With the rollercoaster success of two million-selling albums behind him, George Ezra is back with Gold Rush Kid, a record set to be a totem for the UK music business in 2022. Music Week meets the superstar singer-songwriter, Sony Music UK & Ireland’s Jason Iley, Columbia’s Ferdy Unger-Hamilton and their team, plus manager Ryan Lofthouse, to hear how inner peace is fuelling his biggest campaign yet (feature first published in print in February 2022)…
WORDS: NIALL DOHERTY
PHOTOS: PAUL HARRIES
About six months ago, George Ezra was having trouble sleeping. Rather than let the restlessness get the better of him, he got up and went downstairs. Earlier, he’d been sorting through his vinyl collection, and as he began flicking, he came across a white label. Ezra doesn’t own a white label of anyone else’s music, so he knew it had to be one of four things: either Side A or Side B of one of his two albums, 2014’s Wanted On Voyage or 2018’s Staying At Tamara’s. He decided to stick it on and find out. When it’s 2am and you have problems hitting the hay, what else are you going to do? It turned out to be the latter half of his debut and, as he sat and listened, Ezra smiled to himself as he reflected on those early years.
“It felt like the first time I was able to listen to it and just go, ‘Yeah man, you were 18, you did alright, it’s not the best, it’s not the worst, you did the best you could at the time,’” says the 28-year-old.
It represented a significant moment for Ezra. Years of huge success, massive sales and big shows have also been laced with internal struggles but, in the course of making his forthcoming third record Gold Rush Kid (due on Columbia on June 10), the Hertford-born artist has emerged with a new-found zen.
“It’s an acceptance of getting comfortable with who you have been, who you are,” he states. “I feel calmer.”
Given the winning streak that Ezra has been on since his 2013 second single Budapest became the sort of crossover hit that your grandparents know the words to, who can blame him for getting wrapped up in the whirlwind? Budapest has 2,834,578 sales so far, according to the Official Charts Company. Wanted On Voyage (1,499,571 sales) also spawned Blame It On Me (1,451,462 sales). Even in an era of mega-successful male singer-songwriters with first names of people who never got into trouble at primary school (George, Ed, Ben, Lewis, James, Tom, Dermot), Ezra is in the top tier. Staying At Tamara’s (1,186,354 sales) also broke the million mark, while its biggest hit, Shotgun (an incredible 3,480,247 sales), became Ezra’s calling card. His monthly listener count on Spotify is around 10m when we talk, before Gold Rush Kid has even got going. What’s more, his YouTube views are in the hundreds of millions and he won Best British Male Solo Artist at the BRITs in 2019.
Jason Iley, chairman and CEO, Sony Music UK & Ireland, can’t hide his excitement at his comeback.
“I’m so happy to see George return with new music this year,” Iley tells Music Week. “Everything he has accomplished to date is a credit to the care, thought and hard work he puts in. He is such a warm, funny and genuinely great person – and that shines through in his music, and with everything he does.”
And yet, Ezra has achieved all of this feeling a little like he doesn’t belong. On his George Ezra & Friends podcast, he speaks to other artists and hears them wax lyrical about how making music is their calling, how it was meant to be. Ezra is always a bit perplexed by that because he’s never felt the same: his take is that he’s a musician who likes performing who wanted to see how far saying ‘yes’ to things would take him. Very far, in case you’re wondering. But you can’t be a yes man forever, and from now on, George Ezra is making some tactical changes.
“If I were to say no to things in the past, I think I would have always had a bit of ‘what if?’, so I starting saying yes to everything,” he says. “But that will get you.”
And get him it did. With his third album on the horizon, he needed to go back to the drawing board.
London, January 2022. In the airy open-plan office of his PR company, George Ezra cuts an affable figure. He’s tall and broad-shouldered, but something about the way he carries himself is the opposite of looming, more welcoming and breezy. Perhaps it’s that boyish face – the years of bearded seriousness are still a way off, if they’re coming at all – or maybe it’s the slow, low rhythms of his speaking voice, an Estuary twang that’s been ever-so-slightly refined in well-to-do Hertfordshire. He’s dressed head-to-toe in denim but there isn’t much of a sense of rebellion about Ezra. He’s more likely to tell the cashier that they’ve given him too much change. “Excuse me, Mr Parking Attendant, I forgot to pay for my parking, please give me a ticket,” you can imagine him saying.
This easy-going nature has been hard won, at odds with the person that Ezra describes as the Staying At Tamara’s tour came to a conclusion in 2019.
“I wasn’t very well at the end of the last record,” he recalls, taking a seat. “I felt very fortunate when lockdown came. I was wired and… I don’t know what words to use to describe it. I wasn’t well.”
Pertinently, those final gigs were two nights at the Royal Albert Hall in aid of the Mind charity, shows that prompted Ezra to realise it was time he started looking after number one.
“Regardless of lockdown, I needed them to be the last shows,” he says. “There needed to be a line in the sand where you go, ‘You need to put that to bed and you need to figure out how you’re approaching this moving forward.’ I knew it throughout that last year [of the album campaign]. I think I did a good job at times of pushing it to one side.”
A period of reflection has resulted in Ezra’s most technicolour record yet, one that matches his bluesy folk-pop with modern flourishes. There’s a swagger and jubilance to Gold Rush Kid. For evidence, look no further than the enormo-chorus on its sun-dappled lead single Anyone For You. Ezra is hardly an artist who has been short on choruses, but here he sounds more sure of himself than ever.
“I listen to the record and I still love it,” he marvels. “It’s a new feeling in life to have this kind of confidence in it. Not that I haven’t been confident in the past, but I was thinking about too many things. This time, I sit down and I listen to it and go, ‘That’s the best record relative to you that you could’ve written.’ It feels like, ‘Oh, this is what something sounds and looks like when you’ve been at it for 10 years.’ That’s the thing.”
This is the first time in his career, Ezra says, where he feels comfortable enough to describe himself as an “artist”.
“Even that was a challenge,” he continues. “Whereas now, I’m going, ‘That’s what you do, and what a beautiful thing.’”
“George is very self-aware about who he is and what it means and what people want from a George Ezra record,” says Closer Artists MD Ryan Lofthouse, who has managed Ezra from the beginning. “A lot of the creative in terms of the album title, the visuals, how the videos should feel and what the stage should look like, everything starts from him.”
Lofthouse says that wasn’t always the case, given Ezra signed with Columbia when he was 19 and both artist and manager were a little like “rabbits in headlights”. By the time lockdown came around in 2020, though, they were ready for a pit-stop where they could reflect on what should come next.
“We’ve been going at 100 miles an hour for the best part of eight or nine years,” says Lofthouse. “So we actually got a chance to take stock. We had so many long conversations about what we wanted everything to look like next time and how we wanted everything to feel, all driven by George.”
Ezra thinks that he has to be involved from top to bottom, that it would be weird if he wasn’t.
“It’s not in a kind of puffing my chest style, it’s just that it has to come from me,” he reasons. “It would be knackered [wouldn’t work] if you relied on people to go, ‘Here’s your artwork.’ The [album] art looks brilliant and it was my idea. I can stand by it and go, ‘Thank God you voiced it,’ because that takes confidence. An idea is one thing, but [it’s about] then having the confidence to share it and go, ‘Could we try this?’”
Columbia president Ferdy Unger-Hamilton says there is no understating Ezra’s importance to the major. “He works on every format and is hugely successful all the way across the market on any metric that you care to use,” he says, in a simple summation of his act’s selling power.
Unger-Hamilton says the label’s intentions are for Gold Rush Kid to be every bit as successful as Ezra’s last outing. “I think George broke the mould of being a traditional singer-songwriter on the last record and became someone that appeals to all demographics,” he adds.
To that end, Ezra has come to appreciate that it’s impossible to get his head round what people think of him. There are too many varied opinions out there and not enough space in his brain. If some people know him for Budapest soundtracking a TV ad, then so be it.
“I’ve been on a Wren Kitchens advert now for two years and that’s how some people will know that song and that’s fine, I can’t change that,” he smiles. “That exists and that is real. But there’s also a side of me that by the end of the last record was playing with the tightest band imaginable, putting on a show that’s worth the pounds that go on the ticket.”
Lofthouse explains it with a variation on the same theme, describing Ezra as a rare artist who’s at home both on Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway and near the top of the bill on the Pyramid Stage.
“That’s much better than the Wren Kitchens analogy!” Ezra declares with a smile. “That’s exactly it. That bit isn’t lost on me either. That’s the coolest thing in the world to me, Glastonbury and the Pyramid Stage. And it’s not that I feel a trespasser there. I feel silly and it feels surreal, but it doesn’t feel wrong.”
Recently, Ezra has found himself having a recurring conversation about how heavily pop music relies on young people. As someone who made the steps from teenager into adulthood under the full glare of the limelight, he’s increasingly uneasy about it.
“On one hand, we all know, understand and respect the fact that young people are figuring out who they are, but we also demand and rely on them to be presenting us with answers,” he says. “That’s not wrong, it’s just the way it is, but it is worth observing that that’s how we consume pop music a lot of the time.”
The whole charade is easier to navigate when you have a clear idea of who you are, says Ezra.
“The more comfortable you are with that helps in all aspects of life,” he states. “And this is not me preaching, this is me in my experience. The more comfortable I’ve been with who I am, the easier it is to communicate with people.”
His second podcast, Phone A Friend, where he discusses mental health with his friend Ollie MN, helped him get there. “It directly links to me feeling more comfortable about who I am publicly, because I’d listen back and go, ‘Fuck, that just sounds like me talking to my friend, yet people still don’t mind, that’s cool,’” he says.
Ezra doesn’t consider himself an ambassador for mental health, he says, but he does keep an eye on the situation. During lockdown, he was pleased to see that discussions about the subject were part of the rhetoric “at all rungs of the ladder – from government to press to locally. People were considering one another’s mental health as something that needed to be [taken into account].”
Without pointing fingers, he also noted that sometimes he’d hear someone in the public eye talking about it in a manner that felt a little convoluted, as a way of getting some attention.
“You’d see someone talking about something as if they were manipulating a situation to talk about this thing,” he says. “I’m sure I saw it but you can’t prove it, it’s the perfect crime! But I think that has to happen for things to become part of day-to-day conversation.”
In the past, Ezra has relied on journeys as the thematic pillars of his albums. His debut recounted travels around Europe and the follow-up drew from a period staying in Barcelona (at Tamara’s, of course). As it came to writing his third album, though, a travel ban had put the kibosh on that.
“I was like, ‘Shit! I’ve relied on that big time!’” he states.
Having those real situations and locations had done him a big favour when discussing those records, he says, because he could go, ‘Yeah sure, they’re love songs – but did I tell you about my month in Barcelona?’ In not being able to do so this time round, Ezra realised he had relied on it as a “secret weapon”.
With no new adventures to call on, he found himself going through old notebooks for ideas. He’s kept journals since he started scribbling in a big green art sketchbook aged 15, returning to them at different times in his life.
“I’ve kept them quite religiously, [whenever] I’m in that frame of mind,” he says.
Looking back over them lit the spark, with one entry recounted over the jaunty piano-pop of Anyone For You
and another, written during a holiday to St Lucia with two friends, inspiring the line from Green Green Grass: ‘Green green grass, blue blue sky, you better throw a party on the day that I die’. “I’m so happy that I went back through the notebooks because I think that line would have just been lost,” he says.
As with his two previous albums, Joel Pott is Ezra’s songwriting foil on Gold Rush Kid, the ex-Athlete man also taking on all the production duties for the first time. “My relationship with Joel is one that I probably take for granted until I sit down with someone and talk about it,” says Ezra. “I found myself saying to him on this record that I feel like we’re a band, it’s just that only one of us tours,” he explains.
Pott has been a mentor, too. “He will have taught me things knowing that there’s a lesson in there for me without highlighting that there’s a lesson in there, and that’s a good teacher,” Ezra says.
He has no wishes to expand upon his songwriting team, however. In fact, he is comically firm about the idea of making music with other people. You won’t see any George Ezra club remixes any time soon. “I don’t like collaborating,” he says, matter-of-factly. “I’ve got no interest in collaborating with other artists, full stop, I don’t want to. It’s not that I don’t like it when other people do it. Sometimes it’s great. I just don’t.”
Perhaps that’s because he feels that he works in a slightly different way to a lot of his peers at the top of the charts. He thinks his process is far slower. “Everyone I interview on the podcast, the thing I hear most is that if a song is written in a session, the production is 80% there by the end of the day,” he says. “I’m more like, ‘Should we do the acoustic version? Yeah let’s do that and live with it for a few weeks…’”
Recently he spoke to Griff and about her being a new artist whose single releases are already in double figures. “That’s the name of the game now,” he says, slightly daunted. “I’m so fucking grateful I missed that – and I missed by a fucking smoking paper, it’s tiny.”
He has other means of collaboration beyond the realms of songwriting. He sees Lofthouse and the label team as his chief collaborators. “I’ve been talking with these people for 10 years and we’re on the same page for the most part. It’s good to bounce things off them,” he says.
“I met George pretty much as I was starting my role at Columbia,” recalls Unger-Hamilton, who joined in 2016. “He was in the process of writing the songs to follow up his platinum debut. Artists often don’t welcome a new opinion into their camp, but George was the opposite. He made it very easy for us all to express our opinions honestly and the results were all the better for it.”
Conversations with the label before the release of Staying At Tamara’s led Ezra to write Shotgun, the No.1 hit that came to be his biggest-selling single.
Lofthouse says that working with Columbia has been essential to Ezra’s evolution. “Martin Dell [A&R] and Ferdy have been amazing partners from an A&R point of view,” says the manager. “They’ve completely trusted George’s instincts and they’ve magnified his vision, rather than imprinting their own thoughts on what the next George Ezra album should be like, they’ve followed his lead. They were really supportive all the way through.”
“Due to the fact that it was a very small core team, it was a simple A&R process,” adds Unger-Hamilton. “It would be George, Joel, Ryan, Martin and myself having a series of, often unnecessarily, deep conversations – sometimes in the pub – about where we were with the record. This album has really continued the work of the last one in terms of his sound. I think that George and Joel have very much continued to explore the space they created on the last record, somewhere between singer-songwriter and pop artist. It’s one of those records that you know exactly who it’s by, even before the vocal comes in.”
Lofthouse says that the team have been fortunate to have worked with Columbia’s director of marketing Alex Eden-Smith right the way through Ezra’s career. “I genuinely couldn’t run a George Ezra campaign without him,” he says of Eden-Smith. “He understands where George sits in the world, he totally gets that if we do something really pop we have to counterbalance it with something a little bit more indie, for want of a better word.”
Eden-Smith reckons that the challenge facing the team on Gold Rush Kid is that previous commercial success does not guarantee future wins.
“It’s about how to keep relating to the next generation who weren’t around when George put his first record out, who perhaps don’t know Budapest,” he says. “A lot of people know and like George, but a lot of those people come on board for a couple of singles. From a marketing perspective, how do you bring those people into the deeper level of the album and his world? That’s what we’re always trying to do.”
The answer, says Eden-Smith, is putting Ezra’s personality and musicality at the centre of things. Some of the most successful viral moments on previous campaigns were off-the-cuff and responding to things going on in the world, something they are keen to replicate. Eden-Smith says there are interesting plans with their partners in the pipeline that he can’t yet reveal and predicts that DSPs and tech platforms could open things up.
“George has always been very good at social interaction and putting himself out there to his fans in a way that people can relate to,” he says. “I think our job as a label is to make sure people are seeing that stuff and that we’re creating enough of the right content to get that across to people.”
Of course, any campaign seeking to get good content into the world right now means getting on board with TikTok. Ezra, who was a keen user of Twitter in his early days, remembers someone at the label introducing him to Instagram before the release of his debut album. He required a similar initiation when it was suggested he post on TikTok, initially dismissing it as the platform that people did silly dances on. But the topic kept coming up. Eventually he said, “Can someone at the record label pitch it to me, like it’s Dragons’ Den or something, to show me what it can be, because I’ve not got the app, I don’t know.” The pitch worked – Ezra was sold on it.
“It feels like a place where people can express themselves in a fun way,” says the TikTok convert. “Subcultures are leaning into it in a way you never saw on Instagram and what that means is you feel, ‘Oh, I can be myself more on this thing,’ which I’ve never felt on social media.”
It can also serve as a place, Ezra says, where he can put on little performances without too much stress attached. “I think one of the mistakes our industry makes at major label level is you can overthink something that’s supposed to come across as throwaway or spontaneous,” he says.
It helps that Closer has its own digital team, headed up by Josie Charlwood. “George has embraced TikTok with open arms,” says Charlwood. “He’s trying lots of new things with us and working closely with me and my colleague [digital marketing manager] Lucy Bradshaw to execute new ideas. The team over at Columbia have been integral to how we’ve been able to incorporate TikTok, making sure we work directly with the people there on best practice, strategy and new music teasers.”
Other plans include the expansive and immersive Gold Rush Kid website, a weekly journal and newsletters for fans to sign up to, stems from the singles being made available to remix and more. “It’s a new era for George and our digital plan is very much tailored to reflect that,” says Charlwood.
Of course, there are still the old world measures of success too. Lofthouse expects continued support from BBC Radio 1 and 2, who have been on board since the start. “They’ve always been really proud of the fact that he came through BBC Introducing,” he says. “In terms of radio stations, we’ve been fortunate that he’s always straddled that straight down the line pop and then sort of slightly left.”
Lofthouse is also very excited about Ezra’s biggest ever headline show this summer at Finsbury Park. “It’s an amazing achievement,” he says.
It was when Ezra got to arena level last time round that Lofthouse was able to cast an eye over the crowd and get a good idea of who a George Ezra fan is.
“I’d say the front third of the room is girls and boys under 25, then you’ve got this middle section where it’s a date night gig, then families,” he says. “It is a proper family gig now. In 2019, he was the most streamed UK artist on Amazon Music and I think that’s because there’s a lot of, ‘Alexa, play George Ezra,’ because it’s music for the whole house. I think it’s a family ticket but we still get a young audience too.”
Despite everything George Ezra has achieved, there was still something left on his bucket list as he was making Gold Rush Kid. In an unlikely turn of events (and something that doesn’t crop up in your usual promo cycle), he wanted to walk the length of the UK mainland, from Land’s End to John O’Groats, a whopping 603 miles. The trek took four months and, by the end, Ezra and his walking buddies were walking 20 to 30 miles a day, five days a week. Originally, he had the idea that this would be a journey he could tie to the record but instead the album took a different path. He’s glad it did. "Thank fuck we didn’t because it was exhausting and such an undertaking,” he says. “The album would have been rubbish!”
The whole schlep has been filmed for a forthcoming documentary, with Ezra making stop-offs on his way to meet musicians and locals. It might not have directly fed into Gold Rush Kid, but the experience left a mark in other ways. “The thing that I got from it and the thing I’m carrying with me today still is that I’m far calmer and more content,” he says. “It feels like a life-changing experience.”
It has given Ezra the opinion that people should go to work straight out of school and take a gap-year at 30. He thinks that would sort everyone out. For him, the walk felt like the final piece of the puzzle he’d needed to get himself right.
“It felt like I’ve been having conversations with myself in the year leading up to it that were really productive and helpful and it was like having undiluted thinking time to get my head round things and to challenge myself,” he says.
It’s over two years now since Ezra stood onstage at the Royal Albert Hall, knowing that after he’d played the final song, he had to go away and work out his issues. He won’t judge Gold Rush Kid’s success on chart placings, sales or stats. It’s all about how he’ll feel at the end of it.
“If I can hold on to where my head is at now and it’s calm, I think that would be a huge success,” he says. “It will mean that I will have learned from the previous record. That’s important to me, to feel like there’s an improvement. So whether that be the writing, the producing, the performing, it’s how I manage the madness of it all.” Once more into the chaos he goes, then. This time, though, George Ezra is keeping his calm.