“It’s never been this way before, shut down by anxiety,” George Ezra sings on his new album ‘Staying At Tamara’s’. “You better get away, boy.”
Strife and hardship aren’t what immediately come to mind when thinking about the music of the 24-year-old, whose debut ‘Wanted On Voyage’ remains a brilliantly breezy first effort, served up with the cheesiest of grins, but it was something he had to contend with when touring for the record came to an end.
“At the end of the last record, I wasn’t in a good place,” he opens up, only seconds after grinning while raving about the perks of his GoOutdoors discount card as we send him off camping for our cover shoot. “I didn’t have the vocabulary to identify what was up, just subconsciously aware that something wasn’t right.” After the extreme learning curve that was becoming a star at breakneck pace and touring ‘Wanted On Voyage’ back and forth across the globe for two years, it was his return to the quiet, (relatively) normal life that proved the hardest.
“On the first record, everything was new. Every city I went to, every experience of radio or an interview, all of it was new. I wasn’t used to it, even at the end really. You know how when there’s a newborn baby,” he poses, “and you see it once every two, three months, and it’s learnt a whole new set of skills in that time? That’s how it felt constantly. It felt like I was learning a whole new way of life, and I didn’t stop to appreciate it or take it in.”
After a sobering yet restorative period of being back in his native Hertford, waiting for friends and family to finish their 9-to-5s and plodding through weeks based around Friday nights at the pub and Sunday roasts, the urge to travel came trickling back to him.
‘Wanted On Voyage’ was forged from a trip George took around Europe, spending every two nights in a new city - punctuated by the well-travelled story of him missing a train to Budapest while debilitatingly hungover, and gaining a number one hit out of it - and then, as success started coming his way, the travelling continued in earnest for a good few more years. “[The touring] meant I then ended up staying no more than one night in each town,” he giggles. The answer for album two, then? George packed his bags, and headed for Barcelona.
“If you’re going through dark times and writing dark music, when do you escape?”
“At the end of [the ‘Wanted On Voyage’ tour], I did not wanna fucking travel ever again,” he says, a slight grimace appearing on his face, remembering flight upon flight. “I wanted to go somewhere and stay there.” Pitching up at a stranger’s apartment he found on the internet - owner Tamara going on to provide LP2 with its title - a pretty idyllic month followed. “I was just walking around the city, taking it all in, and filling up a notebook,” he remarks, still every inch the wide-eyed adventurer that missed that train to Hungary. “Every day I’d go up to the Montjuïc, a big hill in the city, and just sit there and drink shitloads of Lemon Fanta! It was the best! The closest thing I can liken it to is being a student again. It’s a city I didn’t really know, where people didn’t know me, and there were zero commitments.”
“I’m no good at being creative in my comfort zone,” he expands. “Teaching myself to relax was brilliant. And instead of getting myself a hotel or apartment, I thought I’d go and essentially live with this stranger. At worst, it’s someone who shows me where the bed is and leaves me to it. At best, it’s someone who helps me settle in and gives me advice on where to go. There were records everywhere; her boyfriend was in a band; all her friends were creatives. They were fucking cool. That’s cool wherever you’re from, but in Barcelona! You’re cool!”
Other trips followed, including a getaway to a cabin built on a farm in Norfolk, where George amped up the writers’ retreat cliche level to the max, reading in bed via a head torch, getting (maybe a little too) close to nature with some bracing outdoor showers, and working by candlelight. “If there was a chart of the most important trips [to write the album], that would be right behind Barcelona,” he states. “It was beauuutiful! It was the height of British summer. I was making fires outside every night, I had a battery powered radio,” he continues, evidently embracing the isolation and back-to-basics nature of the trip without an ounce of pretence. “10 days, no electricity, just standing outside having a shower, looking out onto this field like ‘Wahey!’” he smirks, waving his arms up and down manically. “Just hoping there wasn’t a long-lens camera hiding in the distance!”
A slightly bleaker, rain-soaked voyage to the Isle Of Skye followed, George getting a tugboat over to the island from the fishing village of Mallaig, and staying with an elderly couple, one of which was an oil painter. The other used to tour with The Kinks, obviously. It’s almost too barmy to believe, but these situations seem to follow George Ezra around like a yappy dog, and he’s only too happy to embrace it. As well as providing material for notebook after notebook, it also gave the singer the escapism he craved, and it’s something that seeps into every part of the album.
“[I’d] just sit there and drink shitloads of Lemon Fanta! It was the best!”
‘Staying At Tamara’s’ begins with ‘Pretty Shining People’, a track that embodies the album’s themes in one early swoop. “There’s a few things about that song,” George begins. “Firstly, I love that the record starts with just a guitar. It could go anywhere at that point. And then, essentially, the first bit of the song that I wrote was the pre-chorus,” he continues, before racing through the refrain of “Why why why what a terrible time to be alive, if you’re prone to overthinking”. “That’s probably the darkest lyric on the record. It’s not a nice lyric. I said to myself, ‘If you’re gonna sing that, you have to follow it up with the absolute antidote. You need to feel confident in singing something extremely upbeat after that.’” So then the chorus kicks in: “Hey pretty smiling people, we’re alright together.”
Though the record does indeed delve into the flipside of many people’s perceptions of George Ezra - a musician that exists so sunny side up - that aforementioned antidote is always waiting to thrust you out of the slumber. “If you’re going through dark times and writing dark music, when do you escape?” he adds, and from then on, ‘Staying At Tamara’s’ provides a gorgeous daydream.
Single ‘Paradise’ is a wide-eyed ode to untamed romance; dreaming of that insatiable blossoming of a new relationship, and sunburnt all-inclusives to Benidorm, while ‘Get Away’ turns its sorrow into power via a bright, instantly catchy chorus. The highlight, though, is ‘Shotgun’. A cheeky recounting of lazing on beaches and racing away on road trip after road trip, windows down, it’s escapism personified. It also finally allowed George to utilise the “bikini bottoms / lager tops” lyric he’s had in his back pocket since his teens, desperate to fit it into a song at any opportunity.
“It’s cheeky, that lyric. You can only get away with it with a smile on your face,” he grins, and it’s this consistent knowing wink and deft self-awareness that sets him apart from the hordes of British male singer-songwriters he could be (and has been) compared to. While the music he makes could easily confine him to the ears of mums and dads and Radio 2, it’s George himself that provides the charismatic base for these songs to exist on, aware of all his cheesiest moments and prepared to embrace them wholeheartedly.
“Nothing can come back and bite you in the arse if you’re honest.”
“Every time I step on stage I try to be cool,” he laughs. “I want to be cool. And then every night, two songs in I’m grinning ear to ear. ‘Oh you’ve done it again George!’” he quips, one of many occasions where he talks back to himself, like he’s trying to forcibly detach Real Life George from Pop Star George. Thankfully, they’re inextricably tied.
“I realise that for some bands, it works so well for them to have a moody act. I love that, and as fans you want that - you want a po-face, and a real attitude - but for me, I soon realised that that’s not the situation I’m in. I’m in a better place if I can just be myself. I’ve never said anything I don’t stand by, and I don’t approach conversation differently between people I know and don’t know. Nothing can come back and bite you in the arse if you’re honest. If you’re completely honest with yourself, and you don’t get on with someone, that’s fine! Whereas if you’ve gone in with a pretence, or an idea of who you want them to think you are, you can blame it on something, and not just let it be.”
“I don’t care if you’re singing woe-is-me folk songs, but you should also know about Miley Cyrus’ ‘Bangerz’.”
Tearing up the traits of what a solo male singing love songs with a guitar should be (though he did go and write his album in a cabin, granted), George Ezra is a thoroughly modern pop star, fiercely up on his pop culture, and really fucking good at Twitter.
“My favourite one at the moment is Camila Cabello,” he offers, before breaking into an actually-not-that-bad rendition of ‘Havana’. “I just love pop culture. I don’t care if you’re singing woe-is-me folk songs, but you should also know about Miley Cyrus’ ‘Bangerz’. That’s a really important album from the last 10 years.”
“Anyone that’s above the age of, whatever, 30 or 40,” he continues, “they’ll always say ‘music was best in [insert year here]’ and without fail it’s when they were a teenager. Yeah mate of course it was, you didn’t have a job, you didn’t have bills to pay - music was just a soundtrack to you getting fucked up, and your introduction to being active in so many ways. And that’s still so true for people of that age now. Come on, man.”
It’s back to one night in each city for a few years for George, but he leaves behind an album so sure in its message that it can help anyone get away for an hour, free of consequence or second thought. It’s more important than you think.
George Ezra’s new album ‘Staying At Tamara’s’ is out now.
Taken from the DIY Festival Guide 2018, out on Friday (30th March). Read online and order a copy (or subscribe) below.
Photos: Phil Smithies / DIY