'Ed Who?" was the widespread response when it was announced that singer Ed Sheeran had been nominated for four Brit awards, the UK music industry's answer to the Grammys. A dead ringer for Harry Potter resident ginger Ron Weasley (actor Rupert Grint even starred in the video for Sheeran's song 'Lego House'), there was something incongruous, even surreal, about seeing the 20-year-old's picture alongside other Brit hopefuls, such as Adele, Jessie J and Kate Bush. You half suspected someone had photoshopped in an image of a spotty intern as a joke.
The mystery grew as we learned that, far from some random kid with a guitar, Sheeran is actually a chart bestriding musician who plays to sell-out rooms wherever he goes and presides over a huge (predominantly) female fanbase. Who was this secret pop star -- and why has nobody heard of him before?
We exaggerate, but only slightly. Sheeran is the very definition of an instant sensation, shifting 900,000 copies of his debut LP in under four months. And yet, he has managed to rise to the top of his profession whilst remaining completely invisible to anyone older than 25.
Sheeran certainly makes for a different sort of teenage idol. For one thing, he isn't especially good looking, and that's without factoring in the cultural bias against redheads. Nor does he try very hard at winning over the uncommitted listener. Strummed on his guitar and conveyed via his quavering voice, his music is decidedly low-key.
What, then, is the secret of his rise? The simple answer is that he speaks to the concerns of everyday adolescents. Familial strife, frustrated love, the pressure of trying to find your way in an uncaring world. Such are the topics that fuel his songwriting.
His lack of glamour is surely a factor too. Sulking from beneath his trademark hoodie, he isn't a rock star on a pedestal. He could be any young person playing with their mobile phone at a bus stop or mooching at the dinner table. "He's a typical Marmite artist," Paul Rees, editor of the UK's Q Magazine said last week. "He divides opinion. However, he's got a very young, incredibly enthusiastic, audience."
One reason Sheeran has stayed beneath the mainstream radar is because he has reached out to his audience directly, via YouTube and through self -promoted gigs. The genius of such an approach is that, by the time these artists are picked up by a label, they already have a huge support base. Indeed, Sheeran was still unsigned when he soared to number two in the UK download charts with his debut EP last January.
Raised in East Anglia to a second-generation Irish family, he spent much of his summers with cousins in Gorey, Co Wexford. It was a 2002 Damien Rice concert in Whelan's, Dublin, that changed his life and set him on the path to this present success, he believes. "That was the first spark of inspiration," he told the Irish Independent. "That was the first time I thought, 'right, I'm going to pick up a guitar and do it on my own.' I met him in the pub afterwards. He didn't have any advice but he was a nice guy. That's all I needed."
Nothing if not resourceful, his initial strategy upon leaving school was to book a one-way ticket to Los Angeles. One of those star-crossed individuals who appear to have lucky encounters wherever they go, he promptly met actor and singer Jamie Foxx and was taken under his wing.
"I headed off with guitar under arm to escape England," he said. "I wasn't expecting anything. It all worked out, which is nice. I played a lot of shows over there. Little by little, I made a name for myself, for being this white boy English kid. Jamie's manager said: 'Come and be on his radio show.' So I did. And Jamie says: 'Come stay at my house' . . . which I did for a while."
Alongside good fortune, he has a monster work ethic. In 2010, before things had really taken off, Sheeran played an astonishing 350 gigs in a single year. Sheer slog has, he believes, been hugely important. The journey from his bedroom and stints busking on Grafton Street to the Brits was paved in sweat and tears. "If you find success from building your own foundation, you don't need the record company. Atlantic could drop me tomorrow -- I've still got the fan-base that got me here."
It seems strange to say this but, nowadays, boy bands are mostly for grown-ups. Take That, Westlife and Boyzone have managed to hold onto their audiences by re-calibrating their music so that it better chimes with the tastes of those in their late-30s and early-40s. In contrast, only the very youthful could warm to Sheeran's strain of sulky super- earnestness. If you're the far side of 25, what a terrifying thought that is.