The principles behind George Ezra’s second album sound simple: great songs, great vibe, and plenty of crunch. In practice, things got a bit more complicated...
On first meeting singer-songwriter George Ezra in 2013, producer Cam Blackwood noticed that “George had encyclopaedic knowledge of Bob Dylan and is obsessed with Woody Guthrie. He was only 19, and I thought, ‘I hope this kid is good, because his references are amazing!’”
At the time, Blackwood had no idea of what was to come. Ezra was introduced to him as a complete unknown, while Blackwood himself was still busy making a name for himself as a producer, based in his studio in Voltaire Road in South London, and working as a musician, engineer, co-writer and/or producer on projects with mostly unknown artists.
“I’d done a few tracks with London Grammar in 2012, and this led to the call from Columbia asking whether I was prepared to do an EP on a budget with a certain George Ezra. They were to be his first recordings for the label. I agreed, and it so happened that ‘Budapest’ was on that EP, and when they heard it they were like: ‘We would like you to do the whole album!’ George and I started recording the album a month later. The first album took us 10 weeks to do, we recorded 19 songs, and it did ridiculous! I think worldwide it sold four million copies! The second album took seven or eight months over a period of 15 months, and we recorded 13 songs. It was intense!”
Following the success of Ezra’s debut album Wanted On Voyage, the same team was retained for the follow-up Staying At Tamara’s, with almost all sessions once again taking place at Blackwood’s Voltaire Road Studios. Most of the songs were co-written by Ezra and Athlete frontman Joel Potts. “For the first album we had 35 songs to choose from,” the producer recalls. The second time round, we had 54 or 55. The 13 we recorded were chosen between George, Joel, the label and myself. Pretty much all songs George came in with were just guitar and vocal, sometimes piano and vocal. Joel might have recorded a demo of George singing and playing guitar, or there’d be a voice memo recorded by George on his iPhone at home. The songs were mostly complete, with chords and melodies and lyrics — it’s old-fashioned songwriting! Sometimes a middle eight still needed finishing, but his lyrics were always great. George is really critical of what he does, so lyrically there’s a level that he never drops below.
“Music-wise, I was lucky that the demos were just vocal-guitar or vocal-piano, because it meant there were no preconceptions of how these songs had to be done. All George’s songs can be arranged in many different ways, whether as R&B or rock or folk. The way we approached most of the songs was with just the three of us in a room: George, my musical right-hand man and drummer Matt Racher, and me, with my assistant Liam Thorne recording. George will have a guitar, I may grab a bass, or go to a piano, and Matt will play drums or some percussion instrument, and we just jam. We find a vibe and a tempo, which sometimes changes during the song for feel reasons.
“If it felt that George was tripping over his words in the chorus, but the verse was brilliant, we’d slow the chorus down by half a bpm. Or if the verse was a bit dull, we’d speed it up and/or change the feel of the kick, with lots of accented hits. We usually ended up with decent guide bass, drums, keyboard or guitar and a decent guide vocal, and then we’d do live takes. We always did live takes, to a click. Live takes is what the Beatles and the Rolling Stones did. There’s a movement to that. You play the second chorus a bit harder, and when the singer starts to belt you do something clever to accentuate that, and so on. All that gives added value over a generic pop production in a DAW with many parts copied and pasted. I am not saying everything has to be live, but there’s a magic that you can capture when musicians play live. Songs feel different when the parts have been played from start to finish. People can feel the humanity in the music.
“Things have to counterbalance. If something...
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