The Brit behind new hit "Budapest" blew away 'SNL' and James Corden with his mix of a uniquely "old" voice and a 21-year-old's babyfaced charm.
"Look at it!" says George Ezra, 21. The English singer behind blues-pop hit "Budapest" grins as he holds his right pinky up for inspection. It's permanently bent -- the result of a paddle-boarding mishap at 13 -- and complements the inch-long scar on his forehead, which he got by walking into a wall while drunk at music school BIMM Institute in Bristol. He attended a lecture by Marky Ramone hours later, leaving only when the still-flowing blood was too much for his classmates to bear.
"I'm built to be on the move," says Ezra with a laugh, soaking up the sun in an alley behind the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach, Calif., where he'll play his first gig after recovering from laryngitis. The affliction forced him to cancel his set at Coachella's first weekend -- a small speed bump in Ezra's otherwise steady march to success. He's already huge at home: His debut LP, Wanted on Voyage (Columbia), bowed at No. 19 on the Feb. 14 Billboard 200, but it was the United Kingdom's third-best seller in 2014, behind albums by Ed Sheeran? and Sam Smith, according to the BPI, and earned four BRIT Award nods. With "Budapest" at No. 45 on the May 2 Billboard Hot 100, its 11th week on the chart, and selling 488,000 copies through the week ending April 19 (according to Nielsen Music), Ezra seems to be following in Smith's and Sheeran's footsteps stateside as well. He has opened for Smith and Hozier? on their respective U.S. tours, and in March played Saturday Night Live. What was it like to appear on that hallowed show? "If I'm honest," says Ezra, "I wasn't overly aware of what it was. When the cast was rehearsing, I told our chaperone, 'These sketches are great! They should do them every week!' She was like, 'That's the premise of the show.' "
It's not that Ezra's ignorant of American culture; his interests just lie in a different era. He was raised by two teachers an hour outside of London, in the small town of Hertford -- "It's beautiful: rivers, nice pubs, safe as anything," he says -- but his worldview shifted when he heard Bob Dylan. At 14, he took a job in a cafe to feed his new vinyl habit, worked his way through the Bard's catalog and then dug deeper.
"It's ridiculous to picture me at that age listening to Lead Belly," he says, "but I loved his sound. My friends didn't, so I kept it to myself. I spent hours in my room listening alone." That's how the fresh-faced lad found his incongruous bass-baritone voice: aping a legendary bluesman. It was a far cry from his first live show, a year before, with a band formed at school: "I sang the female parts to Wheatus?' 'Teenage Dirtbag' and wore a lot of eyeliner."
James Corden, host of The Late Late Show, which Ezra played on April 13, recalls hearing his voice on the radio for the first time. "You think you're listening to a much older person," he says, "but he's so young and handsome. I don't think anyone hears it and says, 'I don't care for this.' The difference is whether you like it or love it."
Ezra says he combined his blues obsession with pop songwriting as a challenge to himself. (He's really into personal dares; they've ranged from not washing his hair for six months when he was 16 to staying sober on his current tour.) It's fair to say he's a skilled self-motivator. He worked two jobs, at a candy factory and a pub, to afford BIMM. And when Columbia signed him in 2011, he took a month off to busk across Europe solo. Wanted was largely written on that trip, cobbled together from diary entries and named after a sticker on the suitcase of Ezra's hero, Paddington Bear, with whom he shares an unfussy disposition and itinerant lifestyle. Ironically, Ezra never made it to Budapest on the trip -- he blames a bad hangover -- although the song named after it is about real-life love. Now, however, the singer says having a girlfriend would be a "distraction." "The amount of people I'm meeting at 21? Jesus -- I've got plenty of time later to worry about relationships."
It's all potential fodder for more songs anyway. Ezra has continued journaling daily on the road, and claims he has been extra-productive of late. "Will it be for the next album? Who knows," he says with a grin. "If it's all nonsense, I can burn it."