interviews

The big kick-off: How Anne-Marie became Music Week's Breakthrough Artist 2018

It took a while, but Anne-Marie had such a sensational 2018 that she’s our Breakthrough Artist Of The Year. Music Week catches up with Britain’s brightest new star, manager Jazz Sherman and label bosses Ben Cook and Ed Howard to ...

George's marvellous medicine: Inside George Ezra's all-conquering 2018

George Ezra should get his own listing in the Christmas Radio Times. The unassuming star has barely been off our TV screens in 2018, achieving a level of ubiquity that would make even Holly Willoughby blush. Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway? Been there, done that. The X Factor final? It’s a yes from me. BBC Sports Personality Of The Year? Well of course. The Graham Norton Show? Count me in. Loose Women? Sure. CBeebies? You better believe it... Yet it is exactly that cross-generational appeal and work ethic, allied with an endearing personality (and the odd catchy tune), that have combined to earn Ezra a seat at the top table over the past 12 months. Like Haribo, kids and grown-ups love him so. “The demographic is huge,” chuckles the 25-year-old, catching up with Music Week over a late lunch in White City House, prior to yet another media appearance, this time on The Jonathan Ross Show at the nearby Television Centre. “I’m so happy with how broad our audience is. Every night, without fail, there are kids at the front; they go on to students; they go on to young couples; they go on to families and to me that’s a good thing, I enjoy that.” The biggest-selling UK act of 2018, Ezra is the runaway winner of Music Week Artist Of The Year, which provokes a typically grounded response from the man himself. “It’s very flattering,” he smiles. “But without belittling it, I think I have to take it with a pinch of salt.” Ezra and his manager, Closer Artists co-MD Ryan Lofthouse, have become masters in confounding expectations ever since the baritone-voiced singer’s surprise 2014 breakthrough. “George wasn’t signed as a pop project,” explains Lofthouse. “He was never groomed or destined to be a pop star. There were never numbers on a blackboard that we needed to hit, we just put [Budapest] out and it travelled.” The second chapter is shaping up to be greater still. Ezra’s sophomore album Staying At Tamara’s is hurtling towards double platinum status with 595,033 copies sold to date, according to the Official Charts Company, and is once again rooted in the Top 2, nine months on from its release. In a year dominated by film soundtracks, success for the vast majority of artist LPs has been fleeting, making Ezra’s staying power all the more impressive. “The album is becoming less important for contemporary artists,” he observes. “I don’t know if that’s just a fashion thing or a sign of things to come. I’m also not saying it’s a bad thing, there will just be a generation of people that aren’t that fussed about albums. But I deliberately concentrate on what the running order is going to be and what plays into what, so I don’t know if that helps. “Without killing the magic of it all, at the beginning of the year Ryan and I sat down and said, ‘Let’s go for it.’ I just got struck by this sense of, ‘If not now, then when?’” The conversation was given a greater sense of urgency by the underperformance of Ezra’s comeback single Don’t Matter Now, which stalled at No.66 in June last year. “We definitely thought that it would achieve more than it did,” concedes Lofthouse. “We never intended Don’t Matter Now to be a frontline single, we had some festivals booked and we thought we should put something out before them in recognition that he was coming back soon. I don’t think anyone thought we had a screaming hit, but we thought it would do better than it did because we thought that we were coming back to a base that wasn’t there.” Columbia UK president Ferdy Unger-Hamilton was unmoved by the situation. “We weren’t totally surprised,” he insists. “We really just put a song out to remind people that George hadn’t disappeared, but we definitely knew we needed to work on the album a little more.” “Up until that point I’d been very relaxed,” admits Ezra. “I’d say that what the first album did was already more than I could’ve expected and I was happy if it didn’t grow any bigger – and on one hand all of that’s still true. But then Don’t Matter Now didn’t happen and you realise, ‘Oh no, but I do want those festival slots.’ Again, it’s that thing of, ‘If not now, then when?’ “Without being clichéd, it was the best thing that could have happened to me. Up until that point it had been green lights all the way; everything I’d released had done relatively well. I’m not a hugely overly-confident person, but subconsciously I guess I just felt confident that when I released music it did X amount – and that was not true.” Their conviction was not without foundation. Ezra’s debut LP, Wanted On Voyage, was the third best-selling UK artist album of 2014 (it has current UK sales of 1,336,184) and also spawned a pair of million-selling singles in Blame It On Me and the global smash Budapest, but it transpired his following was not as entrenched as first thought. “Budapest was bigger than he was,” reflects Lofthouse. “Everyone knew the song, but they didn’t necessarily know who George was. Audiences can be even more passive and transitional in this day and age – they move on quite quickly unless you have a campaign that allows them to buy into the artist. I thought we were coming back to a real core that would come out on the first day and buy the record, but you realise quickly that, when you’ve transitioned over to the masses, it’s a broad church of fans and they don’t really know who you are. You realise there’s a real shift to be put in.” Lofthouse was shopping in Homebase with his other half one Sunday, when the call came. An ebullient Unger-Hamilton was on the other end of the line, bearing good news. “He went, ‘This is fucking brilliant,’” laughs Lofthouse. “We knew it was a really good song – it was the first time in five years that George had called me and said, ‘I’m about to send you something, I think it’s really good.’” The 24-carat banger in question, Shotgun, was the last track to be penned for Staying At Tamara’s. “We had essentially delivered the album, but Ferdy just wouldn’t stop,” remembers Ezra. “He’d just say, ‘Are you sure you’ve finished?’ He never said, ‘This isn’t good enough’ or, ‘We need this particular song,’ but he did keep asking, ‘Are you sure?’ It was in my nature to go, ‘Yeah, I am sure.’ But in the back of my head, ‘Ooh, maybe not, I don’t know...’” “It was one of those awful, ‘I think you need to write another song even though I don’t know you very well’ conversations,” chortles Unger-Hamilton, who joined Columbia in the wake of the Wanted On Voyage campaign. “He came back with Shotgun in about 10 days and I was like, ‘This is fucking amazing!’ I just couldn’t believe it. He’s the most efficient artist I’ve ever worked with. If Carlsberg made artists…” Ezra’s first UK No.1 single, Shotgun (sales of which have now topped 1.4 million) was co-written with his regular songwriting partner, Athlete frontman Joel Pott. “It isn’t this black and white, but let’s say Joel is better at melody and I’m better at lyrics,” explains Ezra. “We go away for about five days at a time. On the first album we went to this little cabin in Wales and then on this record we’d go to Whitstable. We’ll play guitar and sing from midday on the day that we arrive until one of us starts to fall asleep and then we wake up and start again. “The most important thing is not so much the time together, but the trust and lack of inhibition in the room because no idea is a bad idea and, if it is, it’s not a problem. It’s a safe place to try things out.” “They’ve formed a really great songwriting partnership,” beams Hugo Turquet, SVP publishing A&R at BMG, Ezra’s publisher. “They were put together, demoed a couple of songs and just clicked.” “George had just started entering that co-write world, which is difficult,” recalls Lofthouse. “There is a speed dating element to it – you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find the people that you click with.” Lofthouse credits former Columbia co-president Alison Donald’s influence on the process. “As Alison Donald got to know George, she remembered Joel and thought they would get each other because they both have an ear for a pop melody,” he says. “That first Athlete album is so full of colour and George wanted to make a record that was vibrant, but still lyrically interesting. Budapest is a really interesting song, I defy anyone to find another hit from the last 15/20 years that has the word ‘artefacts’ in the second chorus! I think that’s why people love it – it’s an earworm in the first instance, but scratch beneath the surface and there’s more to it.” Conversely, it was a 100% Ezra composition that cranked the Staying At Tamara’s campaign into overdrive. Peaking at No.2 and bolstered by a celebratory St Patrick’s Day performance live on Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway, Paradise was a rollicking, rampaging hit, racking up 1,088,551 UK sales so far. “I remember Ollie Hodge, the A&R for Columbia at the time, saying at the BRITs that it was No.16 in the iTunes chart,” notes Turquet. “That was a mark that it was reacting with real people, and then it took on a life of its own. “I thought it would be nigh-on impossible in the streaming age for a guy writing his own song to crack the Top 20, but when Paradise went to No.2 it was incredible and then having the song of the summer with Shotgun was even more incredible. It just shows that the power of the voice and the song are still shining through.” “I’ll be honest, I didn’t think Paradise was going to be as big as it was,” admits Unger-Hamilton. “We didn’t know when we were going to finish and we knew that, when we did, we had a summer record in Shotgun going into the winter. So Paradise became a fairly last-minute plan and it worked out amazingly. “The Ant & Dec performance was a real game-changing moment. The happiness that somebody transcends when they perform really translates, and George is that artist. You can see how much he’s enjoying himself live.” “Columbia has done a phenomenal job with the TV performances,” adds Lofthouse. “The timing and creative thought that’s gone into them has been phenomenal. We knew that George was funny and irreverent and I just don’t think we put that across particularly well [on the previous campaign]. In terms of building a career, you have to grow beyond the songs and what everyone involved in this campaign has done well is allow the public to get to know George. People have fallen in love with him as an artist. “We did things on this campaign that he would have felt uncomfortable doing before: Things like going on Loose Women and opening it up to that audience, or doing The X Factor final and Storytime on CBeebies [Ezra was invited to read a Bedtime Story on the show]. So I think the album has hung around because different demographics have discovered him at different times across the year.” Currently climbing the Top 40 with his latest cut Hold My Girl (album opener Pretty Shining People is pencilled in as the next single), the Hertford-born guitarist has further enhanced his following through his George Ezra & Friends podcast, hosting informal chats with contemporaries such as Ed Sheeran, Rag‘N’Bone Man, Elton John and Sigrid. And with 16.1 million monthly listeners on Spotify, his streaming numbers are gathering pace. Some 22.8% of Staying At Tamara’s sales came from streams, compared to 9.7% for its predecessor (physical remains huge, incidentally, at 65.5%). “We didn’t even know if George would necessarily be a streaming artist because of the shift in the industry in the three years between the first and second albums,” confides Lofthouse. “The market had become even more pop and even more, for want of a better word, urban. So it felt tough for singer/songwriters, with the exception of Ed [Sheeran], who’s just on a different plane. “We hoped to have a successful record and get to a certain point, but I don’t think any of us in our wildest dreams thought we would have a No.2 single and a No.1 single. The No.1 single is an international hit by the way and we’ll go through a million albums in the first year.” Jason Iley, chairman and CEO of Sony Music UK & Ireland, leads the plaudits. “George has worked incredibly hard on this album so I’m delighted to see him achieve the success he deserves,” he says. “To accomplish his second No.1 album, with two of the Top 10 selling singles of the year, is just amazing and a credit to George’s talent and a perfect campaign executed by Ryan, Ferdy and the team at Columbia.” BRITs recognition is also surely right around the corner. “He’s got to be an outside bet,” grins Unger-Hamilton. “All I ever say to George and Ryan is to have a big drink at Christmas. You never appreciate it when you’re in the middle of it because it’s non stop, but it really has been the perfect year, the perfect campaign and the perfect second record.” Before the eggnog comes out, we sit down for a one-to-one with Ezra about podcasts, soundtracks and a year to cherish… So how’s 2018 been for you? “It has been perfect. What’s been really enjoyable is that I’m just more aware of what everything means now. We experienced success on the first album but everything was so new to me and I felt like a rabbit in the headlights. This time around, and I’m not saying I’m the Oracle, I felt far more equipped to handle and understand what everything meant – and also know when to celebrate.” Was there more pressure on the second album, given the success of Wanted On Voyage? “No, I felt, not pressure, but more... Confusion, because I’d never planned to have a hit on the first record and you start to go, ‘Well, what did we do?’ And there is no point in losing sleep over that because the answer is you didn’t think about it and so you have to try and consciously not think about it, which is a challenge.” Did you take much time off in between records? “Yep, I got it into my head near the end of the first album that I needed to take a break from it all. But what I learned is that there is a reason we all work. I feel happy when I’m part of a project, part of a team, part of something that’s happening and I got it into my head that I wanted two or three months to myself, not doing anything. But I hated it, it was the worst thing I could have done, so then I just got to writing. I’m not a quick writer. Sometimes I am, but on the whole I don’t stress it, so I wrote the verses to Paradise halfway through the first album and I didn’t finish the middle eight until we were in the studio – and I wasn’t panicked about that.” You have, of course, achieved that increasing rarity – a guitar-oriented chart hit in the streaming age... “I’ve never considered myself a guitarist. I know I play guitar, but I always just thought it was a tool to write, I’ve not really been that ambitious to get better, ever. Even as a kid I would learn something, get halfway through and try and write my own thing over it.” But does the general lack of guitars in the charts bother you? “I don’t lose any sleep over it, because the audience obviously doesn’t care. I enjoy recording the way I do and these things come and go. On the other hand, we did Justin Bieber’s Love Yourself in the Live Lounge. I know that wasn’t released yesterday, but it is one of the most famous pop vocals of today on nothing but a little acoustic guitar. It’s funny actually – I don’t want to dob Joel in here, but when we were writing this album he voiced frustrations with the charts at the time and was looking back through rose-tinted glasses. He dug out the charts when Athlete were No.1 and there were things like Crazy Frog! I was talking to Ellie Goulding on the podcast the other week and I said, ‘We hear the music from the ’60s that we hear because it’s lasted the test of time.’ There would have been so many shit bands that we don’t hear about and the same will happen for the music of 2018.” Your podcast seems to have gone extremely well? “Yeah, I love the podcast! I was at home in that period where I wasn’t doing anything and a friend said to me, ‘You should listen to this podcast.’ It was a comedy podcast – comedians talking to comedians about what they do – and I started to listen to it religiously, obsessively. It’s a bit more left of centre as an art form so they’re a bit more honest and part of their appeal is the fact that they can take the piss out of things. I started to think, ‘I wonder if you could get the same honesty from musicians?’ Particularly in the pop world, because we rely on smoke and mirrors a lot. I had the idea, sat on it for about a year and I remember saying to the girls in First Aid Kit, ‘I’m thinking of doing this podcast, would you be up for being guests?’ They said, ‘We were going to do that!’ And I thought, ‘Shit!’ I went and bought the mics a week after.” You wanted to get there first? “Yeah man. I didn’t know if I was going to be any good, all I knew was that I loved talking about music. The funny thing is that for the first five or 10 minutes of every one I’ve done I’ve got the sense that the person I’m interviewing is unsure of what it is, but then after an hour, without fail, they say, ‘Thank you for that.’ I always let them know they’ll get the final say and they’re in control.” What have you made of the 2018 soundtrack boom? “I’ve found it confusing. Not wrong, I don’t think it’s wrong or right, I guess it’s just like a playlist and that is what people listen to now. I knew we were in trouble when my sister had a big night back home with friends and they all kept putting on The Greatest Showman. There were 28-year-old blokes going, ‘We love it!’ She told me and I was like, ‘What?!’ Again, not because that’s right or wrong, it just seems bizarre to me, culturally. But there you go, man.” What do you hope to achieve in your career? “I know I sound like a broken record, but there’s that thing of, ‘If not now then when? Make the most of it.’ No doubt at some point there’ll be factors that get in the way of touring and promoting an album the way I do now – it’s all-consuming at the moment and I hope it’s not always like that. But there’s no, ‘I want to play this gig’ [dream] and I’m not that fussed about collaborations. That might change, but it just doesn’t appeal to me. I think that’s a confidence thing.” Have you given much thought to how album No.3 might sound? “Yeah! But then I had ideas of what I wanted album two to sound like and it ended up different to that. At the minute I’m definitely not at a point where I want to reinvent the George Ezra wheel. I’m sure at some point I’ll want to flip it on its head and try something else, but at the moment I still feel like it’s really early in my career.” Plus Staying At Tamara’s feels like it’s still got plenty of gas left in the tank... “Well this is it and I don’t want to release for the sake of releasing. My one goal at this point would be to have another album that gives me two or three more songs to make the live set a singalong, that’s the bit I love. On the first album we played the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury and I did an acoustic Dylan cover at one point. Now that’s fine, but the reason we did that is because we had one album and I don’t want to be in that position. I still feel a tiny bit in that position, as if two albums aren’t quite enough.”

Rising star: Penny Longstaff

The biz's brightest new talent. This week we meet Penny Longstaff, product manager/head of song A&R, Involved Productions/Anjunabeats How did you break into the music industry? During my final years of university, somewhere between running club nights and co-hosting a weekly campus radio show, I decided I was going to take a sidestep from my studies and try to muscle my way into the dance music industry. When I moved back to London I continued to run nights, bought a pair of semi-functional Newmark CDJs and applied for all the internships I could. Following a series of roles and advice from a lot of lovely people along the way, I met with Anjuna. After a little persistence, they brought me on as label intern, which resulted in a label assistant role with Anjunabeats and Anjunadeep. Roll on almost four years and I’m now product manager and head of song A&R. The team is brilliant. It’s great still having that same buzz for the music and working with some of the artists who made me want to get into the industry in the first place! What’s been the biggest surprise? I remember noticing the sheer scale of the operation that goes into every release. The large web of people, time and effort that drives home those different wins, be it a string of BBC Radio support or, in our case this year, Above & Beyond’s US No.3 album Common Ground! Safe to say, alongside the great roster of artists we work with, there’s always a team of incredibly hard-working people behind the scenes. What’s your proudest achievement? With indie electronica at my roots, a definite highlight has been working with musician and producer Boerd. He’s one of the first artists I found and introduced to Anjunadeep, and we released his debut mini-LP Static earlier this year. There’s lot more to come from him! This year has also been very busy with our label tours, and being able to travel and DJ at ADE, Motion, Printworks and at our ABGT300 Open Air Hong Kong show has been very special. What are the best things about UK dance music right now? There’s so much exciting talent coming through. Across our labels and publishing company, the range of producers, musicians or songwriters, is incredible. With the rise in the commercial popularity of deep house and EDM in general, it’s great to see electronic artists being increasingly represented on a global level. Artists I’ve been able to work with like Ben Böhmer, Andrew Bayer and Yotto are just some of the many great examples. What is your music biz dream? It’s really encouraging to see more and more women in music and female DJs and producers in dance music specifically. We continue to see a rise in the numbers of strong female talent and leading industry female figures paving the way for the next generation, and it’s not slowing down any time soon! PENNY’S RECOMMENDED TRACK:

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