How Ed Sheeran’s No. 1 ‘Shape of You’ Was Shaped

By Halperin, Shirley | Variety, November 21, 2017 | Go to article overview

How Ed Sheeran’s No. 1 ‘Shape of You’ Was Shaped


Halperin, Shirley, Variety


"Shape of You," the No. 1 song of 2017, could have ended up an album track by Rihanna or U.K. girl group Little Mix. Its eyebrowraising, sense-stimulating line about the scent of bedsheets came close to being "My T-shirt smells like you." It certainly wasn't meant for an Ed Sheeran album when the singer, along with co-writers and producers Steve Mac and Johnny McDaid, gathered in a London studio last winter. By that time, "÷" ("Divide"), Sheeran's third release, which has moved 900,000 units to date in the U.S., was ostensibly done and ready to be turned in. The three were giving collaboration a pressure-free try to see what they'd come up with. The result after just two hours: a hit that's the biggest of each of their respective careers.

Mac, who's written a dizzying 23 chart-toppers in his native Britain, says it all started with an off-the-cuffpizzicato progression on his Mellotron keyboard. "It was the very first thing I played," he says. "Certain sounds trigger certain melodies, vibes or styles. Ed just started to flow with a verse - that sungrap thing that nobody else does like Ed Sheeran - and, while I'd love to say it took hours, he works so fast that by hour two, we were putting down vocals."

McDaid, a member of the rock band Snow Patrol whose songwriting credits include Pink's current hit "What About Us," laughs when remembering how Mac, whom he hadn't met before, mistook him as "Ed's assistant." Then again, McDaid is accustomed to such collaborations. "It's like some sort of odd speed dating: 'Hi. Nice to meet you. Tell me everything about yourself and do it really well and quickly.'"

The combination turned out to be a match that created a smash. "Steve is a master craftsman," says McDaid. "His focus is on the destination, and my mind is in the moment a lot of the time." It helped, adds Sheeran's longtime co-writer, "that in Ed's mind it wasn't a song for him. It was a character, a playful diary of a vignette."

Still, there were forks in the road and crucial structural decisions to be made - that racy "Now my bedsheets smell like you" lyric, for starters. Says McDaid: "I fought it. It's such a bold line because the inference is that there's sex, and the smell of something is very intimate. …

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