That George Ezra. Here, there and everywhere, and all the time, it seemed. An out-of-the-box, rafter-rattling success story, where the vehicle for that success was the only one that mattered: the songs. Songs that took him on a world tour that lasted a full two years. And even when it looked like the border-busting breakout star of 2014 (and ’15) wasn’t, finally, all over the place (nor all over the radio), it turns out he was still at it: travelling, searching, writing, playing, whistling.
But before we get to his more recent wanderings, to recap: George was the unknown teenager who turned a have-guitar, will-travel restless inquisitiveness – and an Inter-rail pass – into a suitcase of postcards-come-songs that travelled even further than he did.
Wanted On Voyage, the Hertfordshire singer-songwriter’s debut album released in June 2014, sold more than three million copies. It was the third-best selling album of the year in the UK, beaten only by Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith. But, like its creator, for Wanted On Voyage it was all about the journey, not the destination: it took 14 weeks to reach the Number One slot, a proper, word-of-mouth, word-of-ear hit. Then, led by flag-bearing tracks Budapest, Barcelona, Cassy O and Blame It On Me, that debut propelled the guitarist, barely into his twenties, on a two-year world tour.
The highlight, rock’n’roll or otherwise? No, it wasn’t shooting a video with Sir Ian McKellen or realising that his first ever New York show would be at Madison Square Garden (supporting Sam Smith).
“This is going to sound very 21st century…” this deep thinker with the deep voice begins, smiling. “I played the Pyramid Stage to one of their biggest daytime audiences, had a bit of a night at Glastonbury, our tour bus left at four in the morning, got home, still living at my dad’s in Hertford, on the same estate I grew up in, in my old bedroom. I woke up and the performance was already on iPlayer. So I lay in my childhood bed, still with a load of facepaint on, watching my performance on my laptop.”
This, then, was one of the disconnects that George faced as he finally wound down the Wanted On Voyage trek. The now four-time-Brit nominee had gone far, fast, further and faster than he’d ever imagined when he signed a record deal while still in his teens. But at the same time, he’d gone nowhere at all. He was back home, in that childhood bed, kicking his heels and puzzling over what had become of his life.
It was a post-coital slump of mind-wobbling proportions. Of course he knows it’s nothing like the hard work done by doctors, nurses, teachers, any number of people. But George was used to having everything organised for him, from breakfast to bedtime, and being itinerised up to the eyeballs.
“And then you’re spat out the other end. Your friends are at work Monday to Friday, so you’re waiting for them to finish so you can go the pub. But they’re going to the pub to have two pints after a day’s work, and that’s fine. It’s a reward. But doing that when you’ve done fuck-all all day really gets you down after a while. And yes,” he acknowledges with a grin, “I do appreciate that that sounds a bit too pop-star-woe-is-me!”
So George Ezra did what he does best: he picked up his guitar and buggered off. His first port of call was a city he knew well but that, paradoxically, didn’t know him so well: Barcelona. (Despite titling one of his standout songs after the Spanish city, Ezra cheerfully acknowledges that he’s, at best, a club-level act there.)
In a further attempt to shake himself out of his comfort zone, George avoided the posh hotels he could now afford. He went the Airbnb route – but staying with his host. In a shared apartment. With zero creature comforts. “It’s literally a bed in a room of this apartment owned by a girl called Tamara,” he relates. “Up seven stories, smashed windows in the stairways. In one room, a girl from Argentina who’s about my age. In another, an old couple from Germany. The shower is wonky. Front door barely locks. People are coming and going.”
Ezra spent a month in Barcelona, writing every day, enjoying the freedom, enjoying the anonymity – until, eventually, a none-the-wiser Tamara, intrigued by the guitar that makes up half his scant luggage, forces him to open his Spotify page and play his most popular song (Budapest, 365 million streams). At which point the Argentine girl bursts into the room with a triumphant cry of: “I knew I recognised you!”
His cover was blown, in the chaotic Airbnb at least, but it only made the trip even more special. “It just turned out to be the best experience I could have asked for. All of Tamara’s friends were artists, designers, fashion students, and they’re just cooler than we are. They’re like, ‘do you want to go for dinner? Let’s meet at 11pm!’ It took me two weeks to reset and slow down.”
Finally, a reset, not to mention reinvigorated, musician emerged from what sounds like his own personal Almodovar movie and returned to the UK with the beginnings of several songs. Key amongst these was Pretty Shining People, the song that would end up opening George Ezra’s second album – an album he’s calling Staying At Tamara’s because “all these songs came from this little flat, and I need to doff my cap to that”.
Lyrically and creatively, Pretty Shining People set the tone for the rest of the songs on an album that is winningly tuneful and powerfully uplifting in any language. Firstly, the song was completed on the move, during a subsequent writing trip to the Isle of Skye. Back in the UK, Ezra undertook other writing getaways, on a pig farm in Norfolk, in a former cornflour shed in Kent, in a converted cow shed in north Wales. The latter trip was in the company of Joel Pott, the former Athlete singer who’s been Ezra’s longstanding wingman co-writer.
Secondly, the sense of positivity and communality in the “weirdly Britpop” Pretty Shining People (“we’re alright together”) is one of the cornerstone moods of Staying At Tamara’s. He was writing his songs in a year of Trump, Brexit, food banks and general turmoil. Switched on to the chaotic world around him, and inspired as ever by his reading and listening material (e.g. very early Bob Dylan and So Long, See You Tomorrow by American novelist William Maxwell), Ezra decided to do what he does best: write songs of support, encouragement and escape.
See, then, the finger-snapping, brass-blaring, wind-in-the-hair zip of Get Away, a rallying cry in the face of anxiety. And see Shotgun, an irresistible song with a “hit the road, Jack” message and a smile-inducing Graceland vibe. “I’m constantly trying to do Paul Simon’s Graceland, on the first album and this one,” is Ezra’s cheerful admission, a mission on which he’s been aided on both albums by south London-based producer Cam Blackwood (London Grammar, Florence and the Machine). “I usually go too far and then take it back. But Shotgun is the one where I’ve managed it, and people will say ‘that’s Graceland’, and I’m OK with that.”
The theme of “childish escape” is also there in the uninhibited gallop and rafter-rattling punch of Ezra’s next single, Paradise. And it was there in Don’t Matter Now, a pointed but effortlessly cheering tune released last summer as both curtain-raiser and stall-setter. “I never understand it when peers of mine feel compelled to tweet ‘RIP’ for every celebrity that passes, or ‘my heart goes out to…’ in response to every world event. It’s sweet but futile. You can have empathy and compassion without needing to advertise it. And this need to comment on everything all the time? It’s not what I’m here for, in the public context, and in the context of my songwriting.”
It’s a position he further explores, amongst myriad other lines of thought, in a new podcast series that he’s currently recording and editing. Ezra & Friends is the 24-year-old in conversation with a range of artists and peers, from Ed Sheeran to Declan McKenna, Rag ‘N’ Bone Man to London Grammar’s Hannah Reid. Watch this free digital download space.
Staying at Tamara’s, then, George Ezra managed to lose himself, find himself, and embark on the creative road that would lead him to Staying At Tamara’s. It’s an album of positivity and encouragement written in the aftermath of mind-melting success – indeed, he admits that he suffered anxiety dreams about getting back on stage ahead of last summer’s so-called Top Secret tour. He knows better than most what it’s like to wonder what to do with your days, especially when it feels like the world is burdening you with expectations.
In fact, partly in light of that awareness, and also in light of some personal experience, Ezra recently hosted a pre-Christmas charity show in London in aid of mental health charity Mind, something he hopes to do regularly. “More likely than not mental health is a spectrum and we’re all on there somewhere,” he reasons. “An unfortunate few really suffer and the rest of us just bounce along. There’s such a lack of education about that.”
In the meantime, Ezra is further doing his bit to increase the stock of human happiness with a comeback album that is cheerful and cheering, mindful and soulful, heartfelt, energetic and energising. Staying At Tamara’s is about getting away, getting on and getting high – on music, and life, and love.