Although he's quickly on his way to becoming a household name, British singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran had been laboring in semi-obscurity until quite recently. When his initial attempts at getting a record deal faltered, Sheeran decided to simply do everything himself. He gained a cult following by booking his own tours and releasing his own music, at one point putting out five EPs in a single year.
However, Sheeran's debut album, +, and its Grammy-nominated breakout hit "The A Team," have ensured that the tours spent sleeping on couches will soon be far behind him. Sheeran says the song's success caught him by surprise, as he thinks its tale of drug addiction — inspired by a woman he'd met in a homeless shelter — is darker than your average radio hit.
"I'm still surprised that people on the radio are playing it," Sheeran tells NPR's David Greene. "I'm not going to really explain the whole depth of it until it kind of goes off radio, though, because I feel like if I were to say what the words actually meant, people might stop playing it."
Sheeran has also collaborated with other young singers; for example, he'd originally written the song "Little Things" for himself, but it's now become a hit for the British boy band One Direction.
It was his appearance on Taylor Swift's hugely successful 2012 album Red that really brought Sheeran to a larger audience. As well as co-writing the song "Everything Has Changed" with Swift, Sheeran is slated to open for the pop star on her 2013 U.S. tour.
"We're actually relatively similar," he says of himself and Swift. "Like, we're both the same age, for one. We both came up the same way. Granted, she had a lot more success earlier on than I did, but it was from the same kind of hectic touring schedule and gigs. And she writes all her own songs herself; I do the same thing."
Sheeran says he's happy with the album and its reception in the U.S., even though it initially met with mixed reactions from critics.
"There's no key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everyone," Sheeran says. "So my kind of thing is, I'm going to keep doing what I want to do. I'm not going to necessarily make something because the critics on the last album said that it wasn't, you know, what they thought it should be. So, should I make an album that they want, or should I just kind of do what I want to do and be happy with it? I know that's quite a selfish way to look at things, but it often works out."
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Another musician is staging a British invasion. Singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran is 21 years old, already a household name in the U.K. and set to go on tour with American country pop star Taylor Swift this year. His debut studio album, "Plus," has topped charts around the world.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A TEAM")
ED SHEERAN: (Singing) They say she's in class A Team, stuck in her daydream, been this way since 18. But lately, her face seems slowly sunk-in, wasting...
GREENE: This is the song, "A Team," which just received a Grammy nomination for song of the year. Fans recognize Sheeran with his messy red hair and arm plastered with tattoos. The musician spent years couch surfing before leaping to stardom last year. Sheeran talked about managing his success and his new music when he dropped by our studios. Ed Sheeran, thank you for coming in and chatting with us.
SHEERAN: Thank you for having me.
GREENE: This song, "A Team," that really has put you on the map here in the U.S....
SHEERAN: Thank you.
GREENE: ...it's a dark song.
SHEERAN: Yeah. I'm still surprised that people on radio are playing it. I'm not going to really explain the kind of whole depth of it until it kind of goes off radio, though, because I feel like if I was to say what the words actually meant, people might stop playing it.
GREENE: You worry about that.
SHEERAN: Yeah, yeah. It got taken off a station down south. They were spinning it on Power, and then they found out what it was about and then took it off. I mean, I'm very open with saying that it was written about, you know, a woman I met at a homeless shelter. But the specific lyrics in the song, the people haven't picked up on.
GREENE: We can say it's - I mean, it's a drug-addiction thing.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A TEAM")
GREENE: As a songwriter, is that frustrating in some way, that you wrote this song? It came from a very, you know, a deep place, but you kind of - for it to be successful, you don't necessarily want people to know exactly what it's about?
SHEERAN: No. I'd like - I know there a lot of songwriters like that, and they, you know - musicians can get really kind of hell-bent on being cool and keeping their creativity and stuff. But once you've made a song and you put it out there, you don't own it anymore. The public own it. It's their song. It might be their song that they wake up to, or their song they have a shower to, or their song that they drive home to or their song they cry to, scream to, have babies to, have weddings to - like, it isn't your song anymore. I remember in school, when we were studying poetry and we had to write our opinion on what a poem meant, and I'm sure that the poet back in the day might have been like, well, actually, no, it means this.
GREENE: Not what I was saying.
SHEERAN: Yeah, yeah.
GREENE: Some of the songs on "Plus" were inspired, as I understand it, from a wicked girlfriend - and that's using your word. I mean, is this wicked in a good way? Is it wicked...
SHEERAN: Yeah. Wicked, in England, means like bitching, you know, like...
GREENE: Wicked good.
SHEERAN: Wicked good. So, yeah. She was just a very, very good girlfriend and spawned a lot of songs. There was this song I wrote for a boy band called One Direction, as well, called "Little Things," which pretty much sums her up, as well.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE THINGS")
GREENE: And that was a song that you wrote for One Direction.
SHEERAN: Well, actually, I wrote it for myself, but they ended up recording it and releasing it. Yeah.
GREENE: So your fans ecstatic about "Plus," the album, and your music. The critics have been a little more mixed. How have you kind of managed that?
SHEERAN: When it first happened, like, I had never had a bad review before. I'd gone through the past four years, you know, sleeping on sofas, but being kind of the golden boy within the eyes of the people around me. So when it first came out and I thought, all right, this is my album. This is what I put everything into. And when it came out and I got all those bad reviews, of course it hurt. Yeah, it did hurt. But the success, for one, kind of overshadowed it. Like, it did very, very well commercially. And then I started winning all these critically acclaimed awards that, you know, you wouldn't win if you were that kind of person. Like, I can't read a bad review on my album now and feel that it's true, because it's - commercially, it's doing well, and critically within the - that kind of thing, I'm happy.
GREENE: Your tattoos have made news.
GREENE: Tell me about them. How many do you have? I've got...
GREENE: Eighty-seven tattoos?
SHEERAN: Eighty-seven tattoos.
GREENE: Wow. So, I'm looking at your left arm there. What am I seeing?
SHEERAN: They're all from different places around the world. So, I've got Canada, L.A., San Francisco.
GREENE: These are flags from different places?
SHEERAN: No, no. Like, there's a cat there. There's a maple leaf.
GREENE: And you sometimes get a new tattoo when you're celebrating something, like the success of an album?
SHEERAN: Yeah. Well, I've got - when I had song that I wrote with Taylor Swift on her record, and then she invited me on her tour, as well, and so I've got the name of the album tattooed there: "Red."
GREENE: And "Star Wars" toys? You pick those up, too, when something goes well?
SHEERAN: Yeah. I've been thinking about this, as well, because, like, I spend a lot of time in toy shops. And, obviously, as a 21-year-old lad, that's a bit odd. But I just think, like, you know, when you're little, you get the very minimum, you know, small toy. And you always go, I want the big box one that the kind of not-more-fortunate kids, but the spoiled kids would get. And not having that puts you in a very, very good place, and you remain kind of grounded and humble, because you aren't given everything on a plate. But now I have a bit more money, I guess. I want the big toy.
GREENE: So this is a younger Ed Sheeran kind of who didn't get the "Star Wars" toys just back in the day.
GREENE: And saying, like, now, I can get it. I deserve them.
SHEERAN: Yeah, pretty much. Like, with Lego, I was a massive fan of Lego when I was younger, and I'd always get the little, small boxes. And I'd always go, oh, I really want the Death Star. Doesn't the Death Star look great? But it's, like, $600 or something like that. You know, so it's a bit ridiculous to get, yeah, for, like, a seven-year-old kid. You can't - like, who's going to make a 2,000-piece Death Star? And the other day, I just got my first place, and I was going to go stay there for a week. And I was, like, I need something to do, right? I'm going to get the Death Star. Walked in, bought Death Star, went home, made it. It was awesome.
GREENE: You've got the Death Star.
SHEERAN: Got the Death Star.
GREENE: So, this is the next sign of success, right?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEGO HOUSE")
GREENE: You're so young. And if we talk about what's next, I mean, I guess there are all sorts of traps that, you know, young artists can fall into trying to, you know, do something different. What is your plan? What is your strategy for, you know, the next album?
SHEERAN: If I can put on my album in a car or on my headphones and listen to the whole thing and love it, that's what I'm going to be happy putting out there. I'm not going to necessarily make something because the critics on the last album said that it wasn't, you know, what they thought it should be. So, should I make an album that they want, or should I just kind of do what I want to do and be happy with it? I know that's quite a selfish way to look at things, but it often works out.
GREENE: Singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran, thanks so much for joining us.
SHEERAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.