March 16, 2018 9:00am
Boy meets world
It’s 10.30am and George Ezra is buzzing. “I’m fairly new to the world of coffee,” he says, a big cheeky grin plastered across his face. “But you can go for f***ing hours on the stuff.” He’s had two cups so far this morning, the maniac. As if on cue, a song comes on the stereo in the north London studio where he’s being photographed – ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ by Lou Reed.
There’s some fussing over outfits as the photographer sets up the shot for Ezra’s NME shoot. Star and stylist settle on a long black coat, accessorised with a pretty standard white mug of the IKEA variety. It’s a look pitched somewhere between Johnny Cash and the work experience boy getting the teas in. Ezra glowers down the lens with the measured insouciance of someone who knows exactly how a rock star should look when holding a mug at a photo shoot. When I eventually get up close, I realise that – in this case – the camera doesn’t lie: his skin really is that smooth, almost poreless; his blonde hair is actually as soft and fluffy as a baby duck’s. “I’m wired,” he says. “Ask me anything!”
Ezra’s suffering from a nasty cold – so I’m told by his concerned PR. But where others in his line of work might pit their pathogens against hard drugs, or else just not turn up to the interview, he’s happy to simply order another cappuccino and sit down to chat. I want to ask him about sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll, but he seems far too wholesome for that. And too successful. After he released his debut album, ‘Wanted On Voyage’, in 2014, Ezra’s career took off at a shocking pace. Only Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith outsold him that year. “There wasn’t a point when I was like: ‘This makes sense,’” he says. “It makes sense for things not to make sense, is what I’ve learned.”
So, instead I ask him about travelling, and his follow-up album, ‘Staying at Tamara’s’, which has taken four years to appear. On ‘Wanted On Voyage’ Ezra channelled his childhood obsession with Bob Dylan into upbeat guitar ditties covering love, youthful endeavour and dreams of far-flung European cities. It was the sound of the perfect early-20s Interrailing holiday. What’s this new record about, I ask? “The biggest theme is escaping,” he says, leaning towards me in his chair. “When you’re touring it’s a beautiful existence, but then you’re spat out the other end and there’s nothing. All I could rely on was my creativity, and I’m not someone who can just wake up and write a song.”
However, that’s exactly what he tried to do. Having spent two full-on years touring a huge first album, including playing to a packed daytime crowd on Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage, Ezra then fell into a mind-numbingly dull cycle of watching TV, messing with his phone and getting early nights at his family home in Hertford, he tells me. “Every day I was waking up trying to write. Then every night I’d put my head on the pillow and think: I tried to do something today and failed. I felt useless.”
The cure for this malaise was, as it turns out, to go on the perfect early-20s Interrailing holiday and see some of the places, like Budapest and Barcelona, that he’d written songs about but never properly visited. In Barça, he holed up in a cheap and scuzzy AirBnB, full of old vinyl and bohemian artist types. “It was such an amazing trip,” he says. “I just figured, George, wouldn’t it be more fun if you went to live with a stranger? And it was.”
That stranger was Tamara, and the trip – along with other getaways to less exotic locations including a pig farm in Norfolk and a bed and breakfast on the Isle of Skye – gave Ezra what his music needed: headspace. “I was in a town where nobody knew me, and I had no commitments. I would just get up and walk around and fill notebooks. You’re forced to tackle thoughts. You can’t suppress them.”
“I’m not a boy, or a man. I’m somewhere in between”
– George Ezra
“Anxiety is the label I landed on for what I was feeling,” he continues. “At home I’d be going to bed at 11 o’clock and the breaking news would show something happening on the other side of the world. And I’d start to feel like I wasn’t doing enough. But, what can you do? You’re in your pyjamas in the Home Counties. It’s bigger than you are. You can be part of something, but it’s not all on your shoulders. And it was the trip to Barcelona which made me go: ‘F**k, you don’t have to be constantly clued up to what’s going on.’”
That thought turned itself into a song, ‘Don’t Matter Now’ – an early single off ‘Staying at Tamara’s’. “Sometimes you need to be alone,” he sings on it in his full-bodied baritone, over a sunny, ska-inflected riff. “Shut the door, unplug the phone.”
“What I’m trying to work out is if the thing I’m going through is not because of the world and me, but because I’m 24.” Like a quarter-life crisis, I suggest? “Yeah, like I’m not a boy, or a man. I’m somewhere in between. What are you, George? A man-boy? That’s how I feel.” When will he become a man, then? “My laugh has got to sort itself out before I can call myself a man. It’s far too giggly.”
There is definitely something boyish about Ezra, though not in the slugs and snails sense. He’s what your auntie would call a very nice young man. He describes his music as “user-friendly”, which I can understand, given that I’ve spent the morning inadvertently humming the tune to ‘Budapest’ – a song so warm and familiar you could make cocoa out of it. He wrote that one at the tail-end of his teens, when life was simple, and he was developing a taste for being on the road. “The first few tours in the back of a van when you’re trying to build an audience,” he reminisces, “you just feel like you’re living outside of the law. You’re not doing anything outrageous. But it’s more just – no-one cares. You’re this thing in the night.”
It strikes me that Ezra has managed to do everything right in his career so far. He dropped out of Bristol uni but landed a record deal with Columbia. He didn’t rush his difficult second album. He’s become a patron of the mental health charity, Mind. Where’s the excess, I ask? Where are the mountains of coke? Where’s the solid gold toilet? “Too much is riding on me to perform,” he considers, ruefully. “It’s just bigger than I am, the whole thing.”
This is usually the part of the interview where the rock star starts complaining about how hard it is to be a rock star, but there’s none of that from Ezra, who knows that his fans thinks he rocks up to his gigs with ten minutes to spare and see him as the freewheeling troubadour, not the hardworking figurehead of a massive commercial enterprise: “Our industry relies on so much smoke and mirrors and I like that. You don’t want to know how the sausage is made.”
Instead he’s put his energy into a sort of unofficial counselling service for enormously successful musicians, which is cleverly disguised as a popular podcast series he calls George Ezra and Friends. So far Ezra’s had Ed Sheeran, Rag’n’Bone Man and the one and only Craig David round for a chat about the slings and arrows of the music biz. What are guests like, I ask?
“Craig David is the most positive man I’ve ever met. He took the liberty of beatboxing for me – just me and him in the room. That’s perfect. Why wouldn’t you?” That was a one-off (for Ezra – I imagine Craig David does it all the time), but there’s also a more common thread to these conversations. “Without fail the people I interview say, ‘I love what I do. Sure, I’ve had to miss funerals, weddings, births… but it’s a small price to pay for doing the best job in the world.’”
How would he feel if the big adventure ended now, I wonder? What if ‘Staying at Tamara’s’ flopped harder than Ezra’s well-conditioned hair? “Genuinely I would be alright with that. It’s so much easier to a take a defeat when you believe in what you’ve done.”
“Every night I’d put my head on the pillow and think: I tried to do something today and failed. I felt useless”
– George Ezra
“On this record – and this is a bit of a bulls**t sentence – I’ve been more honest than ever. Not for anyone else’s sake, but for my own. And it just so happens that I’m in love and it’s a brilliant thing to write about.”
In love? Ezra’s told me already about his ex-girlfriend and “muse” for the first record (“When I was playing the Pyramid Stage I looked out and saw her on some other guy’s shoulders. I was like, hmm…”). Where did he meet the current one? “We met at a festival, just in passing. Then we were in the same town and I tried my luck and messaged her – ‘Fancy dinner?’ – and I guess she… yeah… she came along. It always happens when you’re not looking for a companion.”
“I don’t think you ever write a love song for somebody,” he says, when I ask whether she’s inspired some of the romantic numbers on this album. “It’s more that you’re aware of the feeling they give you. I’ve never been like, ‘sit down, I’ve got something to play you – this one’s for you’.”
We have to stop chatting, now, because Ezra is adhering to the tightly controlled schedule of a very successful person, and needs to be a car, going somewhere, and presumably taking some Echinacea on the way. He gives me a firm handshake, another ear-to-ear grin and leaves me thinking about a few lines in the song ‘Pretty Shining People’ – the outrageously upbeat opener to ‘Staying at Tamara’s’ – that he says make up his favourite verse on the record.
“ Took it in turns to dream about the lottery / What we might have done if we’d have entered and we’d won / We’re each convinced that nothing would have changed / But if this were the case why is it a conversation anyway? / Are we losing touch?”
I feel like I’ve just met someone who did win a lottery of sorts. And he seems pretty in touch to me.
George talks the best guests on the George Ezra & Friends podcast
“Something that I think I already knew about Ed, but was really drilled home by meeting him, was the idea that you are never too successful to work hard. Unless you wake up and promote your music, people will not hear it.”
“I always considered myself to be a fairly positive person, but Craig is on a whole different level. He gave me a real lesson to ‘live in the moment’.”
Hannah Reid (London Grammar)
“Hannah has a real sense of self and what is necessary to keep happy and healthy. I think we could all do with a bit more of this.”