Ed Sheeran's phenomenal success depended on hard work, a few lucky breaks, and the talents of long‑term co‑writer and producer Jake Gosling.
Few artists in recent times have experienced the kind of vertigo‑inducing rise that Ed Sheeran has enjoyed. When, in September 2011, his debut album, the symbolically titled +, entered the album chart at number one, enjoying first week sales of over 100,000 before quickly going platinum, it seemed as if the 20‑year‑old singer‑songwriter had appeared from nowhere.
But Sheeran's back story is actually one of an impressive level of dedication and dogged determination. As a teenager, inspired by Irish singer Damien Rice, he picked up a guitar and began writing songs while still at school in Framlingham, in Suffolk. As soon as he left, he hit the road, appearing at open mic nights around the country and hawking CDs out of his rucksack. In 2009 alone, as the legend now goes, he performed a staggering 312 gigs.
En route, he showed real bravery in stepping on a plane to Los Angeles at the age of 19, to perform solo in low‑life bars, before by chance encountering his sometime mentor, actor/musician Jamie Foxx, who took him in and recorded him at his home studio, with Sheeran kipping on the Hollywood star's sofa.
However, none of the recordings Sheeran made with Foxx were to make their way onto +. Instead, the album's sessions were rooted in Sheeran's relatively long‑term relationship with producer and co‑writer Jake Gosling, who runs his own Sticky Studios from a converted barn situated in an apple orchard in the small Surrey village of Windlesham. "It's a great location,” Gosling enthuses. "It has a real country vibe. People love coming here, 'cause it's cut off and you're not interrupted by anything, so it's great for writing and all the rest of it.”
Previously, Gosling was renowned for his work in UK urban music, producing rappers Wiley, Kano and Wretch 32, while remixing tracks for the likes of Lady Gaga and Timbaland. He first met Sheeran four years ago, when their shared publisher dispatched the prodigious 16‑year‑old to Sticky Studios for a writing session.
"This little ginger kid turned up and he was really confident for his age,” the producer remembers. "He'd just moved to London and he was living above a pub. We sat down, and we were talking about him moving to London and that became 'The City', which was the first thing we wrote together. I felt his lyrics were just insanely good.”
One characteristic feature of Sheeran's music is his blurring of acoustic balladry and hip‑hop, which finds him switching between sensitive singer‑songwriter and adept rapper. Gosling says that this cross‑pollination of styles was something he encouraged from the moment the pair first started working together. "He loves urban music… he loved Wiley and all the rappers I'd worked with,” he says. "But I also love folk, so we connected on a musical level straight away. It was a perfect fusion of the two together, really. We were trying to create something new.”
Before + came out, Ed Sheeran released a series of EPs between 2009 and 2011, all recorded with Jake Gosling at Sticky Studios. Soon after starting to work together, the pair settled on a loose arrangement where the singer would give the studio owner £1000 to cover an EP's recording costs, which he would quickly recoup, before turning a modest profit selling them at gigs and through iTunes.
"The only way he lived was through selling his EPs,” Gosling points out. "Because I believed in what he was doing, I was like, 'Well, look, if you can cover my cost on the studio, I won't recharge you, 'cause I love what you're doing.' He'd get a couple of thousand printed up and just sell them at gigs everywhere he went. If he made 30 quid or 40 quid, he was over the moon about it.”
Style‑wise, Sheeran's formative EPs veered between full band arrangements, stripped‑down intimacy and, in No.5 Collaborations Project, a full‑strength blending of his songs with grime and dubstep influences and rap cameos from Devlin and Wiley. This followed Sheeran's first appearance on SB.TV, an online urban music video channel where he quickly began to amass millions of views. "They asked him to do a few tracks down at the studio here,” says Gosling, "and suddenly the online thing went mad. All these urban kids that were loving Wiley were suddenly into Ed, because he's rapping and he's singing. Lyrically, it was really connecting.”
Sheeran soon attracted the attention of Atlantic Records, and sessions for what would become + began at Sticky Studios in January 2011, with the singer determined not to move to a bigger or posher recording facility. In fact, as a highly amused Gosling points out, the majority of the album was recorded on an old PC running Cubase SX3. "I mixed 'The A Team' on that for the album and obviously we've gone platinum now,” he laughs. "Funnily enough, I got a message from Abbey Road through the record label when we were mastering, saying, 'Who mixed this record? This is amazing!'
"I chuckled to myself, because there can be a real snobbery with musical equipment and what you have and what you don't have. But I think half the battle is how you use it. I do it day in day out and really, I think, if you've got a good set of ears and you know what you want to hear and you can bring out frequencies and work on stuff, you can get amazing results. I mean, don't get me wrong, I'm having to probably work a bit harder than other people to get the right sort of sounds. But Ed's got a very warm voice anyway, and I think with the acoustic guitars and blending in samples and all these other things, it created its own sound.”
Even now, after a minor dalliance with Pro Tools, Gosling has stuck with Cubase, updating to version 5. "For me, it's the editing,” he says. "I know it so well. I don't really tend to use a lot of Auto‑Tune, but I use Melodyne in it quite a bit, which can be handy for backing vocals or if you're working with a singer who's a bit dodgy here and there. It's quite fluid and with the pitch‑shifting, it's really helpful.”
Elsewhere, Gosling tends to turn to Ableton Live when it comes to constructing beats. "I've got a massive vinyl collection and loads of old sample DATs,” he says, "so over the years I've put them onto my hard drive. I've gone through records and taken little breaks and samples and built up loads of my own sounds, and I just swing them into Ableton. You can really play with them. You can take a snare and turn it into a synth. You can completely manipulate sounds really easily, like being a painter and just swishing around with your brush. Suddenly you've got some sound that started as something else entirely. Or you can time‑stretch things really nicely and create your own loops out of loops. It's really versatile.”
Sticky Studios is built around a DDA AMR 24 console that previously belonged to Hans Zimmer. Gosling managed to get his hands on it when Chelsea recording facility Snake Ranch went out of business in 2004. His main monitors are a pair of early '70s JBL 4311Bs that belonged to John Lennon during his Imagine period. "A mate of my dad's used to work at his studio,” he explains. "So I recorded Ed's album through John Lennon's speakers, which is funny. I love mixing on them. I saw another pair on eBay for £100, which was insane. I've got NS10s as well, which I love, so I monitor between those two. And I've just got some Focal Twin 6s, which I've always loved but could never afford.”
Mic‑wise, Gosling tends to favour the SE Electronics range. "I did a lot of the guitars using a pair of SE 4400as. The main vocals pretty much were all done on the SE Z3300a, but I've just got a new Telefunken U47, which is lovely.”
On +, along with his production and co‑writing duties, Jake Gosling also served as the main keyboard player, utilising his array of vintage synths, which includes a Roland Jupiter 8, a Korg MS2000 and a Roland SH5. In addition, he has a Hammond, Fender Rhodes and upright Yamaha piano, miked with a pair of SE1as. For strings, he relies mostly on the EastWest plug‑in range. "With 'The A Team', it was all EastWest violins,” he says. "But when we did the final track on the album, 'Give Me Love', we used the EastWest samples mixed with some live strings we recorded as well.”
Gosling uses very few outboard effects apart from a Line 6 Pod XT for guitar sounds. "I use it for keyboards as well,” he points out. "But if I use the Rhodes, I'll mush it up through a VST plug‑in amp.” Otherwise, the producer insists, he stays in the box, effects‑wise.
"I love the Waves stuff. They've got such a massive selection of reverbs and compressors and they've got the SSL plug‑ins, which are fantastic… great on vocals, great on pretty much anything, really. I mix and match different reverbs with different instruments. I try different ones, high and low reverbs rather than one generic one.”
Gosling is also a fan of cutting frequencies rather than boosting them, in attempting to get a sound to sit in a work‑in‑progress mix. "As we go along, I'll make sure that everything's got its place,” he says. "With guitars, I'll literally EQ the bottom end out of it completely so you don't get the full range, unless it's a guitar on its own holding the track together.”
At the beginning of each session, if Sheeran and Gosling are starting work on a track from scratch, the latter will encourage the former to chat about his everyday life, hoping to mine his personal experiences and emotions for a song idea. "As a producer and songwriter, it's my job to be almost like a psychiatrist,” he laughs. "Tell me your problems, Ed, what's going on with your life? The beginning of that process will come from stories and things that are going on, mainly in his life.
"Then we probably attack it in quite an old‑fashioned way. We're not really thinking about how we can sit down and write a hit song. We don't necessarily go, 'How long is it going to take for us to get to the chorus?' I mean, I wrote something new with Ed the other day. He was writing this middle eight section and he began at the end and started writing backwards, lyric and melody. I was like, 'Wow, I've never worked with anyone who's written backwards like this.' And it made complete sense. It was just incredible.
"Usually, we just jam out stuff. Ed will grab a guitar and go, 'Oh I've got a few riffs.' So we'll go through some riffs and decide upon ones we like. Then we'll get a beat going and try to work on a feel thing and we'll start recording straight away. Recording is part of the songwriting.”
One unusual consideration, particularly in their early songwriting days, was how Sheeran would manage to perform the songs live, since it was such a key part of how he got his music across. On stage, he would make heavy use of live overlooping, forming a one‑man band with his Boss RC30 Loop Station, creating beats by tapping his acoustic guitar body and human beatboxing, layering bass lines and riffs that he would then perform over, before kicking the pedal on and off at crucial points in the arrangement for dramatic effect. "Because that was his main performance thing, we'd often write in a loop way,” Gosling says. "We'd loop up a beat and a guitar part and build it from there, working through dropping the track out or cutting it back in, like you would use a loop pedal.”
Nevertheless, the tracks on + are characteristically sparse, a feature which Gosling insists was intentional. "Yeah, definitely. I think the power really comes from the words and the sonics that are there. I wanted to make sure that they were right, rather than filling up and overcomplicating the tracks. We wanted it to be quite stripped‑back and to give it a lot of space. I think a lot of music tends to be overfilled these days. People shove everything in it. What we were aiming to do was let the songs breathe.
"I mean, there are moments in the album, like 'Give Me Love', where we went all in and thought, 'We need to create this moment of intense craziness,' 'cause that was the emotion we were trying to convey, with the strings and the hard drums and Ed just screaming, delayed and distorted. But as a whole, it was more about the groove, the beats, the sounds we used. We used a few live drum parts — we did some recording at SARM and some overdubs there as well. But I think that was more the record company wanting us to try and experiment, because it had all been done so simply.”
Vocally, Gosling says Sheeran tends to work incredibly quickly. "He's very fast. It's more about the emotion than getting the perfect take. But his singing is amazing and his harmonies are great. He's very clear. As an artist, he really knows what he wants. I think that's half the battle and it makes my job a lot easier. We never did line‑by‑line stuff. Occasionally there would be one word or something that we'd have to get. But it was very raw recording. I treat it very much like an analogue process of recording.”
As is increasingly the case these days, once tracking was completed on +, the mixing duties for the album were outsourced to a number of people, namely Guy Massey, Charlie Hugall and Ruadhri Cushnan. "All of those guys were really good, actually,” Gosling says. "Ruadhri was brilliant because I'd be talking to him on the phone all the time. The label were like, 'We don't really want to change what you've done, Jake, we just want to try and enhance what you've done on certain tracks.' And I was like, 'Fine, great, that's what it's all about.' We worked with Guy at SARM and those tracks were a bit more straightforward. We just wanted to literally enhance what was originally done in the room, rather than take it away and change it that much. It was just fairy dust really, but then fairy dust can be the magic dust, of course.”
Neither Gosling nor Sheeran attended the sessions, but the mix‑in‑progress tracks would be shuttled back and forth online for approval. "With technology now, it's very easy. You literally get sent the track there and then, as they're doing it. You can listen to it and come back with your feedback and things can be changed here and there. But I like people to bring their own things to the music too. It's important to let people find their own feet in the track and see what they can bring to it. And luckily they didn't really change things too much, so that was great. Nothing really surprised me. I was really happy with the remixes. Everything ran very smoothly.”
Just one song on the album was done outside the team: 'Kiss Me', the only track to survive from exploratory writing and recording sessions in Los Angeles with No ID (Kanye West, Rihanna). "I just recorded the vocals and guitars on that,” Gosling says. "Ed did quite a few tracks out there, but that one really felt like it fitted with the rest of the album. It worked with the sound that I'd created. It tied in really nicely.”
For his part, Gosling admits that, upon its release, he was somewhat taken aback by the instant success of +. "Yeah, it was insane,” he says. "I think we all felt confident about it. I mean, a similar thing happened with No. 5 Collaborations. That was done with just me and Ed and not even a record label. So for that to get to number two in the iTunes chart without any promotion was just amazing. Then when we had the label we thought, well, yeah, 40,000 for the album in the first week would be great. But then when we hit number one, it was amazing. 'Cause it's been such a long journey as well. It hasn't been overnight, it hasn't been processed and put together.”
Ultimately, of course, while + has proved the making of Ed Sheeran as an artist, it has also proved the making of Jake Gosling as a producer. "Well, yeah, absolutely. The weird thing is I haven't really changed what I've done. I've done the same thing and it's all been about timing. I think a lot more people are wanting deeper music and lyrics and stories, rather than another pop track singing about the club, y'know. In terms of album artists, people are wanting real songs, especially the younger generation. But, yeah, it's been a lot of hard work and sweat and tears and all the rest of it that goes into it. And Ed sleeping on my sofa.”
Which is perhaps the most surprising aspect of this particular success story. Even after going platinum, Sheeran has found it hard to give up his skint musician ways and is currently still sleeping on his manager's couch. "He loves his sofas,” Gosling laughs. "I'm gonna buy him a sofa. Actually, I might just give him my sofa. Which he's wrecked by the way. It doesn't fold up properly any more…”
Jake Gosling insists that the process of writing and recording the album was relatively painless throughout, with two exceptions. The first complication came with the recording of the hidden track on +, an a cappella rendition of traditional Celtic drinking song 'The Parting Glass'. "The reason why is because it's all vocally done,” says the producer. "The backing vocals were all played on a keyboard and each note was sung four times, so you can imagine how long that took. We'd solo one note and Ed would sing that note four times, down and down the keyboard to the bass, as low as he could go basically. It hadn't sounded right with piano and vocal, so it was like, 'Well, let's trying humming it.'”
The real bugbear of the album's sessions, however, was 'You Need Me, I Don't Need You', Sheeran's beat‑driven one‑fingered salute to the music business. "We did, like, 20 versions of that,” Gosling admits. "It was pencilled in for a single and there's always that thing of trying to meet in the middle with the commercial aspect of what music's about and the artistic aspect. The problem we had was that the first recording that was done was a live SB.TV thing and the energy and atmosphere of that track was what we wanted to capture. But, of course, with the magic of music and the way it goes, you can't always capture that again. So we really struggled.
"We did so many different versions: full‑on drummy things and really stripped back stuff. Then we tried to do it how we recorded it originally, with the loop pedal. We even thought of actually using the original loop pedal track, but it was only recorded in stereo. But everyone loved the song and Ed really wanted it to be a single as well, so we eventually had enough of it. It was like, 'We can't take this any more, we've done 20 versions.' So the label suggested that we get another guy [Charlie Hugall] in to try and do some drum programming on it and at that point, I went, 'Yeah, fine.' That became the final version.”
It's perhaps a touch ironic, of course, that Sheeran suffered record company pressure on a track that is basically telling the music industry where to go… "But I don't think everyone knows the answers,” Gosling argues. "Even if you've got a really good clear idea, at the same time, sometimes it can help to give the record company's ideas a go. If it doesn't work, it doesn't work. But with that song, I think we got to a place where we were all happy with it.”