By Jonathan Takiff
A ginger-haired, scruffy and increasingly tattooed “misfit” from Britain, Ed Sheeran plays guitar, beatboxes and, occasionally, fiddles. He also writes and winsomely sings hip-hop-inflected folk confessionals that enthrall young’uns – and their parents, too.
And while clearly connected to the keep-it-real troubadour continuum that stretches, as he said, from “Bob Dylan and Van Morrison to Damien Rice and Jason Mraz,” there’s never been a phenomenon quite like him.
Even in their brightest superstar moments, a Dylan (or James Taylor, Cat Stevens, John Denver or Jackson Browne) could never do what Sheeran now does _ fill an entire arena with music, and fans, all by his lonesome.
Yes, this ever-gracious guy did accept a bit of musical assistance from Welcome America house band the Roots when he headlined the July Fourth extravaganza in Philadelphia this summer.
“It was the biggest show I’ve ever done in the U.S,” he shared in a recent chat, a day after his first win at the MTV Video Music Awards.
The Roots and their vocal chorus were especially helpful in boosting the football stadium sing-along nature of Sheeran’s hit anthem “Sing.” You know, the tune with the hearty, wobbly “wa-ah-ah-ah-oh-oh-oh-oh” hook suggested by song collaborator Pharrell Williams. And so was that video, co-starring a cute Sheeran puppet, which won the guy his MTV honor.
But when Sheeran dips into other gems like “The A Team,” “One,” “I’m a Mess” and the notorious “Don’t” from his hit albums “+” and “X,” the guy gets by with just a bunch of three-quarter-size (mostly Martin) guitars and some foot-pedal-triggered machinery – the latter to lay down those snappy beatbox grooves and allow Ed to build up, quite impressively, looped backing vocals and guitar riffage.
“I am creating a bigger sound than you’ve heard from me in the past,” Sheeran mock-protested with a laugh to our “Got a band yet?” question.
“I’ve upped the arsenal, got four times the gear onstage. So it’s a bigger ‘band,’ if you will, that I’m traveling with. And with all that stuff at the ready, I’m rarely left in the lurch from equipment failure.
Surviving on his own has been instinctual and mandatory since the now 23-year-old bravely left home (Framingham, England) at age 16 to make his way as a musician in London. Plenty of dues paying followed. Busking on street corners. Passing the hat at bars throughout the United Kingdom. Learning what it takes in the 21st century to attract a crowd – and when it’s time to move on.
“Reason to travel light with a small guitar,” he shared. But in truth, those smaller-scale instruments also fit his small frame and understated nature.
Sheeran’s friend and sometimes opening act Michael Rosenberg (better known as Passenger) says that “for a long spell, before things turned around, even the most legendary, ‘folk-centric’ British pubs were not friendly to guys like Ed and me. The times had changed, tastes had changed. A DJ would pack the house. We could only bring in 20 people.”
Things started turning around after Sheeran sold enough homemade CDs to buy a plane ticket to L.A., where he got a break performing on Jamie Foxx’s satellite radio channel and hanging out at the actor/comedian’s house.
Back in Britain, he picked up support from his now-manager Stuart Camp, a colleague of Elton John’s who would also famously advise and endorse Sheeran’s artistry.
The buzz would also build after Sheeran supplied tunes to red-hot boy band One Direction.
Brits embraced Sheeran in full measure when his first mainstream-label album came out. “+” (pronounced “plus”) became “the most illegally downloaded record in England,” he proudly proclaimed in a radio interview. “And worldwide, it’s been downloaded 43 million times. It feels amazing to know I’m on so many people’s iPods.”
Then the floodgates opened here, especially after Sheeran won stateside tour slots opening for Snow Patrol, and for Taylor Swift on her “Red” tour.
She and he got along famously and even wrote and recorded some songs together (at least one while bouncing on her trampoline) that were supposed to wind up on a deluxe edition of “Red.”
They “will see the light of day eventually,” he said.
Also in Sheeran’s future, he hinted, is another in a series of folk-meets-hip-hop collaborations, this time with the Game, maybe some music recorded with Usher and more movie soundtrack placements.
“But I really shouldn’t talk about what’s coming up,” he demurred. “There’s the current album to promote. And it’s up to the people who asked me to collaborate to announce their timing.”
Yeah, it seems that Sheeran has been coached on working the career side of his life a bit more professionally.