Ed Sheeran has always known he's not exactly a conventional superstar. He even says as much in his new docu-series, Ed Sheeran: The Sum of It All: "I'm specky, ginger hair, really short, English, from the countryside, who stutters and beatboxes. That guy doesn't become a pop star."
And yet, on the verge of releasing his sixth studio album Subtract (out May 5), the red-headed troubadour from the county of Suffolk is undeniably a defining force in modern pop music, with four GRAMMYs, three Diamond-certified singles and more than 63 million albums sold worldwide.
A natural singer/songwriter, Sheeran became a global star upon the release of his 2011 debut album, Plus, which melded acoustic folk-pop with hip-hop rhythms — and, yes, plenty of beatboxing — on breakout hits like "The A Team," "You Need Me, I Don't Need You" and "Lego House."
Of course, like many a celebrated artist before him, the singer had toiled for years in the proverbial trenches to reach his big break. Inspired to start writing music as a preteen after seeing Damien Rice perform a secret show in Dublin, Sheeran booked his first gig in London at 14 — the same year he bought the signature loop pedal that would come to define his live shows.
To make a name for himself in the London scene, a 17-year-old Ed worked tirelessly, sleeping on friends' (or sometimes even newfound fans') couches between gigs and adopting a strategy to stand out from the pack of fellow hopefuls. "The places I really stand out are the places that you'd never really expect to see a white, ginger, chubby singer/songwriter play: rap nights, soul nights, comedy nights," he explained years later to MTV. However, it was ultimately a tale as old as the internet age — going viral on an urban music channel in London called SBTV — that catapulted Sheeran to a record deal, international fame and his first Song of the Year nomination for "The A Team."
When it came time to release his sophomore album, Multiply, in 2014, Sheeran's moonshot into the upper echelons of the music industry had clearly begat success and opportunity. New collaborators on the album included the likes of Rick Rubin, Benny Blanco and Snow Patrol's Johnny McDaid and Pharrell Williams, with the latter coaxing a more hip-hop-influenced blue-eyed soul edge out of Sheeran's songwriting on lead single "Sing."
But even with the framework of A-listers around him, Sheeran still saw himself as a regular guy from the British countryside — even if he now counted Taylor Swift as a close personal friend — and put the pressure on Multiply to prove he wasn't just a flash in the pan.
"I think this particular moment after such a successful first album, it's literally a make or break situation," he said in his 2014 documentary Nine Days and Nights with Ed Sheeran. "Everyone's watching this time, whereas the first time I could make a lot of mistakes and it didn't matter too much 'cause I was learning. This time around's a lot more of a stressful experience. It's whether I can be a career artist for the rest of my life or I had a very big album back in 2011. That's the difference: it's artist of the times or artist of…a career."
Multiply proved to be an even bigger hit than its predecessor, earning Sheeran his first No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 and a behemoth hit in "Thinking Out Loud," which won Sheeran his first two GRAMMYs in 2016 (including the coveted Song Of The Year). Anyone could argue that such runaway success would naturally quell the singer's concerns over his long-term plan, but in the closing moments of his MTV documentary, he revealed his pie-in-the-sky ambitions were only one part of the equation he was constructing for his life.
"I'd define success through ticket sales, so if I can constantly tour for the rest of my life at a high level, I'd say that's success. But I hope in 10 years I've got kids," he confessed. "There'd be nothing worse than touring 20 years from now with no kids and just [a] massive bank account, I can buy whatever I want in the world, but, like, nothing to show for it."
Vocalizing such a domestic goal might seem at disparate odds with what society expects from a contemporary pop star — particularly a male one — but it squared perfectly with the story Sheeran was telling fans on unabashed, heart-on-his-sleeve love songs like "Kiss Me," "Photograph" or "Tenerife Sea."
One year after releasing Multiply, Sheeran unexpectedly reconnected with Cherry Seaborn, a former classmate from Thomas Mills High School in his hometown of Framlingham; she'd gone off to America after graduating to play field hockey at Duke University. At the time, Seaborn was working in New York City, and the pair's romance fueled the creative process for Sheeran's next album, 2017's Divide.
"I just have a weird sense that it's gonna be the career-defining album," the singer predicted in his 2018 Apple Music film Ed Sheeran: Songwriter, which documented the recording process of the studio set. "All the songs have a thread that go through it, and it's all family."
Sheeran was right in thinking Divide would lead to yet a higher peak in his career. "Shape Of You," one of the LP's two lead singles along with the autobiographical "Castle on a Hill," rocketed to the top of the Hot 100, where it spent 12 weeks at No. 1. Its romantic, Seaborn-inspired follow-up "Perfect" became his second career chart-topper, spent another eight weeks reigning over the Hot 100, and scored a guest feature from none other than Beyoncé on its official remix. (Fun fact: as of press time, Divide, which won Sheeran the GRAMMY for Best Pop Vocal Album in 2018, also remains the most-streamed album in Spotify history with more than 12.8 billion streams.)
In the midst of his world tour in support of Divide, Sheeran took a detour from his mathematically titled studio sets to make his fourth album, No.6 Collaborations Project. A star-studded sequel to his 2011 indie EP No. 5 Collaborations Project, No. 6 found the GRAMMY winner enlisting a who's who of collaborators — from Justin Bieber to Cardi B and Camila Cabello to Eminem and 50 Cent — for an album that spanned Latin pop, R&B, country rock and U.K. hip-hop.
"I've never, ever had features on my albums, apart from when I did No. 5 Collaborations Project," Sheeran explained to Zane Lowe for Apple Music in 2021. "And I've been careful with putting together a solo album. 'Cause, like, when I bought Bob Dylan albums as a kid, you don't buy a Dylan album and it says 'Featuring Travis Scott.' So I wanted to actually make a specific record that just fed my desire for all of that, and ticked my boxes of wanting to work with these people…Yeah, it was never in my five-album plan, it was always gonna be a side project."
He also used the album to share a glimpse into his highly guarded personal life: in the adorable music video for "Put It All On Me" featuring Ella Mai, the singer revealed to fans that he'd secretly married Seaborn in January 2019. After releasing No.6 Collaborations Project and wrapping his tour, Sheeran put his guitar down for the first time in almost a decade and took a year-long sabbatical to travel the world with his new wife.
By 2021, Sheeran was ready to get back to work, and dove headfirst into the world of dance music to craft "Bad Habits" — the lead single off his fifth album Equals. In order to work authentically in the genre, he enlisted help from Fred again.., the British DJ and record producer who had helmed the bulk of No.6 Collaborations Project, telling Lowe, "It's so easy to write an acoustic tune and put a four-on-the-floor beat over it and then just call it a dance song. But actually, Fred is such a connoisseur of dance music that he kind of guided me into it."
The song's layered synths and throbbing beats also belied surprisingly heavy subject matter, which Sheeran toyed with by playing a glitter-eyed, spiky-haired vampire in a neon-pink suit in the accompanying music video.
"I used to do everything to excess, like real excess," Sheeran confessed after "Bad Habits" was released. "I loved drinking everything in sight and all the other stuff, and I just found when Cherry was six months pregnant, I was like, 'Right, water might break any time and I'm just gonna stop excess and just be available and be the husband that I'm meant to be. And then from there, it's just been kind of clean, healthy living."
The rest of Equals, which arrived in full October 2021, flirted with dance — particularly on Fred-assisted follow-up singles like "Shivers" and "Overpass Graffiti" — but mostly represented a return to musical form as Sheeran stepped into fatherhood for the first time. But despite the finality of its title, the album wasn't the end of the last part of the formula in the singer's head: he still had Subtract to work out.
As he later revealed, Sheeran had long envisioned Subtract as "the perfect acoustic album" and had quietly whittled away at the idea for the better part of a decade. Taylor Swift put him in touch with the National's Aaron Dessner (who had helped her create the magic of her 2020 albums folklore and evermore), and Sheeran had finally started focusing on the long-awaited album in earnest.
But then, tragedy and hardship struck, not once or even twice, but three times in the space of a single month. First, Seaborn found a cancerous tumor in her arm while pregnant with the couple's second daughter. The prognosis wasn't good, but there was nothing that could be done until after the baby was born. Next, Sheeran was hit with a copyright lawsuit over his biggest hit, "Shape of You," with the plaintiffs accusing him of plagiarizing parts of the song. And then, his world was turned upside down when Jamal Edwards, his best friend from the SBTV days, died of a sudden heart attack brought on by cocaine and alcohol use.
Depression crashed over Sheeran like a tidal wave, with the subsequent riptide pulling him to dark places he'd never experienced. "I felt like I didn't want to live anymore," he told Rolling Stone in a March cover story. "You're under the waves drowning. You're just sort of in this thing. And you can't get out of it."
Thankfully, Seaborn's surgery was successful after she gave birth to daughter Jupiter, and Sheeran won the court case over "Shape of You." But his best friend's death was a permanent loss, and he relied on music as a form of therapy to help him work through his grief.
"I wrote without thought of what the songs would be, I just wrote whatever tumbled out. And in just over a week I replaced a decade's worth of work with my deepest darkest thoughts," the singer shared when he announced the album on social media in March.
Subtract was first preceded by "Eyes Closed," on which he laments, "I pictured this year a little bit different when it hit February/ I step in the bar, it hit me so hard/ Oh, how can it be this heavy?/ Every song reminds me you're gone/ And I feel the lump form in my throat/ 'Cause I'm here alone." Ten days before the album's arrival, he released the emotional "Boat," a quiet anthem about finding resilience in the darkest of times and refusing to let the metaphorical boat sink as the waves batter you from all sides.
If those two songs are any indication, Sheeran's long-awaited album won't be anything like what's come before it. For starters, it'll mark the end of the pop star's decade-long mathematical era, the plan for which he spells out in The Sum of It All. (Plus was the "addition" to all the EPs he'd released, Multiply made the music exponentially "bigger," Divide was a double album — half acoustic, half R&B — and Equals was "the sum of all the parts.")
It'll also be Sheeran's first visual album, coming with 14 different music videos to help tell the story of Subtract. But instead of hyper-fixating on creating that "perfect acoustic album" as a postscript to Equals, he threw out a decade's worth of songwriting in favor of laying his soul bare in some of the most vulnerable work of his career.
Early last month, the singer played Subtract live from start to finish at an intimate show at Brooklyn's Kings Theatre, debuting powerful, emotional album cuts like "End of Youth" and "Life Goes On." And while each song touches a raw nerve filled with painful memories, Sheeran remains certain that he made the right choice by channeling his grief into his music.
"As an artist I didn't feel like I could credibly put a body of work into the world that didn't accurately represent where I am and how I need to express myself at this point in my life," he concluded in his Instagram post. "This album is purely that. It's opening the trapdoor into my soul. For the first time, I'm not trying to craft an album people will like, I'm merely putting something out that's honest and true to where I am in my adult life."
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