New generation troubadour Ed Sheeran sold out his Antipodean concerts within hours. He talks to Paula Yeoman about his rise to the top.
Ed Sheeran knows he is an unlikely pop star.
The scruffy, ginger-headed Brit teetotaller makes no secret of his love for cats - his merchandise is emblazoned with paw prints - or his remarkable likeness to geeky Harry Potter star Rupert Grint.
In fact, cats and Grint feature in his last two music videos.
It's hardly heart-throb material yet that is exactly what the young singer-songwriter is.
It's all thanks to his breakthrough album + (or Plus), which made "Ed Sheeran" a more popular search word on Google than the weather in the UK last summer.
He's not doing too badly in these parts, either. All of Sheeran's recently released concert dates in Australia and New Zealand sold out in a matter of hours.
"I'm getting to live a dream," he says. "I'm playing in different cities and different countries. And I'm playing an album that I love. I'm ecstatic."
Sheeran - on tour in the United States with Irish band Snow Patrol - has just rushed off stage after a nightly duet to do this interview. He's worried that he has kept me waiting and reassures me he is in no hurry to rush off and drink beers back-stage with the lads.
At just 21, Sheeran is wise beyond his years. It is reflected in a heartfelt album that isn't confined by genre, blending the improbable mix of acoustic folk with grime and tackling a raft of social issues such as prostitution and drug use.
But as he points out, he's had years to hone his craft after releasing his first EP at 14 then leaving school and his Suffolk home at 16 to try his luck on the London pub circuit. "I could've either been broke and loving life playing [in bars] or earning minimum wage in a supermarket and getting my grades at school. For me, the route I took was the only possible way. It was more enjoyable than getting a regular 9 to 5 job."
Sheeran's fortunes changed when he bought a one-way ticket to America and started playing open mic poetry nights in Los Angeles.
He was spotted by Oscar-winning actor and singer Jamie Foxx, who took him under his wing and gave him access to his Hollywood mansion and his recording studio. It led to a record deal with a major label.
Then came the game changer, A Team, a desperately sad song about a young drug addict, inspired by a prostitute Sheeran met when visiting a homeless shelter in London. The track was an instant hit, soaring into the top 10 in 10 countries.
Had it been up to industry heavyweights earlier in his career, however, the song would never have been released. "The day after I wrote the song, I went into a record label that wanted to sign me for a singles deal and they chose a song called Let It Out. I said, 'how about this song?' and I played it to them and they were like, 'Hmmmm, it doesn't really have a chorus'," he laughs. "But hits are made by the public, not the record label."
That's certainly true in Sheeran's case. His album + has clocked up more digital sales worldwide than any other debut ever. But perhaps more telling in this tech-savvy day is his 1.9 million Twitter followers and 1.4 million Facebook fans.
And that's not just a Generation Z fan-base, says the singer. "I have people ranging from the age of 6 to the age of 91 coming to my gigs."
Sheeran's quirky music videos are also huge hits. And with a cute talking cat, like the one that appears in the current single Drunk, and Grint (who starred as Ron Weasley in Harry Potter) playing a very convincing Sheeran in Lego House, it's not difficult to see why.
"The videos are 100 per cent me. I have the utmost input," he says. "With Lego House, I had been wanting to get Rupert Grint in a video for years and you know the opportunity arose, so I took it."
For Sheeran, it's a bit of light-hearted fun to break up the serious side of his music, which has clearly resonated with people around the world. "Every single day on this Snow Patrol gig I've been meeting fans, and there is always a fan that comes up and goes 'This song changed my life'. You never really expect the songs you wrote in your bedroom to affect people's lives in that way."
Ed Sheeran will play one concert at Auckland's ASB Theatre on July 29. His album + is out now.
- Herald on SundayBy Paula Yeoman