With the release of their second album Where I’m Meant To Be, Ezra Collective intend to make their most resounding statement yet and break far beyond the UK jazz scene. Here, Femi and TJ Koleoso are joined by manager Amy Frenchum and Partisan’s Jeff Bell to tell the story behind a band intent on changing the face of the industry…
WORDS: NIALL DOHERTY PHOTOS: ALIYAH OTCHERE
The morning after the final night of Notting Hill Carnival, Femi Koleoso is sitting outside a bakery in Hoxton, East London, reflecting on being at the event as a famous face among the throng.
“It was my first ever Carnival where people recognised me because of music,” he begins. “That was nice, it feels nice that people like the songs you write, it’s an amazing feeling… Until I was in the queue for the station at the end [of the night] and someone was pretty drunk and shouting, ‘I saw you here, and I saw you there!’ it made me feel a bit embarrassed.”
The Ezra Collective bandleader and drummer quietly removed himself from the crowd and made the 45 minute walk to Paddington tube instead, he says, explaining his disappearing act to fellow reveller, younger brother and bass-playing bandmate TJ as he takes a seat opposite him for an interview with Music Week.
Perhaps the Koleoso siblings ought to get used to the attention. On November 4, their group – completed by keyboardist Joe Armon-Jones, saxophonist James Mollison and trumpeter Ife Ogunjobi – will release their astounding second record Where I’m Meant To Be, a free-flowing, jubilant collection of songs that confirms their reputation as UK jazz’s breakout stars at the same time as breaking beyond the genre’s boundaries. Containing some of their biggest anthems and featuring guest spots from Nao, Emeli Sandé, Kojey Radical and Sampa The Great, it’s a record that shimmies effervescently through Afrobeats, hip-hop, dub-infused grooves, samba and more, the sound of a group confidently basking in the light.
All their releases have a theme, the eloquent and friendly brothers explain, and this one is a celebration of their journey.
“There are moments in a journey where you have a victory,” states Femi. “And you need to celebrate that moment. But there’s moments where you look back and think, ‘I’m my own biggest enemy [in terms of] progression’, or where you have to shrug your shoulders and say, ‘Life goes on.’ All of the songs go back to that central journey. That’s how I feel in Ezra Collective right now, that we’re on a journey, we’re not quite sure where it’s going, but it feels like a journey.”
Maybe now felt like a good moment to take stock. After a decade operating by releasing on their own Enter The Jungle DIY venture, Where I’m Meant To Be is Ezra Collective’s first release on a label after they signed to Partisan – home to Idles, Fontaines DC and more.
Partisan GM Jeff Bell says the group fit the company’s ethos comfortably, calling them a bridge between Idles and Fela Kuti, whose catalogue the indie represents.
“Ezra Collective are the perfect midpoint between Idles and their celebratory, inclusive community, empowering messages and live energy, and then at the other end of the spectrum, we work the entire Fela Kuti catalogue,” says Bell. “Partisan has always been about finding unique artists with unique voices that have something to say. A lot of the bands on the roster happen to use guitars to do that, but when you look at the spectrum of artists, it fits pretty squarely on. Whenever we are working with an artist in a lane that we haven’t before, it’s an opportunity to apply everything we’ve learned from our other acts.”
Bell says that the UK jazz scene is no longer emerging, it is here to stay.
“Every other week, there will be a UK, jazz or jazz-adjacent artist in the charts or being supported across major radio, streaming and TV outlets,” he opines.
Given Ezra Collective came together in London as jazz prodigies who were fed up of sticking to the standards, eager to work Skepta tunes and Fela Kuti jams into their repertoire, signing to a label like Partisan actually makes a lot of sense. But in the run-up to the release of 2019 debut You Can’t Steal My Joy, Femi told Music Week how their independence was a key part of what they were about. It was an encounter with fans in South America that got him thinking otherwise.
“I think we had run the course of independence and got to where we were going to get to with that,” he says. “There were dreams and ambitions we had that were beyond our means.”
On tour in Brazil as Jorja Smith’s drummer (Femi currently also plays with Gorillaz), fans approached him to explain how they wanted to buy Ezra Collective vinyl but were unable to because it wasn’t available on the continent.
“Spotify is big in Brazil and the algorithm had done its thing, but for them to get the vinyl, they were paying quadruple the amount the record is worth,” he says. “That to me was like, ‘If we had some industry muscle behind us, they could fix that issue.’”
Sometimes, Femi would look at the band’s manager Amy Frenchum and realise she was doing eight people’s jobs at once.
“We just didn’t have the power, the money, the advice, the team,” he says. “It was beautiful for a long time, but a few years ago, it felt like if the right match came up, you’d want the muscle of a label to pick it up and take it forward.”
Having the workforce and expertise of a label on-side has enabled Frenchum to keep an eye on the bigger picture rather than fire-fighting the day-to-day challenges.
“You can focus on those other areas that need developing and mentoring from a more grassroots level that we haven’t been able to get our teeth into,” she states.
It’s never been the case that the group has been “anti-label”, Frenchum explains, more just waiting for a deal that worked.
“It was the right time with the right label,” she surmises.
As well as agreeing that the band be allowed to finish their record before the label could hear it, another key factor in the Partisan deal was encouragement from founder Tim Putnam.
“Tim made it clear he wasn’t necessarily signing a sound per se,” recalls TJ. “More so, he wanted to sign an ideology and an approach to music. Just hearing him lay it out to us helped us to expand our horizons and was something that made us think, ‘This could go a lot further than maybe we thought.’”
Femi thinks that, for all the progress and breakthroughs jazz artists have made, big steps are still there to be taken.
“I want to see one of us take down Reading & Leeds Festival,” he beams. “It will happen when a bunch of us have [played there], or got to a place where, when someone says Ezra Collective or Kokoroko, it’s all, ‘Yeah, I know who you’re talking about.’”
They liken it to the fluid upward progress made by grime artists.
The drummer jokes that he has emerged from the group’s DIY period as a “music industry expert”, conceding that he found parts of his education to be rather shocking.
“I learned in a big way that the industry is not filled with honesty,” he declares.
Sometimes he’d admire how on-point someone’s Instagram game was, for example, only to discover down the line that they had a team of people doing it for them.
“You find out, ‘Oh, they’re not really good at Instagram, they had 25 people who are really good at Instagram, with loads of money to really push it,’” he says.
As someone who got a job as a DJ at Reprezent Radio and Worldwide FM so his own tunes could get some airplay, he’s also had trouble getting his head around the world of radio plugging.
“I didn’t know they had playlist meetings with radio pluggers, saying, ‘Put my artist on the playlist,’” he admits.
In his mind, DJs spent the week listening to music and picked their favourite bangers to play.
“I learned a lot,” he sighs. “I don’t resent it, that’s just the game.”
The main thing Femi took from that time was that you will always believe in your music more than anyone else does.
“That’s a power, it’s not a curse,” he says. “A lot of artists spend too much of their time trying to convince people to believe in them. We learned that if you believe in yourself, you can get far.”
These days, Femi says it’s more about trying to make the right choices when there’s a whole host of options, specifically being careful when faced with those ones that make a big “ker-ching!” sound.
“You have to trust your instincts,” declares Femi. “Money can be a real distractor and it has a way of making you think it’s the right path, whereas five years ago, there was no money, it was just for the vibes.”
The way through it, he says, is to talk to each other and be honest.
“TJ and I work in a youth club, you go there and spend two hours with the kids, so when you get an email that’s not right for you, it’s easier to make the right decision because you’ve seen real life,” he says. “But if you spend all your time at BRITs parties, you’re just gonna say, ‘Yes!’ You’ve got to keep yourself grounded.”
Femi admits that he still hasn’t got it totally right. Recently, he took part in something having not read the email properly and, on reflection, wasn’t happy with his involvement.
“It felt like a celebration of gentrification rather than a celebration of London, which is what I thought it was,” he says. “There was no bad blood, but I just knew in my heart, ‘Was it the perfectly right thing that backed up what I believe?’ Not really. You’ve got to be careful not to take the wrong option. It’ll always happen once in a while.”
Another dilemma he finds the band facing is which festivals to play now that offers are coming in left, right and centre.
“Before, you didn’t have a choice because you got offered four a year, you’re going, ‘Bloody hell, we got offered a festival, pack your bags, get your tent, we’re going!’” he says.
These days, he finds himself weighing up whether to play a jazz festival for less money that will be filled with Ezra fans, or a pop festival for a good fee where they’re low on the bill and no one knows who they are, but there is a chance they’ll gain some new fans.
“[Those are] tough decisions and it’s beyond money,” he says, matter-of-factly. “It’s those things that have changed, but this is the journey we’re talking about.”
Less of a predicament is the position the group find themselves in when handing out advice to the next generation of jazz musicians. It’s a role that Femi relishes.
“When a wicked 18-year-old kid comes up to me, I can really tell them, ‘Do this, don’t do that, this is how you get on radio or put your track on Spotify, Bandcamp is your friend,’ all those things,” he marvels.
While recently looking through the listings at Soho jazz mecca Ronnie Scott’s, he realised the group had opened doors for a new wave of artists.
“When I was at uni, there was a whole big campaign by older jazz musicians who were upset that a Black UK artist hadn’t headlined at Ronnie Scott’s,” he recounts. “We were doing that on a weekly basis. Can you imagine, 10 years ago, saying to [an indie label], ‘Oh, I’m in a jazz band.’ They’d laugh you out the door! Now they’ll listen to it. We did it a favour!”
The band return to the legendary venue as superstars in November, having shut down its website when tickets went on sale.
“It’s definitely gone off,” TJ agrees. “[New acts] can look a lot higher than we did. You’re not shooting for Ronnie’s anymore, it’s, ‘I want to play at a stadium’. It wasn’t a paradigm that we had.”
Jeff Bell says that Partisan often describe Ezra Collective as a supergroup in reverse.
“When you look at the other projects that the members are involved in, from Femi with Gorillaz to Joe playing with Nubya Garcia, joy is a concept that permeates everything they do,” he says. “Finding ways to work that into the campaign has been amazing.”
What Partisan brings to the party, he says, is a bird’s eye view on the group’s trajectory.
“We’ve been able to elevate the promo opportunities and continue that upward movement,” he says. “It’s a very global record and there’s a global audience. We see maybe even more avenues to market than with some of our other acts.”
Key to the label’s approach, Bell explains, was consolidating the visual world around the record.
“We worked with an amazing creative director, Jeremy Cole, and that’s going to translate to outdoor marketing and all the advertising and single art,” he says.
It’s important, Bell adds, that the label can translate locations where the group have built a strong touring business, such as the UK, the US, France, Benelux, Germany, Asia and Australia, into successful spots for their recorded work, too.
Building the connection with the band’s live reputation will see indie retail come into the picture through a series of in-stores and launch shows, too. There’s also an aim to both consolidate their success on BBC Radio 6 Music and bring Radio 1 into the picture, while also aiming for TV opportunities with the guest features.
Bell states that support from DSPs shows that they understand how important Ezra Collective are. The album’s lead single Victory Dance is close to 300,000 plays on Spotify, where the band have nearly 500,000 monthly listeners. Their biggest tracks on Spotify are What Am I To Do? and Reason In Disguise, with over 10 million plays each.
“We’ve got the band their first few New Music Friday inclusions and playlist covers across not just jazz playlists, but a lot of other more mood-based playlists and we’re expecting that to continue,” Bell says.
YouTube, he ventures, also provides a specific opportunity on the back of the video assets the band are creating.
“These days, visual content is really leading the story, even in some ways beyond the music,” Bell states. “We’ve got a nice opportunity to really bring both together.”
Bell says that a Top 20 in the UK would equal success, but he’s more interested in “bringing them [away from] that jazz label, because the album really does transcend genre.”
Amy Frenchum’s ambitions aren’t as tangible. She just wants one of her favourite bands to get the recognition they deserve.
“I’m not an out-and-out jazz fan,” she says. “I’m just a massive, passionate fan of Ezra Collective and that’s the driving force, to work with the guys and see their true potential. I’m so excited for them to smash through this ceiling. They’re one of the most incredible bands in the UK. It’s also about this bigger, much more powerful message about what music can do for people, how it can support and uplift them.”
Femi Koleoso says that all he does is informed by what he learned at Tomorrow’s Warriors, the London jazz training programme where his band met.
“‘Each one, teach one’ is their motto,” says Femi. “So, you learn something, teach it to the next person. That’s basically how I live my life.”
It’s also what made them set up the Future Foundation, a scheme to help underrepresented groups break into music.
“I believe that, whatever you are, help something that looks different,” says Femi. “We’re five boys in a band, how can we help [people who are] brutally underrepresented in the industry?”
Right now, the aim is helping Black women get into touring crews.
“I wanted to help Black women get into lighting, sound engineering, tour management...” he continues. “Take Gorillaz – amazing team, band and crew, and I’m only mentioning them because I’m in it. In the entire crew, there’s one Black woman and that’s a big group. I thought, ‘How can I champion that Black woman who’s amazing, a Londoner, a tour manager and help her inspire 50 more?’”
Both Femi and TJ have mixed feelings when looking back at the industry’s response to Black Lives Matter, with Femi describing Blackout Tuesday as “performative”.
“I like the magnifying glass it put on it,” he says. “But we have an issue of understanding the difference between aggressive racism and complacency with things that aren’t right, [like] when you see a company have 815 members of staff, zero Black women and one Black man. It did result in some internships and initiatives, but the black square was a good example of the way they see things because it was just a rush to not look like the bad guy. But time will always tell. The Future Foundation was born out of something from our hearts, to make this more public and to help.”
The core ethos of Ezra Collective, shares TJ, is that they want to be a band that helps people.
“I remember Femi asking, ‘What do we want to be as a band?’” he says. “We decided we want to be the band that helps.”
It’s what has defined everything the quintet have been through so far, from DIY success to the cusp of a label-assisted breakthrough.
“At the end of the day, the question we’re going to get asked is, ‘What did you do with what you had?’” TJ concludes. “What we have is some good tunes, the ear of some people that can provide opportunities and young people that like our stuff. We can use that to help young Black people.”