before his stellar, sold-out performance in Dubai on Thursday night, Ed Sheeran is sitting in a Portakabin backstage at the Autism Rocks Arena. The mood outside the room is more corporate than carnival, with support staff marshalling a parade of vetted visitors around the backstage area. Successive rounds of carefully staged photo opportunities are followed by fan meet-and-greets and a sprinkling of interview commitments.
The room is bright, almost forensically lit. The furniture is functional. Two white two-seater leather sofas that wouldn’t look out of place in the reception area of an office are arranged at right angles, although they’ve been placed discouragingly far away from each other. There’s a glass-fronted tall fridge humming away in one corner of the room with nothing in it save for a few bottles of water.
Tables are arranged against the two other walls, one small and one larger, although neither is burdened with much of anything in the way of personalisation. In the far corner of the room, a single folding plastic chair leans against the wall. A presentation platinum disc is propped up on one of the two leather sofas. Sheeran sits on the other couch, dressed for the stage in a black T-shirt, checked over-shirt and black jeans.
Fittingly, given the out-of-town nature of the venue – Sheeran would make reference to the “long drive out here” when he was on stage later – his Dubai date is both the end of one road and the beginning of another.
He’s played more than 100 concerts this year to audiences around the world, promoting Divide, his wildly successful third album, which has amassed millions of sales since its March release. Physical sales have been surpassed by industrial-scale levels of streaming. According to Billboard magazine, Divide had attracted more than three billion streams on Spotify alone by the end of last month. Shape of You, which he played as one of two encore tracks in Dubai, accounts for more than a third of that number.
This is the final date of the tour until the whole thing starts once more in the new year. A month ago it looked like Sheeran wouldn’t make it to the UAE at all. Posting on Instagram, he informed his followers on October 16 that he’d had a “bit of a bicycle accident … which may affect some of my upcoming shows”. That message set up something of a guessing game in the emirates as fans speculated about the severity of his injuries. As it was, he picked up his live commitments on November 11, playing in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and India before heading here.
Speaking to The National, Sheeran said he was always going to make it to Dubai: “Nothing snapped, it was just a fracture. It wasn’t a serious break”.
He’s chipper too. The end-of-term nature of the evening is amplified by his father’s birthday falling on the following day and by some of the sting of constant touring being soothed by his weeks-long hiatus: “this last bit of the tour hasn’t been too intense,” he says, a sentence delivered with the contentment of a job well done rather than any resentment at an over-bearing schedule.
While the tour stops after Dubai, Sheeran’s commitments don’t. He has television appearances to fulfill on Strictly and the X-Factor in the UK before flying to America to do more of the same. It all amounts to a month of shows even though he’s not actually on the road. After that, he already has more than 80 concerts booked for next year in America, Asia, Europe and Oceania, which wind all the way to the middle of November next year.
Apart from the guessing game over his injury, the other rumour that persistently attached itself to Sheeran was whether he’d appear at F1 in Abu Dhabi after playing in Dubai. It was never on the cards it turns out. He was always going to go home for his dad’s birthday, he says, although he “wouldn’t be opposed to playing an F1 gig at some point, but no one has actually ever offered.”
On what is his third trip to Dubai - he played the Media City Ampitheatre in 2015 and has visited the emirate once before - Sheeran seems relaxed. Indeed, what’s most striking about him is how unaffected he is by fame and how similar his off-stage demeanour is to his charming on-stage presence.
Later, with the stage lights on and the crowd in party mood, he’s the most attentive kind of host, telling them that he’s enjoying the weather, that he’s loving the energy of the massed ranks and that there’s a great vibe in the audience. He urges the crowd on throughout.
Backstage, with the strip lights buzzing away, the compliments for the city come thick and fast too: “I love Dubai … it kind of feels like home. I have so many mates out here who live here, that it is great coming out here,” before recounting how he’s spent his stopover in the UAE seeing the sights, kicking around on a boat and playing night golf. There was an evening at Miss Lily’s restaurant too, where he was caught on camera by well-wishers.
He seems to take it all in his stride. Indeed, in his telling, being Ed Sheeran is as easy as picking up his guitar and walking on stage.
“It is someone else's stress, I just get up and play,” he says referring to the support staff and stage hands whirling about outside the Portakabin.
“I have three of my best mates on tour and I dip in for the concert. I play for two hours a day and other than that I am off living and having fun with them. Today I spent the whole day with them doing stuff and then I am nipping in and doing a gig.”
Nonetheless, Sheeran is acutely aware of the pitfalls of celebrity.
“There is a level of fame that you get to where there is no middle ground,” he says, “where people either really love you or really hate you and that is not a healthy position to be in.”
He stopped using Twitter earlier this year, telling the UK newspaper The Sun that “I can’t read it. I go on it and there’s nothing but people saying mean things.” His profile, which still has more than 20 million followers, tells users “I don’t use this anymore”.
“It just took over my life,” he said on Thursday night. “My life got darker and darker with it and I didn’t like it. I would just read all the negative stuff and would search for more of it.”
He’s says he doesn’t want to “be dragged into that sort of world of being uptight. I don’t ever want to think of this as a reality, as I am very fortunate to be able to do this.”
He once said that he felt most life an artist when he was couch-surfing from concert to concert. Now “it’s no longer just me”, even if his stage show is, of course, only him and his loop-station.
“When I broke my arm it affected 50 people’s jobs. It’s not just me on a sofa going and playing gigs and booking them myself. Now there’s a whole thing.”
That “whole thing” includes a friendship and collaboration with Taylor Swift. He’s worked with Swift on End Game for her new album, mirroring a previous collaboration in 2012.
“I met her when she had done a couple of albums and was very big in America but hadn’t broke England yet, so I wasn’t aware of her level of fame until I went on tour with her.
“When I met her it kind of felt like we were the same age. We both play guitar, we both wrote songs, so it wasn’t like I was meeting Taylor Swift right now, the superstar.”
He says he is recording at the moment but has no immediate plans to release new material.
His three albums have been separated by near three-year gaps, a by-product of the exhaustive Sheeran method of recording and discarding material: “I don’t really gather them all at once, they are kind of get discarded over the course of about three years, so I will record ten and discard nine. And then for all those ones that I discard and the one I keep, I will compile an album of sixteen and then I will scrap another four, scrap another eight and then add more.”
All he wants is for people to hear his music.
“I believe the purest form of music is when people come and see a live gig. I don’t care how people listen to my music. They could listen to it on a ringtone. I put the albums out and it is meant to drive them to come to this concert, to come and hear the music.”
No one who heard the music that night would have it any other way.