"It was just for me to learn and for him to have content for his MySpace and YouTube pages," Cummings tells Billboard. "By the time he was ready to sign a record deal, we would joke around that this is going to be a big documentary one day. It was more of a joke at the start, and then it became like, 'Wow, you’re actually doing loads of cool stuff!'"
The two have since traveled the world together as Sheeran has risen to superstardom, with Cummings documenting everything from Ed's opening gigs for Taylor Swift to his sold-out performance at the 90,000-capacity Wembley Stadium. But even with all the unforgettable experiences Cummings has gotten to witness, the coolest of them all is watching his cousin craft what becomes the soundtracks to people's lives.
After filming Sheeran for so many years, Cummings decided it was time to finally put a spotlight on Sheeran's songwriting process. Though his camera had been capturing most of Sheeran's journey, once the singer-songwriter set out to write his third album, ÷ (Divide), Cummings kept the camera rolling more often than not. The album went on to be the top-selling album of 2017, and Cummings' footage of the ÷ creation is now an 84-minute documentary, simply titled Songwriter.
"I wanted to focus on him being a songwriter rather than 'Ed Sheeran the superstar' type thing. It’s like, this is a guy that’s really good at his job, and writes songs all the time -- if his brain’s on, he wants to write," Cummings asserts. "It takes a lot to write a song, you go down a lot of different channels and not all of them are great. To have a camera on that while that’s happening, I’d imagine it’s quite difficult. I was really lucky to have that happen, and I felt very privileged to be in that situation where [Ed] doesn’t mind that I’m filming while he’s being that vulnerable. So I felt, I’ve got to make something out of this, because who else can?"
Songwriter premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February, with its stateside premiere tonight (April 23) at Tribeca Film Festival. Ahead of the doc's U.S. debut, Billboard chatted with Cummings to hear about his experience watching Sheeran bring the biggest album of 2017 to life.
There's a scene in the documentary where Ed talks about people doubting him when he quit school to pursue music. What were your thoughts when you first found out he was doing that?
I had an experience with Ed when he was a kid -- he must have been, like, eight or something -- where he rapped me one of Eminem’s songs. The rhythm and speed at which he could do it, and that he knew every word, it was just really impressive. From that moment on, I was like “Ok, he’s got a really good grasp of rhythm and music.”
Then, when he started to learn guitar, he got very good very quick. So I just started to realize he must have an ear for it. When he was at the stage where he was like, “All I wanna do is music,” I believed him because he was so into it. There’s nothing else he wanted to do -- it was crazy how kind of tunnel-vision he was. I was kind of like, “Well, if you’re going to do it, do it.”
What's one of the most memorable or surreal experiences you've had with Ed?
One of the coolest things was when he did a voice for The Simpsons. Me and Ed watch The Simpsons all the time, it’s a massive part of our sense of humor. Most of the tours we’ve done would end with me and him going to his tour bus [after the show] with a bottle of wine and sticking on The Simpsons. It’s so not rock 'n' roll, but it’s what we used to do. [Laughs.]
We were in [the recording studio] and Ed asked if there could be headphones for me, so I put headphones on -- then Mike Scully called in like, “Hi Ed, this is Mike Scully” and me and Ed just looked at each other like, “What the hell?!?”
That's amazing! What about something more music-related?
It’s kind of weird, because it happens in these tiny little steps, and then there’s a massive stride. He’s kind of like, working, working, working, working -- and then suddenly, he’s on tour with Taylor Swift. And it’s like, “Wow, something massive’s happened.” And then it’s like loads and loads of little steps, but then it’s like, “Oh, he can sell out Madison Square Garden." It just keeps happening like that.
The massive things -- they do happen -- but then kind of like, because you’re there every day, you kind of see how they led up. It’s crazy, and obviously doing a duet with Beyonce this year and Eminem -- seeing that he’s done a song with Eminem is the best kind of dream fulfillment.
Is there a standout moment for you where you’ve looked at Ed and you just know he’s like “I can’t believe this”?
When he played Wembley Stadium. That would have been one of those because it was also, “Can the ‘loop pedals’ show fill an audience that big?" He was really nervous to do it, but he needed to know, could it happen? Because he was under a lot of pressure to have a band, and it was like, "You can’t play a stadium just on your own. You can’t headline Glastonbury festival just on your own." He wanted to find out, so he was like, “I’m gonna do it on my own -- 'cause that’s my comfort zone -- and see if it works.”
I really saw in him this realization that it worked, like, “Ah, there’s so much more to do now. Because this works, I can go around the world doing this for the next however long.” And it’s always good to see him when he’s written a song that he really loves.
Is there a song on ÷ that you could tell he really loved while writing it?
The most fun I’ve ever seen him have is writing "Galway Girl." This is the first time that he’s had lots of other people in the studio, the first time he’s had a whole band -- he’s never played with a band, it’s always been him and the loop station.
So for him to have Johnny [McDaid], Foy [Vance], and Amy [Wadge] there to riff ideas off and go inside and there’s a whole Irish band, and as soon as he gets an idea, they’re able to feel it through because they’re so talented... There’s a bit where he just grins and looks at Foy – it’s that moment of him going, “This is what music’s all about.” Capturing that was so much fun, because I could feel it myself behind the camera. I was happy for him, like, “Go on son, you’ve worked for it.” [Laughs.]
Is there a part of his songwriting process that you'd pinpoint as the most interesting?
What’s interesting to me is watching the development of how he writes. A few years back, when I started filming him, he would write stuff down a lot more. I suppose that now if he’s in a studio environment, he just leaves the mic on, and the melodies and stuff like that, he can record them straight away. He doesn’t really write things down, he almost repeats words until they fit the melody and then just put them down then and there. The demo is finished when he is finished, and he can do a real proper vocal later. I just found that really interesting, because you get to watch his brain work in that way. He’s daydreaming with the mic on -- he’s, excuse the pun, “thinking out loud.”
After actually getting to see his process and putting it on camera, what are your thoughts on Ed as an artist now?
I’ve always kind of known the way he is, but from this documentary, I’ve witnessed him get better. I’ve basically gotten to see his process, or however he’s writing, adapting to new environments and becoming more comfortable in his choices, making the choices quicker, and kind of writing without fear. It was almost like he’s grown in confidence in how he manages to do stuff.
Since you've seen him write so many songs now, what do you think of the accusations against "Shape of You" regarding TLC's "No Scrubs"?
I think it’s a really difficult time for songwriters legally. It seems like there’s so many things that can drag you down by saying it’s similar to something else. I think it’s sad that artists are limited to try and figure this stuff out, and [there's] a lot of worry about whether someone can come for them and stuff. I just kind of hope there’s a more common-sense approach to that -- because once you watch how someone writes, and then you see that there might be some legal repercussions, you’re like, “Aw man, I watched it get written -- there’s nothing [intentional] in there!”
What kind of response have you been seeing from people who've seen Songwriter?
The best feedback I’ve gotten from this is when songwriters tell me that it inspired them to write. That’s what I love. I was playing it to a songwriter I know called Corey Harper, and said, “I just want to test this out on you because you write songs.” I played it, and I see him kind of absent-mindedly picking up his guitar and strumming along to kind of figure out the chords that Ed was playing while he was playing them, and I was like, “That’s the best feedback I could’ve possibly gotten.” I just really want people to watch it and think that it’s possible, and go for it, really.
Ed expresses at the end of the doc that he thinks ÷ is his career-defining album. Do you think it's Ed's best piece of work?
He’s always really into whatever he’s doing. So I kind of believe him whenever he says, “This is the best I can be.” I personally think that he can get better -- I can’t wait to hear what he’s doing two or three albums from now.
To see Songwriter during Tribeca Film Festival, check out screening times here.