TORONTO – At the recent Billboard Music Awards, Ed Sheeran strummed his tender ballad “Lego House” on a candlelit stage wearing a plain black T-shirt, then went back to his seat in the audience next to buds Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez. Later, he tweeted: “Dunno if I fit in tonight but I enjoyed it, now to drink…”
It’s a familiar feeling for the 22-year-old British breakout, who moved to the U.S. last year to further his career in North America after striking it big in the U.K. with the folk-hop debut “+” and, despite the major opportunities arriving with furious frequency on his doorstep, still isn’t used to such glitzy events.
“I’m not Hollywood in the slightest,” the engaging Sheeran said in a telephone interview this week. “I come from a very small town in England (Halifax), growing up watching these sort of events on TV, and then you find yourself at these events. I don’t really dress smart ever. And I don’t really wear designer clothes. So I’m instantly a bit like: Oh (crap), I really should have dressed up for this.”
Still, in his tourmate and friend Swift, he has a good guide to his newly surreal life.
“Taylor sat me next to her and Selena Gomez and they both have the same kind of mind state when it comes to those award shows — it’s either have fun with your friends or don’t go.
“I enjoyed it. I just felt there was a lot of ego in the room. And I’ve never been a fan of ego. I don’t think it’s necessary.”
It will likely be a different experience at this weekend’s fan-fuelled MuchMusic Video Awards, which will again take over downtown Toronto with a streetside bash this Sunday featuring an appearance by Swift and performances from Sheeran, Demi Lovato and Avril Lavigne — a favourite of Sheeran’s.
“I think everyone from my generation was in love with Avril Lavigne,” he laughed. “So that’ll be nice to see her play.”
He’s on similarly good terms with South Korean rapper Psy, who’s co-hosting the show and planning on performing his meme smash “Gangnam Style” and its follow-up, “Gentleman.” Psy has already enthused on the prospect of catching up with Sheeran in Toronto after he says the two drank together in Las Vegas and London, and Sheeran cheerfully returned the praise.
“He’s a really, really nice guy — he can definitely handle his drink,” he said, noting that hanging out with Psy is “kind of everything you’d hope it to be.”
“He’s a very big personality.”
By contrast, Sheeran — with sleeves of tattoos and ginger hair splayed in all directions at once — is soft-spoken and self-effacing. Part of that might come from the way in which he quietly and gradually built his following in North America.
“+” — blending winsome acoustic singer/songwriter pop with a skittering hip-hop influence — was released in the U.K. in summer 2011 and was an instant smash, eventually reaching platinum status six times over and doing so at a faster pace than any U.K. artist at the time other than Adele.
He moved Stateside in January 2012 and he’s spent the vast majority of his time there since, a “scary (prospect) because you go from hero to zero instantly,” he notes. With virtually no profile in North America despite his exploding success overseas, Sheeran built an audience the same way he did at home — with patient, steady gigging. His debut was eventually released on this continent a year ago, since being certified platinum in Canada and the U.S.
He also performed his hit “The A Team” — written about a crack-addicted prostitute and inspired by a visit Sheeran undertook to a homeless shelter — with Elton John at February’s Grammy Awards, where the tuneful track was up for song of the year. Since March, he’s been opening for Swift on a massive tour that hits Toronto for two dates at the cavernous Rogers Centre this weekend before winding through Winnipeg, Edmonton and Vancouver later this month.
In the meantime, he’s been hard at work on his sophomore record — though, he notes with some astonishment, that hard work has actually been coming quite easily to him.
“They’re writing and recording themselves,” he says of his new songs. “It’s mad.”
He wrote most of his debut when he was 17 years old and recorded it for a mere $20,000, so plenty has changed between records. But he says the difference in sound he’s noticed has more to do with his evolving taste in music than personal growth.
“It’s not like I’ve kind of grown up or evolved — you know how artists say (BS) stories about how they’ve grown up with their fans or whatever — I’m just into a lot of different music,” he said. “My first record was written at a time where I was very influenced by certain acoustic singer/songwriters, and this record has been very influenced by me listening to a lot of hip hop and acoustic singer/songwriters. So it’s a bit of both.
“There’s huge ballads on there that could fill a stadium and then there’s songs that would be in a really dingy underground bar blasting out,” added Sheeran, who’s written songs for Swift and One Direction.
He says he’s finished about 14 songs, four of which are ballads and the rest of which skew more toward the hip-hop inflected sound he’s referenced. That influence was always the most interesting part of Sheeran’s melodic soft-rock, and in pulling it closer to the surface he’s noticed an unlikely comparison point for his new tunes.
“I’ll probably get shot for saying this,” he says with typical self-awareness, “but it’s more in the vein of a Lauryn Hill, ‘Miseducation (of Lauryn Hill)’ kind of vibe.”
Lest anyone think he’s comparing his nascent sophomore album with a broadly beloved all-time classic, he quickly clarifies.
“But I mean, like, don’t expect that kind of record, because that is a record you can’t really recreate,” he said. “But it’s that kind of vibe.”
As quickly as his life has changed and his fanbase has grown, Sheeran has yet to find himself fixed in the collective crosshairs of the paparazzi on a day-to-day basis.
And the songwriter, who has more than 6.6 million Twitter followers, isn’t sure the tabloids will take an interest anytime soon.
“I always expected it to happen and then it never did,” he said. “I think it’s because I’ve never done anything interesting. Like I’ve never been caught taking cocaine or having sex with a stripper, or, you know, things that end up ruining people in the press — I haven’t done these things. I haven’t dated a famous person. I’m not that scandalous. I basically I do my job and I do it well and that’s kind of it.”
Is he happy to have avoided the attention?
“I wouldn’t mind dating a celebrity — that would be quite fun. You never know,” he says with a laugh. “As far as drugs and strippers and all of that sort of stuff, I’m a professional and I worked quite hard to get where I am. And now I’m here, I think it would be silly to let that slip. So I’m going to always turn up on time, I’m going to always do my job, and I don’t think the press can knock me on that.
“But if I ever end up bagging a hottie, then yeah, we’ll see.”