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Sheeran's fortunes haven't always put him on 'A Team'

| Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Ed Sheeran Credit: Ed Sheeran

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 at Top 40 radio, and that Sheeran is nominated 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 to be very present in the States in 2013.

His Monday show at Stage AE on the North Shore has been sold out for weeks.

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 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. “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 A/C (adult contemporary chart), but that's taken more than a year. It went to radio in December 2011.”

With the hit single, the Grammy nomination, all the ticket sales and the Swift tour, Sheeran says it feels like it's going to kind of either disappear or blow wide open.

The smart money is on the latter.

It's already happened in England, where Sheeran is now on his fifth single off of his current CD, “+,” and was one of the biggest breakthrough artists of 2012.

But again, Sheeran's success was far from the overnight variety. He may only be turning 22 in February, but he released the first in what is now a catalog of a dozen-plus EPs in 2005. (He also released two full-length CDs early on — in 2006 and 2007.) He's done a good deal of touring, logging 312 shows in 2009 alone.

Despite all of that activity, Sheeran says his career was going nowhere fast at that point.

“(Things) weren't good at all in the U.K. 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, in 2010 Sheeran relocated to Los Angeles, despite having only one music-industry contact there. Soon enough, though, Sheeran was playing open-mic nights and pretty much any other gig he could get. 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 2011, it shot to No. 2 on the iTunes chart.

That helped Sheeran land a deal with Atlantic Records. His debut CD, “+,” was preceded in early June with the U.K. release of the single “The A Team.” It entered the U.K. singles chart at No. 3, and paved the way for “+” to debut at No. 1 on the U.K. album chart.

The album has had a slower rise in the United States, but it eventually went top 5 and remains in the top 30 after more than 30 weeks on the Billboard magazine album chart.

Sheeran has become one of several folk-flavored artists to break through on the pop charts in recent months. But his sound stands apart from other acoustic-centric acts, partly for the way on some songs (“Grade 8,” “You Need Me, I Don't Need You” and “This City”) he mixes hip-hop-ish 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 says.

Sheeran, though, will present his songs in a more spare setting in concert, as he continues to perform solo acoustic.

“It's always just me and a guitar,” Sheeran says. “I don't have a band at all. I have a big light wall, which is 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.”

Alan Sculley is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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