One of Justin Bieber’s best songs is the deliciously savage “Love Yourself,” in which he softly croons gems such as “my mama don’t like you, and she likes everyone.” The track, co-written by Ed Sheeran, came together late one night in producer Benny Blanco’s makeshift tour bus studio, with the “Perfect” singer sitting cross-legged, strumming his guitar and riffing lyrics to a melody they just crafted.
So begins Songwriter, the new Apple Music documentary dedicated to Sheeran’s lyrical prowess. Filmed by the star’s cousin Murray Cummings over the course of making Sheeran’s third album ÷ (Divide), the doc (out now) focuses on the Brit’s songwriting sessions with Blanco and collaborators such as Snow Patrol’s Johnny McDaid, folk singer Foy Vance, and guests such as Julia Michaels.
“It’s so important for me to be seen as a songwriter rather than just a puppet — like, you want people to think these thoughts and feelings are yours,” Sheeran tells EW. “Often when you are the artist and you have other people on the songwriting credits, people assume you don’t write your songs.”
Songwriter sticks within the lines that Sheeran draws around his closely guarded private life, but there are glimpses into his family as he travels home to Suffolk, England and returns to his old school. Elsewhere, archive footage from Sheeran’s father shows baby Ed, with a mop of red hair and big glasses, displaying his natural musical talent. There are a few recent intimate moments too, such as when he plays “Supermarket Flowers” — a heart-breaking ode to his late grandmother — to his father, or when his fiancé Cherry Seaborn leaps into his arms after she arrives in Malibu.
But if you’re looking for Sheeran’s more famous friends in the documentary, you might be disappointed.
“I always feel very f–king weird asking people that I know who are famous to do things, because, I don’t know… it feels weird,” Sheeran says, adding, “The Biebers and the One Direction and the Taylors and the Beyoncés — I want to be seen as an equal, I don’t ever want handouts, so I don’t feel comfortable going, ‘Hey, can you do this?'”
Sheeran spoke to EW about reflecting on his career through Songwriter, ditching the acoustic guitar for his next project, and how he’s inspired by Drake.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When you watched the documentary for the first time, what surprised you? Are there things viewers will learn about you that they didn’t necessarily know already?
ED SHEERAN: The words “documentary” and “musician,” people think it’s going to be something different. I think people, especially journalists, are watching it being like “where’s the scoop?” and there isn’t some big revelation of a drug habit or an alcohol addiction or something like that. It’s literally what it says on the tin: it’s a film about me writing songs. The thing that surprised me was that I didn’t know that Murray had all the footage because he was only on tour to archive stuff, we weren’t making a documentary.
Was there anything off-limits to Murray as he was filming, or anything you wanted to keep out of the film?
I think just regular stuff, like my house, my family — just private things. I know Cherry’s in it, but I didn’t want that to be a massive feature. I have very little control over a lot of things, but the things I have control over, I like to keep private.
You’re 27 now and you’ve grown up for a good part of your twenties in the public eye. How is it navigating what’s public versus private, especially when so much is out in the open now?
I think you just have to be very strict. My songs are about my personal life so you have to touch on it a little bit, but I don’t open myself up that much. I’m so open with everything else that I kind of feel like I can get away with being quite closed with other things. When people ask me a question in an interview, I give them what I actually think. I’m not media-trained in that sense, and I feel like if I do that, I’m allowed to shut off personal parts of my life.
As a musician, and because you are writing your own songs and a lot of them are personal, do you think that opens you up to more scrutiny than other artists?
When ÷ came out, they said I painted women as angels or villains and nothing in between — and I kind of felt like that was a weird thing to say because obviously there are songs that are mean and there are songs that are really nice, but you don’t write songs about the mediocre days, do you? You don’t go, “Ah, I’ve had an alright day today, I’ll write a song.” You go, “I’m really happy so I’ll write a song” or “I’m really pissed off or sad and I’ll write a song.” I think people just need to understand that obviously songs are going to be extremes; how I feel one day doesn’t mean I feel like that the whole time. We all get angry and we all get happy, and those are the points where the songs come out.
You call ÷ your career-defining record in this documentary, and that the other two albums led you to this one…
Yeah, but now I feel like those three are leading me to the next place. You always feel like that for the next project!
As you go forward in your career, this documentary gives you a chance to reflect. What aspect of your life did it capture and define?
I think it captured — it sounds weird saying it — the fall and rise of my sanity. Because it captured the tail end of x (Multiply), which is a very dark time with lots of addictive s–t and dark people and just bad times, to taking a year off, really falling in love with Cherry, and getting my life back together. It was like, the end of x was just not great, and then the beginning of ÷ , I was all back together and just ready to f–king take on the world. You can kind of see it even with just how skinny I am in points and how fat I am in points — you see it undoing and coming back together. Between + (Plus) and x , there was none of that because I went straight through it, whereas after x , I was so burned out that I just had to get away for a bit.
So many of your songs that have really resonated have been about heartache and love at a young age. Now that you and Cherry are together and you’re engaged, how are you navigating what songs you’re tapping into now?
It’s just different now. I still write love songs obviously, but now I’m kind of going back to moments in my life I’ve never tapped into for songs. You can’t write heartbreak songs when you’re in love so you have to go back to times where you were heartbroken.
Looking at new sounds and new things you want to explore, what can we expect next?
The next project I’m going to do is completely out of my comfort zone —completely.
I don’t think there’s an acoustic guitar on it. Which to be an acoustic singer-songwriter, it’s different. But it’s not an album or a mixtape or anything, it’s just a collection of songs that will just come out.
I don’t know, I don’t really want to promote it, I just want to stick it out. I feel like I need to clear the air a little bit after÷, because it was such a pop thing. I just feel like the next thing, if I came out with an album next, people would compare it to ÷ and want it to be bigger and sell more. I kind of learned from looking at how Drake does it. Drake puts out these albums that are huge but then in between he sticks out projects and however big the project is, it doesn’t really matter because it’s not the album, if that makes sense. It just clears the air for the next album.
Is there anybody you’re dying to collaborate with on the next one?
Loads of people. I feel like at some point, me and Drake need to do something, I feel like that has to happen at some point.
How has that not happened already?
I mean, I’ve been on tour for god knows how long and he’s been on tour for god knows how long and he’s constantly releasing stuff. I just think at some point those two worlds have to meet, and I don’t know how or what it sounds like, but I feel like it’s inevitable… I’ve only met him a couple of times. I don’t even know if it’s in the cards. I’d like to think he has the same mindset as me.
I feel like there’s a lot of similarities between you two.
Yeah, but then we’re very different in a lot of ways, which I think would make for an interesting song. But it’s one of these things. Like, if it doesn’t happen, it’s not going to be the end of my world — but I just think it’d be interesting.