I do not recommend attending an Ed Sheeran show alone if you are feeling fragile. I say this because of the point in his performances when he plays his ballad “Perfect.” He had warned me about this moment. It was a Friday evening in late September, and we were sitting in the green room prior to his concert at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, which seats 6,300—a small crowd relative to the stadium show he would play the following night. Sheeran wore cargo pants, a T-shirt, and hi-top leather Nikes–since making an album with Rick Rubin ten years ago, he has adopted the producer’s strategy of having a uniform, so as not to cloud one’s creativity with sartorial angst.
We’d been discussing how the general public often comes to know artists with wide bodies of work for a single song. He and his brother, a classical composer, frequently debate one question in particular: most people know Vivaldi for “Four Seasons,” but what song will encapsulate all the work of the Beatles in 200 years?
“What would you say the Beatles’s one is?” he asked.
“It’s too subjective,” I replied, panicking because my mind had suddenly blanked on every Beatles song except “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.”
“I don’t think it is,” he said gently. “I think the one that everyone goes ‘Oh, the Beatles’ is like ‘Yesterday,’ ‘Let It Be,’ or ‘Blackbird.’”
I asked Sheeran, who is 32, what he thinks his “Yesterday” will be. I’d assumed it would be “Shape of You,” which is his most-played track on Spotify (3.64 billion plays). But there are many hits to choose from: Sheeran’s third album, =, was the fourth-most streamed album on Spotify in 2021, and he has the fifth-most monthly listeners (74.9 million) on the app. I was surprised when he said he thought “Perfect” (2.65 billion plays on Spotify) would define his oeuvre. “‘Perfect,’” he said, “is the one where, whenever I play it at a concert, you see the stadium change, and everyone suddenly starts hugging the person next to them.” It is also the first dance song at, anecdotally, 90 percent of millennial weddings.
I did not believe that people in the audience at his shows would actually hug those around them until it began happening all around me. This show at the Shrine was part of a tandem tour Sheeran had been on since the spring: the “- Tour” (– is pronounced “subtract,” the title of the album he released in May) was a series of more intimate theater shows; the following night he would play at SoFi Stadium as part of his “+–=÷× Tour” (“Mathematics Tour”). During both performances he would debut selections from his newest album Autumn Variations, which he released last Friday.
Indie musician Ben Kweller had been opening the theater shows, and set a tender mood with his acoustic guitar and piano. (Perhaps don’t listen to Kweller play “Thirteen” if you’re feeling fragile, either.) And then Sheeran stepped onstage. He prefaced the first half of his set, in which he played through “-,” with a cheerful disclaimer: “I’m not going to lie, it’s going to be a depressing hour for you.” The audience laughed, but it really was a somber hour. It was heavy on storytelling: Sheeran described the terror and helplessness of the moment he learned that his wife, Cherry Seaborn, pregnant with their second daughter, had been diagnosed with a tumor in 2022; he spoke often of his friend Jamal Edwards, who passed away in February of that same year. He described the moment at Edwards’s funeral, the first Sheeran had attended that was not a cremation, when he put dirt on his friend’s grave.
It was not entertainment, but the audience was rapt. When speaking, Sheeran was magnetic and at-ease, and broke the sobriety of his narrative with the occasional dad or dick joke. (Offstage, too, he is very funny and occasionally crass: I agreed not to print his favorite joke because he is a father and because when he told it to me, in his light, pleasant lilt, I was stunned into silence.) When singing, his voice was charged and flawless.
Then he moved from the more subdued part of his set into his cheerier oeuvre, what he called “the happy hour.” It was like the moment at a wedding when the speeches end and suddenly everyone realizes they’re wasted: everyone stood up and many spilled out into the aisles. And when he started crooning the opening lyrics to “Perfect” (“I found a love, fo-oh-oh-oh-or me”), everyone in my vicinity paired off.
If you’re a non-hugger who’s ever been to a church service where the parishioners suddenly begin shaking hands with and greeting those around them, you know the panic. The woman in front of me put an arm around her tween son, who did not reflexively shake her off as I would have my own parents. An older man in the same row, having stepped out for a moment, charged back into the auditorium and down the aisle, roughly elbowing his way past several couples to hold his wife through the song. Another duo, wrapped around each other, recorded themselves swaying along on a phone.
I had, I realized, erred in failing to invite a guest. I’d thought that by my thirties I might have left the traumas of middle school behind, but the experience of standing alone, watching Sheeran play “Perfect” for what I suddenly realized is a theater full of couples, instantly resurrected a decades-buried memory of bobbing around by myself during a gym dance while a DJ played Kelly Clarkson’s “A Moment Like This.” I caught myself crossing my arms lightly across my chest, the safety posture of my youth. I had never felt so single. I wondered if I might actually cry.
The first half of the show had been moving. But it was the un-self-conscious emotion of the audience during “Perfect” that made it feel suddenly reductive to call Sheeran a pop star. The “pop” misses something.
For one thing, Sheeran does not look like a pop star, a fact that has often been acknowledged, sometimes with humor and warmth, and sometimes cruelly. His hair is long and wispy, like a wirehaired terrier, and is styled as if its owner has been standing with his back to the sea winds. He’s worn his hair the same way since he was about 13, when he saw Charlie Simpson from the English band Busted and resolved that he, too, would wear his hair wild. “It’s not something that people, like, love,” Sheeran said. He has never liked the way he looks, and he doesn’t think anyone really does like the way they look all the time. He grew up with red hair in the country that coined the term “ginger,” in an era before Eddie Redmayne and few other high-visibility redheads made it kind of cool. He burns very easily. He joked that he has considered using this fact to launch his own sunscreen brand–the Skims to his Kim Kardashian. “I’ve kind of settled on hot sauce”–Tingly Ted’s, available online in Tingly and Xtra Tingly–“because I just love hot sauce. But I thought, like, I would be able to sell sun cream to someone.”
He doesn’t think he’d have the career he has if he looked a little more Marvel and a little less Middle Earth: his early fan base, he explained, was built of misfits who recognized one of their own on stage. He also believes that all the best pop stars have been unconventional-looking. Several times I caught myself drawing comparisons between him and Elton John, chiefly for their English-ness and ubiquity, but it occurred to me that I’ve never considered whether Elton John is attractive or not. I’ve only thought of him as Elton John. The same is increasingly true of Sheeran. He has vaulted the era in which people were shocked to see one so ginger playing large venues–that peaked after his album ÷ came out in 2017, he said, which was when the culty, devoted fan base that had percolated with his earlier albums suddenly metastasized into a proper fandom. Now I just registered him as Ed Sheeran, phenom.
He is stunningly prolific. He writes three songs a day, five days a week—a song in the morning, a song in the afternoon, and one more before knocking out at night. There are captivating clips of Sheeran writing songs: there’s the one of producer Benny Blanco and Sheeran, who wears plaid pajama pants, writing “Love Yourself,” which ultimately became a Justin Bieber megahit; then there’s the one in his Disney+ documentary Ed Sheeran: The Sum of It All, of him and producer Fred Again working on “Bad Habits.” Over the melody, Sheeran begins describing how Seaborn had told him not to wake up their daughter in her crib to say goodnight—a bad habit. He slouches into a sofa and without a pause begins delivering the song fully-formed, just as you can listen to it on Spotify now.
“His songwriting and singing abilities are so next-level that to witness it, in the room, whether you’re just singing or coming up with a lyric idea, or writing, the speed and the skill level is really astonishing,” said Kweller, who is also close friends with Sheeran. “The way that he can see ahead in a song, just to finish it or think four lines ahead. I wonder if he’s pretty good at chess.”
Sheeran’s mind seems to always be a few steps ahead. At one point I asked him about the crypt he was rumored to have built on his estate in England. (His neighbors, reported Vanity Fair, “have grave misgivings.”) I had approached the subject of the crypt cheekily, as I would any celebrity eccentricity, and Sheeran’s explanation withers me. “I wouldn’t say it’s a crypt,” he clarified. It’s actually a chapel: a lot of the people in his life who have passed away were cremated, and he wanted a place to mourn them. (He also hosts friends’ weddings there.) And when it was being built, he thought it was so beautiful that he wanted to be buried there, in a place where his children could come to remember him. “It’s a hole that’s dug in the ground with a bit of stone over it, so whenever the day comes and I pass away, I get to go in there,” he said. “People think it’s really weird and really morbid, but I’ve had friends die without wills, and no one knows what to do.”
Last Friday, Sheeran released Autumn Variations. It’s an album, but in the way that an author’s short story collection is a book. His father had told him about composer Edward Elgar’s “Enigma Variations,” which comprised 14 variations based on his friends. Sheeran approached producer Aaron Dessner with a proposal for a modern take, in which he would write 14 songs based on 14 loved ones. He decided it would be seasonal. Sheeran is drawn to contrast—happy hour, sad hour—and he wanted to evoke the abrupt shift from summer to fall in England, when, he explained, “you go from this joyous festival season to just wet gray loneliness.”
He didn’t make Autumn Variations on a major label, nor did he release any singles. “I don’t want people mistaking what it is. I don’t want people thinking this is my next pop blockbuster and I’m gonna tour this in the stadiums and stuff. It very much is an album about autumn that I wanted to put out there. And I know in 20 years’ time it’s gonna be a fan favorite, but at the moment nobody really knows what it is,” he said. He described how he and his wife play Norah Jones’s “Come Away With Me” or Jack Johnson’s “In Between Dreams” while they cook.
“I always say to Cherry, ‘I don’t have anything like this,’” said Sheeran. “You put on ÷ and it’s like ‘Eraser!’ ‘Castle on the Hill!’ ‘Shape of You!’” Primo jogging music, but too intense for the Sheeran kitchen. He wanted to make a relaxed record for bleak evenings, which is exactly what Autumn Variations is.
For Sheeran, songwriting seems to be an extension of how he thinks about the world. The day after Seaborn’s cancerous tumor was diagnosed, Sheeran went down to their basement and wrote seven songs in four hours. Seaborn expresses concern, in the documentary, that her husband does not make time to process his emotions outside of his work.
When I asked Sheeran, before his show at SoFi Stadium, if he had found a way to do that, he smiled. “No. No I haven’t,” he said. “Since then I’ve been working straight.”
There are a lot of prolific songwriters, few of whom have reached Sheeran’s stratosphere. Why not? “Well, I think everyone loves love, and everyone feels low, and I feel like those are the two subjects that I’ve written most about,” he said. But again: most artists sing about love and pain. What makes him different?
“I think,” he started slowly, “that any song that people connect with has to feel uncomfortable while you’re writing it. When I was writing ‘Perfect’ I thought, This is really cheesy, Cherry is gonna think that I’m like the cheesiest fucking boyfriend”—he wrote the song for Seaborn two months into their courtship, a move I do not advise for the layperson—“and you know, when I was writing ‘Salt Water,’ which is all about imagining your own suicide, I was like, Fuck, I don’t want to put this out and have my parents listen to this.”
There have been times when he has felt that he’s put too much of himself in a song, such as in “The Man,” on 2014’s x, which he wrote after someone broke his heart. “It felt super uncomfortable at the time, writing it, and everyone I played it to reacted in an uncomfortable way, which I thought was a good thing, and I put it out,” he said. “The album probably didn’t need that song. I probably needed to write it, but I didn’t need to release it.”
The mass of intimate narratives associated with his tracks, detailed in great depth at his theater shows and more glancingly in stadiums, have congealed into a mythology, with plot twists and characters. And when Sheeran talks onstage about the tectonic events of his adult life—Edwards’s death, Seaborn’s cancer, a troubling court case—it feels like part of a larger catharsis.
When Kweller first met Sheeran in 2015, he was struck by how simple his shows were, and how humble he was. “That’s something that, in showbiz, gets lost pretty quick. There’s a lot of elements in play. Looks. Money. Talent, sometimes, is kind of down there on the list, which is kind of sad,” Kweller said. “Guys like me and Ed, we just want to sit on the bed and write songs… it’s such an escape.”
They met when the opening act for one of Sheeran’s shows in Austin, Texas, was detained in Australia, so Kweller hopped on the bill. After Austin, Sheeran asked Kweller to open for him in Dallas, and then to join him on the rest of the tour. The two became very close. When Sheeran and Seaborn got married in 2018, they asked Ben Kweller to play at their wedding. His piano ballad “Thirteen”—we built this world of our own/ it was in the back of a taxi when you told me you loved me/ and that I wasn’t alone”—is Ed and Cherry’s song.
Then, this past February, Kweller’s son Dorian, a talented musician who at 16 was launching his own promising career, was killed in a car accident near Austin. Two weeks later Sheeran called, and asked Kweller if he wanted to open for the theater shows on the tour. It was an unusual proposal for a grieving father. Going on tour would mean leaving his wife and his other son, 13-year-old Judah, for long stretches. But Sheeran understood, the way only an artist who writes seven songs in four hours after bad news does, that it was the best salve he could offer.
Stil, Kweller was on the fence. He told Judah about the tour offer, and he replied: “Well, you told him yes, right?” With his son’s co-sign, Kweller joined Sheeran on tour in May.
“It’s been intense, because this tour, for him and me, we both are going through some shit together,” Kweller said. “And that was the whole purpose of the theater show. It was a time to really connect with people and do something really intimate and heartfelt and special.”
Though Kweller has been open about Dorian’s death in the shows he’s headlined since, he didn’t want to discuss it onstage while opening. “But the thing is, Ed, backstage, knew why I was up there and that I was playing for Dorian,” said Kweller. “He knew that he was giving me the ability to walk through my grief onstage, which is like such an integral part of who I am as a performer, and me being there was also helping him walk through his grief.”
Saturday’s stadium performance had a radically different tone than Friday’s theater show. Sheeran is candid with both his stadium and theater audiences about his preference for the intimacy of smaller venues, but his show at SoFi was exuberant from the start. He warmed up the audience with bouncy pop classics like “Shivers.” The circular stage in the middle of the stadium rotated, and Sheeran sweatily raced around it in his black cargo pants—he uses loop pedals for his performances, and he must make it to each loop station at specific times or the song is doomed. I overheard a woman saying to her companion: “I’m thirsty for him,” emphasizing the “for.”
Then Sheeran launched into a long interlude of deeper cuts—this being a relative term, given that many of them have over 50 million plays on Spotify. He brings out rapper Russ, who followed Maisie Peters in opening this show, to perform his and Sheeran’s collaboration “Are You Entertained.” He performed “American Town,” one of the faster-paced but still mellow tracks on Autumn Variations. He played several ballads from Subtract, punctuated by abridged outlines of the previous night’s soliloquies.
Then he seemed to yield to his audience’s basic cravings. “From this point forward,” he promised, “your grandmother knows the songs.” He plunged into “Galway Girl,” accompanied by a violinist doing hasty orbits around him and, at one point, a full split. He played “Perfect”—but that night I had come prepared with a guest, my younger sister. She had replied “YES” when I texted to ask her if she’d like to come, then promised, “I’ll be chill.”
When Sheeran began playing opening bars of “Perfect,” I decided hugging would be a little too on-the-nose. Instead I looked at my sister affectionately, at which time she sensed my gaze, froze, and stared straight ahead. I settled for a video.
At the Shrine I had been too traumatized to appreciate the magic of thousands of people scream-singing along to a tender wedding jam. But at SoFi, as a constellation of swaying phone lights came on around the stadium, I understood that once again, Sheeran had seen four lines ahead. “Perfect” is his “Yesterday.”
Lauren Larson is a writer based in Austin, Texas, and a former GQ editor.