Ezra Williams (formerly known as Smoothboi Ezra) has a new single, a forthcoming show and a slot to play for Glastonbury’s Emerging Talent Competition. They’ve supported Orville Peck, Jungle and Pillow Queens to date and had their single feature on Netflix’s teen drama Heartstopper. The evolution of this 20-year-old talent continues apace.
Backed with full and fairly thumping percussion, Ezra Williams’ (formerly known as Smoothboi Ezra) new single ‘Deep Routed’ offers a thoughtful and lyrically heart-rending look at self-rejection at a physical, visceral level. A queer sense of relatability hits hard, too, as they confess to be ‘‘guilty from a kiss, rejecting your hand.” Moments later, ‘‘I like your skin,’’ follows before they point out, ‘‘just not on mine.’’
Here, Williams explores a sound that is warm and vibrant while still feeling live and direct, with a burgeoning and compellingly emotive breakdown. It’s a lot more detailed than the bedroom style they are perhaps best known for, and it’s all down to the process.
Speaking to me on a spring afternoon, Williams notes, ‘‘In the past, because I get quite bored of things really fast, I would usually write, produce and release within quite a short frame of time; otherwise, if I listen to it too much I’ll be afraid I won’t like it anymore. But I was able to work on ‘Deep Routed’ for a much longer time, so I added to it and built it up over longer than I would have in the past.’’
Williams responds gingerly when I ask if this change in their approach to writing is letting them take a step closer to their ideal musical identity: ‘‘I don’t really know what kind of sound I really want…I just do what I’m feeling in the moment, and I don’t think there’s anything I’m particularly striving for with my sound. My opinion, and what I like about my own music changes so much.’’
Their reluctance ‘‘to stick to one specific style or sound’’ is down to the constancy of their core influences – including indie auteur sweetheart soccer mommy, as well as the inimitable Fiona Apple – and their stylistic renewal, inspired both by their changing listening habits at home and their experiences sticking a limb out in the Irish circuit. ‘‘In the past few years I’ve made more friends in the music scene in Ireland in general, and I’ve definitely been inspired by going to festivals in summer, meeting different bands and artists and watching their sets. Like NewDad, I was listening to them a lot while making my new music. Sammy Copley too. And then obviously Pillow Queens.’’
That sense of stylistic renewal is also married with change on a personal level: ‘‘I change a lot, and often,’’ they add, with a note of self-surrender.
As I bring up M(h)aol’s interview in the last issue of Totally Dublin, where lead singer Róisín Nic Ghearailt avows that their audience is ‘‘largely straight, white, male’’, despite their frank and subversively queer style, I wonder if Williams had a similar experience, or had the same yearning to engage an audience in a particular way. ‘‘I’m definitely writing more for myself,’’ they answer confidently, and unaffectedly. ‘‘I don’t think I have a specific type of person or audience that I’m trying to promote myself to or write for. Everything is my own experience and my own life, and I think it would be difficult to target that towards just one audience.’’
Williams is an artist indebted to the internet, at least for their following. It’s been five years since the teenage Ezra put ‘Thinking of You’ on SoundCloud, where it’s since garnered 280,000 listens. An immensely endearing love song, with flatly delivered lyrics that any queer person could relate to, it possesses a sense of cuteness and simplicity that makes for effortlessly and fortuitously poignant music.
That’s offset a little by the bizarre milieu it finds itself in. ‘Who is the real artist that sang this?’ asks one commenter on the SoundCloud page, while another confides in a majuscule cry that ‘this bop just made me eat corn.’ What’s more, the song found itself sampled by Polish superstar rapper Mata in ‘100 dni do matary’, which is on the one hand a testament to the unpredictability of Williams’ reach and on the other, with over forty million Spotify streams, perhaps the track which has brought their voice to the widest audience. It’s an unusual position to find yourself in, and in spite of the banality of viral media proliferation, it’s one that Williams still finds a bit bewildering. ‘‘It’s interesting, because I have quite a disconnect from the numbers on a screen. For some reason, it never really makes sense – my brain can’t comprehend it.’’ They muse on the surrealism of this kind of engagement. ‘‘It’s almost like a video game, and it doesn’t feel like it has anything to do with me…I feel like if I was in a room with everyone listening to my music, I’d be able to say, ‘Oh shit, that’s a lot of people!’ But I’m very bad with numbers, and I forget how far the reach can be. It’s cool, but it doesn’t feel real.’’
That sense of mystification or detachment when confronted with their online presence contrasts with the excitement, intimacy and encouragement they encounter playing concerts as a young, rising act. ‘‘Most of the times I’ve done concerts people haven’t been there specifically for me, because I’m opening or playing festivals. I quite like playing for crowds of people that don’t know who I am. But there have been a few times where I have been playing at a gig or festival, people sing along and come up afterwards to tell me that they like my music, and I like those interactions.’’
Williams’ attitude to their music – that they write about themselves, for themselves; that their music is just one piece of their identity – goes hand-in-hand with their unpretentious, haphazard attitude towards promotion and being an artist. There’s no need to be ambitious if all you’re yearning for is self-expression: ‘‘I’m not actively looking for more right now,’’ they insist.
Whatever about their desire to take things slow, it’s heartening to hear that they find themselves content and fortunate to feel supported to grow in Ireland, mentioning their selection for 2FM’s Rising list in 2022. ‘‘I think my problem is that a lot of the time I forget to even promote myself, or that it’s something I’m supposed to do. Sometimes I forget that I make music for weeks on end, or that it’s something I do. I’m very much all over the place all the time, and I have so many things that are just as important to me as music that Ireland in particular is good for – I’m in a college that I really like, and I’m doing quite well there… I love the Irish music scene.’’
Words: Finghín Little
Photo: Colette Slater Barrass