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Elton John on Protege Ed Sheeran: ‘He’s Got a Lot of Balls’

 

When he’s not on the road, Elton John works as a manager, keeping tabs on the acts signed to his Rocket Music company. “That’s why I wanted to start a management company, to say to these kids, ‘I’ve been there. I can help you because I am who I am,’” says Elton. One of those acts is Ed Sheeran, whose career Elton helped get off the ground (with the help of Sheeran’s official manager Stuart Camp, also of Rocket). In an interview, for our recent Ed Sheeran cover story, Elton opened up about his “naughty” client, including what advice he gives him and why Sheeran reminds him of himself in the early Seventies.

What do you think of Ed’s recent singles, “Shape of You” and “Castle On The Hill?”
They’re great. It’s just so funny to hear him singing “Tiny Dancer” [in “Castle on the Hill”] I was very touched. He played me the album in London and he said he was gonna go with releasing two singles. He’s always very bright, because he came at a time where there was nothing going on, the end of the year. Everyone’s been hearing the same old stuff. So, he just took the bull by the horns and put two tracks out. My record company said, “You know what, we’ve done research that around the world: The streaming of ‘Tiny Dancer’ has gone up by 30 percent since that single came out.” Isn’t that weird?

He’s pretty much the only solo acoustic act who can sell out Wembley Stadium. Why do you think he’s able to do that?
Just the songwriting, for a start. He’s a really great songwriter. And not just for himself. He can write melodies so simply. The unfortunate thing about Ed is that everyone sounds like Ed Sheeran now: Shawn Mendes, Bieber, blah, blah. I just think someone who can write something like “Thinking Out Loud” – which Van Morrison would have been very proud to write, or I would have been proud to write – is a terrific songwriter. And you know you have to remember he’s still only 26 years old.

But he reminds me of me when I first started out; his enthusiasm and his love. He’s always doing something, whether he’s writing his own stuff or he’s writing with other people. And that’s how I remember myself being in 1970 when I first came to America. It was just all systems go. Nothing was impossible. You’re working on adrenaline and [the] sheer fact that you’re a success. I mean, he started out playing people’s living rooms, busking, doing all that. So he’s paid his dues. And just the fact that he’s got the balls to go and do that in front of 90,000 people – that takes a lot of balls. I’ve been performing for a long time. I’ve done solo concerts at Madison Square Garden and outside as well, but I haven’t played to 90,000 people. That takes a lot of confidence. And he has no shortage of confidence.

But the thing I love about Ed is he’s always asking for advice. For example, when the first album, +, came out, he phoned me up and said, “Listen, the record company wants me to go and make another album straight away. But I’ve been offered an 88-day tour with Taylor Swift. What do I do?” And I said, “Well, it’s a no-brainer. You do the Taylor Swift Tour because, A) it’s not particularly your audience, B) she’s a friend of yours. You’ll be playing to half-empty audiences coming in. But it’ll be the most incredible experience for you. It’ll give you everything you need when you make it further on really big.” And he listened to that, and it was the best thing he could have done. He sent me an email saying, “Thanks, that was a really good decision.” So, he’s always willing to ask.

What are some other moments where you’ve given him advice?
When X came out, he sat down in the office and he played “Sing” and I said, “Well that’s gotta be the first single.” And he said, “No, because I think people may be a little Pharrell-ed out.” I said, “Forget it. You’ve had two singles in the American charts. One’s called ‘The A Team,’ one’s called ‘Lego House.’ They’re both ballads. If you want to go from A to B very quickly, this is the single to propel you. And don’t put out ‘Don’t.’ This will be what people don’t expect you to do.” And he hemmed and hawed, but he agreed. And the single broke really, really quickly and it was the best thing to come out first. It was the least-big single of the whole [album] – “Photograph,” “Don’t” and “Thinking Out Loud” [were bigger] – but it was the right single at the right time.

I’m just telling you these things because this is what I do for him. When “A Team” was coming out on the radio, and it was struggling, I did a show for Clear Channel in the South of France at the Hotel Du Cap in Antibes so that they would keep this song on the radio. And then when the Grammys came up that year, Ken Ehrlich said, “Well he’s not a big enough star to have on the Grammys,” and I said, “Well, I disagree. He’s gonna be a huge, huge, huge star.” And he said, “Well, we can’t put him on.” And I said, “Well, how about if I do a duet with him on ‘The A Team?’” And then he got on. So, those are the sort of things that I’ve done in the background to help him. But it would have happened anyway because he’s just a force of nature. This is why I wanted to start a management company, to say to these kids, “I’ve been here. You need to do this. I can help you because I am who I am,” and he’s been forever grateful. You know, I love him to death.

And how did you first hear him?
He was given to us by a guy called Jus Jack. He suggested him. He was also on our management team. He had some big hits. He put his name forward, and it was a bit of a no-brainer not to sign him. He’s just got that inevitability of stardom written about him. He doesn’t look like [a star] and that’s what I love about him. He doesn’t conform to stardom. He doesn’t dress sharply. He just loves his fans. He loves his music. And what you see with him is what you get. And you get 100 percent honesty and 100 percent niceness, which I love about him. And also I do like the competitive streak in him because when you’re an artist, you have to be competitive when you’re going through this phase in your career.

Where does his competitive streak come from? His parents? What are his parents like?
His parents are extremely lovely people. No, I wouldn’t say it comes from his parents, I think it just comes from his hard work and his sheer love of what he does. It’s like me – I still love what I do and I’m 70 years old. I love it even more. He has an enthusiasm that separates the men from the boys. When you have that immense enthusiasm and that urge to succeed, nothing seems to be able to stop you. There will come a point in his career where it won’t be the same. It happened to me and a lot of others. But he’ll be able to have a catalog of songs by that point that will keep him in the public forefront. He can do exactly what he wants. I think you’re going to find a deeper and more interesting Ed Sheeran farther down the line.

Where do you want to see him go musically?
I’ve said, “Ed, you can’t keep doing this forever. Sooner or later I want you to come out and have a band to help you improve as a musician, as a songwriter, and to just move the show along a bit. How many times can you go out there with a loop pedal? You can do it for the next couple of years maybe, but then you’ve gotta think of what you’re gonna do next.” And he realizes that. He’s a big fan of Ray Lamontagne. He said, “I’d love to do an album like Trouble.” He’s got so many strengths. He’s huge with the hip-hop and grime community in Britain. He hangs out with all those guys; he’s so tied into that kind of music. There’s nothing he can’t do.

“Even though we’re decades apart in age, we have everything in common.”

What is it like when the two of you hang out together socially?
I don’t drink so … It’s a good thing he didn’t appear at the same era as I did, otherwise we’d be up for three weeks together. He’s not a big druggie. He likes a drink and yeah, he’s just a lot of fun. All we do when we’re together is talk about music: “What do you think of Bruno’s single? What do you think of the Weeknd?” Because I keep up with all that stuff too. Even though we’re decades apart in age, we have everything in common.

When he decided to take last year off, did you have any conversations with him about that? Did you think it was a good idea?
Yeah, he was so omnipresent I said, “Ed, even I’m sick of you. Go away.” And he did. He just went to the Far East with his girlfriend, had a great time, put on a lot of weight, ate food and came back. One thing I said to him when he went, I said, “Don’t put on weight,” because he’s very prone to put on weight like I am. And he came back heavy, but he lost it all for the album. He just went away and had a great time. And it was the most brilliant thing he could have done, because it refreshes your soul – not that I ever did it. I’m not one for going to the Far East and walking around with a backpack on; I just find that not my cup of tea. I’m too much involved with other things. But he did it, and it’s the best thing he could have done. He was too omnipresent. Taylor Swift’s done the same thing. I mean, all she’s got now is the single with Zayn Malik for the Fifty Shades of Gray soundtrack. You haven’t really heard much of her since 1989, except when she broke up with Tom Hiddleston, that’s about it.

Tell me about the dinners you have at Ed’s house.
He just wants to hear about Lennon and the Beatles and people like that. He grew up on my music – his parents loved me, they loved Van Morrison, so he just wants to know what I went through. And I’ve got a lot of stories to tell. He just sits there with his eyes open: “You did that?” And I go “Yeah, and I did a lot more too.” I just said, “Ed, just enjoy it – and you are enjoying it. You love every single moment of this.” He’s worked tirelessly to get where he was. He’s never turned down a radio interview. He’s turned up at hospitals to play for sick, dying girls on his day off. He’s that kind of guy. I love him to death. I love him because he’s extremely naughty as well.

How so?
I can’t really tell that. Rolling Stone is a family magazine.

Watch Ed Sheeran perform “Hearts Don’t Break Around Here.”

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