When it comes to what aspects of musical Britannia have worked best on American soil in recent years, blue-eyed R&B has traveled well (Adele, Amy Winehouse), and so have acoustic-strumming lads (Ed Sheeran). But what would happen if you somehow combined the soul-man stirrings of Sam Smith with the Americana-fed Brit-folk of Mumford & Sons?
Happily, we suddenly have an answer in the form of George Ezra, whose debut album, Wanted on Voyage, arrives in U.S. stores today (Jan. 27) after racking up sales of about 700,000 copies back in his home country over the last seven months. He’s about to wrap up an American arena tour opening for Smith, including dates this Friday and Saturday at the Forum in Inglewood. Like the headliner, Ezra has a voice that’s cut out for soul music. Unlike Smith, though, he doesn’t delve so much into anything resembling that genre.
“I don’t know how convincing I’d be as a soul cat,” Ezra said when we caught up with him on the phone between tour dates last week. “I’m a scrawny British kid.”
His scrawniness, if you want to accept that exaggeration, makes it all the more confounding when such a rich, deep voice erupts from a 21-year-old baby face. Ezra has an old soul’s voice that well suits his influences — Lead Belly, Howlin Wolf, and Bob Dylan among them. It’s one thing to cite those antecedents in interviews, but it’s another to have made a startlingly good debut record where, in bits and pieces, at least, you can actually hear them. If the Americana format could get past his pop-idol pedigree and looks, you could easily imagine tracks like “Cassie O'” and “Listen to the Man” finding a foothold among roots-rock types.
But retro the album isn’t. “When I write, the structure is naturally quite bluesy,” he says, “and so you try and bring some contemporary things in the production side of things, because I didn’t want it to sound throwback. You don’t want it to be too of-the-moment, though, either. You don’t want to start writing songs about how your Twitter followers are going up, because one day Twitter won’t exist and you’ll feel like an idiot. So I was keen to try and make sure that, production-wise as well, it wasn’t too current. It’s kind of a balancing act, you know?”
That balance has won him favor as he’s opened up for Smith in American arenas, a first-time exposure on these shores that he admits feels odd after a much more gradual uprising back home. “The funniest thing about this whole tour with Sam was that that was my first gig in New York is Madison Square Garden. Which kind of feels like it might be the wrong way to do things, but I’m not complaining, you know? It was kind of one of those pinchy moments where it’s like, wait a minute, here’s my mom, over here watching me play Madison Square Garden — this is all very surreal.” Maybe it’ll seem slightly more real when he moves on to slightly smaller halls in March, kicking off a tour as the opening act for another highly compatible headliner, Hozier.
Ezra hasn’t leapt to any presumptions about how easy conquering America will be, despite his having topped the album charts back in the UK in October and again in January. “My home country is an island, you know?” he points out. “And so to get people to hear what you’re doing is easier — not easy, but easier. So,” he says, he and his countrymen rarely lose sight “just how big America is. But, to be honest, I’ll be writing and enjoying music my whole life, whether it’s in the front room of a pub or wherever. So everything else is a bonus. Doing my first tour of North America — I won’t forget this, and I just remind myself to not get bogged down with what it might mean, but just enjoy it, because I’ll kick myself later if I don’t.”
Visiting America is a bit of a homecoming, in a way, given his stated influences. “The music that I first fell in love with was American music, really,” he says. “Nothing against British acts — I love them and will forever — but on the whole it was the art of American storytelling in the kind of folk and blues lyrics that, if you scratch a little bit, there’s a heartbreaking story there. And I also fell in love with The Rolling Stones, but they don’t do a very convincing British act, do they? I mean, Mick Jagger sounds American most of the time.”
The acoustically inclined, eminently hummable single, “Budapest,” is on the jauntier side, which points up the biggest difference between Ezra and his current tourmate. Ezra sounds impossibly cheerful, except for a few tracks on Wanted on Voyage that veer toward the angry — just anything but Smith-style sadness.
“There was a point when I realized, well, I’m a happy person!” he admits. “I’m always happy. When I started to write the tunes for the album, I reminded myself of that, and when I did, the writing became easier. And with the kind of angry songs on the album, I do that so I’m not angry day to day. If I get on stage and get it out, then I can be a nicer person the rest of the day.”
The title of Wanted on Voyage comes from the world of Paddington, of all things. (No, he hasn’t had time to see the movie yet.) Ezra admits he was so enamored of the phrase that he had it as his Twitter bio before he bothered to actually learn what it meant.
“‘Wanted on Voyage’ was a sticker on his suitcase in the Paddington books that I’ve known since I was a little kid,” says Ezra. “I finally found out that it was from when people traveled by boat, and your luggage would go in the cargo, and then for anything you wanted on your person, you would have a ‘Wanted on Voyage’ sticker on it. And maybe because I wrote most of the album while I traveled, I liked the idea of people wanting my album on their journey.”
This article first appeared on Billboard.com.