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How Ed Sheeran’s New ‘Songwriter’ Doc Goes Inside the Hitmaking Process

“I just wanted to put the audience the room,” says director Murray Cummings, who had unprecedented access to his cousin as he made his biggest album yet

Jonathan Bernstein Aug 24, 2018

Sheeran at Abbey Road Studios recording "Perfect." Photo: Courtesy of Abramorama

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“Songs are weird things,” Ed Sheeran says during Songwriter, a new documentary that chronicles the creative process of his triple platinum 2017 album, ÷. “They just come and go. They never give you any warning.”

Songwriter, which is currently in theaters and will be available on Apple Music on August 28th, manages to capture Sheeran’s songwriting process in real time. He gave unprecedented access to his cousin and longtime videographer, Murray Cummings, who decided to use his first film to zero in on the the elusive, rare moments of song creation that he felt had never been documented.

“There’s a scene in Jay-Z’s [2004 film] Fade to Black where you see him and Timbaland writing a song, and as soon as Timbaland plays the track I remember thinking, ”˜Oh my god, that’s the first time he’s ever played Jay-Z that riff that everybody now knows is a bit hit,’” says the director. “It really excited me, and I remember thinking to myself: I wish the whole movie was just all scenes like that.”

Songwriter offers a window into the idea-forming moments usually closed off for A-list artists. Sheeran can be seen on a tour bus, writing the multiplatinum Justin Bieber hit “Love Yourself.” You follow him on a cruise ship with Benny Blanco for a week of tinkering and writing, and on a songwriting retreat with fellow hitmakers in Malibu. At one point, a jetlagged Sheeran wakes up at 5 a.m.and goes outside and starts making up lyrics about his surroundings. “He said, ”˜I’m awake anyway, I’m just gonna write a song,” remembers Cummings. “So I just grabbed my camera and set it down besides us ”¦Â I just wanted to put the audience in the room.”

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The writing of ÷, it turned out, turned out to be a transformational time for Sheeran and his process. “Ed’s style of how he writes has changed,” says Cummings. “I was extremely lucky to be filming him at this time where he changed from being quiet and writing stuff down with a pen of paper to actually singing stuff out loud as he writes it. You get to hear his thought process out loud which didn’t happen that often before this album. From a film standpoint it’s just really interesting to be able to hear what he’s thinking.”

One unintended consequence of Cummings’ constant filming of Sheeran during the writing of his most recent album is that the filming itself ended up subtly influencing Sheeran’s own songwriting process. Knowing he was constantly being recorded freed Sheeran up to improvise lyrics and phrasing on the spot without writing them down. “Sometimes Ed would kind of forget what he had sung and then he would look at me and go, ”˜You filmed that, right?’”

Sheeran’s outsized commercial ambition is on full display. Despite being at a commercial peak, he doesn’t hold back on future ambitions. “If you don’t wanna be bigger than Adele, you’re in the wrong industry,” he says at one point. “I don’t want to be the male Adele. I want to be Adele.”

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But despite his single-minded career focus during the making of ÷, Sheeran maintained a hands-off attitude to the film. When Cummings sent it to him, Sheeran responded with just three comments: “One of them was to change a shot of the back of his head because he didn’t think it was engaging; another one was a swear word that he wanted to cut, and then the last one was to change the end montage to have less studio footage and more fun stuff fans haven’t seen.”

Sheeran with Benny Blanco, who board a cruise ship for a songwriting session in the film. Photo: Courtesy of Abramorama

Cummings’ ultimate goal for the film? “I really just want it to cause people to pick up the guitar or whatever they’re into,” he says. “I wanted it to work on a couple of layers, whereby fans will love it because they get to see what he’s like away from the stage. Songwriters who are interested in music and how it comes to be can be appreciate it on that level. And then also people who either don’t know Ed or don’t think he’s their cup of tea can get interested and get a bit of respect for how hard he works and how he gets songs written.”

With more than ten years of footage to sift through, Cummings says he realized how to focus the sprawling documentary came when he settled on the film’s title. “I see the genre that Ed is in as ”˜singer-songwriter,’” he says. “So I just crossed out ”˜singer’, called it ”˜Songwriter,’ and focused on that.”

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