“This isn’t a documentary on a musician; I feel like it’s a documentary on grief,” Ed Sheeran says.
The singer-songwriter was at The Times Center in New York City on Tuesday night, wearing a simple white T-shirt and black leather moto jacket. He was seated alongside Gayle King, the moderator for the evening’s discussion, and the producers and director of his new Disney+ documentary, Ed Sheeran: The Sum of It All, which he had screened moments before for the first time to a plush room full of press, some famous faces and a few lucky Sheerios.
Out now on Disney+, the four-part docuseries offers fans a powerful, honest glimpse into the “Bad Habits” troubadour’s personal life, exploring the aftermath of three events that rocked his world in February 2022: his wife Cherry Seaborn’s cancer diagnosis at six months’ pregnant, the copyright lawsuit over his No. 1 smash “Shape of You,” and the sudden, tragic death of his best friend Jamal Edwards.
These three tragedies and obstacles were ultimately the catalyst of Sheeran’s sixth album – (Subtract), out Friday via Atlantic Records, but they weren’t initially what he was planning to bare for the cameras after being approached by the team at Fulwell 73 about the documentary.
“We had a call and I said, ‘Look, this is what’s been actually going on in my personal life and I don’t really want to make a documentary on this,’” Sheeran recalls. “And [executive producer] Ben Winston was like, ‘Let’s just film it and see.’”
That approach results in the kind of vulnerable portrait of the artist fans have likely never seen before while simultaneously touching on universal themes of love, loss and pain. “I never wanted to make a documentary that was like, ‘Sad pop star and feel sorry for sad pop star,’” Sheeran says. “And what I think is really great about the documentary is the themes that it explores. Everyone goes through the fear of sickness in the family. Everyone goes through grief. Everyone goes through ups and downs in their mental health.”
Sheeran worked with Winston and his producing partner Ben Turner — whom he first met while writing songs for early One Direction albums like 2011’s Up All Night and 2012’s Take Me Home — particularly to honor the memory of Edwards, an influential figure in the London music scene who gave Ed a platform for his start in the music industry on the popular YouTube channel SBTV. (Sheeran’s first single “The A Team” went positively viral on the channel — leading to his record deal, smash debut album + (Plus) and everything that’s come since.)
And while the Grammy winner is proud to send his best friend’s legacy out into the world with the doc, he acknowledges that Edwards’ death has left a void that can never be filled with fame, success or another No. 1 single.
“I don’t think you ever process it, really,” he admits. “I think your life builds itself around grief. And I think that’s one thing I’ve actually really liked about making this documentary, is that more people than knew Jamal are now gonna know Jamal, you know? … I don’t think you should process it. I think to respect the person you’ve lost, you just have to live with it and allow yourself to be sad sometimes. And allow yourself to laugh at the fun memories and stuff like that! But to erase someone from your memory to not feel sad, I think is quite disrespectful to the memory of that person. So I allow myself to feel sad when I want to feel sad.”
Viewers can also look forward to getting to know Seaborn across the four episodes. She and Sheeran, who grew up as schoolmates in Suffolk, England, have always been notoriously guarded about their relationship, marriage and two daughters, both to preserve their family’s privacy and maintain a healthy sense of normalcy. However, they made the decision as a couple to temporarily open up about her unexpected health struggles as a way to help viewers find commonality and community with their story.
“It’s something that I talk to Cherry a lot about, because this is our life,” Sheeran says, noting Seaborn in the audience and revealing she thankfully has a clean bill of health these days and is attending “regular checkups” with her doctor.
“This isn’t something that’s scripted; it’s not a reality show,” he continues. “This is something that we’ve kept private for a very, very long time, and rightly so. We are a couple; we’re not celebrities who want to be out there on the red carpet. So what I’m hoping is that this documentary goes out there and exists for what it should exist for — which is a snapshot of grief and mental health and depression — and that we can close the door again and get on with our life.”
And while The Sum of It All‘s release coincides with Sheeran finally unveiling Subtract as the fifth and final album is his long-planned cycle of mathematically titled studio sets, the superstar confesses he’s decidedly nonchalant about how the album will be received by the masses or how it performs on the charts compared to his past mega-hits like 2014’s x (Multiply), 2017’s ÷ (Divide) and 2021’s = Equals — all of which bowed at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and went on to sell millions of copies worldwide. (He’s already released “Eyes Closed” and “Boat” as the first two singles from Subtract. The former has so far peaked at No. 26 on the Billboard Hot 100, far below the No. 2 peak of Equals‘ dance-infused lead-off “Bad Habits” or Divide‘s pair of career-defining No. 1s “Shape of You” and “Perfect.”)
“The album is my cathartic, therapeutic way of trying to make myself feel better,” he tells the audience. “I’m honestly putting it out because people think it’s good. But I wasn’t intending to put it out, I had a whole other album I was gonna put out. So I don’t really mind how it does. I’m just sort of like, ‘I’m gonna put it out and it will just exist and do its thing.’”
You can stream all four episodes of Ed Sheeran: The Sum of It All now on Disney+. In the meantime, revisit the trailer for the docuseries below.