The method to Ed Sheeran's success


After confounding expectations and dropping off the radar for a year, the English singer-songwriter is back with a new album and two songs topping the charts.

CBS News

Singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran is up for two Grammys tonight. The small English town where he was born is still very much in his thoughts, his music ... and even his diet, as our Mark Phillips discovered (This report was originally broadcast on March 5, 2017):

Ed Sheeran plays "Castle on the Hill" 03:42

To hear Ed Sheeran talk about the place he grew up, you wonder why he ever left. And then you realize, in a way, he never did.

As they approached one establishment, Phillips asked, "What's special about this place?"

"It's the best fish and chips in England," Sheeran replied. 

And is he a vinegar guy, or a no-vinegar guy? "Vinegar and salt, yeah. I don't know why you'd have fish and chips without it!"

Ed SHeeran and Mark P CBS News

Sheeran will be 27 next month, and is not just the hottest thing in the pop music business -- he seems to have reinvented it.

"Shape of You" -- the lead single from his latest album, debuted at No. 1 on the charts, and stayed there for a remarkable 12 weeks. It remained in the Top 10 for 33 consecutive weeks, the longest-ever run in Billboard's 59-year history.

And the music video for "Shape of You" has been streamed three billion times.  

Ed Sheeran - Shape of You [Official Video] by Ed Sheeran on YouTube

When Sheeran released two single tracks for that album instead of the usual one, people said he was crazy, that they'd fight each other. But he was right. Both songs shot into the Top 10 like a bullet -- "Shape of You" at No. 1, and "Castle on the Hill" at No. 6. 

Sheeran is the only artist in history to have two singles simultaneously debut in the Top 10. 

Yet here on England's East Coast, where he grew up, Sheeran still eats his lunch one chip at a time.

"I think what's beautiful about this area [is] no one's treated me any different. It's still the same people working in the fish and chip shop, [treating] me exactly the same."

If "the same" means like a local hero.

There's a method to his success. First, write catchy songs about stuff you know, such as "Castle on the Hill."

Fifteen years old and smoking hand-rolled cigarettes,
Running from the law through the backfields and getting drunk with my friends,
Had my first kiss on a Friday night, I don't reckon that I did it right
But I was younger then,
take me back to when…

The castle is a medieval ruin in his hometown where he and his friends used to hang out.

English singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran (with correspondent Mark Phillips) at Framlingham Castle in Suffolk. CBS News

"This is the castle on the hill," he said. "This was what the song is about."

"This is a legitimate teenage hangout, where you and your pals would come on a Friday night with tins of beer, I suppose?" Phillips asked.

"Yeah, this is the spot. You'd get, I don't know, 20 cans and sit on that hill. I'm just really, really in love with the place that I'm from, much like Springsteen would write about New Jersey, I guess."

Beyond writing the songs, Sheeran also wrote his own rules about how to sell them. 

Like so many others, he had set off for London as a teenager, singing on street corners and in pubs. But he didn't knock on record company doors or wait to be discovered. Instead, he began marketing his own stuff, releasing his music himself on websites until -- inevitably -- a record label came calling.

He had already earned half a million from his independent sales, putting the music out himself.

"What I didn't have was infrastructure," Sheeran said. "They have an American label, they have a Japanese label, they have an Australian label. So that's what I was signing for."

"I suppose you could say it paid off," Phillips said.

"Yeah, definitely."

By the time his first album came out in 2011 -- he called it "Plus (+)" -- he had a ready-made following. It moved into the Top 5 around the world.

His next album he called "Multiply (X)." (He has a thing for math.) It hit number one in the U.K. and the United States.

It's hard to go to a wedding these days without the bride and groom dancing to the big single from that one, "Thinking Out Loud." Whether Sheeran will dance to it at his own wedding -- he's just announced he and his high-school sweetheart are engaged -- isn't known. 

This, by the way, was the first of Sheeran's music videos in which he himself appeared.

Ed Sheeran - Thinking Out Loud [Official Video] by Ed Sheeran on YouTube

"That was me at the beginning of my career. I wasn't in any music videos at all," Sheeran said.

"Because you wanted the music to speak, or because you were insecure about how you looked?"

"No, I just don't like the way I look on film. Yeah, deep!" he laughed.

"But you seem to have gotten over it?"

"No, I just can't hold it back now. My songs sell more if I'm in the video."

Boy, do they sell! Sheeran may be a worldwide megastar now, but to his fans he seems like a small act that made it big -- he says, thanks to them.

Who helped him first? Fans, he says. "It was file sharing. I know that's a bad thing to say, because I'm part of a music industry that doesn't like illegal file sharing."

"Code for piracy."

"Yeah, but illegal fire sharing was what made me. It was students in England going to university, sharing my songs with each other."

And what is his view on file sharing now? "I don't think file sharing exists now."


"Yeah, I think people rip off YouTube. That's a thing. But I feel like it's so easy to stream."

He's also written for other stars, like Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber. And he's written for the movies ("I See Fire," from "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug").

However it happened, Sheeran became big enough to fill Madison Square Garden three times. And because people said he could never do it, he booked London's 80,000-seat Wembley Stadium -- also for three nights -- and filled that, too.

And then, he stopped. Packed it in. Vanished. For a year.

Why did he do it? "I was definitely in a spiral of work and partying that probably would've ended not well," Sheeran said. "But also, I think, as much as I needed a break, I think the public needs a break from you. If you continually are just in everyone's face the whole time, eventually they're gonna be like, 'Eehhh, yeah, you know what, I'm cool.'"

If the sales of the new album called, inevitably, "Divide (÷)," are any indication, Sheeran's fans missed him. 

Maybe he really needed a break. Maybe it was another really clever marketing ploy. Maybe both.

What does seem clear is that it worked.

You can stream Ed Sheeran's "÷" by clicking on the embed below (Free Spotify registration required to hear the tracks in full):  

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