Ed Sheeran's new album grew out of a question: What if James Taylor made a club record?
That's what the young British singer-songwriter said Pharrell Williams asked while the two were working on Sing, the lead single from Sheeran's x.
Then, Sheeran recalled, the rainmaking pop producer made a prediction: "'People would go nuts for it.'"
It's an unlikely recipe for success for Sheeran, who slowly built a devoted fan base in this country with plaintive, modestly scaled folk songs like The A Team.
A sympathetic ballad about a troubled woman, the tune sold more than 2 million downloads and was nominated for a Grammy Award for song of the year.
Nuts, though, is precisely what people have gone for Sing, Sheeran's biggest hit to date and a track he said was modelled on the crackling soul-funk sound of Justin Timberlake's solo debut, Justified.
Last week, the singer performed the song for an enthusiastic crowd at the Hollywood Bowl, where he headlined a concert presented by L.'s 104.3 MYfm. And the single helped drive "x" to No. 1 on the iTunes chart as soon as the album was released on Monday.
The anticipated follow-up to Sheeran's 2011 debut, "+" (call the records "plus" and "multiply"), "x" reflects that rise to pop stardom, which also included a stint opening arena gigs for his friend Taylor Swift.
Beyond Sing, the album features glossy collaborations with other top 40 veterans such as Rick Rubin and Benny Blanco, known for their work with Jay Z and Katy Perry.
But "x" also seeks to preserve the thoughtful-misfit vibe that won Sheeran his most ardent admirers."I have weird tattoos and weird hair - I'm a weird person," he said backstage at the Bowl.
Dressed in jeans and a characteristically rumpled shirt, Sheeran, 23, was curled up on a small sofa in a dressing room crammed with the luggage of a jet-setting musician.
"And I don't think I've lost that yet."
To the extent that some of Sheeran's new songs address subjects not typically found on pop radio - or address familiar ones with an uncommon intimacy - he's right.
In "Afire Love" the singer recounts his grandfather's descent into what sounds like Alzheimer's disease, while "The Man" worries about the temptations that accompany celebrity status.
But not everything is so dark. Like "+," "x" comes loaded with tenderly phrased love songs such as the hushed "Tenerife Sea" and "Thinking Out Loud," which pairs a lyric about a steadfast romance - "When my hands don't play the strings the same way / I know you will still love me the same" - with a classic-sounding soul-rock arrangement.
As graceful as they are cleverly constructed, these tunes would've fit on the earlier album, which Sheeran said was more or less how he thought "x" would turn out before he began working on it.
"But then you start getting calls from people like Rick Rubin and Pharrell Williams," he said, "and you start thinking, 'Do I stick with what I know or do I take these opportunities?'"
He described the studio experience as one of trial and error, recalling a session with Williams where he turned down the producer's first nine ideas. Finally, he allowed Williams (who oversaw much of Timberlake's "Justified") to persuade him to try writing over the beat that became "Sing.""He was like, 'People enjoy listening to your music, but you don't have anything that makes them want to dance,'" Sheeran said.
"I figured there wasn't any harm in trying it."
"Ed is a process guy," said Williams. "That's where you see his attention and his diligence go, into the singing and playing. He doesn't care about the paint job - he cares about the motor."
Yet Sheeran is also closely attuned to the realities of his business. He spoke with obvious knowledge about how many people he played to - and how many of his records they bought - while on the road with Swift.
He talked about the difficulty of getting a ballad on top 40 radio when the format is already playing someone else's ("There's only ever a slot for one," he said).
And though "x" expands his sound considerably, he insisted he has no immediate plans to ramp up his live show, which consists of Sheeran, his acoustic guitar and a bank of looping pedals he operates with his feet.
The stripped-down presentation distinguishes him from flashier acts, he reasoned, and it helps keeps costs down.
He's equally forthright about his ambition for the new album and its world tour. "I'm on the right trajectory," he said, adding that stadium shows like those Swift plays are "definitely the next step."
"Ed's first album left him room to grow into," said Ben Cook, president of Sheeran's UK record label, Atlantic Records. "This one has a real scale to it."
Meeting those goals requires more promotion and glad-handing than he used to do, but he's making more music than ever too. In his dressing room at the Bowl, Sheeran said he had a studio booked the next day to write three songs for David Guetta, the French dance-music star.
"I've got three hooks to do for rappers, as well," he added.Asked if he thought he was in danger of burning out, he replied, "I think if I were, I would've done it a long time ago. And to be honest, I want that - I want to one day run out of steam and just chill."
He laughed. "But right now, the spark's definitely full flame. I'm raring to go."
-Los Angeles Times