The summer holidays have begun. Got your earworm sorted yet? The song of the season looks like it’s already taken up residence near the top of the charts — George Ezra’s Budapest, still in the top five more than a month after its release — and it’s an unassuming little smash hit. Shuffling along on train-track rhythms, with plucked acoustic guitar and the 21-year-old’s giant haystack of a voice, it features none of the hip sounds of the moment, and for that reason sounds like a timeless classic.
When we meet at St Pancras station, an appropriate spot given the restless traveller theme of Ezra’s debut album, I ask if that song sounded like “the one” when he wrote it. “In hindsight, yeah. When I listen back now, it’s obvious,” he says. “When we were writing, it was the one that stuck in our heads. There are so many little hooks, in the guitar part, the melody, and even just that moving rhythm.”
He’s gratified, though, that his album is selling healthily too. Wanted on Voyage, named after the notice you put on your hand luggage on a long sea journey, is at No 3 this week, confirming that this singer-songwriter from Hertford is something more significant than a one-hit wonder. Not that he seems like he’d be that bothered if he wasn’t. I’ve rarely met a musician taking sudden stardom so completely in their stride, so happy to come across as completely normal.
“I get it, completely,” he tells me. “I’m aware that music is consumed in a way now that means things don’t have the same opportunities to last. I’m not saying I’m gonna have one album and that’s it, but I’ll be able to say for ever now that this has happened, and that’s a lovely thing.”
In May he travelled by train from London towards Budapest, via such cities as Brussels, Paris and Munich, picking up fans along the way, playing gigs and spending the journey mingling. “What I’m constantly trying to do is remind people that there’s nothing different about me. My best friend is a scaffolder, another is a graphic designer. I’m doing my job, doing what I’m good at, just like them. I walk on stage and I try to dumb things down for everybody by just saying, ‘Hello, I’m George Ezra and I’m going to play some songs for you’. It’s to remind people that’s all that’s gonna happen, so just relax. Let’s not overthink it.”
His lack of pretension, acoustic guitar and obvious debt to Johnny Cash, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan have seen him lumped together with the likes of Jake Bugg and The Strypes as some sort of anti-X Factor voice of authenticity. Also like Bugg and Tom Odell, he’s a good looker with one foot in the fashion world, having played gigs as far afield as Shanghai for Burberry. But unlike some of those proudly traditional acts, he’s in no hurry to criticise the other colours in pop’s rainbow. “I get asked things like, ‘What are your views on One Direction?’ I don’t know what to say. Honestly, it’s not my cup of tea but it’s obviously some people’s and they’re having fun. It doesn’t need to affect your life. I’m quite happy with what’s being played on Radio 1, and it’s nice to know that Radio 2 is backing me too.”
He’s become one of those lucky fellows who appeals to the kids and their mums and dads alike. “My gigs go in tiers — at the front there are all these boys and girls, then the students in the middle and everyone else around the sides.” The young fans admire his sharp haircut and geezerish good looks, and his cool, funny Twitter persona. Online he often refers to himself as “Geoff Ezra” and enthuses about Miley Cyrus. But don’t bother trying to get him to explain “#petan”, the made-up word that has become his constant hashtag, which others use to prove they’re Ezra cognoscenti. Older fans find simpler pleasures in that cavernous singing voice and the campfire feel of his ballads.
But despite cross-generation success, he doesn’t exactly turn heads as we settle outside a King’s Cross pub. In his dark Ralph Lauren shirt, with his easy chatter, he’s as ordinary as he keeps insisting. As far as rock ’n’ roll danger goes, there’s the tiny ring in his left ear and a pretty hefty scar over his right eyebrow. The result of a drunken crash into a wall, it’s big because instead of getting it stitched up he opted to go to his Bristol music college to hear a talk by Marky Ramone. “I stank of alcohol and was in that stage of concussion when you just think you’re fine.”
You can see the scar in its rawest state on a YouTube video from June 2012, where he performs his stunning early ballad Broken on a big red sofa belonging to the YouTube channel Bristol Couch. Though he’d been performing endlessly on the Bristol open-mic circuit, it was his internet clips that caused the major labels to start calling. He signed to Columbia, on condition that it gave his CD the same classic design that it did for the vinyl labels of Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan.
It was Columbia that sent him travelling, to gather inspiration for his songwriting. For Ezra, who left school after GCSEs for a BTec in Music and just one year of a degree at the influential Brighton- and Bristol-based music school BIMM, this was his gap year — except he only had a month alone on the train to get around Paris, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Malmö, Berlin, Vienna, Milan and Barcelona. His song Barcelona gently reminisces about a holiday romance. He wrote Budapest because he’d planned to go there too and never made it. The song is a list of things he doesn’t have that he’d gladly give up for a girl, including “My house in Budapest”. Though he says that hasn’t stopped the Italian media from writing as fact that he’s Hungarian.
Hertford isn’t quite as exotic as Hungary but he’s fond of the place, close to family and friends and still stays with his parents often on the way back from gigs, despite officially living in Bristol. “It’s hilarious. My bedroom’s exactly the same: single bed, Buzz and Woody on the windowsill, all my CDs. I just sit there, happy.” His older sister is his close companion on tour, and his 17-year-old brother is starting his own singing career with a residency in a hometown pub under the family’s real surname, Barnett.
Home comforts seem to please him just as much as his hectic festival season. He sails on, unflustered by triumphs and travails. “We’ll get a call saying the album’s gone to wherever in the charts and my manager gets frustrated with me because I’m quite blasé. I’ll just be like, ‘Oh, cool’.” The funny thing is, by not making a fuss, he seems to be having a much better time than some of pop’s more self-obsessed characters. “It won’t last for ever so I’m just enjoying it,” he says. With the song of the summer under his belt, George Ezra is simply making hay while the sun shines.
George Ezra plays O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, W12 (0844 477 2000, o2shepherdsbushempire.co.uk), Oct 24.