Ed Sheeran is really suffering.
He may be a global superstar, but here at a Dallas BBQ joint he’s just another guy holding a tray heaped with aromatic meats—which EW’s photo team won’t let him eat until we’ve got our shot. “I’m sorry, I’m just…” Sheeran, 24, struggles endearingly. “I’m starving.” But he endures like a champ (and finally chows down) as we, er, grill him on ballroom dancing, bizarro fans, and hanging with Beyoncé.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Welcome to Texas. Have you spent much time here before?
ED SHEERAN: There’s a thing about Texan people, I think, are very warm and welcoming and loving and everyone wants to invite you around for dinner, whoever you are. I remember the first gig I did on my first American tour, I was in a lift and a couple walked in and just started talking to me. In England, if people you don’t know start talking to you they’re probably going to rob you, so I was sort of wary. Then they were like, “All right, see y’all later!” And I was like, “Oh! They were just being nice.” I really like Texans.
Where is home for you now?
Still where I grew up. I was considering moving to America, but I don’t even spend more than a week in my own house in England, so I can’t really justify living here.
You played a ton of club dates until you were discovered in Los Angeles. What was the worst gig you ever played?
It was a gig in a place called Exiter. I got 50 pounds for that gig which was like $65-$70, but the ticket down there was 80 pounds. So I was kind of like, “If I sell CDs [at the gig], that will probably help with the train fare.” Got down there, empty venue. Just me and the sound engineer. Ended up waiting about an hour. Nobody came in. And I thought, “F— it, I’ll just go on.” So I played the gig to the sound engineer, and then went to the train station and realized I’d missed the last train to London. So I had to sit in a cold station for like seven hours doing nothing.
At the other end of the spectrum, what’s the biggest rockstar moment you’ve had?
Playing with Beyonce. That’s the only point I’ve felt like a rockstar. In my own shows, I’m still quite an awkward British dude with an acoustic guitar. But when you’re on stage with Steve Wonder’s band, Gary Clark Jr. and Beyonce and then they give you an electric guitar to play … that’s when you can feel a bit rock-y.
In the video for your single “Sing,” you have a puppet stand-in who had a pretty rockstar lifestyle. Is that how you roll, generally?
In a limo with models? No. The last limo I was in was with my team, and they booked a bright pink one. I remember seeing it and being like, “I’m not turning up to a radio station in a limo, let alone a pink one, so let’s just get a taxi.” I think you can easily live the rockstar stereotype, but it’s a once-in-a-while thing. If you do it all the time it loses its value and loses its excitement. So we’ll have a blowout once every three months and we’ll do it properly rather than have a blowout every night.
Speaking of Beyoncé, you did a great take on “Drunk in Love,” and you’ve covered rap songs like “No Diggity” and “I’m in Love With the Coco” really well. Would you ever make a full-on rap or R&B album?
I go into every album wanting to make them just one genre, but I find that dull…. One of my favorite albums is The Marshall Mathers LP by Eminem. There’s so many waves and dips and different sounds that make it interesting—for me, anyway. And it’s the same if you listen to any Michael Jackson or Stevie Wonder record.
Have you met Eminem yet?
There was an opportunity when I went to SNL with [producer] Rick Rubin. I said, “Will he know who I am?” And Rick said, “Unless you’re an underground rapper from Detroit, he won’t.” I really wanted to meet Jay Z, and I met him at the perfect point where he was aware [of who I was] so we could have a conversation rather than me just being the dude that takes a picture. So I’m going to wait for that with Eminem.
Is there a rapper that would be like a dream collaboration?
My favorite rapper to listen to is The Game. He’s a very emotive rapper, you feel everything he says. He’s my go-to. And I ended up making a whole album with him that I hope sees the light of day soon. We need to mix it, but that was fun. And very out of the ordinary for both of us.
You’ve said that you wrote 120 songs for your last album. Will you repeat that for the next one?
Well, I’ve done 40—maybe more like 50—already, and I’m not planning to release it for another year and a half, so yeah, I want to do a few more. Because there’s even more pressure now for this album. When you have a whole company depending on one thing, if I don’t release the goods, it’s going to be awkward.
So waiting a year and a half is more strategic than it is artistic, in terms of how long you need to make it.
I could probably put it out this year. But I haven’t taken a break in between the first and second albums. We’ve been touring for five years without a break. I actually want to go and live in the house that I bought because I haven’t lived in it yet.
NEXT: Ed’s next album, pizza and sex [pagebreak]
Do you have a title picked out yet?
You last two titles were + (plus) and x (multiply). Are – (subtract) and ÷ (divide) off the table?
They’re the two choices. But I don’t know what direction the album’s gonna go in yet. Every title has its own theme. Multiply was called multiply because it made everything that was on plus bigger. From the venues to the songs to the radio plays to the sales. I don’t know what the theme on the next album is yet because I haven’t made it.
The first two album titles suggested growth and the remaining two choices are reductive. I wondered if that would be a turn off to you.
No. Because it depends which way you looked at them. Like my idea for Subtract was to not have anything on it, just be an acoustic record. So not necessarily say, “Oh, I’m going to take away from my fan base,” but rather take away from the production. So those themes are not necessarily negative ones.
Your “Thinking Out Loud” video has almost half a billion views on YouTube. Were you worried about being able to pull off all that ballroom dancing when you did it?
No, but the label really was! It’s funny how many people take credit for your stuff after the fact. No one wanted that to be a single at all. “Photograph” was always the one that people thought was the big song. And then when I wanted to do the dance, everyone thought I was crazy. But if you put your mind to anything, you can do it. So I had three weeks and two very, very capable dancers and teachers on tour with me, and we just practiced five hours a day.
Any other skills you have your eye on mastering?
My first instrument was the piano and then I lost touch with that. So I’d love to get back to that. That seems like the one thing that’s missing.
You have recently sold out three nights at Wembley Stadium, which is pretty incredible. What does that mean to you?
I did it for the same reason that I put on the Madison Square Garden shows—because no one thought I could do them. It’s a strategic thing. So on the next album, I can come back and I’m a serious contender. Because I’m not necessarily a star. I don’t get the benefit of the doubt from TV shows or radio stations because they see someone like Lady Gaga come in and be like, “Oh, we’ll give her everything.” I was on a TV show in England where Lady Gaga was being interviewed and I was playing the music. She suddenly decided she wanted to play a song so the TV show booted me off for the next week. That wasn’t even that long ago. So I feel like there’s a misconception of me as an artist, that I’m not that successful. So I wanted to tell the world, “Actually, here’s three Wembley Stadium gigs that sold out, I’ll see you on the next album.” I want to bow out on this album as big as it gets.
How do you make sure fans in the nosebleed seats get a great show?
There’s a rapper in England called Registry 2 and I remember when I was considering getting a band, he was like “You don’t need to get a band. When I do shows, all people want to do is come and sing your song back to you. They just want to scream it at you and have a good time. So just get them to sing.” So my way of entertaining is making sure that everyone is involved at all times and sing and dance and have fun. If I went to a U2 show, obviously I’m going to see Bono sing, but I want to sing just as loud as Bono.
Is there a level that you feel that if you get to, then you’ll be satisfied?
At the moment, Taylor [Swift] is a benchmark in America and a lot of other countries. In America, I want to catch up with her.
If you surpassed her in sales, would she be like, “Good for you,” or “Arg!”
I think it would take a lot more work because she’s obviously been going about 10 years more than me. If I passed her, I think she’d then get more competitive and do more stuff. I think it would only be healthy. Like her surpassing me in sales in the U.S., that’s healthy for me because I now want to get up to that point.
By the way, what do you think of the food?
It’s tasty. Barbecue is, like, an American thing, though—we don’t really get it too much in England.
What do you love to eat?
Um, does it make me sound like a dick if I say sushi? I find saying that makes me sound very L.A., but I do really like it. Or pizza. Pizza is like sex—even when it’s bad, it’s all right. [Laughs]
Is there a song you’re most proud of at this point?
“The A Team,” just because it won an award in England called the Ivor Novello. There’s Grammys, there’s Brit awards, there’s Billboard awards—all these big awards, all these televised things, some are legit and some aren’t. But this award is run by songwriters, voted on by songwriters—like Paul McCartney would be on the panel—and it’s not televised. There’s only three awards a year, and it’s the coveted thing. And “A Team” was up against Adele’s “Rolling In the Deep” and “Someone Like You.” I went thinking Adele would win because she wins everything.
While we’re talking about sex, what’s your stance on writing songs about your personal life?
Just be as open as possible. Never hide the truth from your audience because they want to hear you stripped. If Eminem had made that song “Kim” so it wasn’t so shocking, no one would have liked it. But because he was so bare and so honest, it worked. If you’re going to be a songwriter, then wear your heart on your sleeve and don’t worry.
NEXT: Fan encounters, marriage proposals, “Don’t” fallout [pagebreak]
You must have some crazy fan encounters. Any good stories?
The fans are always really nice! Really polite and gracious. The parents are the ones that do the things that I think are odd. There was a woman in San Francisco, she wanted me to be her daughter’s first kiss—and her daughter was 9. She was like, “Well, Carrie Underwood did it for this 11-year-old boy last week!” If Carrie Underwood kisses an 11-year-old boy, he goes into school the next day and they go, “Oh, you absolute lad!” If a 9-year-old girl goes into school and goes, “I got kissed by a 24-year-old yesterday,” police are being called, you know? [Laughs]
I’m guessing requests to help with marriage proposals come up a lot.
Every single day. We always say no just because if it’s planned, it looks planned. Yesterday we had a spontaneous one—a dude sitting in the second row, every now and then he’d pull out a banner that just said, “Proposal on stage?” and then close it. And halfway through the gig I was like, “F—it, just come up!” So that was cool. And I felt something because of that because it was so spontaneous—I got emotional watching it. So it just depends.
You’ve gotten tattoos to mark various milestones in your life. Got a next one in mind?
I wanted to get a dancer for the “Thinking Out Loud” video, I just haven’t gotten around to doing it.
Is any spot off-limits, inkwise?
I’ve always said I’ll never do neck or hands—anything that can be seen in a suit, so I can get married.
You were the most streamed artist on Spotify in 2014. How do you feel about the current debate over compensation for musicians?
Elton John played Wembley Stadium [in the ’80s] and the tickets were 2 pound 50. I’m playing Wembley and the tickets are 150 pounds. I haven’t really sold records in Norway because they don’t really [buy] records—Spotify is their chart. But Multiply was No. 1 there for 26 weeks, so I can go play a stadium there now…. Spotify works for some people and it doesn’t work for others. Taylor [Swift] chose not to put her albums on Spotify, and [1989 is] the biggest-selling album in the world. Taylor already has a massive audience so she can guarantee that people are going to listen to her album. But on my second album I wanted everyone to hear it. I’m just saying for me, I love playing live, and when I make an album, I want it to be on as many people’s music systems as it can be. But the thing that I’m pissed off about in terms of revenue from streaming or even record sales is, the people that miss out on it are the next generation. I benefited from James Blunt selling records or Plan B selling records or Paolo Nutini selling records because that was put into my marketing campaign. Whereas, if there’s not a massive revenue from these artists now, the next generation aren’t going to have the same opportunities.
Is there something to the idea that being single—or being in and out of relationships—is better for someone writing romantic music than being in a serious relationship?
I don’t know. My songs have been written [when I’m in] in bad places. But I wrote “Thinking Out Loud” in a relationship at a really, really happy point. If my most successful song was written in a happy place, maybe that’s the key. I can’t remember who was saying it to me, but they were saying if you can write a happy song that isn’t cheesy, it’ll be the biggest song in the world. They’re like: “Look at ‘Uptown Funk’ and look at ‘Happy’ by Pharrell—both songs are really well-written, not cheesy at all, and they’re both the biggest songs in the world.” Everyone wants to hear happy songs, but sad songs get written more because more people are sad than happy I think.
Well we’re basically done. But is there anything I haven’t touched on yet that you’re like, “You know, he’d be smart if he asked about this?”
No. Your questions have been really interesting and good. I’m open to doing any more if you want to do silly ones. Is there anything that you were told that you couldn’t ask? Because you can ask those if you want. I’m not a very sensitive soul.*
I wondered if you regret letting slip that the song “Don’t” was about Ellie Goulding and Niall Horan.
I never let it slip. What happened was one of the newspapers in England just printed that it was confirmed when it never was. We got in touch, and they took the story down. But obviously the damage had already been done by that point because every other newspaper picked up on it. So I never actually confirmed it. That’s an interesting one because the argument I was talking about earlier between being honest. I had to be as honest as possible in that song because otherwise what’s the f–king point? There’d be no anger or pain in that song if it was just very sweet and nice. The whole reason people connected to it was because everyone’s been that angry at one point, everyone’s hated their partner or spouse like, “Don’t f— with this.” For me, it needed to be done. It didn’t necessarily have to go on the album, but it definitely needed to be written.
Are there any songs like that on the new album?
“Sing” was about someone the public may know. But no one knows who it was. I kept that really secret. She’s aware as well, because I met one of her mates and they were like, “Oh, ‘Sing’ is about her, right?” There’s a couple on the next album.
Has there ever been a song that you’ve regretted or wanted to change?
There’s a song called “The Man.” It’s a similar thing to “Don’t.” It was just real brutal and when I wrote it I felt that way and I don’t really feel that way anymore. I don’t really feel that way with “Don’t” either, but “The Man” was something I had to do but I probably didn’t have to put out.
At this point in your career, would it be possible to date a fan?
I think the thing that’s impossible to do is date someone that isn’t aware that I make music. So whether they’re a fan or not, that changes people’s perceptions of you. I don’t really date people in my sphere.
Is there a celebrity you haven’t met that would be the ultimate?
I sent an email today to Bruce Springsteen. I found out yesterday my agent knew him so I said, “Give me his email, I’m inviting him to a show.” So let’s see if he comes down. He’s someone I’d love to meet. You don’t ask, you don’t get, you know? So I just sent him an email being like, “Come to a show, I’m playing here.”
Malcolm Gladwell has a theory that it takes 10,000 hours of doing anything to master it. Do you agree?
I read that when I was 13, because John Mayer used to talk about it. I think it’s true. I’m coming up to 10,000 hours, and I’m now a professional musician. So it definitely does work.
*Note: This was the only time in my career as a reporter that an interview subject has essentially asked me to ask them some tougher or more personal questions. I found this hugely surprising and impressive, as would any reporter, because literally nobody ever does this during an interview (and I spent my trip home kicking myself for not improvising some better ones!).