George Ezra on doubling as Ian McKellen, the Brits and not hassling Madonna for selfies

The 21-year-old is up for four awards and Dermot O'Leary is his number one fan...

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When the Brit nominations were announced last month, George Ezra was the Paddington fan who roared. The singer-songwriter’s debut album Wanted On Voyage – titled after the label stuck on the luggage of the bear from darkest Peru – confirmed the 21-year-old is now playing with the big boys.

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For years now the British music scene has been dominated by female voices. Adele, Lily Allen, Florence and the Machine were sweeping the board at awards ceremonies and dominating the charts, but at this year’s Brits ceremony the boys have really arrived. Sam Smith is forging the way with five nominations (having just won four Grammys in the States), but closely following his lead with four nominations each are Ed Sheeran and new-boy on the scene George Ezra.

Radio 2 DJ Dermot O’Leary, for one, wasn’t surprised at the Hertfordshire-born newcomer’s success. A long-time supporter of the deep- voiced singer whose breakthrough single Budapest is still all over daytime radio, O’Leary first heard Ezra in 2013 and has been championing him ever since.

“George has got this low baritone, and the face of choirboy,” says O’Leary. “We’re quite lucky on the radio show because we can tap into a lot of the stuff from [new artist platform] BBC Introducing. We talk to them all the time, and George was one of the guys they’d been following. What I love about him is, he’s a very different singer-songwriter – his voice is so distinctive, but really authentic.”

This time last year, however, Ezra hadn’t even had a hit. After some head-scratching, he manages to remember where he was when the Brits were held last year: touring the UK and Europe in a van.

“It felt like we played every town – towns I’d never heard of. But it was great, it was literally just me, my sister, my sound engineer and tour manager in a van for two or three months.”

By summer, Budapest, having originally been released as a free download in December 2013, was a hit. In late June, Wanted On Voyage was released. Fourteen weeks later it reached number one. By the end of 2014 it had sold almost 700,000 copies, making it the third biggest album of the year.

The only artists to outsell him? His two fellow male multiple-Brit nominees, Sam Smith and Ed Sheeran. Ask him to try account for his word-of-mouth success, and the proudly un-showy Ezra offers this: “The thing is, I’ll always be a touring artist. It’s what I am; that’s what I love doing. The tunes just make sense in that context. And the album going to number one so long after release was just awesome for me.” 

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It was, he figures, just down to the gigs and songs. “I wasn’t featured on anything,” he notes, unlike Sam Smith who, before releasing his own album, featured on two huge hits in 2012 and 2013, Disclosure’s Latch and Naughty Boy’s La La La. “And I didn’t work with a big-name producer,” he adds, unlike Sheeran, whose big hit of 2014, Sing, was co-written with hit-machine Pharrell Williams.“Everything feels very, ah, natural.”