Ahead of the release of Ed Sheeran’s hugely anticipated third album ÷ (divide), we get a special insight into the singer-songwriter’s rise courtesy of Tony Harlow, the music executive behind the talent.
Sheeran’s very first public gig in Australia was held under the kind of glaring silver sky that makes you squint up to see where the purple thunderclouds are going to crawl from. “We were outside on Circular Quay, and as Ed played we could see the southerly coming in, and so could he,” says Tony Harlow. “We knew we had something because the whole crowd was kids in school uniforms, so we couldn’t cancel… It became a race against time, and [Ed] sang ‘F–k the rain’ until the first drops fell, then everyone ran for cover – or stayed singing and got soaked.”
There’s footage of those moments from 2011 preserved on YouTube: Channel [V]’s cameras rolling as people squash as close to the Guerilla Gig carpet as they can get, eager faces peeking over shoulders right back to the wrought iron fencing, and Ed Sheeran in a bright red Duffer of St. George shirt – possibly the most deliberate clash with his hair you could imagine – encouraging his rapt audience to cuss out the rain along with him, in between acoustic performances of Lego House, Give Me Love, The A Team and more.
For Harlow, this was the culmination of months of planning; the Managing Director of WMG had met Sheeran in the UK and seen him perform at Norwich’s UEA, and decided that his own Australian team would be the ones to organise and invest in Sheeran’s first performances Down Under. Ed’s debut studio album + had already debuted at #1 on the UK Albums Chart, and Harlow had promised the then 20-year-old musician that Australia would adore him, and give him a #1. “It was impossible not to believe, because he was so compelling,” Harlow, now President of WEA Corp (Warner’s global artist and label services arm), tells us of his first impressions. “He owned rooms he had no right to even play in, and never projected a need to be cool over a need to speak to an audience. There is drive and confidence, and he demands to be accepted on his own terms and not compromise. That’s why it’s still just him and a guitar on stage in stadiums.”
It was a combination of the musician’s self confidence, genuine personal interest in those around him, and his ability to communicate with a crowd of any size which convinced Harlow that Australia was going to be the first country to embrace Sheeran outside of the singer-songwriter’s homeland. “It was a risk, but we believed,” Harlow says. “I felt he had enough larrikin sense of humour about him to appeal here, and win people over. That’s important – something Robbie Williams had too, which was another great act I’d had luck with here.”
The rest of that 2011 Aussie trip included koala cuddles, a seafood platter at Doyle’s, and an extra special reminder to Harlow to remember his pact: a koala tattoo. After the team returned to the UK, Sheeran delivered a particularly meaningful and prophetic gift to Harlow: a mini Sydney Opera House, which the musician had constructed himself out of Lego.
As Sheeran’s notoriety rose and accolades accumulated, he performed The A Team with Elton John at the 2013 Grammy Awards (John reportedly organised the collaboration after the Grammys’ organisers told him Sheeran was not high-profile enough to perform alone), and found admirers in Justin Bieber, One Direction, and Jamie Foxx, who famously offered Sheeran the use of his studio after seeing him perform in 2010. Harlow says it’s not just recognition of talent which attracts these people to the 26-year-old. “That really helps – he writes great songs for them too, which helps with people like Bieber and One Direction – but he has an amazing ability to make everyone feel like they are with a very normal person, and to feel comfortable,” he explains. “You always feel like you are with your mate. He remembers people like retailers and radio people, and details about them. Like your mate would.”
One of Sheeran’s most visible pals is Taylor Swift, whose The Red Tour Sheeran joined as opening act in 2013; the pair’s mutual respect and goofiness is well documented across social media. “I do know that not everyone around Ed felt that the Taylor stint was a good idea, but that he and his manager felt it was,” says Harlow. “And they were right! It made his reach far bigger. It seems to me that [Ed] sees the world as an index of possibility.” Reflecting on Sheeran’s view that Swift opened doors for him but he had to walk through them himself, Harlow adds: “To me, he is a guy [for whom] everything is a door, and he has full conviction that if he can open it one inch, he will kick it over.”
And doors have gone flying: + cracked two million sales in the UK and hit #1 in four countries; its follow-up, 2014’s x, is at nearly three million UK sales and reached peak chart position in nine countries. Sheeran has won multiple prizes from the People’s Choice Awards, the Teen Choice Awards, the BBC Music Awards, the BRIT Awards, and received two 2016 Grammys (for Song Of The Year and Best Pop Solo Performance for Thinking Out Loud); last month the first two singles from this month’s ÷ (divide), Shape of You and Castle On The Hill, flew to the top two positions on global streaming charts, and pre-orders for the album quickly broke records. “I just can’t imagine that the songs and ideas will ever dry up – they just seem to keep coming,” Harlow says. “I think Ed admires artists with longevity like Van Morrison, Elton, and Eric Clapton, and I feel you are looking at the early days of a career like that – probably with all the variety and ambition those guys have achieved.”
Just a few weeks ago, the Opera House milestone was reached – from a little Lego dream into reality. During his performance Sheeran gave an enormous shout-out to Harlow, revealing the Australian Promise and that a #1 ARIA record had soon followed it. Harlow admits he was proud and “a bit teary” at the recognition, but asserts that it’s not about him. “What it meant was that Ed had reached a point where he could fill an Opera House with contest winners at will, and keep them all hanging on every word. It felt like we’d all achieved something huge, and completed some kind of cycle.
“But it wasn’t more special than when we first walked out at the Sydney Entertainment Centre and realised it was sold-out to the back. Or when Ed did stadiums in Melbourne. Or when we first went to #1 on a single or an album. Or the fact that he loves Australia now, and came here on his break, or the day he popped in at our Christmas party just to say ‘Hi’ to the whole team. It’s a success story at so many levels… We are so lucky to work with talented people like Ed.”