Ed Sheeran Breaks Down the Massive Success of 'Shape of You'

Ed Sheeran
Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Billboard

Ed Sheeran speaks onstage at Billboard Women In Music 2017 at The Ray Dolby Ballroom at Hollywood & Highland Center on Nov. 30, 2017 in Hollywood, Calif.

It was hard to escape Ed Sheeran in 2017. He had a record-breaking album, a hit song, and a duet with Beyonce. But, as it turns out, one of his biggest songs was almost handed off to someone else. In a new video from The New York Times, Sheeran breaks down how the song "Shape Of You" was written, and what caused it to become a massive success.

"None of us thought that much into it," Sheeran says. "I didn't make the song to be mine to sing." 

Songwriter Johnny McDaid elaborated, "[Sheeran] had already said everything he wanted to say for that moment on his record. We went in there just to write a song." The song ended up breaking the record for most weeks in the Billboard Hot 100's top 10, becoming the most-streamed song on Spotify and earning top honors as the Hot 100's year-end No. 1 song of of 2017. Producer Steve Mac says, "If we had went into the session writing a song for Ed Sheeran, I don't think we'd ever had recorded 'Shape Of You'"

The process began when Mac played the iconic opening notes on a keyboard: "Literally the first thing he did was [he] went over to the keyboard and played. I was like, 'Well that's a good start.'" From there, the track quickly came together when Sheeran began to add percussion. 

"I honestly believe it's because Ed is so impatient that he can't wait for me to get a drum sound up," Mac says. "So he goes out and he says, 'I'll just do it on the guitar.' This is fifteen minutes into meeting him and we're away. We're off." 

The three songwriters then tried different sounds and lyrics to go along with the track. "I'm always a fan of keeping it more stripped." Sheeran says. "I'm an acoustic artist, first and foremost." But finishing a song wasn't the easiest task for Sheeran. "His attention span can be really low," McDaid says. "One of the things I did to try to keep him in the room while I would be working on a track -- I would have a suitcase full of Legos, I'd pull into the hotel room, and say, 'There you go, you build that.'"

There were also disagreements that arose during the songwriting process. In the original demo of the song, the phrase "I'm in love with the shape of you" wasn't even in the chorus. Instead, it was an instrumental interlude. "[The phrase] 'I'm in love with your body' on its own felt objectifying to me," McDaid admits. This led to the team reworking the lyrics to make them sound less objectifying. 

Finally, they added more guitar, bass, and some claps to the song to give it more weight. "It kind of builds and builds and builds and then drops," Sheeran says. McDaid adds that the song builds tension and then releases it. "At the end, it has a moment which I quite like," Sheeran adds. 

After finishing the track, Sheeran intended for it to go to someone else. He envisioned it being a duet between Rihanna and Rudimental. He played it for his record label head who said, "Why are you wanting to give this away?" Suddenly, it became Ed's track, and eventually, a massive pop success. "I don't really know what it means to chose a hit," Sheeran admits. "I just like writing songs."

You can watch the full video here