Plenty of American music fans are starting to hear the name and music of Ed Sheeran. And considering his current single, "The A Team," is now Top 10 in Top 40 radio, he's nominated for a Grammy award for Song of the Year and he's nabbed an opening slot with Taylor Swift on her Red tour beginning this spring, he stands a good chance to be very present in the States in 2013.
But don't call Sheeran an overnight success -- not in the States or in his native United Kingdom.
He lost claim to that title when "The A Team" took a molasses-like path up the charts.
"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 said of the song in a mid-January phone interview.
The track is inspired by a woman he encountered at a homeless shelter 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. Now, with the Grammy nomination and all the ticket sales and the Taylor [Swift] 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, as one of the biggest breakthrough artists of 2012, Sheeran is now on his fifth single off of his current album, +.
The 21-year-old 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 CD in 2006 and Want Some? the following year.
The next year, Sheeran moved from Framlingham, Suffolk to London, where he began playing gigs and soon shifted his focus to touring. In 2009, he played 312 shows and released an EP, You Need Me. That was followed by three more EPs, which were released in the UK between January and April of 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 said. "I had been out of school for two years. I dropped out I was living on my mate's 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 said. "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 and actor Jamie Foxx.
Foxx was impressed by Sheeran's music and performance and offered to let Sheeran use the studio in his Hollywood home.
That wasn't an offer Sheeran was going to let slip away -- and it seemed to have a magic effect. When he released the EP No. 5 Collaborations Project in January 2011, it shot to number two on the iTunes chart.
The iTunes sales were enough to land Sheeran a deal with Atlantic Records. His debut album + was preceded in early June with the UK release of the single "The A Team," which Sheeran had first included on his 2010 EP, Loose Change. The song entered the UK singles chart at number three, and Sheeran's quick rise to stardom in the UK had started. When + was released in Fall 2011, it debuted at number one on the UK album chart and has since gone quintuple platinum in that country.
Although + has had a slower rise in the United States, it eventually went Top 5 and remains in the Top 30 after more than 30 weeks on the Billboard album chart.
Sheeran has become one of several folk-flavored artists to break through on the pop charts in recent months (Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers are among the others). But his sound stands apart from other acoustic-centric acts, partly for how on some songs ("Grade 8," "You Need Me, I Don't Need You" and "This City") he mixes hip-hop beats with poppy, guitar-based melodies and intersperses rapid-fire raps with his sung vocals. Sheeran said 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 said. Sheeran, though, will present his songs in a more spare setting live, as he'll continue to perform solo acoustic.
"It's always just me and a guitar," Sheeran said of his live shows. "I don't have a band at all. I have a big light wall, which it's all kind of interactive. So when I play a chord, a color will come up. Yeah, it's quite a cool thing. But the live show is just a solo thing."
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