George Ezra is a sightseer. If Ezra’s radio hit “Budapest” doesn’t give that away on its own, his debut album, Wanted On Voyage, also has a tune called “Barcelona.” The album was written following a train tour of Europe.
And although the singer-songwriter, who headlines the Fillmore on April 9, already made his way through the United States last winter while opening for fellow Brit Sam Smith, he admits to feeling bad about missing out on exploration in favor of promotional work and gigs. Now that he’s coming back to San Francisco as a headliner, he plans to pause to see the city with a camera hanging from his neck.
“Even the most touristy things would be ideal for me,” he said. “Sometimes you just have to put your hands up and say, ‘Yeah, I’m a tourist.’”
Perhaps he just hasn’t had many chances to travel the world yet. The 22-year-old started singing when he was 12, but self-admittedly, not in tune. As his music tastes coalesced, he migrated toward Americana and the blues – artists like Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Woody Guthrie, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. As he dug deeper, he read about bluesman Lead Belly, and an album sleeve told him Lead Belly’s “voice was so big, you had to turn your record player down compared to other records.”
“All these guys have huge voices, but even if not necessarily big, they’re gruff in their own way, even if Dylan has got more of a snarl,” Ezra said. “It’s not a big voice, but it’s there. There’s something working away. That’s really what influenced me.”
Only recently, within the last two years and a few months, did Ezra try to incorporate the delivery of his musical influences with a bass-baritone range perfectly suited for his bluesy pop songs.
On the road this year with both Sam Smith and then Hozier, both prior to his first headlining U.S. tour, Ezra has learned from both of the U.K. vocalists, who have astronomically broken through in the U.S. Unbeknownst to many, he and Smith performed together about three years ago. Both had recently been signed to record deals and were playing a showcase in a tiny pub.
He remembers playing badly, and coming away very impressed by Smith.
“Seeing him in these huge venues… I’ve always thought Sam is amazing, but … the nicest thing is to see Sam be himself. It’s nice to know that that exists.”
That is what Ezra wants most: Even if he has similar success to Smith’s or Hozier’s, he wants to remain himself. He takes his music seriously, but not himself. That’s part of the reason he refused to put his face on the cover of his album, instead choosing a group of his friends and family members. He has his sister work as a traveling assistant, to help ground him.
“I don’t want people to be, ‘Ooh, there he is,’ because I’m just a normal guy,” he said. “If people appreciate my music, that’s ideal for me.”
Ezra said he wasn’t even sure Wanted On Voyage would succeed in his native England.
“There was a second where I was a little worried (that) in the U.K. it was just going to be a song, and ‘Budapest’ was going to be a one-hit kind of thing,” he said.
The fear was misplaced, as the album debuted in June 2014 at No. 1, and then stayed in the top 10 for more than half a year. “That’s a beautiful thing. If I can have the same kind of interest from people for the album, that would be fantastic.”
But “Budapest” started it all. The frolicking tune, on which percussion and guitar accentuate the rumble of the train tracks underneath, was one of several Ezra co-wrote with Joel Pott, singer in U.K. band Athlete.
Ezra’s month-long European trek was meant to inspire him to write music. The Hungarian city was the only one on the list he missed, after oversleeping a departure. The song takes its cue from all of the things Ezra is willing to give a woman for her love. Of course, all of these things – the golden grand piano, the beautiful castillo, the acres of land – are as real as his arrival in the city on that trip.
“It was my first attempt at tackling a love song, and I thought it would be really funny to list the things I didn’t have,” he said. “So the first thing that came to my head was a house in Budapest.”
While Wanted On Voyage, released in the U.S. in January, was inspired by travels, it’s not a travelogue. Most of the destination references sprinkled throughout the lyrics are personal references for his own benefit, Ezra said.
In fact, the majority of the album came from people-watching, one of his favorite activities while traveling, and something he hopes to have more time for in San Francisco.
“I’ve had no time to myself to explore (before),” he said. “(This) time around, I hope to dip my toes in a bit more.”
George Ezra, Ruen Brothers<
April 9, 2015