George Ezra: ‘I’m trying to figure out who I am and what I stand for’

The singer is at No 1 with sound-of-the-summer Shotgun, but last year his career came close to unravelling – and he says it was the best thing that ever happened to him

Pop stars walk among us more than we might realise, thanks to caps and sunglasses. But George Ezra’s spin on the classic disguise is more practical – a floppy-brimmed, khaki sunhat from an outdoor-supplies company paired with camouflage-rimmed sunglasses he got at a petrol station – but stylish it is not. In fact, along with his white Nasa T-shirt, the combination makes him look like the Twitter avatar of a man who retweets Piers Morgan. “People look at me,” he admits as we sit in a cafe near his home in west London, “but just because I look awful.”

It is 10.30am and today Ezra, 25, is on a whistle-stop radio tour taking in Magic, Absolute, and Radio 1 and 2. The disguise will get a good airing as we will be travelling on foot and by public transport. “If you don’t mind,” Ezra suggests, “I think I’m going to get the bus today.”

Ordinarily, a multi-platinum-selling artist travelling with a journalist in this manner would be doing it to prove how humble they are, despite all the No 1 albums (Ezra has two, including Staying at Tamara’s, 2018’s biggest-selling new album) and singles (his latest, Shotgun is such a dead cert for the next day’s top spot that he has already organised a victory barbecue for his friends back in Hertfordshire). But in this instance, like the chin- strap dangling from Ezra’s sunhat, it just seems practicality is key.

On the top deck of the No 94, Ezra reflects on Shotgun’s soon-to-be-confirmed rise to No 1. Its predecessor, January’s ebullient Paradise, was a huge hit, but last year his career came close to unravelling. Last June, following the release of 2014’s third-best-selling album, Wanted on Voyage, Ezra was ready to stage his return and released his comeback single Don’t Matter Now. It is hard in the streaming era to define what exactly constitutes a hit, but it is also hard to put a positive spin on two weeks in the Top 70, the high point of Don’t Matter Now’s chart run.

This was a reversal of what had happened with Ezra’s first single Budapest, which propelled him to stardom despite originally being issued as a free download: Don’t Matter Now had bombed. “It got a lot of media support,” Ezra says. “People just didn’t want it.”

There was a crisis meeting – “and only because I insisted on it” – at Ezra’s label, Columbia. “Can we all just be completely honest about what’s going on?” he asked the room. It was suggested that the album, pencilled in at the end of 2017, be pushed back to 2018. “I said: ‘Won’t we lose momentum?’ Someone stood up and went: ‘There is no fucking momentum.’” The album was pushed back.

This episode forced Ezra to reassess his previously laissez-faire approach to success: he didn’t even know the BBC Sound of … poll existed until he was longlisted in 2013, and in one interview he said he didn’t mind whether his career lasted two years or 12.

George Ezra
George Ezra on Don’t Matter Now: ‘People just didn’t want it’ Photograph: Adam Scarborough

“I don’t want to sound like the inspirational quote on the wall of a secondary school staff room, but Don’t Matter Now failing was the best thing that could have happened to me. I realised how much I must have been taking it all for granted.”

He had seen what failure looked like and, to be frank, he wasn’t keen. He even started thinking about alternative employment. “It’s one thing having one single that doesn’t work, but having two in a row is a sign of the end,” he adds. “When we were releasing Paradise, I said, out loud: ‘I’m going to give this everything I’ve got.’”

Paradise was such a tightly written, cleverly structured pop song that it seemed like the sort of multi-songwriter banger that major-label artists pull out of a hat when they’re in a tight corner; in fact, it was the first single Ezra had written by himself (most of his songs are co-written with Athlete’s Joel Pott). So it was doubly vindicating when it became his highest-charting single to date, peaking at No 2.

We arrive at Bauer Radio HQ, home of Absolute and Magic, where Ezra performs a short set for competition winners. Afterwards, he mentions that sometimes he’ll give audiences what he refers to as “an evening with George Ezra”, where he goes into full raconteur mode. Sometimes it works, he says, and sometimes it doesn’t; either way, he stands apart from acts you could mention in the same breath such as fellow British and Irish Modern Music Institute graduates Tom Odell and James Bay – because his chat is as engaging as his tunes.

This willingness to show personality has extended to things such as a merchandise-plugging promo clip so strange that it landed Ezra a spot on Vic & Bob’s Big Night Out. Then there’s his podcast, in which he talks to artists including Ed Sheeran and Elton John.

George Ezra
George Ezra: ‘I’d set the alarm, wake up, go downstairs to write, nothing would come’ Photograph: Frank Leavesley/Adam Scarborough

“If you’ve already taken the piss out of yourself, nobody can do it for you,” Ezra reasons. “But it’s not something you can force, or re-create to order. The other day, I had someone from the label on the phone saying: ‘How do you feel about live-tweeting Love Island?’ I was like: ‘Er, I’ve got quite a bit on.’”

Not that Ezra is averse to the idea of lightning striking twice. His debut album Wanted on Voyage was based largely on international travels; the main narrative of Staying at Tamara’s is about him taking himself off to Barcelona, where his Airbnb turned out to be a den of bohemian creativity. Doesn’t it concern him that he finds it necessary to insert himself into situations in order for inspiration to strike? Does he have to invent situations for his structured-reality pop because he really doesn’t have anything to say?

It is more a question of putting himself in places where even mundane ideas seem interesting, Ezra counters. But it seems possible that his need for prompts and the take-it-or-leave-it approach to ambition has roots in his comfortable and secure, semi-rural Hertfordshire upbringing. He never felt the need to escape. Or as he puts it: “I never had big dreams as a kid. I was so happy that I didn’t need them.”

With Ezra back in disguise, we head through Soho to the BBC, and talk more about his childhood. The main drama seems to be the teenage growth spurt that prompted him to slouch (“All I wanted to do was not stand out”) which still affects his posture today. He doesn’t think he was negatively affected by the divorce of his parents, both teachers, when he was 14: “For the first time, I saw them as humans with their own shit going on – it did me the world of good.” No teenage delinquency? “Well,” he says. “As a child, I used to run through fields of wheat …” So is there anything more to George Ezra than meets the eye? “I’m trying to figure that out myself,” he admits. “I’m not a boy and I’m not a man.”

Ezra says he has questioned all this ever since entering an industry that fetishises the tortured genius. “This used to play on my mind when I was first coming out with music: can I just own the fact that I had a wicked upbringing? I wonder if the confusion a lot of people have in their teens is what I’m experiencing now. I’m trying to figure out who I am and I’m trying to work out what I stand for. It’s exhausting.”

Between the ages of 21 and 23, Ezra experienced what he describes as “an acute feeling of worthlessness”. It didn’t occur to him during his first album campaign – though he has considered it plenty since – that during that entire period he had been hiding in dressing rooms and backstage areas, reluctant to face his own fans. “I was thinking: ‘I can stay in my little safe place in the dressing room, therefore I don’t have to confront anything, therefore it hasn’t happened’.” Then came the almighty political and cultural debacle that was 2016. “It felt like anything that could have gone wrong did go wrong – it felt like the wrong world to be in if you’re sensitive. Nobody in my life, friends or family or media outlets, had any answers.”

Ezra also knew he had to write his second album, but that wasn’t really happening. He slid into habitual thought patterns that he describes as feeling “like a snake eating itself”. The structureless life of a pop star between albums was not helpful. “I’d set the alarm, wake up, go downstairs to write, nothing would come, then I’d just do pointless shit. I’d clean the house. Every single day. I’d make up things to do. Lists of things that didn’t need to exist.”

Staying at Tamara’s in Barcelona turned out to facilitate the creative and mental readjustment he had been seeking, and the thought patterns that plagued him began to dissipate. He is wary of generating “My-anxiety-hell” headlines, partly because there have been a handful in the last few months, and he was surprised (“I was either ignorant or naive”) by how the media jumped on the way he discussed mental health. And partly because he knows that his experiences weren’t severe, in the grand scheme of things, and that his solution was straightforward. “But even when people experience less, it’s still something,” he reasons. So when mental health charity Mind asked him if he would consider being an ambassador, he said yes.

George Ezra live in 2018.
George Ezra: ‘The other day, I had someone from the label on the phone saying: ‘How do you feel about live-tweeting Love Island?’ I was like: ‘Er, I’ve got quite a bit on.’ Photograph: Adam Scarborough

After a brief on-air chat with Radio 1’s Greg James, during which Shotgun is turned into an ostensibly amusing football anthem, Ezra has his picture taken for the Official Charts Company’s website, suggesting his No 1 is almost certainly in the bag. When we speak again a few days later, Shotgun is at the top of the charts. Ezra calls as he is walking to the chemist for some hayfever pills. Yes, he confirms, he is wearing his awful hat and shades. After we parted ways at the BBC, he watched the England match on a train back to Hertford; the night ended with an unexpected session in a basement, playing Dylan covers with his dad and his mates until 1am.

As for Friday night’s celebratory barbecue – well, that was a shambles. “The look-at-me-I’m-No-1 angle didn’t go to plan,” he admits. “A friend raised his glass and said, ‘Congratulations to George for being No 1,’ but then another one went, ‘Hang on, haven’t you been No 1 before?’ And I was like, ‘No, that was my album.’ They went: ‘Isn’t that better than a single? That’s 12 songs, not one.’ And I said: ‘Well, kind of, but a single is harder,’ and then the moment had gone and I had to change the subject.”

They ended up playing rounders, then lit a sky lantern – but Ezra vetoed its release: the hot weather had left the countryside dry and he didn’t want to be responsible for a fire. The food went down well, though. He’d even prepared a salad. And at the precise moment when he knew he was definitely No 1, he recalls a brief moment of clarity. “It only lasted for a second, then vanished, but everything made sense,” he says.

“It felt surreal. And it felt funny. You have to chuckle, don’t you?”

George Ezra’s UK tour starts in November


Peter Robinson

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
George Ezra: Wanted on Voyage review – chirpy melodies, bulldozer choruses
There's a fire in George Ezra's lungs but it rages uncontrollably, writes Maddy Costa

Maddy Costa

03, Jul, 2014 @7:15 PM

Article image
George Ezra: Staying at Tamara’s review – the sound of summer barbecues

Laura Snapes

23, Mar, 2018 @10:00 AM

Article image
George Ezra: 'If only someone had put a javelin in my hand'
The blues-folk singer is nominated for four Brit,s but being a pop star isn’t the be-all and end-all of his ambitions

Tim Jonze

19, Feb, 2015 @6:33 PM

Article image
George Ezra – review

With his scaled-down repertoire that recalls Arlo Guthrie, this singer-songwriter could have been teleported from 1960s Greenwich Village, writes Caroline Sullivan

Caroline Sullivan

23, Jan, 2014 @4:34 PM

Article image
George Ezra review – gauche but charming lyrics to take you away from it all
The slightly long-winded storyteller performs his infectious hits to teens and their mums but he is at his best when shining a light on darker matters

Dave Simpson

09, Nov, 2018 @12:01 PM

Article image
Bland for the reload: why has George Ezra got a podcast?
In order to boost their brands, pop stars like Jessie Ware and Will Young are reinventing themselves as chatty talk show hosts

Hannah J Davies

02, Mar, 2018 @1:00 PM

Article image
Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith, George Ezra: 2014, the year in music
The gulf between beige breakthrough stars and the pop underground has widened further than ever this year

Sam Wolfson

20, Dec, 2014 @6:00 AM

Article image
George Ezra: Staying at Tamara’s review – unflinchingly polite

Phil Mongredien

25, Mar, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
George Ezra: Britain’s bard of blue-sky thinking
Behind George Ezra’s clean-cut image there are hints of a deeper artist waiting to emerge

Kitty Empire

23, Mar, 2019 @2:00 PM

Article image
George Ezra review – beguiling blues-pop from a talent in training
A rollicking set from bashful singer-songwriter with a Johnny Cash drawl suggests he’ll only get better with age

Ian Gittins

17, Feb, 2015 @11:28 AM