Dirty laundry, bleached bumholes and Reading Uni: the secrets behind Ed Sheeran’s success

On the eve of a new documentary, what can we learn about the man behind the music?

Like Brexit, Dr Alex off Love Island and suffocating dread, Ed Sheeran is bloody everywhere. Not only is his current album ÷ (AKA Divide, released in March 2017) still in the upper reaches of the chart, but his songwriting-for-hire sideline doesn’t show any signs of stopping. After writing hits for the likes of Justin Bieber, 1D and Rita Ora, he has recently co-penned Eastside by Benny Blanco, Summer On You for US boyband PrettyMuch, and Because, the sonic equivalent of a damp flannel, for the thankfully departing Boyzone. Meanwhile, 2002, his co-write with Anne-Marie, is still pinging around the UK Top 40 more than four months after its release.

Later this week, lucky Apple Music users will be able to watch Songwriter, an “intimate” (ie it was filmed by his cousin) documentary that, as the name implies, will focus on the Galway Girl creator’s increasingly influential penmanship. In fact, the trailer teases an extended section focused solely on the creation of that ill-judged update on B*Witched’s C’est La Vie, with Sheeran teasing out the song’s chorus wearing a Hooters T-shirt. At one point, high on the fumes of creativity, he gestures to someone off screen and utters the words no one wants to hear: “Could you just get on the fiddle?”

Given his ubiquity, here’s a five-step guide to knowing when you’re listening to an Ed Sheeran composition …


Ed Sheeran.

When Ed Sheeran was six, he broke his leg. At 15 he was smoking hand-rolled cigarettes. He first kissed a girl on a Friday and doesn’t reckon he “did it right”. We know all this because he details it so poetically on his rose-tinted paean to Suffolk, Castle on the Hill. Sheeran’s love of the not-so-distant-past isn’t solely confined to his own songs, however. In 2014, he penned 18 for One Direction, a song that saw the then-20-year-olds looking back to a time two years prior, while 2012’s Moments had Zayn remembering: “Flashing lights in my mind, going back to the time/ Playing games in the street, kicking balls at my feet.” Eastside, meanwhile, opens with the wistful “When I was young, I fell in love,” before everyday life arrives to mess it all up: “Seventeen and we got a dream to have a family/ A house and everything in between/ And then, oh, suddenly we turned 23/ Now we got pressure for taking our life more seriously.” The nostalgia payload, however, was saved for Anne-Marie’s 2002 (“Paint a picture for you and me/ Of the days when we were young”), which focuses on a trip to the woods when she was 11 and features a chorus made up of lyrics from four “old” songs, one of which was released two years after the titular time slot.

Ed Sheeran.

Pretending to be poor

Newsflash: Ed Sheeran is rich. If you have seen a picture of Ed Sheeran, however, you’ll know he doesn’t like to flaunt his wealth, choosing to style himself as not just “boy next door”, but “boy next door’s younger brother who works three days a week at Game and whose hoodie smells of Corn Flakes and wanking”. Divide’s What Do I Know? paints Sheeran as “just a boy with a one-man show/ No university, no degree,” which is odd because his whole vibe is very second-year-at-Reading-Uni. This skint vibe is kept up in his songwriting; Shape of You describes some sort of trip to a buffet (“You and me are thrifty, so go all you can eat”), while Liam Payne’s Strip That Down (“One Coke and Bacardi, (sippin’ lightly)”) and PrettyMuch’s Summer on You (“We’ll drink beer like it’s champagne (champagne)”) aren’t exactly anthems for excess. The frugal facade reaches its apex on the Sheeran co-penned Your Song by Rita Ora: “And then we make love right there on your best friend’s couch.” Not even a Novotel, Ed? Come on.

Obsession with dirty laundry

Generic trop-bop Shape of You was originally written with Rihanna in mind, a woman who once cooed the line “with the curtains drawn, and a little last night on these sheets” on California King Bed. Perhaps that’s what made Sheeran think she would be right for Shape of You, considering the song’s jolting moment is the similarly TMI: “and now my bed sheets smell like you,” a line that conjures up images of Sheeran’s ginger chin bristles tickling the lyocell/cotton blend as he inhales another person’s musk. 1D’s Moments also continues a laundry list of lyrical laundry lists, focusing on some tardiness vis-a-vis the washing: “There’s a pile of my clothes at the end of your bed as I feel myself fall.”

Dodgy sentiments about women

Sheeran is now engaged to his childhood sweetheart but will that stop his songwriting strand of painting women as villains? Justin Bieber’s Love Yourself, which Sheeran originally wrote for Divide, is smothered in bitterness from the patronising “Oh girl for goodness sake” line, to the faux life advice of the chorus, to the itchy chin emoji of “And I didn’t wanna write a song, ’cos I didn’t want anyone thinking I still care, I don’t.” Perhaps Sheeran assumed Divide already had its bitterness anthem in the shape of New Man, which snarkily pokes fun at an ex’s new boyfriend for renting a house and bleaching his bumhole, while also saving some sneering for the lady herself who has dared to move from eating crisps to eating kale. While One Direction’s Little Things plays at empowerment, it is actually a checklist of women’s flaws, some of which the band refused to sing live as their career unfolded, specifically the truly awful “You still have to squeeze into your jeans, but you’re perfect to me.”

Ed Sheeran.

Quite weird about sex

In an interview with notoriously candid hip-hop radio show The Breakfast Club, Sheeran shared, well, he shared a lot. As well as letting us know he wouldn’t have sex with Taylor Swift (“Too tall”), and that he thinks divine intervention helped his sex life (“I think God looked down at some point and said: ‘You need some help getting laid. Here is a guitar. Go forth, my son.’”), he also shared that while he does enjoy giving oral sex, he doesn’t “do the sucking the farts out”, which is good to know. He applies this awkwardness around sex to his songwriting, asking “Will your mouth still remember the taste of my love?” on Thinking Out Loud, sharing that he’d like to be “between the sheets till the late AM” in Don’t and offering the most teenage-sounding description of a kiss ever in Sing: “One thing led to another, now she’s kissin’ my mouth.” It makes sense that he’d co-create Liam Payne’s Strip That Down, a song about drinking, dancing and snogging that’s about as sexy as a trip to the Fatberg exhibition.

Songwriter is on Apple Music from Tuesday 28 August


Michael Cragg

The GuardianTramp

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