Ed Sheeran's Shape of You sent the singer into the stratosphere, but a new documentary reveals the record label wrangles behind his hit song. Film-maker Murray Cummings caught it all on tape. He talks to Chris Schulz.

Divide

was done. Ed Sheeran's third album was finished, mixed and mastered. Recorded on boats, tour buses and backstage after gigs during months of intense work, the album, according to Sheeran, was his "peak".

"It might be that I never get this again," Sheeran says in Songwriter, a new documentary filmed by his cousin throughout the creation of his 2017 smash Divide. "It's the payoff ... This one, it definitely feels magical."

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Heading into his label, Warner Music Group, to deliver it on deadline day, Sheeran was proud of songs like Galway Girl, an Irish rap song first played on the fly in a field and written and recorded in less than a day, and Barcelona, a carnival jam that emerged during a celebrity songwriting boot camp.

Sheeran was happy, it a little nervous.

Sheeran's record label? That's another story.

"I'm not going to complain if you write a massive single," a Warners executive is heard telling Sheeran in Songwriter. That tense meeting includes a shaky Sheeran being asked to write a more "rhythmic" song for the album.

It's one of the more startling revelations included in Songwriter, which is available to stream via Apple Music from Tuesday, a movie that also includes footage of Sheeran as a bespectacled schoolboy recording one of his first songs, a grunge-tinged emo anthem called Typical Average Teen.

Ed Sheeran shows off the artwork for his album Divide, in the documentary Songwriter.
Ed Sheeran shows off the artwork for his album Divide, in the documentary Songwriter.

But that record label exchange is especially awkward considering ÷; (Divide) set Sheeran up to become the world's biggest musician, one who topped singles and album charts the world over, and who earlier this year smashed Adele's New Zealand tour record with a series of six stadium shows across Auckland and Dunedin.

Film-maker Murray Cummings kept his cameras rolling after that meeting with Warners, and he captures Sheeran uttering a phrase so unlike the laid-back pop star it's hard to believe he's just said it.

"Just one more song?" a fiery Sheeran mockingly declares. "I have no f***ing ideas any more because you've run me dry."

Cummings says Sheeran was definitely disappointed. "You see it in the film: he's in the car and he's a bit down. But once I get him talking, he does agree with them. He goes, 'Look, they are right, it's missing a hit.'"

Even more surprising is what happens next. Cummings' doco - a more intimate portrayal of Sheeran that veers away from his stadium shows and celebrity chaos - was supposed to end with Sheeran delivering his album to Warners as a natural climax. Thinking he had all the footage he needed, he headed back home to Los Angeles to begin editing down hundreds of hours of footage.

Then Sheeran sent him an email.

"It just says, 'I've written a new song, the record label loves it, we're going into the studio,'" remembers Cumming. "I was like, 'No!' I wasn't there."

That song, Shape of You, written just two weeks after Sheeran's tense meeting with Warners, became an inescapable radio hit, topped the singles Spotify and Apple charts in 34 countries including New Zealand, and went on to become Spotify's most streamed song ever, with nearly two billion plays. Not bad for a song written as a panicked last-minute album inclusion.

Cummings knew he needed footage of Sheeran finishing Shape of You for his film, but he couldn't get back to London in time for his recording session.

But he had another option: Cummings called on his brother in Ireland. "I basically hired my brother to go because he could get there quicker ... that whole scene was filmed by my brother."

Looking back on the drama now, Cummings says he continues to be in awe of Sheeran, having grown up watching his goofy red-headed cousin go from hustling his music on street corners to headlining Wembley Arena in front of hundreds of thousands of fans.

But when it comes to writing a massive hit single after record label pressure, Cummings says it's not the first time that has happened.

"On Multiply, Thinking Out Loud was written very last-minute," he says. "He thought that the album was finished ... and he was considering it for another project or another album, and then kind of told his record label about it.

"They're like, 'We will squeeze this on to the album last-minute, we'll change everything, this is definitely going to be a single.."

So Cummings believes Warners knew what they were doing when they asked Sheeran to write another song. "I think the record label were like, 'Yeah, but when we pushed you last time, Thinking Out Loud got written. Maybe you've got one more in you.'

"I think they were being cheeky and chancing their arm [but] they were right. He did write the biggest song of his career afterwards. It's obviously a gamble, but it worked."

Cummings first began noticing his younger cousin's musical abilities when he shared a flat with the budding 15-year-old singer, admiring his songwriting abilities and clear-eyed determination.

Ask him if there were signs of the world-conquering pop star he's since become and Cummings says everyone knew Sheeran would do big things. What they didn't realise is how quickly he'd do them.

"I remember a friend stayed at my house. He just looked at me and said, 'I think your cousin's going to do it.' I was like, 'I think so too - what makes you say that?' He goes, 'He just told me he's done 50 gigs this year. It's January. There's not even 50 days in January. How has he done that?'"

Cummings knows how he did it. "He'd play at one place at 7pm, get on the Tube, play another gig at 9pm, then another at 11pm. He'd just do these gigs, and get stage time. He developed so well as a performer."

Knowing his cousin was studying to become a film-maker, Sheeran asked Cummings to document his 2014 and 2015 tour behind his second album, x (Multiply). While most of Songwriter documents Sheeran's journey making ÷ after that tour, some footage did make the cut, including several months spent holidaying in New Zealand, bungy jumping and swimming with dolphins "in the South Island somewhere".

Some of his documentary's more interesting moments were caught on the fly, like Sheeran writing Justin Bieber's hit Love Yourself in his pyjamas on a tour bus, or penning his raps for Galway Girl on an acoustic guitar in the middle of a field. One moment catches a jetlagged Sheeran being forced to rise at 5am to write a new song, complaining that: "Songs are weird things. They just come and go. Never give you any warning."

Cummings says Sheeran's best songs often come together very quickly. Galway Girl, for example, was written and recorded in just a day. "That was a cool day: you got to see the whole process from start to finish in one day. You can see: Ed's Sheeran really happy ... normally you'd cut a demo, months later come in with musicians. This was a very live coming together of one song."

With the success of ÷ and Shape of You now confirmed in the history books, and with Songwriter charting that peak, the question has to be asked: is Divide Sheeran's defining moment? Can he get bigger? Is that even possible?

"Definitely," says Cummings. "I personally think he's developing still ... Maybe it might be the commercial peak. As far as songwriting goes, he's going to keep going and keep getting better."

Songwriter is available to stream on Apple Music from August 28.