Up-and-Coming Star George Ezra Comes to the Fox Theatre, 4/2
At 21, George Ezra has seemingly sailed in to his position as one of pop's most talked about new artists. Even he seems unsure how it happened. The hype around the Hertford-born singer with the booming, bluesy voice certainly hasn't gone to his head. Of his transition from umpteen One To Watch 2014 lists to top ten staple, he remains refreshingly non-plussed. "I keep being told that this is my year," says Ezra. "Which is nice, but problematic because I'm planning to be around in 2015 and long beyond."
Early proof of this longevity came in June when - a year after his debut festival performance on Glastonbury's BBC Introducing Stage - Ezra returned to the festival to headline the same tent to a capacity crowd, before a set on the John Peel Stage the following day which, according to festival organizers, saw the biggest crowd that stage has ever seen. His debut album Wanted On Voyage was released the following day and remains in the top ten today. This impressive statistic hasn't seem to have distracted Ezra, who has continued to do as he has since moving to Bristol aged 17 to study songwriting - get on with making music. "The way I approach songwriting is to tell myself to just shut up and do it," shrugs the singer. "It's the same with performing. I don't get nervous; I just get on stage and sing. I have no airs about being a musician. I make clear that I'm a bloke with a guitar, nothing more. Then if anything goes wrong, I look like less of a knob."
In January, Ezra took off on a completely sold out UK tour that lasted almost two months, with barely a day off. When it finished, he headed for Europe, where his song Budapest was rapidly becoming a hit, reaching the top 10 in no less than nine countries on the continent. In Italy he stepped out of a radio station to find fans holding up photos of himself to sign. "It was weird," says Ezra. "A couple were in their 30s and it was a Tuesday afternoon. All I could think was, don't you folk have jobs to be at?"
There was never a plan to make music a career, nor does it feel like a job. That Ezra landed a record deal while in his first year at college was entirely unexpected. Of the performance on Internet channel Bristol Couch that got him noticed, Ezra mostly remembers the couch. "It was inflatable, so they could carry it around," he recalls. "But when it was blown up, it looked like leather. If you actually required a sofa, it would probably be a good buy."
By the time he signed to Columbia aged 18 he had, he says, "only four or five songs - and I'd done twice that number of gigs. It was really early doors. I'd just met my manager and we'd decided to leave it a year before trying to contact anyone." But Ezra's gloriously gutsy and ridiculously catchy blues, country and folk-infused pop was already making waves. BBC Introducing had fallen for Angry Hill, a song Ezra had uploaded to his website in early 2012 and which later appeared on his debut Did You Hear The Rain? EP. In autumn, Budapest - from that debut EP - was put online as a free download and picked up and played by a host of DJ fans at Radio 1, long before his record label had even sent them a copy.
A couple of songs on Wanted On Voyage date back to Ezra's college days. A lot of the album was inspired by a solo trip around Europe last summer. Budapest is, in part, about not making it to Budapest, but equally a surreal subverted take on the age-old notion of making sacrifices for a girl. Cassy O' is about wishing the trip wouldn't end. "I went to Paris, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Malmo, Vienna, Milan and Barcelona," _says Ezra. "It's the first time I've ever done anything for a long period of time entirely by myself. And I loved it. It turns out that I quite like myself." Ezra took a guitar and occasionally busked, but mostly he travelled, saw the sights and filled journals with his experiences - what he'd seen, conversations he'd overheard, what was going on in his head. "It was my way of dealing with the pressure of having signed a record deal," he says. "I panicked a little. The problem was I was living in Bristol, traveling to London or supporting other artists on tour and not seeing anything new. It would have been fine if anyone had wanted songs about First Great Western trains and how expensive their sandwiches are. Otherwise, something needed to happen."
Back in Bristol, reading the journals, songs began pouring out. "When I read what I'd written, it felt like someone had handed me lyrics that were already almost finished," he recalls. "Suddenly, writing the album was easy."
Wanted On Voyage was recorded between early November 2013 and mid January 2014 in Clapham, south London with producer Cam Blackwood. With its 'What are you waiting for?' refrain, album opener (and latest top ten single) Blame It On Me, set to a skiffle shuffle, sums up the singer's mantra of just getting on with the job, while Listen To The Man is a woozy, bluesy, summery-sounding lesson in self belief. Sonically, Wanted On Voyage's most surprising song is the perky, electronica-driven Stand By Your Gun, which could be The Blue Nile doing disco. The funniest lyrics - and there are plenty to choose from - are probably on Drawing Board, a fantasy retaliation aimed at an ex when a relationship goes sour. "It's definitely a fun sounding album," says Ezra. "Probably because it was such fun to make. I don't like to say what my songs are about, but on quite a few, I take the piss out of myself, including Cassy O', which is me laughing at myself for having such clichéd thoughts. Listen To The Man is just a daft song that's great to play live. On Leaving It Up To You, I sing falsetto in the chorus, which isn't that easy for someone with such a deep voice. On stage, I say I got girls to sing it for me, which is bollocks, but sounds pretty cool."
All of the songs on Wanted On Voyage have been played live for months. Ezra plays guitar, bass and keyboards on the album, but didn't attempt the drums. Blame It On Me boasts the albums only strings - a single cello note. "The best thing we did in the studio was use two '80s keyboards to make lots of strange sounds," says Ezra. "What could be a weird beat on "Did You Hear The Rain?" is actually three loops we found and mixed together - someone beat boxing, someone playing didgeridoo, and another I can't remember. We fed loops through distortion, and then made beats out of it. There's tons of that going on in the songs, which was fun in the studio, but now that I've got a band, is a ball ache to try to recreate live. So it's not all been plain sailing, and Ezra is aware there will be more challenges to overcome, but he's keeping a relaxed attitude to it all - he's got his head screwed on right, this one.
"Still, if it all goes wrong, I'll be laughing as much as everyone else."
For more information, visit George Ezra's website at www.georgeezra.com.