Murray Cummings is well aware that his first film is the result of nepotism. If he hadn’t been Ed Sheeran’s cousin, he never would have been granted the access necessary to make a documentary about the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter.
“It’s a fact: I did get to make it because I’m his cousin,” the 33-year-old said with a shrug. “That made it possible, but I don’t think that if an outsider came in to try to make it, there would have been the same outcome.”
The outcome is “Songwriter,” an intimate look at Sheeran’s creative process that takes fans behind-the-scenes as he pens hits such as “Castle on the Hill” and “Shape of You.” The documentary, which was released by Apple on Aug. 28, is the first from Cummings, who served as Sheeran’s staff videographer for four years at the height of the singer’s success.
Sheeran, 27, grew up in Suffolk, England, while Cummings was roughly 500 miles to the east in Ireland. Their fathers had been best friends in college, and Cummings’ dad eventually married Sheeran’s dad’s sister. As boys, the cousins would spend holidays together in Ireland at their grandmother’s house, running on the beach and playing in the fields.
But it wasn’t until Sheeran turned 17 that he and Cummings became especially close. That was when the aspiring musician left school and decamped to London, sleeping on his cousin’s couch. Cummings had already graduated from college and was living in the city, working as a stand-up comedian. Before long, Sheeran had landed a record deal and invited Cummings on the road with him so he would be less lonely.
“All my friends were at university and I was touring solo, so I was like, ‘Murray, can you come and be my mate?’ ” the musician said with a chuckle.
Hours before the film’s premiere at the Arclight Cinerama Dome last month, the two cousins sat with The Times to discuss their collaboration on the documentary.
Ed, why did you want a videographer on tour?
Sheeran: It’s always good to have things filmed. It wasn’t like, “Come on the road and make a documentary.” I was like, “Come on the road and film [stuff] that we can archive.” I didn’t know it would get this crazy, but filming all this happening, I think was important.
Cummings: I always had it in the back of my head that we would make a documentary at some point, I just didn’t know what it would be about. I just thought it was really cool that I was filming and he was doing his journey of writing and performing and stuff. Because it was so early, I was like, “If he goes all the way with this, this is going to be great footage to kind of show how it happened.”
How did he pitch the documentary to you?
Cummings: I mentioned it to Ed in 2015. I think I actually said, “I want to make a documentary about you as a songwriter.” …He basically just goes, “Yeah, cool. Do what you need to do.” He’s very relaxed.
Sheeran: I didn’t really notice it was happening because I was promoting my album. We’d kind of spoken about it, but he’s my cousin. Whatever he did, I’d be like, “OK.” This is quite a big deal. To have Apple buy this and have it come out and do a full day of press, I wouldn’t do this for anybody else. I really believe in it as a thing and think it’s a really good piece of work that he created.
Were there moments where you asked Murray not to film?
Sheeran: He never takes out the camera when there are any other celebrities around. He’d never do that, because he doesn’t want to make people uncomfortable. With me, it doesn’t matter. I didn’t let him film my mum [listening to a song about her late mother], for one. I thought that would be weird. The documentary’s not a reflection of me as a person, it’s me as a songwriter. I think journalists want there to be an “A-ha!” moment of, “He had a drug problem, or he’s addicted to this or he’s an alcoholic.” When you hear “musician documentary,” that’s usually what happens. There should be some sort of turmoil that happens — marriages breaking down or something like that. But this is very much just songs getting written. And I didn’t really want personal things in it.
Cummings: He would act the exact same whether the camera was on or off. We just have a kind of trust that he can do that and I’m not going to exploit it any way or take it out of context or anything like that. …And I think once Ed was so cool with it, other artists didn’t really say anything. Once they see how comfortable Ed is with me, they normally just let it happen.
I’ve been in the studio recording when he’s doing stuff with Rick Rubin, and he’s a very private dude. The first day there were no cameras, and the second, Ed said, “Look, I want to document this, can my cousin come in the room?” And he was fine with it. I think it definitely helps with that kind of stuff. If he was like, “Can my camera crew come in?” they might say no. And it’s not like I’m coming in with big lights. I’m coming with a handheld camera.
How did you maintain your personal relationship while forging a business relationship?
Sheeran: We had a conversation before it, and I was like, basically, me being a cousin stopped when it came to business. “We’re not speaking about this. Rights for this and money here, that’s nothing to do with us. So you let someone else handle that, and we’ll just go back to being cousins. We’ve made a cool film.” That’s where it could have got dangerous, with all that sort of [stuff].
Ed, when you watched the film, did you notice anything unique about your songwriting process?
Sheeran: I think the interesting thing about this film isn’t me and the songwriting — I think it’s having someone in the studio watching the song get written. No artist allows anyone in the studio. Even when I go in with [other] artists now, I have a videographer and they’re like, “No other people.” Because it’s such a delicate, intimate moment writing a song, and there are so many times where you might say the wrong thing or come out with a weird idea. ...But if you have your cousin do it, it’s all right.
Murray, you live in Santa Monica, and Ed, you’re only in the U.K. now, right?
Sheeran: I don’t live in America at all. I had a place here and do you know what? I just got really sad here because I didn’t drive. I just spent a lot of time in the same area not really doing anything. I didn’t really enjoy it. Do you read Phillip Pullman? Do you know when Lyra and Will go out of their world and if they spend too much time out of their world, they start getting really ill? I’m like that with England. Yeah, man, it makes me happy. Drinking English beer in the countryside where everyone’s cycling.
Cummings: Every now and again, you kind of remember that he’s a really massive artist. But we hang out at his house or a friend’s house, and you do kind of just forget and be fairly normal. And then it hits you when you have to go somewhere. He’s like, “I can’t just go there without it being a bit of an issue. Does it have a back door?”
There’s always little moments where it dawned on me what’s happened. And it’s normally at the show. The other day he played the Rose Bowl, and I’ve been there before for a soccer game and know how big it is. I had this moment where I was walking through the crowd and I saw, like, 5-year-old kids dancing and their grandmas too and everybody smiling and I can see this dot of my cousin onstage, like, quite far away. I just realized he’s hitting so many people of different generations and walks of life, and they’re all here having a great time listening to something I remember him writing when he was 17. This is weird.
What do you hope fans take away from the film?
Sheeran: I think if I was a fan of someone’s album and I saw it get created — I remember watching “Fade to Black,” and there’s a bit where Timbaland plays [Jay-Z] the beat for “Off Your Shoulder,” and I constantly go back to that on YouTube and watch it. Because it’s such a cool moment. Timbaland’s flipping through beats and you suddenly see Jay-Z light up and go straight in the booth and do it. So if I’m doing that for someone that I’m a fan of — I think my fans will really like this. Seeing how a song that you know is being created.
Cummings: I think they’re gonna realize that you just need to get it out of you and finish it and not judge it. There’s a critical part of your brain and a creative part of your brain. And if you listen to the critical part of your brain while you’re creating, it will just get in the way and stop you from finishing your song. I want people to watch the film and be inspired to pick up a guitar.
Do you think the film shows how much work you put into writing your own songs?
Sheeran: Yeah, I think that’s something that really gets to me, as well. A song like “Galway Girl” has nine writers on it, but it has nine writers on it because there’s five members of Beoga[, an Irish folk band] on it. You have to be fair and give songwriting credit where it’s due, but in the process, you then get people being like, “Well, does he actually write his own songs? He has nine writers on it.” So with “Perfect,” I had to have it 100% me when I wrote it. That was a big thing to do to prove to people, “Yeah, I can do a song with nine people, but I can also do a song on my own and it can work just as well.” There’s a lot of talk around me as a songwriter with ... people questioning whether I actually do this, and it’s actually nice to just have something that proves to people that I do.
Murray, where would you like your career to go next?
Cummings: I studied screenwriting. I loved making this documentary; it was brilliant, and I’d definitely be interested in making another one. But I’ve got to scratch the itch that was started from screenwriting. I actually studied distance learning — I did a master’s while I was on tour with Ed, so I’d be on the tour bus doing work. Because I was around the music industry and stuff, the kind of scripts I was writing were like comedies set in the music industry on a tour. I was just borrowing from real [life]. Kind of like “Spinal Tap.”
Sheeran: He’s very funny. He’s got an idea for a Judd Apatow-type movie, he’s got a great idea for a TV show. I don’t know if he’ll end up being a filmmaker — I think he’ll be a film writer and maker. I think that’s where his talent lies. Someone just needs to hire him as a “Simpsons” writer. He’d kill.