There’s no substitute for talent. There really isn’t. If you doubt that, take a look at Ed Sheeran.
With that thatch of red hair, and those muscular arms decorated with multitudinous tattoos, at first glance you might mistake him for a farm labourer who has just left his tractor in a field.
But looks can deceive. At the moment he’s the most popular singer/songwriter in the nation, and deservedly so.
But, not for him the phony quiffed and polished image of many manufactured rock stars, with their strategically ripped five hundred dollar jeans and Photo-shopped complexions. A dark t-short and slacks is all he needs. With his abilities he doesn’t need any phony gloss.
Instead he actually celebrates his very ordinariness, even having just had a number one hit with a song about going back to see the old mates he grew up with in his little Suffolk town.
It’s called Castle On A Hill, and it’s all about the places and people who made him what he is, and what happened to some of them. It’s autobiographical , but it could be about you and your children, or everyone one of us, as we step forward into the future, with one eye looking back over our shoulders. They love it at Radio 2. You may have noticed.
But, then, Ed Sheeran, still only 26, is currently loved everywhere. Not content with having his first three albums currently in the top five best sellers in the country, nine of the top ten singles, all taken from his number one album, are by him, too.
As it happens, that’s due to a crazy new system where songs streamed digitally to headphones and computers and now listed as separate hits in the charts. If it had been possible to count the popularity of separate album tracks in the days of Oasis, Fleetwood Mac and the Beatles, they, too, would have overwhelmed with numerous top ten hits.
But that’s just an anomaly in the current counting. It isn’t Ed Sheeran’s fault, and it in no way diminishes his huge significance in today’s popular music - and not only in Britain. Two Grammies for song-writing as well as an Ivor Novello award are testament to that, while last week his new album, Divide, created a new record for the fasting selling album by a solo male singer in the UK . Nearly 700,000 copies were sold, with only albums by Adele and Oasis doing better in their first week.
Undoubtedly , he is phenomenally successful, having also written a hit song for Justin Bieber, and One Direction and helped Taylor Swift with another.
But does his very success, and his bloke-ish public image, tell us something bigger about changes in music and in those who listen to music?
You would have to say, that like Adele before him, he’s very different from the ‘construct-a star’ image of many recent hit makers. No manager groomed him for stardom. He did it on his own, from starting out in the little town of Framlingham in Suffok, where his father is a lecturer and his mother a jewellery designer. His brother is a composer.
It all sounds pretty middle class, but with music always important in the family, he was given a guitar at the age four and began writing songs while at school. By the time he was thirteen he had written and privately recorded his first album. It was called Spinning Man. One song on it went, ‘I am a typical, average teen, if you know what I mean,’ borrowing half a line from Lennon and McCartney.
But although most of the songs were about the break-up of a first love, actually he wasn’t a typical teenager at all. Most boys of that age don’t write, play, sing and record their songs, then burn the CDs himself and design the covers for them.
The intent was already clearly there and by the time he was seventeen he was turning up with his guitar wherever he thought he might be able to sing and be noticed, always writing and privately recording and putting videos of himself on YouTube. He didn’t have the best voice in the world, singing at the top of his range, and he stammered when he spoke, though not when he sang, but his lyrics spoke to his own age group – songs of young love and friendships, everyday matters.
Little by little the ambition paid off. A company owned by Elton John began to manage him, and, finally, having been given a recording contract, he went on BBC-1’s Later…With Jools Holland one Friday night in 2011. The public reaction was immediate.
He was off and running - the most ordinary looking bloke in the world, writing and singing, in The A-Team, a seriously grown up song about a prostitute on heroin. It sold nearly a million copies around the world, with the lyrics painting, in a dozen or so sharp images, the despair in the girl’s life.
Then came Glastonbury, after which success became a roller coaster. More hits followed. There was You Need Me, I Don’t Need You, Sing and Thinking Out Loud.
But somehow he’s never seemed to change. His address book carries some of the most famous names in music, not to forget many not in pop, Bill Clinton, Wayne Rooney, the Beckhams and Princess Beatrice , who allegedly managed to badly cut is face with a sword while pretending to knight James Blunt. He had to go to the hospital and have some stitches put in, but…such japes he has with such famous people!
Some rock stars we’ve known might have been off their heads on drugs by this time in similar careers and finding themselves lionised wherever they went. But not Ed Sheeran, though he does, it seems, enjoy a drink like any other country-bred boy.
Then suddenly after an astonishing five years of success and right at what many in the business might have thought was his peak, he disappeared from public view and travelled the world for six months , often unrecognised, with his partner, Cherry Seaborn. He’d first met her at school in Suuffolk. She’s now a financial adviser.
Dropping out was a risk to his career that many other music stars, Adele excluded, might not have dared risk. The public is fickle. They can forget you in a year, he was probably warned. But he needed time to recharge .
He’s come back this year stronger than ever, and, as we can see, the public absolutely haven’t forgotten.
He is clearly a brilliant constructor of songs, and he and the management team behind him, including Elton John, understand very well the changing digital methods of promoting and selling music around the world. But they can only sell what the public want to buy.
And for some reason Ed Sheeran, who went back to Suffolk and bought himself a farm as soon as he had any real money, knows what that is. He doesn’t go on a glittering stage and sing with fake emotion, over the top emotions. His lyrics tap into the everyday manners and dreams of romance in a modern setting.
For the last couple of decades glossy, industrially constructed pop has ruled, in which the image and the beat have been supreme, when women singers have been over-sexualised, and when song lyrics have often been assenine.
There is nothing assenine about Ed Sheeran’s lyrics. They’re clever, little slices of life as we all know it. We see ourselves in them, as we do in some of Adele’s songs.
It might be too early to say, but is it possible that Ed Sheeran, the unlikely looking, jokey, self- deprecating young man from Suffolk, is leading the way back to a more literate time in popular music? A time when lyrics meant something, and weren’t just something for the singer to parrot while looking sexy or cute in a YouTube video.
I’d like to think so.