Looking back at ‘the day Ed Sheeran sang just for me’

As the only journalist to turn up to a press conference in 2009, Rob Garratt was treated to a personal performance by Ed Sheeran. Little did he know that just a few years later, that cocky teenager would turn out to be a multi-platinum-selling artist.

Ed Sheeran performs at KIIS FM's Jingle Ball 2014 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. Jason Merritt / Getty Images for iHeartMedia / AFP
Powered by automated translation

Tomorrow night, Ed Sheeran will play to 11,000 people in Dubai Media City. And as I stand in the middle of that crowd, I know I’ll be thinking of just one thing — the day Ed Sheeran performed for an audience of one. Me.

It was a sunny July afternoon in an English town square. I stood bemused as a stubbly, teenaged Sheeran plugged in a tiny acoustic guitar and began to serenade me. Shoppers bustled by entirely unmoved. No one pulled out a cameraphone to take a photo or began tweeting frantically. In fact, passers-by seemed slightly irritated by the disturbance.

This makeshift gig was technically a press conference. The location was Norwich, a city in the east of England — the only city of any note in that part of the country, really. Sheeran grew up about 60 kilometres south in the town of Framlingham, where he has bought a farm and reportedly plans to settle.

The year was 2009. Twelve months earlier, Sheeran had won a large, state-sponsored regional talent search, despite breaking four guitar strings in the final round. He won Dh1,400 of prize money, Dh4,000 worth of gear and free studio time. Small change now to a man with a reported net worth of more than Dh50 million.

As part of his obligation as the winner, Sheeran had to perform at the press launch of the following year’s competition.

Not one other journalist turned up. So there I was, standing in the afternoon sun, watching awkwardly as Sheeran, wearing a garish green T-shirt and flanked by his dad and manager, sang into a cheap mic. I'm pretty sure he played The A Team, a song about a drug addict that he wrote after visiting a homeless shelter. I'd heard him sing it before. Sadly, I admit I only bothered to listen to the words when, two years later, it entered the top three in the British charts and launched Sheeran on the road to stardom.

He played another song or two, and I cut the charade short, embarrassed for the both of us. I grabbed a few quotes and went to the office to file a puff piece about a regional talent search.

Four months later, Sheeran put out his first serious release, the You Need Me, I Don't Need You EP, which charted at a modest number 142 in the UK charts. It contained the title track that was later resurrected, re-released and became another top-five single.

I’d love to say that on that day six years ago I saw something special, heard a great, raw potential talent waiting to flower.

But I’d be lying. Maybe he just wasn’t there yet. More likely, I just wasn’t paying attention — I’d seen and heard Sheeran numerous times during the previous 12 months, gigging round the circuit’s free festivals and at forgettable open mics. He was part of the local music scene’s furniture; a cocky 17-year-old kid with baggy shorts, some decent rhymes and nifty tricks for looping his silly little guitar — but a kid nonetheless.

I heard him play at least one more time, four months later, to around 1,000 people at the final of the same talent search competition. A backstage interview clip is still online somewhere. Listening closely you can hear me, off-camera, murmuring “yeah” in agreement as he offers a sound bite about “local talent chugging along”.

This remains the only concrete evidence of my numerous encounters with the most-streamed artist of 2014. Because I never bothered to do the big sit-down interview. Because I never imagined that he was anything special.

Less than two years later, a review copy of his debut album landed on my desk in Dubai. And now, whenever I see Sheeran on TV — accepting an award, cavorting with a new celebrity girlfriend or collaborating with another musical legend — I’m reminded of that sunny afternoon. And how wrong I turned out to be.

• Ed Sheeran performs at Dubai Media City Amphitheatre on Thursday, March 5. Tickets are sold out