This angsty breakup tune is about an ex, and Sheeran doesn't hold back with how he feels about her. "The story in 'Don't' is 100 percent true," Sheeran told Billboard magazine. "I could have gotten nastier - there was more s--t that I didn't put in. I was seeing someone for a bit of time, and then they ended up physically involved with one of my friends in the same hotel that we were staying in, while I was downstairs. And I feel like: Treat people how you want to be treated."
Speaking with MTV News, Sheeran refused to name the mystery person that the song is directed at, but is sure they will know who they are. "I've always been the sweet, innocent, 'Oh my God, he's English!' kind of thing, so having a bit of bite," he told MTV News, "I don't know how that's going to go down, but based on the reaction of people that have heard it, I think it will go down just fine."
Fans have speculated that the song could be about Ellie Goulding. Sheeran dated the "Burn
" singer during the summer of 2013. She was rumored to have been seen kissing One Direction's Niall Horan at the V Festival around the same time.
Some of the speculation that Goulding is the subject of the song was because of the lyrics, "We make money the same way. Four cities, two planes the same day," and "You were looking for a lover to burn." Not only does Sheeran allude to the pair having the same career, but he also includes the word "burn," the title of Goulding's hit single.
Littering the lyrics with possible clues is a hallmark of Sheeran's friend Taylor Swift. He confirmed to Rolling Stone that the Country-Pop princess is not the subject of the song. "It's 100 percent not about Taylor," he said. "Taylor's one of these people that if you piss her off and she writes a song about you, it's not good news for you. I've never dated Taylor. I've dated a few singers, though."
Sheeran did play the song for Swift after writing it. He said: "She was just like, 'Whatever happens, ever, between us as friends, I never want to piss you off that much.'"
The song was co-produced by Benny Blanco, who has worked on hits from such pop artists as Katy Perry and Maroon 5. and production legend Rick Rubin (Johnny Cash, Run-DMC, Red Hot Chili Peppers), who is known for his naturalistic approach. "I loved elements of both," Sheeran told Billboard, "and I knew that together they could make something really super-powered, between Benny's pop sensibility and Rick's raw, earthy, gravelly coolness. So Benny went to LA and sat with Rick."
This was set to be the lead single from Sheeran's x
album until early March 2014, when it was decided that "Sing
" would be the first song to be released from the project. With a chorus hinged on the lyric "Don't f---- with my love." the change of mind was most likely prompted by a wish to give Sheeran's young fans something less sweary as a first release.
Also Sheeran was struggling with coming up with a clean radio edit. "I tried other words, I tried 'mess,' I tried 'funk,' lots of other things, but none of them worked," he laughed to MTV News. "But I'm definitely giving radio an edit they can play, because I'd be mental not to."
Sheeran debuted the song on the April 12, 2014 episode of Saturday Night Live. He also performed "Sing" on the same show.
Ed explained the story of the song during an appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. "With that song... I'm a carefree, happy guy and I feel like everyone goes through things that annoy them and they get angry, and I feel the way I get my anger out is to write songs," he explained. "And that song was literally, I felt something, I put it down and I felt a lot better afterwards."
"I wasn't going to put it on the record and then people kept telling me it was an alright song, 'cause it is a good song, so it ended up on the record," Sheeran added. "But yeah, that one's a bit personal."
The song has a very strong vocal hook: the "ahhh lite a lalala" (sp.) that opens the track and plays throughout. This nonsensical utterance is a key musical element, filling the space between key moments in the song. Since it's not comprised of real words, it's quite versatile, allowing the listener to imagine what could be said at these moments.
By putting this vocal in the intro, it establishes the sound, which then is used to tie the whole thing together. Other songs that put their vocal hooks upfront include "Habits (Stay High)
" by Tove Lo and "Uptown Funk
" by Mark Ronson.
Sheeran told The Daily Telegraph that he forewarned the woman in question. "I just said, 'just so you know, there is a song.' And they said, 'expected that.' 'Cause of the situation. You know, I didn't lie at all. It's 100 per cent true," he explained.
"I actually shied away from some of it," Sheeran added. "But for me in my head, that song is enough getting even. And the fact that it will stay anonymous, is good for me. I've written a song about it and I've leveled the playing field."
It was Benny Blanco who persuaded Sheeran to record the tune for x
. "I wrote the song just to get it out of my system," he told Digital Spy
. "I wrote it as a sort of therapeutic thing and left it, but then Benny kept ringing me up like, 'Yo, I'm just in the studio with so-and-so' - then naming some big name - 'they really f--k with the track. You need to do something with it.' I was like, 'I might, I might'. I had so many people from all angles telling me I should do something with it, so it ended up on the record."
Prior to the release of x, all swearing was cut from the album, which meant this song had to be heavily edited. Sheeran tweeted: "My whole album is clean, I took all of the explicit lyrics out after a taxi driver convinced me to do it for his daughter. That's the truth."
Speaking with Capital FM, Sheeran said that he quickly moved on from the episode recounted on this song, explaining: "With that track, I only felt that way for a week, and then I made my peace with it and got on with it."
"It just happened that that song was alright and I wanted to put it on the album," he continued. "But I don't have any bitterness towards that situation at all. I literally got over it within the week and the song just stuck around."
Asked by Billboard magazine what sound he was after with this song, Sheeran replied: "It was me trying to make a sort of '90s hip-hop jam in the sense of telling a story. So, how hip-hop tends to work, you have three verses: The first verse is the set-up, the second explains the situation, and the third is the outcome, with a chorus in between each."
This soundtracked a commercial for Beats By Dre. The ad shows Sheeran wearing Solo 2 headphones while constructing the song in a hotel room.