'Perfect' Co-Producer Will Hicks Hails Ed Sheeran As 'One of the Best Songwriters of Our Generation'
Approximately a three-hour drive from London lies the sleepy county of Herefordshire, a county that’s known for being one of the least populated in the nation. Somewhere amid the lush, rolling green fields is producer Will Hicks’ de facto headquarters. “I’m literally out in the middle of nowhere,” says Hicks of his home/studio. “I’ve lived in both New York and London, but I grew up here and came back for quiet in a hippie kind of way,” he laughs. “In a city you don’t have silence, you have hum and noise and I find it harder to work. Herefordshire is like a blank page to me. Complete quiet.”
In his eclectic career producing, mixing and engineering for some of the world’s biggest artists, it’s a silence that has proven fruitful. The latest smash that Hicks at least partly crafted in the serene country is “Perfect,” the third single from frequent collaborator Ed Sheeran’s blockbuster third album ÷ (Divide). It eventually spawned three different versions: one with Beyonce, another with Andrea Bocelli dubbed “Perfect Symphony” and another remixed by Robin Schulz. The track hit No. 1 the world over, making it Sheeran’s third such feat in the United States. “I got booked to do a vocal for him on someone else’s track; I’ve completely forgotten who for,” remembers Hicks of the song’s initial origins. “When you work with Ed, you do something like that which takes 10 minutes, and then you spend the rest of your day making songs.” After munching on pizza, Sheeran grabbed an acoustic guitar and wrote “Perfect” in its entirety in all of 45 minutes. “I’ve seen him write a lot, but this one felt special,” says Hicks who recorded Sheeran’s guitar and vocals simultaneously. With that, Hicks went back to Herefordshire.
Fast-forward two years. “I got a call asking for the parts we made,” he remembers. Sheeran, who was holed up at his house working with producer Benny Blanco on Divide, recruited Hicks to flesh out the track. “Me, Ed and Benny recorded a version, and then went to Abbey Road to put some strings on it.” That version, however, was discarded. “It wound up becoming a real collaborative kind of team effort with me Ed and his A&R, with lots of versions. We went round the houses to come back to realize what we had originally (from that first day) was pretty good. It’s not exactly the same as the original, we added lots of stuff. Everyone knew how good the song was, so it was an exercise in getting it absolutely, um, perfect,” Hicks laughs of the process. “I’m quite critical of most of the stuff I worked on, but when we finished the song I remember thinking, ‘That’s quite good.’”
For Hicks, the resounding success of “Perfect” is the latest in a career that has roots in the producer’s musical childhood. At 12 years old, he played guitar in a blues band who found themselves booking bigger and bigger gigs around Herefordshire and beyond. “A friend of mine’s dad had a recording studio out here,” he says of what would become his initial foray into production at 16. “We’d go into the studio recording our songs, and when people heard the recordings of the songs compared to how bad we were live, other bands and artists started asking me to do theirs.” Realizing that producing gave Hicks more of a high than being on stage was a turning point for the teenager. “As soon as I walked into a recording studio, I really didn’t want to do anything else.”
From there, Hicks produced and mixed for free, cutting his teeth with obscure artists and friends until joining the team of Elton John’s Rocket Management. “Elton built a studio in the basement of his company and were looking for someone to kind of run it; write, play, engineer and had an ear for people who were good.” Hicks got off to an auspicious start. “The first act who came in was Bastille,” he says of the English band, with Hicks subsequently working on an early version of their hit debut, 2013’s “Pompeii.” Over time, the multi-hyphenate helped discover singers like the English pop songstress Anne-Marie and fell in with frequent collaborator Jamie Lawson (whom he met through Sheeran and is signed to the singer’s Gingerbread Man Records). He also gained a reputation as a singer’s producer. “I think I like singers and songs more than some producers too,” Hicks muses. “It’s about framing a voice with instruments and pieces of music to make people feel the emotion of a song. You can't sing well unless you’ve got a good song, so for me the two things go completely hand in hand. I’ve always people who can really sing and Ed can really sing.”
It’s Hicks’ relationship with Sheeran, however, that’s become a cornerstone of his career. The two met in 2009 when the future superstar visited Rocket with his manager, Stuart Camp. “Stu brought him down to the studio and played some stuff to see what people thought and introduce him to everyone as an artist.” Hicks, who would later mix his 2009 EP You Need Me, was immediately struck by the young artist. “It’s not a surprise to see his success, because I think he’s one of the best songwriters of our generation, if not the single best. He’s phenomenally driven and really talented. Music pours out of him.” The two hit it off over what Hicks refers to as “a shared musical vocabulary. We’ve both got a foot in the pop world but we’re also folkies.”
Early during the rollout of Divide, Sheeran had a prediction. “He said ‘Perfect’ would be a Christmas No. 1 and everyone laughed,” says Hicks. After all, the album dropped in February with the holiday season a long 10 months away. Lo and behold on the Hot 100 dated December 23, “Perfect” snagged that No. 1 spot. “Ed is the most ambitious person I can ever remember seeing or meeting,” says Hicks. “He set goals for himself that everyone almost laughed at. Every single thing he’s said he’d do, he’s done.” As for Hicks himself, who’s currently at his Herefordshire studio working with an artist he can’t reveal just yet, the producer is nonchalant about his own keys to success. “It’s trying to work out what each singer needs to be at their best, you’re trying to get it out of them in the same way a film director is trying to get it out of an actor. Most genres of contemporary music have pretty much the same fundamentals. People can just overcomplicate it.”