LOS ANGELES — Ed Sheeran had plenty to be proud of recently at the Grammy Awards, where the English singer-songwriter’s “The A Team” was nominated for song of the year. Not only that, but Sheeran performed the tune — a sympathetic ballad about a troubled woman who turns to drugs and prostitution — on the telecast as an intergenerational duet with Elton John.
Reflecting on the experience the day after the ceremony, however, Sheeran seemed less than satisfied. The problem wasn’t that he’d lost the award to “We Are Young” by Fun., but that he’d attended Justin Timberlake’s late-night post-Grammy concert at the Hollywood Palladium.
“It just made me want to quit,” he said with a laugh as he hung out backstage before an appearance on Conan O’Brien’s show. “There’s no one better than (Timberlake) at anything. He’s like a quadruple threat.”
How many threats does Sheeran consider himself? The 21-year-old redhead, characteristically low-key in jeans and a maroon hoodie, shrugged and said, “One-half?”
That’s a lowball figure. On his major-label debut, “+,” Sheeran exercises a handsome choir-boy voice over tidy acoustic arrangements honed by the years spent gigging around London from the age of 16. (“I didn’t do too well at school,” he acknowledged.) There’s an economy to cuts like “This” and his current single, “Lego House,” that reflects his experience working for — and holding — the attention of an audience.
Yet Sheeran also makes for a surprisingly convincing rapper, a skill he developed in part through listening to Eminem.
“I was given one of his albums when I was 9 by my uncle and just became a massive, massive fan,” he said, and indeed you can hear some of Eminem’s rapid-fire flow (if not his macabre sense of humor) in “U.N.I.,” where Sheeran ponders a broken relationship over a dreamy folk-rap groove: “Our last kiss, it was perfect, we were nervous on the surface / And I’m always saying everyday that it was worth it.”
Still, it’s “The A Team,” with its winsome melody and bare-bones presentation, that’s given Sheeran a foothold in the U.S. — even if those qualities fit uneasily on Top 40 radio.
“A lot of production today is really full and in your face,” said Jake Gosling, who produced “+.” “We tried to take it the other way with Ed’s album — like, ‘Let’s not have any hi-hat (cymbal).’”
John Ivey, program director at L.A.’s influential KIIS-FM, said that to his ears the ballad initially sounded like it belonged on the adult-contemporary format. But after watching young people vehemently sing along with Sheeran in concert, Ivey eventually added “The A Team” to KIIS, where it spins alongside dance-oriented tracks by the likes of will.i.am and Swedish House Mafia.
“He has that wide appeal for adults and kids,” Ivey said. “I can’t think of anyone quite like him.”
Neither can Taylor Swift: Last year the pop-country superstar recruited Sheeran to co-write and sing with her on “Everything Has Changed,” a slow-rolling love song from her triple-platinum album “Red.” He’s also written for the pop group One Direction, whose Louis Tomlinson called Sheeran “one of the best British lyricists of our generation.” And starting next month he’ll be the opening act on Swift’s North American arena tour.
“Ed’s harmonies are so unlike anyone else’s, and the vocal parts he thinks of are so beautiful,” Swift said in an email. “I think the fact that we became immediate friends brought something to our writing. There was something effortless about how we got along, and something effortless about how we collaborate.”
Sheeran is more deliberate regarding his career, which included an early sojourn in L.A. in 2010 after he’d maxed out what he called “the first level” of London venues. “This is the place where people come to find their dreams,” he said matter-of-factly. “I thought there’d be an opportunity for me.”
He didn’t hit it big right away, Sheeran said, though he did make connections (including an unlikely friendship with Jamie Foxx) and began building the confidence he’d draw upon later when performing for enormous crowds at Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee concert and at the closing ceremony of last summer’s London Olympics.
His ambition for 2013 is straightforward. “I want this market,” he said of America. “I came here a couple of weeks ago, in January, and I’m here till December — 12 months.” At the moment he’s hunting for a place to live in Nashville, where he plans to work on the follow-up to “+.” And if he’s intimidated by the prospect of breaking a country several times the size of the United Kingdom — a country that’s home to Justin Timberlake, no less — he doesn’t show it.
“I think there’s no point in making the decision to get into this industry if you’re not going to work harder than everyone else,” Sheeran said. “What’s the point in doing it? You can say, ‘I only make my music to make my music.’ But once the music’s made, what are you doing it for?” He shrugged again. “I’ve made the music, I’m happy with it, and now I want success.”