Billboard -- Justin Bieber may have been the headliner at the annual Z100 Jingle Ball at Madison Square Garden Dec. 7, but the night secretly belonged to Ed Sheeran. Not only did the English folk-pop singer-songwriter, 21, cowrite "Little Things," the current single for Billboard's 2012 Best New Artist One Direction, he also appeared onstage alongside Taylor Swift to perform their "Red" duet, "Everything Has Changed," for the first time, and then played two of his own songs, "Lego House" and "The A Team," the latter of which had just been nominated for The Grammys' Song of the Year Award two nights prior. The reception was so rapturous, Sheeran took a moment at the end of his short set to ask the crowd to light up their phones so he could take a picture from the stage.
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With 242,000 copies of his debut album "+" sold through Dec. 2 and 846,000 downloads of "The A Team," according to Nielsen Sound Scan, Sheeran is set to be the breakout star of 2013. Shortly after the exposure he'll get at the Grammys in February, he'll begin opening all 58 dates of Taylor Swift's 2013 North American Red Tour. "She's really just helping me out in a massive way," Sheeran says. "It was one thing to do a song, but being on tour with her, it's really kind of opening all sorts of doors." But the remarkable thing about Sheeran is how many of those doors he'd opened himself, starting at a young age. He self-released his first EP at 13, and by 19 had played over 400 shows, written hundreds of songs and released three more EPs - enough for him to register in a big way with Mike Caren, president of A&R at Warner Music Group. "Ed was almost the perfect artist," Caren says of the singer's work ethic. "It was clear that nothing was going to stop him from being successful. On top of that he was humble, intelligent, and prioritized in all the right ways."
It was Swift's early support, and live-tweeting of their songwriting sessions this summer, that helped the young singer develop a following as rabid in the States as his native U.K., where he'd already had three top five singles and a quadruple-platinum album in + (1.2 million copies, according to the Official Charts Company) by the time of its U.S. release. Though Sheeran is all of 21, he wrote many of "+" and his biggest hits at the tender age of 17 - a time of deep personal discovery and independence for him. He dropped out of school, started writing songs every day and playing every gig he could get. After two years of playing upwards of 200 gigs a year, he started hanging out with Harry Styles and the One Direction crew through mutual friends. When the time came for One Direction to record their debut album, they asked Sheeran if he had any songs he could put together, and came back with the acoustic ballad "Moments," another song he wrote at 17. "It was a personal song about a relationship that I was in that I think they made their own," he says.
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The band was keen enough on Sheeran that they tapped him again for November's "Take Me Home" to contribute "Over Again" and "Little Things," the latter of which became such an instant fan favorite from the group's early performances of the song that Columbia quickly reversed course from a planned second single ("Kiss You.") Though its intimate lyrics about memorizing the dimples at the small of a girl's back are a bit edgier than typical boy-band fare, Sheeran's ability to write honest, easily harmonized songs about teenage romance seems to be connecting with One Direction's young girl core and beyond. "It's broadening the audience," says 1D's Niall Horan. "I get a lot of dudes, a lot of moms and dads coming up and saying they love it. It's great for opening people up at our shows." But it's his distinct live shows, which feature Sheeran singing (and occasionally rapping) all by himself on top of guitar and percussion loops he records live on the spot, that have helped him build a loyal audience - not to mention earn screams loud enough to rival Bieber's and One Direction's at Jingle Ball. "The beautiful thing about Ed is he wrote classic, timeless records," says Julie Greenwald, chairman and chief operating officer of Atlantic. "We don't have to worry about whether he fits in with what's happening right now - that's why people love him so much. And whether you see him in a small room or a big stage, for him to do his whole album by himself is so powerful. It doesn't feel acoustic, it feels like a full, live band." With a 2013 that will largely be spent on the road with Swift, Sheeran is perfectly pleased to be playing close to 300 shows a year to bigger and bigger crowds. "What I'm looking forward to is just spending a long time in the States and embracing the culture," he says. "You know, start going to basketball games and just doing regular American stuff."
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