Leading the field with four Brit Award nominations in the pocket of his scruffy jeans after last night’s announcement, Ed Sheeran’s year as a very singular British Male is getting official recognition.
The 20-year-old from Framlingham inSuffolkwas at the Savoy Hotel last night, playing his next single, Give Me Love, to the music industry’s great and good while this year’s shortlists were revealed. His style is a far cry from the usual razzle-dazzle of a Brits performance – he appears alone on stage with just an acoustic guitar and a loop pedal, which records and repeats segments of guitar and voice to build up layers of sound. But it’s this unfussy method that has turned him into a huge live draw and helped his debut album, + (Atlantic) to go double platinum since its release last autumn.
His success has surprised many observers given how different his music is from the brash dance and hip hop that currently dominates the top 40. His first single, The A Team, spent 13 weeks inside the top 10 starting last June, edging aside all the party-time anthems despite being a wispy acoustic ballad about a drug-addicted prostitute. Sheeran himself doesn’t seem so shocked when I speak to him – his confident, articulate patter could win him a job as Alan Sugar’s Apprentice in another life. All he’ll admit to is a raised eyebrow at the speed of his rise.
“I was at the Brits last year on the Atlantic table, as I’d just been signed,” he tells me. “Tinie Tempah did so well, then came up to me and said, ‘Next year’s your year’. I always thought it would take at least two years to build up that kind of momentum, but maybe not. Hopefully this year could be my year.”
As usual with overnight success stories, years of graft have brought him to the Brits as a favourite. He’s been hailed as a modern internet phenomenon, selling independently released EPs online and benefitting from enthusiastic web chatter by his largely student fanbase. Yet Sheeran has really come by his current success by the oldest route: gigging very hard indeed. Having first arrived inLondonfive years ago to make his mark as a singer-songwriter, in 2009 he played over 300 shows. Last year he says he did “a fair few”, more of his time being taken up with making his album and promoting it acrossEuropeandAustralia, but he still managed to play fourLondongigs in a single day last April after 1,000 fans turned up to see him in the 250-capacity Barfly venue. Then there was a full summer of festivals and long tours through May and June and October to December. “Last year wasn’t really my gigging year,” he claims, improbably.
He plays his biggestLondonshows yet next week atBrixtonAcademy, and insists he still doesn’t need to give in and get himself a backup band. “We’ve upscaled the show with better lights and videos and a crisper sound, but if the loop pedal works at Brixton it’ll work one day at the O2 too. I’ll get a band when I write an album with a band. This one was made with just me and my guitar so that’s the way I perform it.”
If you haven’t seen it before, it is a shock when the boy who looks like a roadie, all stuck-up ginger hair and big trainers, strolls on alone and starts dancing, beatboxing and whipping up a storm of sound with those pedals on faster songs such as Grade 8 and You Need Me, I Don’t Need You. When he covers the folk standard Wayfaring Stranger he even puts the guitar down and uses just voice and rhythm to build a hypnotic patchwork.
He’s not the first to use the trick – KT Tunstall got her big break playing her song Black Horse and the Cherry Tree solo like that on Jools Holland in 2004, and Damien Rice, an acknowledged influence, used it a lot in concert. Sheeran says he picked it up from a lesser known Irishman called Gary Dunne, who he saw as a young gig-goer and ended up inviting to support him at Shepherd’s Bush Empire last October.
It’s Sheeran who’s made it cool though. “I went toDenmark Streetthe other day to buy a new loop pedal and they said they’d sold out because of all the people coming in asking what I use. That’s wicked,” he says.
Keen to stay on top now he’s there, he’s obviously given some thought to the source of his appeal. “I’m 20 years old, all my friends go to university, I wear baggy jeans and hoodies and I think they see me as one of their own rather than some glitzy glamorous person who looks like a star. I was a fan who went to gigs and wanted to meet the band afterwards and if I did that was the best thing that happened all year. Now my fans see themselves in me.”
But there’s a wide streak of self-belief in him as well that isn’t so commonplace. Not many musicians would release a single like You Need Me, I Don’t Need You, a bold up-yours to the management team that dropped him early on. It boasts: “Don’t need another word-smith to make my tune sell” and “I didn’t go toBRITSchool”. Under those ordinary looks there’s no “Aw, shucks, famous? Little me?” attitude. He’s got big plans – next up is a long tour supporting Snow Patrol in April and May that will introduce him to American audiences – and he’s prepared to work hard for what he wants. “I’m not looking for time off. I don’t need that much sleep.”
He also has gifts as a networker. A year ago his No.5 Collaborations Project EP reached the top 50 when he released it himself as an unknown, a feat that earned him his major label record deal. It featured Sheeran singing and rapping alongside notableUKrappers including Wretch 32, Wiley, Sway and Devlin. The red-haired kid fromSuffolkknows his urban sounds. “I’ve been a fan ofUKhip hop from a young age, so I was able to write songs that suited or challenged them because I knew their music so well.”
And he doesn’t leave anyone behind as he rises. Unlikely as it may sound, Sheeran’s biggest influence is acoustic duo Nizlopi, only known in the wider world for their cutesy lone hit JCB Song, the surprise Christmas number one in 2005. Sheeran used to follow them around on tour and eventually became their guitar technician. Now Nizlopi’s newly solo Luke Concannon has supported him.
This year he’s making more friends. He says he’s about to release a new four-track EP of collaborations with an American rapper who he won’t name just yet. “It’s someone people are aware of, who’s part of a big, big movement.” Then he promises new singles or downloads in collaboration with Wretch 32, Devlin, dance star Example and new dubstep band True Tiger. He won’t be standing still for a moment, though he may need to stay in one place for a few moments in February to make an acceptance speech at the Brits.
“I’ve now sold just under a million albums. I’ve stamped myself as this commercial artist so my task now is to keep people interested, keep people talking about me rather than just thinking of me as a pop singer-songwriter. A year ago I was inderground and quite kind of edgy. Now people think they know who I am so I’m going to keep confusing them. The next few singles are bluegrass and grime and drum and bass. It’s gonna be… odd.”