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Thinking Out Loud: How Ed Sheeran Got Famous
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In Depth

Thinking Out Loud: How Ed Sheeran Got Famous

With his mix of folk-pop and rap-inspired rhymes, Ed Sheeran has rapidly become one of his generation’s most celebrated singer-songwriters.


Every once in a generation a fresh musical talent appears out of nowhere to reignite people’s passion for new music. With over 150 million records sold worldwide, the astonishing rise of singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran simply cannot be overlooked. In the years since the release of his debut album, + (2011), the flame-haired boy wonder has gone from a fresh-faced 20-year-old wowing audiences with his acoustic rap wizardry on a loop pedal, to a peerless tunesmith responsible for reinventing pop music for millennial audiences.

But how exactly did a ginger white kid from a sleepy Suffolk town manage to take over the world? What was it about his hair-raising fusion of folk and rap, which won over the hearts of a notoriously competitive urban scene? Where would pop music be today without Ed Sheeran’s keen ear for melody and his fondness for genre-hopping inventiveness? And lastly, in the face of all these odds stacked against him, how exactly did Ed Sheeran become famous?

Listen to the best of Ed Sheeran here

I was younger then: from sofa-surfer to songwriter

Born in Calderdale, West Yorkshire, on 17 February 1991, Ed Sheeran grew up raised on a musical diet of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, thanks to his bohemian-minded parents. Moving south to the Suffolk town of Framlingham as a child, the young Ed had begun singing from the age of four and immediately grew a fondness for Van Morrison’s group The Chieftains, whose Celtic-inspired folk introduced him to his Irish roots. By the age of 11, Ed fell in love with the guitar after seeing Eric Clapton play at the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. He raided his parents’ music collection and voraciously soaked up the sounds of Van Morrison, Elton John, The Beatles and John Martyn, but he also wasn’t afraid of more contemporary influences.

As it happened, a cousin had introduced Ed to hip-hop, so the hard-hitting lyrical rap of Eminem and the hustler swagger of Jay-Z mingled with this mélange of influences to reshape the young singer’s musical DNA, in addition to a trendy wave of nu-metal dominating the charts. “I was kind of brought up as a bit of a Kerrang! kid,” Ed remembers, “and when I was younger I loved bands like blink-182, Offspring and Linkin Park.” However, arguably the most formative musical moment for Ed was hearing Damien Rice play Cannonball for the first time. Aged 11, he even got to meet Rice after a gig, and Rice drew a picture for the young boy as a parting gift. Many years later, Ed would get Damien Rice’s sketch tattooed onto his arm, in tribute to how much the Irish songwriter had influenced his sound.

While at secondary school, Ed made no secret of his ambition to break into the music business. Despite being just 14, the teenage Ed set up a MySpace page, began composing his own songs and played open-mic nights around Suffolk. Inspired by Nizlopi’s hip-hop-inflected folk and KT Tunstall’s use of loop pedals, Ed mastered a tapping technique on guitar and began experimenting with beats on a Boss Loop Station. Before long, an emboldened Ed decided to drop out of school at 16 and seek his fortune in London, enrolling at a music college and sofa-surfing at various addresses while gigging across the city’s pubs.

At the time, London had a flourishing grime scene, full of street-smart MCs such as Dizzee Rascal and Wiley. Unafraid of playing to urban audiences and drum’n’bass crowds, Ed Sheeran took to the stage at underground joints like a musical troubadour. He impressed with his unique blend of folk and hip-hop, rapping at breakneck speed to the sound of his acoustic guitar. Ed maintains this wasn’t as unusual as it sounds. “Folk music tells stories and hip-hop tells stories,” he would later explain. “There’s just a beat that separates it.” Eventually, Ed’s popularity with grime fans led him to be invited to play You Need Me, I Don’t Need You, a song he wrote when he was just 15 years old, on the YouTube channel SBTV in 2010.

What was so remarkable about Ed’s live rendition of You Need Me, I Don’t Need You was that it contained a dazzling mash-up of 50 Cent’s In Da Club, Bristolian reggae deep cut Red, by Laid Blak, and impromptu Rastaman freestyling. For a white musician to do this so brazenly was utterly fearless for its time. Then an independent artist, Ed Sheeran’s game plan for scoring a record deal was to gig relentlessly and release five EPs covering an array of musical styles (indie, singer-songwriter, folk, live and a rap collaboration). By showcasing this wide range of genres, Ed grew an underground fanbase extraordinarily quickly, and his strategy paid off – he signed a deal with Asylum Records at the start of 2011. No one could have asked for a more promising start.

This is the start of something beautiful: on the plus side

Still acknowledging his hip-hop influences, Ed Sheeran was just as keen to make his debut album, +, a lo-fi, folk-pop record celebrating his love of Damien Rice and Nizlopi. Its breakout single, The A Team, was inspired by a girl called Angel he met at a homeless shelter, pairing a crestfallen melody with lyrics opining the perils of homelessness, prostitution and drug addiction. Despite such bleak subject matter, the song hit No.3 in the UK.

Even Ed himself was surprised at The A Team’s runaway success. “I’ve made a song about homeless prostitution that was getting played on A-list radio,” he proclaimed, somewhat baffled. Within two weeks of the single’s release, it had sold 200,000 copies and, almost overnight, the boy from Suffolk was a household name. The A Team would even go on to win Ed Sheeran an Ivor Novello award for Best Song, instantly proving him a songwriter of merit.

An impressive showcase for the prodigy, the songs on + were just as appealing for indie kids as they were for rap fans. Transcending genre divisions, Ed’s hyper-verbose lyricism doffed his cap to the debt he owed to East London’s street poets, backed by the tender sound of gently-plucked acoustic strings. In Lego House, Ed uses toy bricks as a metaphor for how long it takes to build a relationship, only to see it easily destroyed.

The song was yet another UK Top 5 hit for Ed, but there were many other gems on the album. Tearjerker Small Bump was written from the perspective of a father of a newborn baby, with the gut-punching conclusion that the child is stillborn. Similarly affecting is the Damien Rice homage Give Me Love, a song Ed praised for its “more fleshed-out sound”. All in all, + was an assuredly confident debut album.

Not shy of self-reflection, even Ed’s youthful abandon goes under his own microscope, with lyrics pondering his past failed relationships and alcohol-induced regret. The No.9 hit single Drunk was based on an incident during a support tour with UK rapper Example, during which Ed discovered Sunny D makes for a dangerous mixer. “If you put vodka in that, you really don’t taste the vodka,” Ed remembered. “The night kind of disappeared along with it.”

With over five million copies sold worldwide to date, it’s clear + was an exceptionally strong debut that most artists would envy. Not only did it introduce acoustic folk to listeners enamoured with rap, but the songs also flexed the ambitious 20-year-old’s songwriting capabilities. From its orange-tinted album cover – seemingly glorifying his gingerness – Ed Sheeran succeeded in making this brand of lyrically distinctive “folk-hop” uniquely his own. Clearly, it was a sign of things to come.

Take aim and reload: success multiplied

Thanks to winning two BRIT Awards and meeting Pharrell Williams at the Grammys, Ed Sheeran was starstruck in 2013 when the Neptunes producer handed him the backing track for what would become Sing, the lead single for his second album, ×. Crafting a song around Pharrell’s instrumental, it recalled the mid-2000s dance-pop of Justin Timberlake, with Ed’s choppy stabs of acoustic guitar and R&B-like falsetto elevating it to the next level. Unsurprisingly, Sing became Sheeran’s first UK No.1.

With an eye on the dancefloor, as opposed to the campfire, × found Sheeran as comfortable writing neo-soul funk with DJ Benny Blanco as he was creating indie-leaning songs with Snow Patrol’s Johnny McDaid. If you’re inclined to believe the tabloids, No.8 UK single Don’t was a bitter swipe at an ex-lover (allegedly about a love triangle Ed found himself in with old flame Ellie Goulding and One Direction’s Niall Horan).

Arguably the biggest smash was the soul-influenced Thinking Out Loud, co-written with songwriting partner Amy Wadge. Going on to sell 19 million digital copies, this became Ed’s second UK No.1 and won him a Grammy for Song Of The Year. With its dreamy depiction of an ageing couple in love, Thinking Out Loud is considered to be one of Ed’s most timeless love songs – a cross between Van Morrison and Marvin Gaye.

Taking × on a slightly more anxious turn was Bloodstream, a trippy, MDMA-inspired hum of paranoia based on a time when Ed got high in Ibiza and fell in love with a bean bag. Written with Chasing Cars songwriter Gary Lightbody and Snow Patrol guitarist Johnny McDaid, the song would later be reimagined by drum’n’bass producers Rudimental and peaked at No.2 in the UK.

Also written with Johnny McDaid was Photograph, a lighters-aloft, nostalgia-laced ballad which Sheeran described as “the backbone of the whole record”. What Ed didn’t anticipate, however, was that Thinking Out Loud would resonate far more strongly with audiences, despite both songs being similarly heartfelt and emotionally rousing. Hitting No.10 in the US, Photograph was written in response to Ed’s demanding touring schedule, describing how much he missed spending time with his girlfriend, fellow-songwriter Nina Nesbitt.

Having now sold a staggering nine million copies globally, × outsold his debut album and, with a total tally of six US hits to his name, Ed Sheeran was now a bona fide superstar across the Atlantic. Touring alongside country-pop sensation Taylor Swift helped expose him to new audiences, making Ed inarguably famous beyond all measure, while still managing to avoid “selling out” and compromising his folk-pop roots. Undoubtedly, Ed Sheeran was the real deal.

Follow my lead: divide and conquer

The singer-songwriter’s third album, ÷, not only saw Ed broaden the scope of his songwriting, but also broke the charts in the process. Upon its release, all 16 tracks on the deluxe version entered the UK Top 100, prompting the Official Charts Company to change their rules. The single leading the charge was the record-breaking Shape Of You, a Rihanna-esque dancehall-pop banger which, at 2.7 billion streams and counting, remains the most-streamed song ever.

Apparently written with Little Mix in mind, Shape Of You was a 180-degree turn into marimba-shaking R&B, and was markedly different from anything Ed Sheeran had written before. “It took me a month or two to convince me that it should even be on the album,” Ed would later say, calling it “the only song that I was like, ‘This isn’t me at all’”. Nevertheless, it sailed straight in at No.1 in both the UK and US.

Released alongside Shape Of You was the wistful single Castle On The Hill, on which a homesick Ed remembers roaming the Suffolk hills watching the sunset over Framlingham Castle. This was a far more recognisable folk-pop belter evoking childhood nostalgia, exposing Ed’s aspirations to create big stadium singalongs akin to U2, Coldplay and Snow Patrol. In his native country, while Shape Of You was immovable at No.1, Castle On The Hill wasn’t far behind at No.2.

Having spent most of his young career raving about Van Morrison, it was inevitable Ed’s love of roots music would surface. You can hear it on ÷’s Galway Girl and Nancy Mulligan, on which Sheeran enlists the backing of Irish folk group Beoga for a delightfully barnstorming hybrid of modern rapping and Celtic jigs. Elsewhere, bluesy slow-burner Dive is electrified by guest guitarist Angelo Mysterioso (otherwise known as Eric Clapton).

Meanwhile, those who doubted Ed Sheeran would ever create a better love song than Thinking Out Loud were immediately silenced by Perfect, a made-to-order wedding song for star-crossed lovers which again hit No.1 in the UK and US. It was inspired by Ed Sheeran and his new girlfriend, Cherry Seaborn, dancing barefoot on the grass at James Blunt’s villa in Ibiza to the sound of March Madness by rapper Future. The singer-songwriter and his new muse would marry in January 2019.

If it wasn’t possible to imagine Ed Sheeran’s star rising any higher, he surpassed all expectations with ÷. Ed’s trademark sound of folk-inflected pop melodies and hip-hop/R&B production values had grown stronger, more confident, with added colour thanks to his courage to break out the fiddles and tin whistle in recognition of his Irish heritage. The end result brought mass publicity to Ed’s eclectic songwriting range, as well as his genre-bending twist on contemporary pop.

Shifting over seven million copies globally, ÷ was Ed Sheeran’s commercial zenith, showing he was here to stay. As a pop-savvy artist at the very height of his powers, he had little left to prove. With a trilogy of albums under his belt, Ed Sheeran had inspired widespread adulation across the globe, from music fans transfixed by his irrefutable artistry. Perhaps aware of this, the boy wonder was finally ready to relax and have more fun on his next album.

The world of beautiful people: collaborations

Ever since Ed wrote Justin Bieber’s No.1 superhit Love Yourself in 2015, it seemed a duet would be on the cards at some point. It finally arrived with I Don’t Care, the lead single from Sheeran’s fourth album, on which he sings jauntily with Justin Bieber about being misfits on the LA party scene. As yet another UK No.1, this was the first of many guest appearances to feature on Ed Sheeran’s next album, No.6 Collaborations Project.

As Ed’s creative energies intermingled with the great and the good of pop, hip-hop and R&B, nothing seemed to hinder his eclectic impulses. Sheeran flirts with trap-pop with Travis Scott on Antisocial and channels 2001-era Dr Dre by rapping with Eminem and 50 Cent on Remember The Name. A bigger revelation came on Blow, a full-on 80s glam-metal rocker where Ed squares off against country star Chris Stapleton and retro-pop genius Bruno Mars.

Despite No.6 Collaborations Project containing all the shiny production styles we associate with commercial pop, Ed Sheeran was still trying to remind us he was an outsider. On one of the album’s other UK chart-toppers, Beautiful People, recorded with R&B star Khalid, Ed goes to pains to explain how he and his new bride, Cherry, just aren’t cut out for the lifestyles of the rich and famous (“We don’t fit in well ’cause we are just ourselves”).

Thankfully, Ed Sheeran’s inclinations towards folk-pop were not totally forgotten, coming to the fore on his duet with Yebba on Best Part Of Me. South Of The Border saw him rubbing shoulders with ex-Fifth Harmony singer Camila Cabello and Bronx-born rapper Cardi B, while Ed compères the transatlantic collision of Young Thug and J Hus on Feels. With each song, Ed holds his own as a pop visionary, bringing diverse talents together like a tastemaker.

Going back to repping his British origins, Ed Sheeran once again struck No.1 in his homeland with Take Me Back To London, a braggadocious battle with UK rap giant Stormzy. The music video featured a Sir Spyro remix in which Ed Sheeran races around in a Rolls Royce with the newly-crowned king of UK grime, engaging in many quintessentially English pursuits, such as drinking lager in pubs and supping cups of tea.

Though sales were less than those of Ed Sheeran’s previous albums, the sheer diversity of talent on No.6 Collaborations Project speaks for itself – one minute legendary bassist Pino Palladino backs up Best Part Of Me, the next you have EDM legend Skrillex on Way To Break My Heart. Such a star-studded roster was a testament to Ed’s cross-genre appeal. Following the album’s release, however, Ed Sheeran announced he was going on hiatus in order to become a father. It was the end of an era.

To the next generation, inspiration’s allowed: Ed Sheeran’s legacy

As one of the most-streamed male artists of all-time, Ed Sheeran has achieved the unthinkable. Equally at home courting grime MCs with his rapid-fire wordplay as he is keeping his indie-folk credibility aflame with his gentle lo-fi guitar-playing, nobody can accuse him of lacking versatility. With a style flitting from soulful laments to high-speed vocal acrobatics, folksy lovestruck balladry and amorous rump-shakers, it could be argued that no pop act has had this much crossover appeal since the glory days of Michael Jackson.

Hopping from genre to genre yet still adhering to the accessible production values of modern popular music, Ed Sheeran has won countless awards and already inspired a fanbase of millions thanks to his affable, down-to-earth personality and earnest melodicism. His journey to fame may not have been easy nor predictable, but, thanks to his commitment to hard work, authenticity and musical integrity, no one else deserves to be regarded as one of Britain’s best-loved songwriters more than him.

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