Austin – Is there a blues revival underway? Probably not. More accurately, if you can’t hear the Muddy Waters influence in artists who claim blues as a source of inspiration, nobody should blame you. In the music of Angel Olsen (a Best New Bands 2013 Best New Female Artist nominee) or Max Frost, the twelve or eight bar blues is subdued; undeniably there in some form, but occluded by thick arrangements unavailable to the early bluesmen. Which seems to be where contemporary blues-inspired musicians branch off. Blues is hallmarked as much by texture as anything else, organic to a time when recording technology was in its infancy, and to a music whose namesake is depression. Studio effects could probably imitate it perfectly, but only in a glib way.
Why, then, does George Ezra seem to get a little closer to a recognizable blues sound? His voice, for one. Ezra’s low-swinging vocal range gets pretty close to that of Leadbelly. And by way of subject matter, his lyrics are heavy with travel and storytelling, residues of Dylan and Guthrie. Those first loves were inherited from his parents growing up in Hertford, a small town north of London. Within a year of moving to Bristol to study at the British & Irish Modern Music Institute, he was scooped up by Columbia Records.
“I think family is a place where a lot of people find the first music they really connect with,” the 21-year-old told Best New Bands. “For me it started with my dad’s records, with things like Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie. But then I wanted to see who they were listening to. And when I found Leadbelly and Howlin’ Wolf, I was just blown away.”
So, with all that influence from America and wanderlust, it was a pleasure to get to speak to George Ezra in the middle of his first U.S. tour, on his way from Fairfax, VA to his next show in Philadelphia. I had read that George was a sunny, friendly guy.
“I wouldn’t quite say sunny. I think I’ve tried to describe myself as relaxed.”
The distinction would have been academic if he hadn’t pointed it out. For someone whose job is, literally, choosing the right words, it was an embarrassing moment. But George was forgiving—to his point, relaxed.
On second listen, “relaxed” might be the best description of George Ezra’s breakout single, “Budapest,” which is #1 at Triple A radio and climbing the Alternative chart. The cozy melody belies lyrics that, absent any music, I’d assume were desperate—“Give me one good reason/Why I should never make a change/And baby if you hold me/Then all of this would go away.”
To the degree Ezra succeeds at re-animating the folk storytelling tradition, “Budapest” shows why. Ezra is more remote from the narrator of “Budapest” than Dylan is from “Wagon Wheel” or Guthrie from “This Land Is Your Land,” and he’s still telling stories that audiences connect with. That may not be coincidence; Ezra self-describes as someone whose songwriting benefits from the imaginative effort of working in what sounds like 19th century Eastern Europe.
“A lot of my ideas come from talking to other people, from hearing their stories. And really just traveling in general, seeing new places. It’s much easier for me to express myself when I find that connection with someone else or some character.”
If that’s the case, it’s not surprising to see his popularity growing with his tour schedule. Like a lot of artists that break out young, Ezra has been playing live from a young age, with his first performance coming at the age of 13. But it’s been less than two years since the release of his debut EP, Did You Hear the Rain?, and already Ezra has released a debut album (Wanted On Voyage, set for U.S. release on January 27 after much success overseas), and toured internationally. Along the way, he’s had that weird experience rising musicians sometimes have of headlining for an act they once opened for.
“Oh yeah, that was Rae Morris! That was a great show, and she’s really fun to play with. I think it’s great to be helping each other, giving support by sharing the music with our audiences. I’m just happy to be doing that.”
(Worth noting here: Rae Morris is hardly toiling in obscurity—her debut album is also out next week, on Atlantic.)
That was a little over a year ago, and since then Ezra’s gotten a chance to see quite a bit of the U.S.. Currently his U.S. tour is making its way through the midwest, and after a date in Vancouver he’ll head back to Europe. By March, he’ll be in the North America again. That much time in the States should be a big moment for an artist whose musical roots are deeply American.
Over the phone, Ezra gushed with genuine enthusiasm. “It’s been great! I could see the Capitol building on the way out of Fairfax.” As to finally visiting the country where his favorite music originated? “I’ve been wanting for a long time to come to America, and to just spend some time exploring. It is very interesting in terms of my musical background, but what’s really impressing me are the people I’m meeting, the characters, the fans I’m meeting after shows. It’s quite a lot of new experiences to take in.”
New song material, even? It’s maybe too early to ask, and his tour calendar is pretty relentless. It’s been on his mind, though.
“There’s just so much happening every day, it’s a lot to digest. That’s something that will take a while, I think.” he sounds firm, and at first I thought the question had been sensitive. Looking back, I think he’s just resolved to live in the moment. “There are ideas, for sure, things I think I’ll want to write about. But I’m not sitting down to work on anything just yet.”