George Ezra was standing outside a pub recently, as he is wont to do, when he and his mates got talking to a group of 60-something blokes. They hadn’t recognised him, because nobody ever recognises him, but talk soon turned to what they all do for a living. It meant the 29-year-old had to reveal he earns his crust as one of the most successful British musicians of the past decade. Or, at least, say he is George Ezra.
‘So then one of them went, “Oh, can I FaceTime my daughter and get you to say hello?” I said, “Yeah, of course,” and we waited, then this woman picked up and the bloke went, “Look who I’m with!” This poor woman’s face…’ She had absolutely no idea who her father’s new drinking buddy was, so Ezra just grinned, pointed to his own face, and said, ‘It’s Ed Sheeran!’
Ezra delights in recounting this tale because it illustrates his curious place in pop culture. A household name, his three albums have all gone to number one, including the recent Gold Rush Kid. He’s won a Brit Award and drawn huge Glastonbury crowds. He is streamed on Spotify by more than 15 million people every month, and his biggest singles (Shotgun, Green Green Grass, Budapest) have been as infectious as omicron. And yet…
‘And yet no one really cares about me.’ Well, I wouldn’t go that far. ‘No, I mean it in a good way, it feels like cake-and-eat-it territory,’ he says.
Last month he played his biggest headline show to date – 40,000 people at Finsbury Park in London – and then went on holiday to ‘a really touristy spot’ in the south of France, where he wasn’t bothered once.
‘How does that make sense? Everything tells you that if you can get that many people in a field, you must spend your time hounded. Or if you have songs like Shotgun. But I can be on a train with a carriage full of kids and… Not a thing.’ He laughs. He can’t explain it, but he loves it. It’s as if he entered into the Faustian pact of fame and returned without losing anything.
We’re walking in the woods, not far from where Ezra lives in rural Hertfordshire. The middle child of two teachers, he grew up in Hertford. After 10 years away from the area – first at university in Bristol, then ostensibly in London but mainly on the road – he moved back in lockdown, buying a cottage in a drowsy village.
‘When you first start touring you think you could live anywhere – Copenhagen, Oslo, wherever – but actually it’s good if home is quiet and boring, because that’s what home is. I just realised that my family and friends are up here. And I really love it.’
Ezra has a calm life here, with ‘a lot of pottering’. He shares a garden fence with a golf course, and a dividing wall with a couple in their 90s. They didn’t know who he was either. He turns up to our meeting point alone in his 1999 VW Golf Cabriolet, wearing sensible walking shoes and clutching an apple. Later he will apologise for eating it.
He’s midway through a summer of festivals before he sets off on a world tour in September. It will take him around Europe, through the Middle East, up and down Australia, then finish at London’s O2 arena in March. It’s the kind of schedule that used to make Ezra, who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), nervous, excited, and most of all neurotic that it might in some way be a disaster. But these days he takes it all as it comes.
‘Mmm. On paper it’s been a hectic summer, but it’s how you approach it in yourself,’ he says. ‘That’s the bit that’s different for me now. It might be hard for other people to see, but for me it’s obvious: there’s just a lack of stress.’
The thing that’s changed – the ‘life-changing event’ as Ezra puts it – is why we’re schlepping through the woods. Last year, Ezra and two friends spent three months in the final stages of lockdown fulfilling a dream of walking from Land’s End to John O’Groats. He already wants to do it again.
‘There was something quite regressive about it. We’d just have to get up each day and walk to a certain point, that was it. And after a mile or two, you’d walk off your stress.’
The whole thing – the acoustic performances around the campfire; the local musicians they met along the way; the infected blisters – was filmed for an uplifting documentary, End to End, which will be shown in cinemas this month. It’s the story of three mates having an adventure and getting to know Britain better (‘If you listen to the radio, it’s easy to convince yourself this country’s in turmoil, but having walked it and met people in every town, it just isn’t,’ Ezra says). It’s also a film about a man slowing down, finally feeling comfortable in his own skin.
I ask what he was like before. He crunches over some leaves in silence for a moment. ‘I do this thing where I talk about life in albums. So the first record [2014’s Wanted on Voyage] was very frantic, quite silly, with no expectations of this lasting until the next week. Then on the second record [2018’s Staying at Tamara’s] I felt very aware there was something to lose.’
The first album had a massive hit single, Budapest, and the second an even bigger one, Shotgun. It seemed as if Ezra was intent on commercial dominance. ‘I still for the life of me don’t know what my drive was, because I don’t recognise it in myself today. But as a result I became neurotic about things I didn’t need to worry about.’
As he got bigger, more and more of his time was scheduled by other people, meaning when there was time off, ‘that was the only time I could control, so I became very controlling of that. I just remember feeling tight and unrelaxed.’ If he had a flight in two weeks, he’d spend a fortnight sick with worry about every detail of the trip. It was around this time he learnt he had OCD.
‘The actual learning about it isn’t the answer, it’s the start of it. I liken it to tidying a room: inevitably it gets far messier before it’s tidied. So identifying with OCD started a two-year process of making my mind messy.’
Ezra tried cognitive behavioural therapy but didn’t get on with it, then started a year of a different sort of talking therapy, alongside meditation and a pandemic-enforced career pause.
The diagnosis made sense: when he was a kid he’d do things like count the letters in a sentence and, if they weren’t an even number, add a punctuation mark to make it so. These tics were ‘slightly farcical’, but they developed into more serious problems.
‘As an adult there are very few physical things I do. I don’t count sentences – well occasionally I do, but it feels like flirting with an old idea – instead it’s an identity crisis more of the time. So on the walk, we had an obvious goal every day, which I could pin myself to.’
He finished therapy just prior to the walk, and hasn’t felt the need to return. ‘Even this, the idea of you and I being together to talk today, I’d have previously thought about for many days beforehand, whereas yesterday I thought, “Oh yeah, you’ve got the interview tomorrow, great.” And that’s all it needs to be.’
Ezra has always felt distinct from the huge star he is. Having a stage name – he was born George Ezra Barnett – helps, as does the fact nobody expects that cavernous, bluesy voice (the product of a Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie obsession) to emerge from a cherubic middle-class boy from the Home Counties.
He has no complaints about his childhood, though his parents divorced when he was 14, meaning he shuttled between two homes. ‘I’m not going to pretend it didn’t affect me, but I couldn’t tell you how.’
He’s close to the whole family. In the film, he cries while on the phone to his dad on Father’s Day. And he clearly still does what his mum says: in lockdown, when Joe Wicks complained he couldn’t license music for his online PE lessons, she had her son give Wicks the rights to use his for free.
Ethan, his younger brother, is also a musician, recording under the name Ten Tonnes. Meanwhile Jess, his older sister, works as Ezra’s personal assistant. ‘It’s funny, we weren’t that close as teenagers… but we just work so well together. And don’t ever argue.’
Through all his success, Ezra’s been reluctant to engage with celebrity, partly out of a fear he’d end up off the rails or in the tabloids. For three years he was in a relationship with musician Florence Arnold, aka Florrie, but he is single now, and not working particularly hard to change that. ‘You kid yourself into thinking you are sometimes, but I don’t think that’s the truth. I’m not at home scrolling the apps.’
Though he appears to have various famous friends, such as Ed Sheeran and Niall Horan, they’re more like colleagues. ‘I don’t know if you can say mates. I don’t have any “friends” in music. I’ve got people I say hello to, but you don’t get enough free time to spend with anybody other than the people you miss.’ Even among those types, he is known for being unstarry.
‘If you do lean into having famous friends, and all that side of it, from early on,’ he says, ‘I guess [tabloid attention] becomes part of it.’
It’s another area in which he has loosened up. Recently he went to the Wimbledon men’s final. He has been invited before, ‘but because of that fear, I’ve not gone… A picture did appear in the Daily Mail, but we just found it hilarious.’
At a fork in the woodland path, Ezra opts for the longer option, and returns to the albums that have made up his adult life. If the first was marked by excitement and the second by anxiety, the third was… contentment? He considers this.
‘Yes, and I don’t know how much to pin that on personal circumstances, or age, whatever. But that drive I had for the second record, I don’t know what it was. I don’t remember ever wanting to sell more tickets, or travel more, or engage in the celebrity lifestyle. It was probably just distraction, on a massive level,’ he says.
The album still went to number one, still spawned one of the enduring earworms of the summer in Green Green Grass. But after the tour, Ezra might just call the whole thing off.
‘This might be a conversation for another time, but I don’t feel an urge or want to continue operating in the way we do at the minute. And that’s not a rebellion, it’s just how I feel. Like, “Cool, that was a thing.”’
That was my 20s.
‘Yeah. The last date lands around April next year. Then it’s festival season, then it’s my 30th, and you think, “Well, what an amazing decade. But don’t kid yourself into thinking that’s all life could be.”’
So what would you do instead?
‘Well I don’t know, and that’s OK. I think I’ll always write and record music, I just don’t know if it’ll be as commercial. Or maybe it will be but I won’t promote it much.’
He could just… pull a Bill Withers, a Greta Garbo, and disappear into domesticity. Then in many years to come, I say, poor hacks like me would be sent off to Hertfordshire with just the headline ‘Whatever happened to George Ezra?’ to work with. He laughs.
‘Well no, because going back to what we said earlier, no one would give a s—t. It just won’t happen, no one will come and find me.’
No part of him would miss the thousands of adoring fans singing his lyrics back at him? ‘Again, I feel so detached from it. It’s very hard to get your head around the fact it would be aimed at you. The memories people have with those songs have very little to do with [me], they’re with friends, family, holidays, kitchen discos.’
But surely a song like Shotgun means he never has to work again? ‘It depends on how I want to live…’
Unreliable websites say he’s worth over £15 million. ‘Genuinely I don’t know, is the answer. My needs and wants in life are maybe less than others. I want to live like I live now… In a village, maybe have a little studio, work nine-to-five writing. I don’t know, on the question of finances, it’s probably a no. If you’re not earning anything, it’s just a stockpile that’s going down.’
In the best way, he just doesn’t care much any more. As a case in point, he says he drinks more now than he ever did when he was the fawned-over new kid on the music scene.
‘A whole part of being more relaxed about things going on is that I’m far more inclined to want to raise a glass to celebrate things as they happen. Before, I was at the eye of the storm but I wasn’t there to put a marker in and go, “Well done.”’ He shakes his head. ‘What we get to do is wasted unless you’re enjoying it.
‘It’s like, how do you make peace with having this position in music where there’s success on paper, you can’t argue with that, but so much of pop culture now is: who’s the person? And I don’t have that, so I exist outside of it, in some way.’ He laughs again. He’s made peace with it, all right.
We’ve been traipsing for well over an hour now. Dog walkers of all ages have passed us; not one has given Ezra a second look. On the final straight, a middle-aged woman with a poodle stops 20 feet away and gasps.
Finally, I think, the quiet superstar has been spotted, his theory kiboshed. She has something in her hand. Something to sign? As she gets closer, it turns out to be a ball of copper wire.
‘A snare! I’ve spent an hour and a half removing it. She tripped on it. It’s horrible isn’t it? There must be a shoot. Anyway I thought I saw your car but I wasn’t sure…’ They talk footpaths for a while. This is not a crazed fan.
‘My neighbour,’ Ezra says, grinning as he walks away. ‘She’s lovely.’