Ross Copperman: Pop's overnight sensation

How did the unknown Ross Copperman notch up record online sales? Nick Duerden meets pop's shooting star
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The Independent Culture

For a time, the most popular iTunes Single of the Week in the site's history wasn't the work of an established act or even a box-fresh X Factor finalist. Temporarily, the accolade belonged to an unknown American singer called Ross Copperman, who had yet to enjoy the benefits of either a single in the shops or radio play.

The man was still six months shy of releasing his debut album, and had yet to appear in any magazine or newspaper. Nevertheless, his song "As I Choke", a robust slice of American FM rock, was downloaded 36,457 times in seven days. So how did it happen?

Copperman, seated in a west London café, smiles coyly and shrugs his shoulders. "You know what?" he begins in his southern drawl. "I have no idea. I mean, I did spend much of last summer playing the British university circuit - fresher weeks, things like that - but these kids I was playing to, they had a lot of drink inside them, and I was convinced they weren't taking too much notice of me, even when I was trying to shock them by playing Nine Inch Nails covers." The smile becomes a big, hearty, all-American laugh. "I guess they weren't quite as wasted as I'd imagined...."

Copperman's record company, RCA, insists that it pulled no clever marketing strings other than making the song available on the website. The subsequent momentum was all its own.

"The iTunes success was entirely an accident," A&R man Tops Henderson says, "But then, you know what? Ross delivers, he really does. It puts me in mind of when Bryan Adams arrived in the UK. He delivered in much the same way. At concerts, people are transfixed by Ross, especially women. Not because he has model good looks, but because when he performs, he connects. It's terrific to witness."

Face-to-face, the singer himself is a far more subtle proposition. Boy-next-door handsome, he radiates an "aw, shucks" demeanour straight from The Waltons. His mother, a parole officer, instilled in her son the importance of good manners. And if he seems in a state of bewilderment, it is with good reason. This 24-year-old Virginian is seemingly on the brink of achieving in 2007 what fellow MOR Americans Orson achieved in 2006: chart ubiquity, and the goodwill of a nation 3,000 miles from home.

"Things," he says, eyes wide, "are definitely becoming a little weird."

Ross Copperman likes to think he was born with music in his genes. His grandmother was a classical pianist. Her legacy - an antique piano that sat invitingly in the family's front parlour - drew him inexorably towards it. "I have recordings of me making up songs when I was not much more than a baby," he recalls. "I begged my parents to let me have piano lessons, and I started properly when I was three. Been practising ever since."

His father ran a diner in Roanoke, Virginia, three hours south of Washington DC and was a huge fan of the Rolling Stones. He took the young Ross to see them on four successive US tours.

"It was Jagger and Richards who got me into English music and the English culture," Copperman says. "I've always been more fond of British bands than American ones. I just love Radiohead. Muse, too."

He joined his first band in his teenage years as lead guitarist. Later, as a music student, he took up an internship at a New York jingle house where his boss finally gave him a crack at penning his first ditty.

"It was a jingle for Fisher-Price toys," he says, "and it came real easy to me."

Copperman was offered regular work, but turned it down to develop his own soft-rock songs and enter talent shows. He came third out of 35,000 entrants in the USA Songwriting Competition one year, and won the Freshtrax prize the next.

"That was amazing because they gave me $10,000 to tour America's college circuit," he says. "I was 20, 21, playing to kids pretty much my own age,"

One would have expected Copperman to then sign to an American record label and become hailed the latest MOR sensation. But that failed to happen. He suggests there was US interest, but that he and his manager thought his quintessentially American sound would stand a better chance in the UK first. It had worked for The Strokes, The Killers, Scissor Sisters and Orson, ran the logic so, naturally, it would work for Copperman too.

"When I first met him," Tops Henderson recalls, "I thought he was a bit of a geek. He kept calling me Sir. But then he picked up his guitar and played me a couple of songs and I was like, Wow! Fantastic! He was a well-rounded, highly commercial songwriter. He'll never be cool - but then he doesn't have to be. My only doubt was his hair. It was long and messy. A visit to the barber shop soon sorted that problem out."

Henderson signed him, and stuck him in the studio with a succession of songwriters-for-hire, presumably to help hone the singer's own songwriterly craft. Among them were Robbie Williams' erstwhile musical partner Guy Chambers, and 10cc's Graham Gouldman.

The resulting album, Welcome to Reality, ticks every commercial box with considerable panache. It has tunes that sound like they've been barrelling down Route 66 for decades, and the lyrics, with refences to runaway trains, are determinedly American. He plays the piano with the same gusto as Coldplay's Chris Martin.

"Having that iTunes success has given me the taste for success," he says. "I want to be number one, sell millions, the whole lot."

More immediately, Copperman is still in the process of adjusting to being an American living in England. When he moved to west London last Easter, his girlfriend of two years didn't come with him: "She had a good job in New York and didn't want to leave," he says sadly. He has become very fond of Sunday roasts, but the mean streets of West Kensington, are a far cry from rural Roanoke.

"A few months ago, I was mugged right outside my flat by a bunch of kids on bikes," he says. "I just threw some money at them and ran. It wasn't a nice experience." He has dreamt of revenge ever since.

"I've been watching a lot of 24 recently, and it makes me wish I was Jack Bauer. If I was Jack Bauer, I'd have been packing a gun and would have been able to protect myself that night. Maybe that's just what I need round here," he muses, almost lasciviously. "A gun. Whaddaya think?"

The single, 'All She Wrote', is released on 19 March. The album, Welcome To Reality, is out on 26 March