03/20/23 - NME - The radical evolution of Ezra Williams

Each week in Next Noise, we go deep on the rising talent ready to become your new favourite artist. The Irish songwriter – FKA Smoothboi Ezra – went viral for their wincingly relatable indie-pop; now, their debut LP makes peace with their younger self.

Credit: Colette Slater

Soon, Ezra Williams will move into a new cycle. Yes, the album cycle for their debut LP, but a fresh cycle of life too. The Irish musician is about to turn 21, and if you follow philosopher Rudolf Steiner’s logic that our existence is divided into seven-year phases, their birthday will mark a graduation into a new chapter of development.

Williams’ current cycle, from 14 until now, has been one of exploration and uncovering different facets of their identity – as an artist, friend, partner, child and more. In the case of that first role, the last seven years have seen them grow exponentially, going from experimenting with GarageBand in their bedroom, to releasing their debut single ‘Thinking Of You’ at 17, to working as one of new music’s most incisive songwriters.

When they started sharing their music online, they did so under the pseudonym Smoothboi Ezra. It was a moniker that drew them a lot of attention but, in the second half of last year, they reverted to using their real name instead. “Every time I met someone new and they asked me what I do, or someone found out about my music, it was just an embarrassing name to have to share,” they explain, sitting in front of a wall of instruments in their bedroom in Dublin. Still in college, meeting new people is a common occurrence for for Williams. “It was too much. I hated having to explain an inside joke that I had when I was 14 over and over again.”

Williams has previously spoken about feeling like they couldn’t change their artist name, having built up a fanbase under the Smoothboi alias. But recent months offered a timely opportunity. The style of music they were working on was changing – leaving their lo-fi beginnings behind in favour of fuller, fleshed-out band arrangements with new depth and dynamism – and rebranding before their debut album felt like a comfortable juncture to make the switch. “I feel like it’s not that big of a deal,” they say with a gentle smile. “Although I do sometimes get messages from people being like, ‘Why did you do it? I love that name’.”

While Williams was still operating under that beloved old handle, they became a part of an important pop culture moment that drew legions of fans into their world. Last year, their 2020 single ‘My Own Person’ – a moving song that searches for who Williams really is – was used in the hit Netflix coming-of-age drama Heartstopper. It soundtracked a scene where Nick Nelson (played by Kit Connor) questioned his own identity, scrolling through articles and online quizzes offering to determine his sexuality. For Williams, it was a full-circle moment.

“When I was writing that song, I was watching [Norwegian drama] Skam and there’s a scene where one of the main characters is looking up ‘Am I gay?’ quizzes on his laptop,” they explain. “I wrote it around the time I was watching that, so it ending up on the soundtrack of another show where that was happening was cool.”

Being a part of a show like Heartstopper – which has helped countless queer and questioning teens around the world – has been a meaningful experience for Williams. “It’s the type of show I definitely would have watched in secret if I’d been 12 to 14 when it came out,” they grin. “It would have been an obsession. Watching young queer kids relate and react to it, or love it the way I would have at that age… it’s nice to be part of something that I know would have helped me when I was struggling.”

Credit: Colette Slater

In the coming months, Williams will fully close out the last seven years of their life with the release of their long-awaited debut album – with details to be revealed soon. The record details old relationships and friendships; situations growing ever distant in the rearview mirror of the 20-year-old’s life as they continue to shed those stories and let go. “A lot of them are 2020 situations – they’re not even things I think about now,” they explain. “Writing and making this album for so long has definitely helped me move past what the songs are about.”

The record ends with a reimagined and re-recorded version of Williams’ 2019 single ‘Seventeen’. Where the original features minimal layers, the artist’s voice taking centre stage over a finger-picked melody, this take completely reinvents the song, splashing drums and a bass groove underpinning effect-laden stuttering vocals. Returning to that track was prompted by Williams’ friend and producer Jacky O’Halloran wanting to make his own version of it. “He sent me the backing track he made and it was really cool, so I was like, ‘Let’s work on it together,’” Williams says.

They squirm slightly at the memory, admitting the lyrics are “not as good as I remember them being”. “It’s kind of weird singing about hoping they will be better when you’re 17 when you’re almost 21,” they note wryly. Looking back on that time and knowing things did work out OK, though, brought them some peace, but they admit: “I wouldn’t wish being 14 to 16 on anyone ever.”

Credit: Colette Slater

‘Deep Routed’, the recent first single from the upcoming album, shares William’s feelings on something that has become part of their life since then – dating and relationships from the perspective of an autistic person. “Not understanding social cues and sarcasm and all those things are definitely way more difficult when you’re trying to date people,” they explain. “I wrote it after a first date when I was feeling scared of relationships and intimacy.”

That track isn’t the first time they’ve detailed their experience of autism in their music. Their 2021 EP ‘Stuck’ also shared a view of life through that lens, while Williams’ songs have always dealt in other highly personal stories. Songwriting, for them, has helped them become comfortable with everything that makes them who they are – even if they might need the perspective of someone else to help them get there.

“Music has definitely helped me understand myself more but, when I was younger, I’d write these songs where I didn’t know what they meant,” they say. “I’d show my mum and she’d psychoanalyse me through these songs and be like, ‘It means this’. It was like I’d have to get a second opinion on what I was feeling. That still happens to this day.”

That might not have changed, but a lot certainly has for Williams over the last seven years. As they prepare to head into their next chapter, they take a moment to reflect on how they’ve grown as a person. “The things I care about and the way I see the world are different now,” they begin, tilting their head as they ponder things further. “I don’t know if there’s a way I can pinpoint it, but I just known that I definitely am different now.”

At the end of this new cycle, they likely will feel that even stronger. Following Williams on their journey, though, should be just as comforting and encouraging as their musical path has been so far.

Rhian Daly

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