Plenty of American music fans are starting to hear the name and music of Ed Sheeran.
And considering his Sheeran’s single, “The A Team,” is now Top 10 at Top 40 radio and up for a Grammy award for Song of the Year — and that he’ll open Taylor Swift’s epic Red tour beginning this spring — Sheeran stands a good chance of being very present in the States in 2013.
But don’t call Sheeran an overnight success — neither in the States nor in his native United Kingdom.
He lost claim to that title when “The A Team” took its molasses-like path up the charts, rather than being the kind of instant smash that seems pretty common these days.
“I think the initial problem dealing with the States was trying to convince radio to play ‘The A Team,’ because it’s quite a dark subject when you kind of get your head around it,” Sheeran says of the song, which is about a woman he encountered at a homeless shelter and who turned to prostitution to support her drug habit. “Trying to convince them to play it was the biggest challenge. I think it’s now been the slowest climbing single of the decade, but it’s still going up. It’s just gone Top 10 at Pop and it’s almost Top 5 on the (Adult Contemporary chart), but that’s taken more than a year. It went to radio in December 2011.
“So it’s taken a long time to get there, but now it has. And with the Grammy nomination and all the ticket sales and the Taylor tour, it feels like it’s going to kind of either disappear or blow the fuck up.”
The smart money is on the latter option.
It’s already happened in England, where Sheeran — now on his fifth single from current album, + (read as “plus”) — was one of the biggest breakthrough artists of 2011. But, as in the U.S., Sheeran’s success was far from the overnight variety.
He may only be turning 22 in February, but he’s been at music for a good while.
Sheeran began writing songs in his early teens and released his debut EP, The Orange Room, in early 2005. That was followed by a pair of full-length albums, a self-titled affair in 2006 and Want Some? in 2007, that barely made a dent on the U.K. charts.
In 2008, Sheeran moved from Framlingham to London, where he began playing gigs and soon shifted his focus to touring. The following year, he played 312 shows and released another EP, You Need Me. Sheeran released three more EPs in the U.K. in 2010.
Despite all of that activity, Sheeran said his career was going nowhere fast at that point.
“(Things) weren’t good at all in the UK at that point,” Sheeran says. “I had been out of school for two years. I dropped out. I was living on my mates’ sofa and staying at different (places), kind of drinking a lot and not really being any good either mentally or musically. I would do the same gigs every single day for the same people. So I thought I could do with a change of scenery. “
So Sheeran saved up enough money to book a flight to Los Angeles, where he hoped he might have better luck getting some momentum with his career. He chose Los Angeles for a simple reason.
“I had one contact in L.A. and I didn’t have one contact in New York or anywhere else,” Sheeran says. “I had one contact that set me up for one show.”
Soon enough, though, Sheeran was playing open mic nights and pretty much any other gig he could get around the city. One of the shows was at The Foxxhole, where Sheeran was spotted by the club’s owner, R&B artist/actor Jamie Foxx.
Foxx was impressed by Sheeran’s music and performance and offered to let Sheeran use the studio in his Hollywood home.
Sheeran took advantage of the offer and continued to write and record. He also was making extensive use of the internet, posting songs and videos online, and gradually built a robust following. When he released the EP, No. 5 Collaborations Project, in January of 2011, it shot to No. 2 on the iTunes chart thanks to his online fan base.
Sheeran says his determination to keep making fresh material available online — often in the quick and easy “EP” format — was a major factor in building that audience.
“I think the keys are quality and consistency, just make sure you keep releasing stuff consistently, whether it be videos or EPs or anything, and make sure that the quality keeps getting better, better and better,” he says. “So with everything I was doing, I was releasing an EP like every three months and a video every two or three weeks, building up my Twitter following, building up my Facebook following, and then my (No. 5 Collaborations) EP that came out, I’d built it up enough before to have a fan base that would actually buy it on iTunes.”
Sheeran became one of several Folk-flavored artists to break through on the Pop charts in 2012 (joining Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers, among the others), but his sound stands apart from other acoustic-centric acts. One major difference is the way Sheeran, on songs like “Grade 8,” “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You” and “This City”), mixes Hip Hop beats with poppy guitar-based songs, interspersing rapid-fire raps with his sung vocals.
Sheeran says combining his love for Folk and Hip Hop just seemed natural.
“I guess if you listen to enough good music, and I was (into) kind of acoustic music and Hip Hop music, the two will meet and start kind of blending,” Sheeran says.
Sheeran, though, will present his songs in a more spare setting live, as he continues to perform solo acoustic. His headlining tour, which runs through mid-February, will be followed by his slot opening for Taylor Swift from mid-March through September.
“It’s always just me and a guitar,” Sheeran says of his live shows. “I don’t have a band at all. I have a big light wall — it’s all kind of interactive. So when I play a chord, a color will come up.
“Yeah,” he adds with a sense of a typical 21-year-old’s muted glee over a new gadget, “it’s quite a cool thing.”
ED SHEERAN performs at Bogart's this Friday.