George Ezra: pounding the pavements and riding the rails

From serenading diners in Derry and using his discount railcard to tour Britain to recording his debut album, ‘Wanted on Voyage’, George Ezra is a singer-songwriter who’s packed a lot into his young life

George Ezra doesn't keep a count of the gigs he's done, but he does remember some more clearly than others. Like a gig in Derry last year when he ended up playing in a restaurant surrounded by diners who got more than they bargained for with their early-bird menus.

“They stuck me in the corner because they didn’t know what to do with me. I felt so bad. I mean, if I was out for a meal with someone, the last thing I’d want is a kid shouting and yelling down a microphone for 20 minutes.”

On the other hand, those restaurant-goers may one day talk about the time George Ezra soundtracked their soup and pasta. Ahead of the release of his debut album, Wanted on Voyage, and with a BBC Sound of 2014 imprimatur already in his back pocket, the singer- songwriter with the deep, distinctive voice and the winning way with folk, blues and pop is finding favour in many quarters.

All of this upward momentum means he’s no longer touring on trains, for instance. “I spent most of my last year on trains going everywhere to play. I had a 16- to 25-year-old railcard which meant I got a 30 per cent discount on fares, which was very handy. The only downside was I always had to get the last train back to Bristol.”

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Ezra was dabbling in music long before he realised it was for him. Growing up in Hertford, he was introduced to various indie bands by an older sister. His days in school saw him surreptitiously listening to Bob Dylan with the headphone cable tucked down his sleeve.

By night, he’d play in cover bands and throw shapes. “I’d be like a skinny runner bean onstage with my shaved head and a horrible blue guitar I’d borrowed from a mate.”

It was a move to Bristol to study at the BIMM music college which brought everything into sharp focus. “I left school at 16 and, at first, was working in a sweet shop and going to college to study music, but I think I was just chancing it. Why was I studying music? I don’t know. I don’t think I would have lasted much longer in school because I was not academic in that way. Like a lot of kids, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Even now, I don’t know.

“It was when I moved to Bristol and BIMM that I realised it was only going to happen if I gigged as much as I could and let people know about me. I had to make a conscious decision to get off my arse and do it.”

Aside from gigging whenever and wherever he could, Ezra also honed his songwriting smarts. “Sonically and structurally, it was the blues and pop music which always did it for me, but it’s always about the lyrics and stories for me. I listen to the world around me and talk to people and that sparks off something. Earwigging is great. I worked in a pub and a factory and it was nice to listen in and find something in that. A conversation like this might even inspire a song down the road.”

It wasn’t long before Ezra was spotted and signed by Sony’s Columbia label. He had very romantic notions of what a record deal meant at first. “When I first signed the deal, I was under the impression that they were going to stick me in front of a microphone that very day, record 10 songs and release it the next morning. That’s how it went for Bob Dylan, right?

"That was extremely naive of me and I know that now. I've learned so much over the last two years about how the industry works. You have to adapt. There's a big difference between living with three other musicians in a tiny flat in Bristol and telling each other that your music is the best thing you've ever heard, and trying to make an album with Columbia Records. "

The arrival of the label upped the ante on every level, especially in terms of trusting other people. “If you sign a record deal, you have to be willing to work with the label and other people and understand they’ve invested in you and that they have a say. You have to accept that they know what they’re doing and are working for the best of both parties.

“You find a lot of muso types in music college going ‘fuck the man, you don’t want to be on a major label’, but I think that’s just talk. If someone said to you ‘we love what you do and want to put it on wax for you and release it’, why would you say no? I understand some people will and that there are different kinds of labels, but I do think if you’re willing to sign a business contract – and that’s what it is – you then have the time and luxury to think only about the songs and gigs, which are the most important things anyway.”

When word reached home that Ezra had signed a record deal, the locals assumed he was rolling in cash. “I think people expected me to arrive into Hertford town on a Saturday night in a Bentley. They’d be going ‘you must be loaded’. They couldn’t be more wrong, man. Every day I appreciate how lucky I am to do what I do, but there’s a lot of work involved in it.

“I’ve also found that music is the only industry where everyone has a bloody opinion. I have friends who are labourers or who work in factories or who are in college and when I go home, the amount of advice I get given by them is unreal. Like, I wouldn’t advise them about their jobs!”

Wanted On Voyage is out on June 27th. George Ezra plays the Longitude festival, Marlay Park, Dublin, in July