Murray Cummings has seen Ed Sheeran’s musical journey from the very beginning. Literally, as he is the older cousin to the singer-songwriter.
When Sheeran decided to move to London to hone his craft and play gigs Cummings was already in the city working at a film production company and taking the first steps in his own directorial career. So it made sense that Cummings filmed him.
Years later all of that footage has culminated in “Songwriter,” an intimate and illuminating look at Sheeran’s songwriting process as he wrote “Galway Girl,” “Shape Of You” and the rest of the “÷” album.
I recently had the chance to talk to Cummings about the “Songwriter,” which is being screened as part of the Tribeca Film Festival, as he provided some priceless insight into shooting Sheeran.
Was “Songwriter” your idea?
It was my kind of idea. I wanted to get into directing music video when Ed first came to London and started playing gigs. So I just said, ‘I’ll record your gigs.’ I always felt that my documentary about him would be about him doing small gigs, getting a song on the radio. But then he became Ed Sheeran. And by the time that I felt confident enough to make a film I already felt as though that story had been covered by MTV and whatnot. So I thought, ‘What original take could I do that only I could do?’ And my passion when he was working was watching him make a song. I loved to just watch with intrigue how it all comes from nothing and becomes this song. It was crazy to be in the room and know that it was going to end up with thousands of people singing it. I also had shown Ed a little video I made of him writing “Love Yourself“ for Justin Bieber, and when I showed that to him he was like, ‘I don’t remember writing it like that.’ He loved being shown his process.
Did he have any notes once he had seen the film?
Only a few. Luckily we have very similar sensibilities. He did tell me to make it more fun at the end, showing more behind the scenes stuff that fans wouldn’t have seen. But I like just catching what happens and not forcing anything. If I speak to him during the film it is because I genuinely want to know what is happening. There are a few scenes where he didn’t know that the camera was running, it was on my lap, and we were just chatting normally. I didn’t feel the need to create any drama or dig any deeper. All of the filmmaking came in the edit really. That was where we added energy. But shooting we just captured what happened.
How much footage did you shoot?
I have been filming him for ages. When I decided I wanted to make a film about him I decided to watch everything I had. I didn’t know it would be about songwriting at the start. And that took me 3 months to watch everything. That was everyday, too. It was 7 or 8 years of stuff. Then when I got my editor involved it was down to 70 hours, which took him 3 weeks to watch. Then we just started chipping away at it. But then when we made the clear decision to make it about songwriting we got rid of half of that stuff, like his live performing and talking to fans. Because I knew it would start on stage and then he would walk away from that, and we would then go into his world and how he writes everyday, not see Ed Sheeran as the performer. That’s what I wanted to end on. Basically, it is called “Songwriter” because the genre is called singer-songwriter and I wanted to cross out the singer bit and focus on songwriter.
I loved the “Galway Girl” sequence, where we see it evolve into the song it is now.
The reason that is one of my favorite scenes is because I have never seen Ed so happy. It is him in his element. Because he is a solo artist that goes out by himself, performs live, doing it with a loop pedal. So he doesn’t have a band, and this was the first album that he has written with a lot of people. He normally writes on his own or one on one. So for him to actually have friends around him that write songs, and have a band there that can immediately realize his idea just minutes after he had written it, that made him so happy.
Was “Shape Of You” written that late?
The album was done when he wrote “Shape Of You.” He had already sent it to the record label. So I had already packed up and come home, and was like, ‘Time to edit.’ Then he just sent me an email being, ‘Wrote a new song. Let me know what you think.’ Then I was like, ‘Oh no! I don’t have any footage of this and Ed is going to make it a single.’ Luckily he was still to mix it. But I was in America, so I had to get my brother over in Ireland to fly out to the UK to film Ed doing that. And luckily Ed re-wrote quite a lot of stuff in that mix, so we got that. Which gave us a different stage to the process. From writing on a guitar on the tour bus to him performing with an orchestra at Abbey Road, and now we could show how re-writing goes on in the mix.
Was there a moment when you realized that Ed was going to become this big?
Those things kind of happen gradually. I knew he had the talent and the drive, as in making an album and getting in the charts with it, when he was young. I used to hang around with a lot of musicians when I was at university in Brighton. People like The Maccabees, Florence And The Machine, and Adele. And I noticed that Ed had the same type of work ethic and talent as them. And he was much younger. So I always thought he would get an album out. But I never thought it would get to this level. That realization only came when he told me backstage at V Festival that he was playing 3 nights at Wembley. Then I just laughed.
Ed thinks that ÷ is his pinnacle, do you believe that?
I am actually not sure. I actually think he does believe that. I’m not sure I do. I can’t wait to hear what he does next. Because I know his musical influences and that he grew up on Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, I want to hear the album that he makes at 45. Maybe it is the commercial peak, but it is definitely not the songwriting peak.
“Songwriter” is now playing at the Tribeca Film Festival. Check out a clip from the film below.