After rising to fame with his first two albums, Ed Sheeran needed a break.
On “Eraser,” the opening track on his new album ÷ (pronounced “divide”), Sheeran sings about the downside of fame.
“The older you get, the smaller your close handful of friends gets,” he says. “So I think that was just an adjustment I had to get over. And I’ve never really cared about money, and being treated differently because of a financial situation that you’re in is a weird adjustment. People that you know and love treat you differently because of something that’s so superficial.”
In addition to changes in his personal life, Sheeran felt fatigued by social media culture.
“What I think you can get down with social media is that everyone’s very, very quick to rise to bait on something. What I found, especially, is people will write something you’ve said (that you’ve never said) and post it online, and instantly it’s a quote that suddenly gets loads of people riled up,” he said. “Social media’s very much like 0 to 100, and the next day they don’t remember it. There will be internet fads that last for a day, and it’ll be the biggest f—ing thing for a day, and then it’s [not].
“I needed to get away,” the singer — who announced his year-long hiatus in December 2015 — says in the new issue of PEOPLE. “I kind of eased back into life and reality.”
And so he did.
For more on Ed Sheeran, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere Friday.
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Taking some time off from songwriting, Sheeran, 26, says he found something he’d been missing before.
“Life’s all about balance, and I wasn’t getting the balance right,” he says.
As for what he did differently upon this epiphany? “Just found some normality,” he adds. “I bought a bicycle and started cycling to my girlfriend‘s house. We cycled together every day and had pub lunches. I’d be the lone boyfriend on the side of the pitch watching her hockey games, not bringing security with me everywhere. Stuff like that.”
When he wasn’t spending time with his girlfriend (24-year-old risk advisory consultant Cherry Seaborn), the famously tatted pop star got some new ink, most of which were inspired by songs off his new No. 1 album ÷, including “Shape of You,” “Galway Girl,” “Happier,” “Hearts Don’t Break Around Here” and “Nancy Mulligan.” Sheeran boasts “well over a hundred” tattoos, but he insists he has no regrets.
“I really like ’em,” he says. “People say, ‘What are you going to do when you’re 70?’ But do you ever see your grandfather with his shirt off? I don’t think I’ll ever regret them.”
In addition to investing in some new body art, the singer spent some time traveling the world during his break, jet-setting everywhere from Iceland and Norway to Japan and Ghana, the latter of which inspired a track on ÷.
“I kind of switched my mind off traveling,” he says. “I really didn’t touch a guitar or do any music at all; it was just about having life experience rather than musical experience. But it just so happened in Ghana that I was staying with some really talented musicians. I did a song with Ghanian musicians called ‘Bibia Be Ye Ye,’ which means ‘everything will be all right.’ And that was really wicked.”
Before taking his break, Sheeran says his third LP was “probably 70 percent done.” And while he enjoyed his time off, he missed working.
“I love creating music, playing music live and sharing music live,” he says. “A year off was great, but it felt like a void in my life. I’m glad to be back.”
Indeed, the star says six tracks on ÷ — including megahit “Shape of You,” which is currently No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 — were written and recorded “last-minute.”
With a No. 1 album under his belt, Sheeran will next kick off his North American tour in June and is relishing his return to the spotlight.
“I’m so fortunate to be in the career that I’m in. I don’t want it to end. I want to be able to play music for the rest of my life and be able to write music for the rest of my life,” he says. “I don’t think it’s going to get bigger than this. I don’t see how it can go on from here. I think this is the peak, and it’s about either maintaining this, or if I drop off a little bit, but just doing this for the rest of my life. The best thing about it is now I get to start album four. It’s exciting!”