In a packed New York courtroom on Thursday, Ed Sheeran picked up his guitar and started a tune that got him caught up in a copyright dispute over Marvin Gaye’s soul classic “Let’s Get it On,” while the only audience that mattered—a jury—watched.
Sheeran spent an hour testifying in Manhattan federal court when his attorney, Ilene Farkas, pressured him to share how he came to write “Thinking Out Loud” a decade ago.
He reached back, grabbed his guitar from a rack behind the witness stand, and explained that writing a song was second nature to him. He said he used his own version of phonetics to create songs so fast that he could write as many as nine a day. Even last weekend, Sheeran claimed, he wrote 10 songs.
Then he sang just a few words of the central tune and put a smile on the faces of some onlookers in Judge Louis L. Stanton’s courtroom.
“I’m singing out loud,” he sang, loud enough to be heard but not raising decibels in court.
After he finished singing those words, he also spoke some of them and said “and then the words fall in”, trying to teach the judges his method of making music. He said he worked on the song with a co-writer, Amy Wadge, who wrote the opening chords.
Although he has performed with some of the world’s greatest artists and has become a regular at music awards shows at the age of 32, he said from the witness stand with his chair tilted towards the judges: “I’m not the most talented guitarist in the world .”
And when he bumped his hand against the witness stand microphone, he quickly said, “I’m sorry.”
He then embarked on the track that according to the heirs of Ed Townsend, Gaye’s co-writer of “Let’s Get It On,” has “striking similarities” and “more than common elements” to the famed 1973 Gaye music treasure.
“If your legs don’t work like they used to,” he sang sincerely, as if he could go deeper into the song. Then, after just a few bars, he abruptly returned the guitar to the rack behind him, his lawyer telling the judge it was an appropriate place to suspend for a week.
Two days earlier, he had been called to testify by prosecutors’ attorneys and was adamant about telling jurors that he and Wadge had come up with the song without copying anyone else’s music.
He had also said that a video showing him being separated on stage between “Thinking Out Loud” and “Let’s Get It On” was not uncommon, adding that it was “pretty easy to weave in and out of songs” which are in the same key. .
On Thursday, his lawyer asked friendly questions, explaining to Sheeran how he became interested in music after joining a church choir with his mother at age 4.
Sheeran seemed self-deprecating as he told his story, saying, “I can’t read music. I am not classically trained in anything.”
He said he dropped out of school at 17 so he could perform up to three times a night and play anywhere he wanted, from bingo halls to restaurants to “anywhere no one was.”
Within a decade he was performing with some of the biggest names in music, from Taylor Swift to the Rolling Stones, 50 Cent to Eric Clapton.
Before long, he said, he was writing eight or nine songs a day, explaining, “When inspiration hits, you get excited and it just comes out.”
Near the end of his testimony, Sheeran was asked by his lawyer why an expert called by the prosecution had tried to show how chords in “Thinking Out Loud” resemble “Let’s Get It On.”
“He said that because it supports his argument,” Sheeran said.
The trial will resume on Monday.