This Saturday sees one the biggest gigs of the year – and one which has come as a total surprise. Tim Hughes looks at the rise and rise of George Ezra…

Funny how the best things are always the most unexpected – especially when it comes to music.

With his album riding high in the top 20 and a summer of festivals ahead of him, the very last thing we expected was to see one of the hottest names of 2015 returning to Oxford. So the announcement that George Ezra was on his way to town, to play a festival warm-up at the O2 Academy took everyone by surprise.

The singer-songwriter admits he can’t wait for Saturday’s show, though, insisting he is determined to enjoy the fame which has come from global success.

“I keep being told that this is my time, which is nice, but problematic because I’m planning to be around a long while yet,” he says.

Still only 21, the Hertfordshire-born and Bristol-based troubadour emerged out of nowhere two years ago with a storming set on Glastonbury’s BBC Introducing Stage. Last year he went back to headline the stage – and top it off with a set on the John Peel Stage, attracting what was later confirmed as a record crowd.

The next day his debut album Wanted On Voyage was released. It went triple platinum and sold over a million copies in the UK alone, spending more than 40 consecutive weeks in the top 10, and four weeks at number one.

The record was the country’s third biggest selling artist album last year, with singles Budapest and Blame It On Me also charting in the top 10. Not bad for a singer who was practically unknown a year before.

Since then he has picked up four BRIT nominations, scored top 10 singles in 10 countries, and picked up 2.5 million single sales, 105 million views on YouTube, and over 235 million streams on Spotify.

None of it seems to have gone to his head, however.

“The way I approach songwriting is to tell myself to just shut up and do it,” he says. “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 an idiot.”

There’s no doubt fortune has been on George’s side. Signing to the Columbia record label aged just 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 his contagious blend of blues, country, folk and pop was already earning him fans in high places – with DJs picking up early songs Angry Hill, which he had uploaded to its website back in 2012, and Budapest from his debut Did You Hear The Rain? EP Much of Wanted On Voyage was inspired by a trip George made around Europe. “I went to Paris, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Malmo, Vienna, Milan and Barcelona,” he says. “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.

“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, travelling 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.”

He kept a travel journal, his recollections forming the basis for songs once he returned. “When I read what I’d written, it felt like someone had handed me lyrics that were already almost finished,” he says. “Suddenly, writing the album was easy.”

Wanted On Voyage was recorded between early November 2013 and mid January 2014 in South London with producer Cam Blackwood.

“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 Mickey 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 not true, but sounds pretty cool.”

He played guitar, bass and keyboards on the album. “The best thing we did in the studio was use two 80s keyboards to make lots of strange sounds,” he says. “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, 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.”

However, he insists he’ll be enjoying Saturday’s attempts to play it live as much as the crowd, who snapped up tickets instantly. He adds: “If it all goes wrong, I’ll be laughing as much as everyone else.”

George Ezra plays the O2 Academy Oxford on Saturday. 
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