What can aspiring artists learn from modern music's greatest one man band?
There is no doubt that Ed Sheeran is one of the fastest rising stars in modern music. Since really hitting his stride in 2012, the intervening years have seen Sheeran become one of the most widely known and recognised musicians in the Western world. So, in the run up to his third studio album, ÷, we look at the three lessons that new musicians can take from the three tracks Sheeran has dropped this year.
Variety is the spice of life
It’s fitting that a ginger singer is the one to best demonstrate that a bit of variety can spice up most musical offerings. In the run up to ÷, Sheeran dropped a total of three singles — Shape of You, Castle on the Hill and How Would You Feel (Paean).
Often, artists will stick to a consistent feel across at least two out of the three tracks that precede an album. The aim with that, of course, being that it gives listeners an accurate taster of the album’s flavour. However, this assumption is based upon the historical significance of the album as an important way of gaining a following. Since digital downloads and music streaming became the norm, there has been a subtle shift in consumption that means the standardised sound approach simply isn’t effective anymore.
Most people won’t listen to an album in its entirety anymore. While carving a consistent sound across all hype-building singles is good when it comes to the live sets, it simply serves to pigeonhole artists from a recording perspective. Sheeran tackles this with his three recent singles by offering three different and distinct sounds: acoustic balladry with How Would You Feel, indie-pop anthemia in Castle on the Hill and radio-friendly club pop with Shape of You. These share one coherent quality, but speak to three generally different audiences.
To truly maximise appeal and test the boundaries of personal creativity, artists should try to avoid any sense of status quo. By experimenting with how different they can make a new track from what they’ve done in the past, musicians can ensure they don’t get stale and reach the widest possible audience.
“When I was six years old, I broke my leg. I was running from my brother and his friends.”
With that opening sentence, Sheeran sets the tone for the entirety of Castle on the Hill. It’s a song of personal reflection, nostalgia, homesickness and memories that almost everyone will have something similar to. It is that personal touch that makes Sheeran an artist who speaks to both the head and heart of thousands. It is easy for new artists to fall into the trap of tackling wide-reaching topics in a generalised way that, hypothetically, speaks to many and will therefore make those listeners become immediate fans. Yet while being able to stir an emotional reaction from listeners is a positive, there is more that artists can easily do to create a meaningful emotional connection with hundreds of people they’ve never met.
Human nature is to bond with others. It’s why love is a recurring theme in most displays of art, and why many people secretly love having heart-to-heart conversations with others. This is the very thing that Ed Sheeran’s experience-inspired art of songwriting is so effective — he shares his own story with his fans, who subsequently feel like they are forming a meaningful relationship with him. Artists who can tap into this “universally personal” style will find that people respond much more positively to their music.
Unplug the club
One of the big selling points of Ed Sheeran is that he effectively brings the club to the acoustic guitar. Take Shape of You, for example. That song is essentially your typical late night club song, redesigned for an acoustic set up. This unique way of taking on a genre of music is a key lesson for all musicians. Instead of simply following the formulaic and — often overdone to death — style that many other artists have done, it exhibits much more creativity to successfully splice two distinct styles together.
It doesn’t have to be especially difficult, either. Try being inspired by metal music and recreating it with synths, or vice versa. This cross-pollination of ideas is how creative genius is born.