Midway through Ed Sheeran’s set, an amazing thing happened.
With a lopsided smile and a charming accent, he somehow managed to get the 10,000-plus people crammed into The Arena at Gwinnett Center to silence their chatter, their random squealing of his name and even, for a few minutes, disregard their smartphones.
Then, at this show last month – the Star 94 Jingle Jam concert which Sheeran headlined – something even more incredible happened.
Sheeran wasn’t silencing the crowd to sing his hit ballad, “The A Team,” or even to do “Little Things,” the swoony tune he gave to his pals in One Direction or “Everything Has Changed,” the song he wrote with Taylor Swift and duets with on her current album, “Red.”
No, the ginger-headed Brit wanted to work his magic by creating loops of his voice and percussion sounds with his mouth to play as the backdrop to a traditional folk song, “The Wayfaring Stranger.”
And the audience was rapt.
“I’ve only just perfected being able to tell an audience to shut up,” Sheeran said with a laugh. “I never had the right before. When you’re opening for other acts, as I did for so long, your job is to entertain. But since I’m going to do more headlining shows and people are spending $28 to see me, I know they’re there to listen to music.”
When it’s mentioned how impressive it was that the audience obeyed, Sheeran softly chuckled again.
“It isn’t always. I once had someone in the front row plug in their iPod while I was performing.”
Sheeran will have a few opportunities this year in Atlanta to try to captivate more audiences. He plays a sold-out show at The Tabernacle Jan. 21, and then returns April 18-19 to Philips Arena as the opening act on Swift’s tour.
And, as always (well, except for two shows in his life), it will just be him onstage with his guitar and a looping pedal and microphone, a layering technique he learned seven years ago, at age 14, from Irish musician Gary Dunne.
On this day, Sheeran is calling from Ireland, where he was set to perform that evening with plenty of his family in attendance. Though raised in Framlingham, England, Sheeran’s paternal grandparents were Irish.
No surprise, then, that his debut album, “+,” has done tremendous business in the U.K., going five-times platinum and spawning a quartet of Top 10 hits. Sheeran also performed at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee concert last year and at the closing ceremony of the London Olympics, offering a striking rendition of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” with Nick Mason and Mike Rutherford.
At only 21, it would appear Sheeran arrived at his fame relatively quickly.
But the unlikely heartthrob with the shock of red hair, forearms decorated with colorful tattoos and rumpled college student attire – he was just voted British GQ’s Worst Dressed Man of 2012 – has been honing his musical skills in pubs and pockets of Nowheresville since 2005, releasing 11 digital EPs in the time span before the 2011 arrival of “+” broke him.
The ballad that launched Sheeran in the U.S., “The A Team,” is up for a song of the year Grammy next month, an honor the young singer-songwriter accepts with humility.
“It’s huge. There was only one thing left on my check list and it was a nomination. But I never expected to get song of the year. I feel like I’ve established myself in the U.K. and Australia, but to sit among truly great artists in America…,” he said. “I personally think the Grammys are a bigger thing among British music people than American music people. When Adele won all of hers last year, it was mental.”
Though he still lives in the U.K., Sheeran plans to spend most of this year in Tennessee while touring with Swift and working on his second album on days off from the road. He says it’s ready to go, but now with the extra time, he can “add more songs and cherry pick.”
“I want to make sure the caliber of the songs is such a high quality that even if I don’t get the right radio support, the album can stand on its own,” he said.
One person Sheeran has received plenty of support from is Elton John, who early on became smitten with Sheeran’s work and has established himself as a mentor to the upstart musician.
“There’s no one kind of bigger,” Sheeran said. “He tells me he sees a lot of his early self in me and since he’s already done it, he knew the pitfalls. It’s been humbling to see him bring me up every time he does an interview. Literally, I got a call from him three times in one week when my new song was getting more adds at radio. He just got very excited about it. That’s very cool.”
By Melissa Ruggieri, The Music Scene